Eighty years ago last Thursday, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien was published. Tolkien’s first published work, The Hobbit was written as a children’s book. The way Tolkien remembered it, he had the idea one day while he was grading examination. “One of the candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it. . . and I wrote on it: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,’” he said. “Names always suggest a story in my mind; eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits are like.”
For years, The Hobbit has been overshadowed by Tolkien’s most famous work The Lord of the Rings. Numerous writers, like J.K. Rowling, or bands, like Led Zeppelin, or numerous others have been inspired by Lord of the Rings. Robert Plant even went as far as to name his dog Aragorn. But, Lord of the Rings is not Tolkien’s best work. In fact, for years I’ve been saying that The Hobbit is by far a superior novel. (To clarify, that is not to say that I don’t love Lord of the Rings as well.) For far too long, people have been looking at The Hobbit in conjunction with Lord of the Rings, when in fact it should be studied on its own, as a work of literature as well as fantasy.
The Hobbit was originally written as a children’s book, and that’s why when you read it it’s so easy to get through. A page turner, never lacking in action, but at the same time thoughtful. Bilbo Baggins leaves home to go on an adventure with a troop of dwarves (the start of the Hero’s Journey). The mission is to defeat Smaug the Dragon, take back the dwarves home, and recoup their gold (in Tolkien’s universe, dragons are greedy and attracted to gold and other types of wealth). It’s such a basic story, but Tolkien makes it feel fresh. The world Bilbo is in is one that’s new, one that nobody had ever been to before, the beginning of something great. From the Misty Mountains with their Stone Giants, to the beautiful Rivendell with Elrond, to the Lonely Mountain which the dwarves pine for constantly. All of these places are new, and they’re all fascinating.
Now, another reason that The Hobbit is better is because the characters are better. This isn’t to say that the characters in Lord of the Rings are bad necessarily, but they’re certainly much more vanilla. Aragorn is the perfect prince, the heir to the throne; Frodo is the tortured soul doing something he wasn’t interested in; Samwise is the loyal, and kind, servant who helps selflessly all the time, etc. etc. In The Hobbit, however, Bilbo is a truly fascinating character. He’s not selfless, he’s not tortured, he isn’t perfect. Instead, Bilbo is opportunistic, arrogant, selfish, untruthful, and so much more. He’s a joy to follow, whether he’s battling Gollum in a game of riddles, or being captured by orcs, or even selling out his fellow companions. I’d much rather follow someone like Bilbo than Frodo or Samwise, precisely because Frodo and Samwise are a bit dull sometimes and often lack complexity. (Also, following Frodo is a drag. I always think about what Bilbo would do if he was in the same situation.)
And of course, I couldn’t talk about characters in The Hobbit without talking about the dwarves. They’re one of the best parts of the books for a variety of reasons. The dwarves are also more complex than Hobbits in general. They’re selfish, they’re shallow sometimes (I realize in a way that that’s contradictory), sometimes they’re selfless, but mostly there’s always an ulterior motive to everything they do. And, of course, they aren’t flat characters—they change throughout The Hobbit. Thorin goes from being a selfish jerk at the beginning to being compassionate and kind. There’s a real balance of Hobbits to Dwarves that Tolkien nailed in The Hobbit, i.e. there should always be more Dwarves than there are Hobbits (the former are far more interesting to read).
But, more than anything else, the reason The Hobbit is a better read is because it’s more fun to read. The writing itself is written in a lighthearted way where the narrator inserts himself sometimes. Gandalf is fun and enjoys having a good time in The Hobbit, whereas in Lord of the Rings he’s unbearably serious. But, the thing that really makes The Hobbit such a good read is that it’s extremely difficult to apply allegory to it. If you look at Lord of the Rings, there’s constant allegory (even if Tolkien denied it): Sauron is Hitler; Saruman is Mussolini; the Dead Marshes are symbolic of Tolkien’s time in the trenches of The Somme, etc. etc. But in The Hobbit, it’s nothing more than a story about an average joe who goes on an adventure, not a complex adventure, but a fun one to follow. The late John Williams (an underappreciated author from Denver) was asked in an interview if literature is meant to be entertaining. Williams responded “Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.” I agree, and this is why The Hobbit is a better book than Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien, when he wrote The Hobbit, created a legendarium so massive that it would take hundreds of books to really deconstruct. Hundreds of books have been written about Lord of the Rings and its deeper, more philosophical meaning, or in the context of the First and Second World Wars. But, The Hobbit is a better book. The world is better (and new), the characters are more complex, the story simpler, and overall it’s more of a joy to read.
Drew Heiderscheidt is the Opinion Editor for The Mirror. He is a senior with majors in history, and environmental and sustainability studies.