Three decades ago, a friend pressed a paperback into my hands. The novel was The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, and it told the story of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit whose life is changed forever when he meets a human wizard named Gandalf. Reading the story opened my eyes to everything that a good fantasy novel could be.
I’ve never read just one kind of literature, although Science Fiction has always been a strong favorite. I know I must have read Fantasy novels before this, but The Hobbit transcended everything else I had read that even approached that type of literature. I’ve read hundreds, if not thousands of Fantasy novels since then, and I’ve enjoyed many of them. But I’m not sure I’ve ever read another Fantasy novel that had quite as great an impact upon me.
Not everyone feels that way about The Hobbit. In fact, most people don’t. Even J. R. R. Tolkien later grew dissatisfied with The Hobbit. He pursued a darker vision with his next novel, and in the process created an infinitely more complex world for The Lord of the Rings (which was then split into three books and labeled a trilogy by publishers). I sought out The Lord of the Rings shortly after finishing The Hobbit. But I found myself unable to embrace the latter work with the same enthusiasm as I had the original.
The Hobbit reads a whimsical, engaging serial. It reminds me of a story told over a campfire, invented on the spur of the moment, with only the storyteller’s wits and the expectation in his audience’s eyes to propel him toward its completion. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, seems like a conglomeration of interrelated stories. As Tolkien lavished so much love and care upon his characters and Middle Earth, some of the best stories didn't actually make it into the novel. (Thankfully, Tolkien included these in the appendices he included at the end of the third installment, The Return of the King). My recollection, from reading Humphrey Carpenter’s biographical work The Inklings, is that The Lord of the Rings grew beyond Tolkien’s ability to complete, and it was only through the help of his son Christopher that he eventually assembled it into its final form. Director Peter Jackson is largely recognized as having assembled The Lord of the Rings into a more coherent, and more entertaining version of the novel (or, if you prefer, the trilogy).
I can’t offer you my opinion on the above assertion, as I haven’t read The Lord of the Rings in many years, certainly not since I’ve seen the movies. But I read The Hobbit a couple years ago, when my wife gave me a new hardcover edition, complete with some beautiful illustrations. While that reading couldn’t compare with my first eye-opening experience, it was wonderful to accompany Bilbo Baggins again on a journey that changed him forever. For I too was transformed by the imaginative and lighthearted story. In an instant, J. R. R. Tolkien made me want to read other stories as great as The Hobbit. Eventually, he inspired me to write my own.