"In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit." J.R.R. Tolkien first scribbed down the opening line of this book on an extra sheet of paper.
And years before "Lord of the Rings" was seen by anyone outside Tolkien's circle, Middle Earth was first introduced to readers. "The Hobbit" is simpler and less epic than the trilogy that followed it, but Tolkien's brilliant writing, magical world and pleasantly stodgy hero bring a special life to this early fantasy classic.
Bilbo Baggins lives a pleasantly stodgy and dull life, in a luxurious hobbit hole under a hill ("it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort"). He's the picture of dull respectability.
But his life is turned upside-down by the arrival of the wizard Gandalf and thirteen dwarves, led by the exiled king-in-waiting Thorin Oakenshield. They want to reclaim the Lonely Mountain (and a lot of treasure) from the dragon Smaug. Why do they want Bilbo? Because Gandalf has told them that he'd make a good burglar, even though Bilbo has never burgled in his life.
So before Bilbo is entirely sure what is going on, he is being swept off on a very unrespectable -- and dangerous -- adventure. The quirky little band ends up battling goblins and spiders, nearly getting eaten, and imprisoned by Elves, while Bilbo finds himself in possession of a magic Ring from the treacherous Gollum. But even with a magic Ring, can he defeat a monstrous dragon and win a war against multiple enemies?
Tolkien had been crafting his mythos of Elves, Dwarves, Wizards and ancient Men for years before he ever came up with Bilbo's quest. But it's fortunately that he did, because while "The Hobbit" is overshadowed by the epic sweep of "Lord of the Rings" and the "Silmarillion," it's still an entertaining story that lays the groundwork for his more famous works -- especially the magical Ring that Bilbo finds in Gollum's cavern.
Tolkien's writing is swift, light and full of songs and poetry-laden descriptions, such as interludes in the shimmering, ethereal Rivendell and the cold, terrible Lonely Mountain. The pace in this is much faster than in most of his other works -- not surprising, when you consider it was originally a bedtime story for his children.
Most of the book's action is about Bilbo trying to keep himself and the dwarves from getting eaten, torn apart, or rotting in elf dungeons, but with some quiet interludes like a night at Beorn's mountain home. And the last chapters hint at the epic majesty that Tolkien was capable of, as well as the idea that even little people -- like a mild-mannered hobbit or a bird -- can change the world.
This book also first came up with hobbits -- the peaceful fuzzy-footed countryfolk -- in the form of Bilbo Baggins. He's a likable little guy, if the last person you'd ever expect to be a hero -- initially he seems weak and kind of boring, but his hidden strengths and wits come up to the surface when he needs to. By the end, he's almost a different person.
The dwarves are more comical, and the elves more whimsical in this book, but the supporting characters are still impressive -- the crotchety, mysterious wizard Gandalf, the dignified, flawed Dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield, and a Guardsman who becomes a king. Even minor characters like Beorn, Elrond and the menacing Smaug are given plenty of dimension.
"The Hobbit" started as a fluke, grew into a bedtime story, and became one of the best fantasy stories in literary history -- a charming adventure in the time that never was. Brilliant.