Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Important Books: The Hobbit
I remember about the time I was finishing up A Wrinkle in Time, I was looking around for something else to read. After a brief interest with werewolves and vampires (what kid doesn't love them?), then Arthurian myths and legends, and ghost stories, one day, perusing my grade school library's shelves, I came across The Hobbit.
It had a funny title written lengthwise along its spine. It had a rust brown cover with a picture of a huge trove of sparkling coins upon which lay a ruddy dragon, its nostrils steaming and split tongue flicking, looking more comical than menacing. But it drew my curiosity. My finger traced the dragon's three pronged tail, curled around the hoard and I wondered, Why? Tolkein The Hobbit, I read at the top. Funny name, I thought. Why would a dragon be called the hobbit? Why the treasure? Why the need to protect it and from whom?
It was a story about a tiny creature called a hobbit, an epicurean, a hedonist in charge of leading a group of misfits (dwarfs, elves, humans and wizards). He travels with them to a mountain to defeat the dragon and take its gold. Since, no journey is complete without strange and wily characters, Bilbo, the eponymous hero, meets his fair share in troglodytes, trolls, forest people, and other creatures, each of which have been ruined by one type of sin or another, be it greed or narcissism, revenge or fear or anger.
As a Bildungsroman, The Hobbit is a story of personal growth. In overcoming personal fears and deficiencies through a quest to vanquish evil, it represents the hero's journey. On his mission, Bilbo Baggins discovers aspects of himself previously undiscovered. overcome the worst aspects of himself and returns a hero. The story is mythical. Jungian. But it is more than just that.
For me The Hobbit was a rite of passage. No one who ever reads it for the first time ever looks at books and the world and people in the same way. It changes your perspective, and by doing so, changes your relationship with the world. The imagination flowers--an airplane becomes for an instant, seen at just the right angle, in just the right light, a fire breathing dragon; the glint of foil from a cigarette package in the gutter becomes a magical ring; a towering eucalyptus standing alone in a field becomes a wise, grizzled giant; a white sheet hanging from a clothesline becomes a wizard's cloak; and so on.
Feeling like an outsider, in a new country, in a new city, unsure of where I fit in (there were few Indians in the Baltimore suburbs then and those that existed there we had no knowledge of), I could relate to Bilbo as a hero, he being the smallest of the small. His journey was my journey. His victories were mine. The book helped connect me to myself through the imagination. It is an important book for that reason alone, but also for its language, its imagery, two qualities which have solidified the book's place as one of the greatest tales for kids of any age ever told.