Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Book Review Contest: The Hobbit (Reviewed by Chew Phye Ken)

From the laptop of Ken: ‘The Hobbit’, first published in 1937, sprung from the imagination of JRR Tolkien and is the prequel to ‘The Lord of the Rings’, its more celebrated cousin. I did consider giving you, dear reader, little excerpts of the story but thought it better that the protagonist himself should say a word or two instead. Allow me to introduce you to Bilbo Baggins Esq.

From the quill of Bilbo: This splendid story opens with the introduction of a most famous, a most agreeable and a most heroic hobbit (me), who lives in a comfortable, rather large hole in the ground. Life was a picture of serenity until the arrival of the Grey Wizard. From then on, my world turned topsy-turvy with a flurry of several other visits from dwarves with incredible names (Balin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin and oh the list goes on), my being commissioned to partake in a perilous quest and the beginning of countless brushes with death. Allow me to highlight a few of our more remarkable adventures (to whet your appetite). The first was my encounter with the three trolls. How foolish of me to have attempted to steal from them and how humbling to get caught. Our whole company of dwarves ended up as captives as well (and probably would have been the trolls’ next meal were it not for the wiles and wisdom of Gandalf and the timeliness of the morning sun). Then there was the misadventure with the goblin hoard in the depths of their underground lair, the snaking labyrinth that led me to chance upon Gollum (where my life hung in the balance, literally perched upon riddles) and his ring I found along the way. From then on our company found refuge in the warm halls of the mystical Beorn, plunged into woods infested with gigantic spiders, languished in the halls (and prisons) of the wood elves, squeezed ourselves in barrels that floated down river for days and ultimately escaped death in the cavern of a dragon. Oh, there is so much more to tell, but I will give you the pleasure of reading it for yourself.

From the laptop of Ken: The characters crafted by Tolkien are varied and rich, from the endearing tiny hobbits with their large, hairy feet to colossal creatures that inspire nightmares. Leading the cast is Bilbo himself, who is pictured throughout the book as an occasional warrior, constant saviour and ever loyal friend. He starts out as a pushover but by the end is every bit the hero - his transformation gradual but astounding. Guiding him is the venerable and noble Gandalf, a powerful wizard with a conventional long pointed hat, staff and a flowing silvery beard. Although Gandalf is noticeably absent in many crucial parts of the book, his larger than life personality echoes throughout, and you never know when or where he will make his next appearance. The company of dwarves (and their names) provide intermittent comic relief and their valour and love for adventure propels the story to its end. There are villains aplenty, but the two most chilling are undoubtedly the infamous Gollum with his hiss and Smaug the dragon with his red, red scales and wicked fiery breath.

Tolkien’s prose is polished and simple enough for older children to appreciate without it being an affront to an adult’s intelligence. In fact, among the most delightful elements of the book are the rhymes and songs that the characters periodically burst into. This is a stanza of one from the dwarves inviting Bilbo to join them in their quest:

‘Far over the misty mountains cold,
To dungeons deep and caverns old,
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.’

And they carry on deliciously …

Tolkien also has a proverbially charming way with dialogue. When Bilbo first meets Gandalf, a straightforward and sensible ‘Good morning’ escapes his lips, to which Gandalf replies ‘What do you mean? Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?’ Who knew that so much could come out of two words that we take for granted every day? Hilarious! Being an Anglophile, I adore that the book has a very English feel to it as well; from afternoon tea and ginger cakes to Cockney accented trolls. Come to think of it, I would not have been surprised if I had discovered that the inhabitants of Middle Earth enjoyed a good game of football. Another plus point for the book is that as simple as the story line is, it is nonetheless attention grabbing. There were some parts that left me holding my breath, even if it was for just a while (Bilbo’s encounters with Gollum and his riddles and the dragon in his lair come to mind) and some parts that left me breathless, panting with the characters as they raced and fought tooth and nail through certain perils. In a nutshell it was a pleasurable read.

A minor disappointment though was the book’s failure to adequately narrate what had promised to be a battle of epic proportions toward the end. It was over as soon as it started and was thereafter explained in a most convenient fashion. I guess you can rarely have it all, but perhaps that was done on purpose, keeping in mind what the author had for a sequel.

Gandalf ends the book by remarking that although Bilbo is ‘a very fine person’, he is ‘only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all’. I am inclined to disagree. Tolkien’s characters (and his story) have left an indelible impression on this little fellow in his wide world.

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