The Hobbit as adult literature

No, not that kind of ‘adult’ – please!

I have been trying to pin down the source of my conviction that The Hobbit is, essentially, a book more for adults than children – a conviction that I formed on re-reading it after many years.

I think it is because it is about a grand scheme miscarrying and everything going wrong in a way that is all too familiar to the adult mind, but beyond the experience (I think and hope) of a child.

It is at heart a melancholy tale of failed dreams, unintended consequences and ‘collateral damage’, injustice, stubborn folly and greed. Good people are set against one another. Thorin has the best of intentions: he means to recover his ancestral treasure and slay the dragon that took it, so restoring the fortunes of his people. But it all goes wrong: it is not the dwarves who kill Smaug, but Bard the Bowman, and only after the dragon has devastated the Laketown. Nor does the recovery of the treasure make things better: instead it draws a swarm of parties each determined to have what it regards as its rightful share.

There is some justice in their claims – particularly those of the Lakemen whose town has been destroyed as a direct result of the Dwarves’ actions and who have themselves defeated the enemy the Dwarves roused. But Thorin will not heed them and holes up in his ancestral fastness under the mountain, awaiting the support of his cousin, marching with an army from the north. The men and elves besiege them. War threatens; Bilbo tries to avert it by an act which he knows will be seen as the basest treachery – he takes the most valuable jewel of the Dwarves’ treasure, the Arkenstone of Thrain, and hands it over to the besieging forces. The stand-off is only resolved by the arrival of a common enemy, against whom the warring parties unite in a desperate battle.

It sets out as a fairy tale, but at almost every point it runs counter to the conventions of the genre: slaying the dragon, recovering one’s ancestral treasure and restoring the fortunes of one’s house turn out not to be the unmitigated goods they are supposed to be. A lot of people end up dead and homes and livelihoods are destroyed. It reminds me more than a little of the recent history of Iraq.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Hobbit as adult literature

  1. Pingback: The Cartography of Childhood 2: a recanting « COMPLEAT TROWZER

  2. Karen

    An adult book or a children’s one? Both, surely? I remember my Dad – not normally given to reading children’s books – picking it up in a bookshop during his lunch hour because he thought I might like it. And then spending the rest of the afternoon reading it himself. I then had to wait until he’d finished it, when it then proceeded to work its way round the rest of the family. We had an age range of 11 – 45. And having finished it, we then went, as a family, to the local bookshop to buy Lord of the Rings …
    Its one of those books – a true family read. Much more so than Harry Potter!

    • Yes, you’re right, of course – it’s both, insofar as it can be enjoyed by adults and children alike – but I wanted to distinguish it from books which we can enjoy as adults though they are for children, because we still remember what it’s like to be a child (and those books speak to that part of us) and books which speak to our adult sensibilities – we realise there are truths in them that we did not see as children, because we did not have the experience to recognise them.

      I wonder if the key difference between the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings does not lie in the nature of the quest? Setting out to destroy the ring is high and noble, and though it also seems near-impossible, it has the force of a moral imperative – it really is the right thing to do, indeed the only thing, even if one perishes in the attempt. Thorin’s quest is not of that kind – his intentions are noble enough, I suppose (he acts from filial piety) – but there is no moral compulsion: it is a much more human enterprise, even if it is undertaken by Dwarves.

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