19 - The Hobbit - UNIT NINETEEN J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit...

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UNIT NINETEENJ.R.R. Tolkien,The HobbitWithThe Hobbit, we are beginning our section on fantasy books for children.Some studies have shown that young boys choose to read for pleasure less often thangirls do: one explanation for this is that boys prefer fantasy, yet most teachers in theprimary and junior grades are women, and they read realist novels likeAnne of GreenGablesthat don’t spark boys’ interest – hence the popularity of theHarry Potterbooks;they appeal to boys and girls alike, giving boys not only a male protagonist but all thefantasy elements they enjoy.An informal survey of avid sci-fi and fantasy readers suggests that the appeal offantasy lies in identifying with a dazzlingly powerful character who wreaks all kinds ofdestruction – someone like Gandalf.However,The Hobbitdoesn’t really fit that model –Bilbo is not an all-powerful wizard, but merely a burglar; in fact, he’s a reluctantadventurer who initially declines Gandalf’s offer of adventure and falls over in a fit ofterror at the thought of danger.The advantage of this kind of characterization is that it’seasier to identify with Bilbo; his initial reluctance means that there is room for his growthand development.Nevertheless, the explanation for the novel’s appeal clearly does notlie in Bilbo’s phenomenal power.Another element that contributes to fantasy’s appeal is its focus on action: fantasycharacters face dangerous life-and-death situations instead of confronting thepsychological concerns of most girls’ books; fantasy novels usually fulfill OswaldBastable’s requirements for a good children’s book – they focus on action rather thanboring conversations.InThe Hobbit, Tolkien begins by explaining clearly who’s who,fulfilling another one of Oswald’s preferences.On the other hand, this novel isnotathrill-a-minute action adventure book; it is surprisingly slow-moving, full of longdescriptions.If the attraction ofThe Hobbitdoes not lie in its super-powerful protagonist or itsnon-stop action, perhaps it lies in the experience of being immersed into an alternateworld.Where science fiction focuses on a futuristic world of technologicaladvancements, fantasy novels are usually set in the distant past.In the first chapter ofThe Hobbit, Tolkien makes it clear that the absence of technology is the key to thisworld’s appeal: this story unfolds “long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was lessnoise and more green” (5).This setting allows for a return to lost values, to models ofheroism that cannot work in the modern world.Tolkien fought in the First World Warand lost two of his best friends to that war – he knew as well as anyone that modernwarfare is anything but heroic.In this world of the past, however, where battles arefought with bows and arrows and swords, it is still possible to imagine achieving heroismon the battlefield.

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