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UNIT NINETEENJ.R.R. Tolkien, The HobbitWith The 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 than girls do: one explanation for this is that boys prefer fantasy, yet most teachers in the primary and junior grades are women, and they read realist novels like Anne of Green Gablesthat don’t spark boys’ interest – hence the popularity of the Harry Potterbooks; they appeal to boys and girls alike, giving boys not only a male protagonist but all the fantasy elements they enjoy.An informal survey of avid sci-fi and fantasy readers suggests that the appeal of fantasy lies in identifying with a dazzlingly powerful character who wreaks all kinds of destruction – 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 reluctant adventurer who initially declines Gandalf’s offer of adventure and falls over in a fit of terror at the thought of danger. The advantage of this kind of characterization is that it’s easier 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 not lie 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 the psychological concerns of most girls’ books; fantasy novels usually fulfill Oswald Bastable’s requirements for a good children’s book – they focus on action rather than boring conversations. In The Hobbit, Tolkien begins by explaining clearly who’s who, fulfilling another one of Oswald’s preferences. On the other hand, this novel is nota thrill-a-minute action adventure book; it is surprisingly slow-moving, full of long descriptions. If the attraction of The Hobbitdoes not lie in its super-powerful protagonist or its non-stop action, perhaps it lies in the experience of being immersed into an alternate world. Where science fiction focuses on a futuristic world of technological advancements, fantasy novels are usually set in the distant past. In the first chapter of The Hobbit, Tolkien makes it clear that the absence of technology is the key to this world’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 of heroism that cannot work in the modern world. Tolkien fought in the First World War and lost two of his best friends to that war – he knew as well as anyone that modern warfare is anything but heroic. In this world of the past, however, where battles are fought with bows and arrows and swords, it is still possible to imagine achieving heroismon the battlefield.