The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937) 365 p.

When I was about 11 or 12 one of my distant uncles or second cousins – I can’t remember who exactly – lent me a full-volume copy of The Lord of the Rings, and since I didn’t want to disappoint him I read the entire thing despite not particularly liking it. I’ve never re-read it in its entirety since then, but my opinion of it remains more or less the same. The Fellowship of the Ring starts off all right, but in the next two volumes Tolkien quickly sinks into a self-indulgent obsession with his own semi-Biblical, irredeemably nerdy fantasy lore; basically the textbook example of a fantasy or science fiction author allowing the world to come before the story. It’s all “son of Denethor” this and “son of Arathorn” that. Peter Jackson’s film adaptations are a thousand times better.

The Hobbit, on the other hand – which I probably read not long after The Lord of the Rings – is absolutely brilliant: a classic of fantasy fiction, a great children’s book, and probably among the hundred greatest novels of the 20th century. It’s actually hard to believe that this is the same author. There’s just no reasonable explanation for how a man who got it so, so wrong in The Two Towers and The Return of the King (and I wouldn’t touch The Silmarillion with a bargepole), a man who displayed such a clumsy grasp of how to write a good book, was also capable of getting it absolutely right with The Hobbit. His authorial voice is entirely different, pitched at a younger audience, perfectly capturing the spirit and the tone of a whimsical grandfatherly storyteller.

Unlike its more famous literary brother, The Hobbit is a short and simple novel about a straightforward fantasy adventure. Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End is visited one day by Gandalf the Wizard, and is more or less press-ganged into accompanying a company of thirteen dwarves to voyage across plains, mountains and forests to recover their lost treasure from the dragon Smaug, who usurped their kingdom under the Lonely Mountain back in their grandfathers’ day. Bilbo grows from being a nervous, timid person mostly concerned about his next meal into a brave and resourceful adventurer. There’s goblins and giant eagles and shapeshifters and giants and dragons and elves, and riddles and battles and prisonbreaks, and it’s all a wonderful little story that comes to a tidy conclusion. It deserves its place in the 20th century canon because a) Tolkien is the one who invented (or at least popularised) a lot of fantasy cliches, so it is in fact quite an original book even if it doesn’t seem it, and b) what it does, it does extremely well. Again, it’s difficult to see how a writer who would later drop the ball so badly was capable of getting it pitch perfect here.

It’s ironic, in a sense, that while the films are better than the books for The Lord of the Rings, quite the opposite is true for The Hobbit. I’ve watched the first, and won’t bother with the others, which I’ve heard are even worse. The essential problem with it is that Jackson couldn’t decide whether he wanted it to be a light-hearted romp like the book, or a serious drama like The Lord of the Rings. He opts to make it both and the film suffers terribly for it, failing on both fronts. It slaloms crazily between serious beard-stroking councils with Elrond and Gandalf and Saruman, and ridiculous CGI Donkey Kong video game levels. Martin Freeman is a tremendously likeable performer, and it’s pleasant enough on an aesthetic level to dip back into that world and look at the Shire while pipe music plays and Ian McKellan says something about courage or friendship, but that’s about it. As soon as they leave Hobbiton you may as well switch it off.

On that note, part of the appeal of The Hobbit is the way it taps into a fundamental dichotomy in human nature: wanderlust and the nesting instinct. The desire to see the world, but also to settle down and have a comfortable home. The Shire (not yet named as such in The Hobbit, interestingly) is an idealised version of pastoral England, and Bilbo’s hobbit-hole in particular is the perfect, cosy, comfortable home. This is one area where the movie successfully builds on a key theme, with Bilbo drawing an explicit link between his love of his own home and the fact that the dwarves were dispossessed of theirs; in the book, it’s never entirely clear whether they’re trying to retake the Mountain completely, or just steal their treasure back. I remember reading an interview with an author – it may have been Philip Reeve – who was asked which character he’d like to be from literature, and replied with Bilbo, because you get to go on adventures but still have a nice, stable home to return to.

That’s the success at the heart of The Hobbit: a sense of homeliness, of comfort and shelter from the big world, of a grandfatherly figure like Tolkien smoking his pipe and spinning yarns by the fireplace while the rains taps down on the windowpanes.