29 July 2012

Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” - A Review

With J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit celebrating its 75th anniversary this September and the first of Peter Jackson’s two-part film adaptation arriving in theaters in December, audiences are likely to find themselves overwhelmed with books on both Tolkien’s version as well as Jackson’s. The films will likely inspire many fans to either read The Hobbit for the very first time, or go back and re-read it again to refresh their memory before December 14. In any case, trying to decide which books to read and which ones to avoid can be a daunting task. If you only read one book on The Hobbit, let it be this one.

It’s not every day one finds a companion volume as captivating and enjoyable as Professor Corey Olsen’s Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. A perfect combination of academic insight as well as personal opinions, Olsen invites the casual reader and the enthusiastic scholar alike to experience J.R.R. Tolkien’s popular children’s story on an even deeper level by showing readers “the stories within the story.”

Olsen is known as “the Tolkien Professor” for his eponymous teaching website and podcast series, both of which are extremely popular within the Tolkien community. In addition to having a PhD in Medieval Literature, he teaches courses on Tolkien at Washington College and last year began offering online courses via the newly founded Mythgard Institute.

Years of experience reading and teaching Tolkien have more than qualified Olsen to write a book on the late Professor Tolkien’s classic children’s story; unlike many other books which aim to analyze or critique the writings of JRR Tolkien, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” reads more like a literary discussion among friends. Olsen’s personality and passion are engaging, and he writes just as he speaks: in a way that is both relaxing and relevant to all audiences, from longtime Tolkien fans to those reading The Hobbit for the very first time.

“The main thing I hope to do,” Olsen writes, “is to slow things down enough to be able to see more clearly what is unfolding in the story as we go” (5). And by examining The Hobbit chapter by chapter, he does just that.

Olsen’s approach to studying The Hobbit provides in-depth analyses of important characters (most notably the nature and transformation of “burglar” Bilbo Baggins); explores significant and recurring themes (such as the role luck plays in The Hobbit); and makes note of other details readers might have overlooked during a first – or even second – reading. “No matter how many times I read [Tolkien’s] books,” Olsen explains, “I find there are always new discoveries to make” (1).

In order to understand the various characters and races in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Olsen allows the poetry to do much of the talking. Acknowledging the fact that many of his students tend to skip over the songs and poems, he pays a great deal of attention to them – going through them line by line – to uncover the deeper natures and desires of each race.  In doing so, he notes that the merry songs of the elves of Rivendell, though strange at first, are remarkable, given the “majesty and sorrow of their history” (61); that the dwarves and goblins, as it turns out, have more in common than they might like to think; and that the songs of the men of Lake-town reveal their “foolish excitement,” leading to an inclination to celebrate before a task has been accomplished (187).

Though he does not focus too much on the history behind the writing of The Hobbit, Olsen does discuss some of the changes Tolkien made once he began writing The Lord of the Rings – most importantly, the major links between the two stories: the ring, which would eventually play a greater role in the grand scheme of Middle-earth; and Gollum, who was not quite as wicked, but instead “fair and even decent” (89) in the first edition. Olsen reveals just enough to compare and contrast the two versions of The Hobbit, but his sole focus is on examining this story as a standalone book; he does not devote any time to explaining its context in the greater timeline of Middle-earth.

Whether you are reading The Hobbit for fun or for academia, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is an excellent resource in learning how to study and truly appreciate this classic novel, making it the perfect companion volume. Though there will be a number of books on the horizon as The Hobbit celebrates its 75th anniversary and makes it to the big screen, finding a trustworthy companion volume will no longer seem like a daunting task once you’ve read this book.

Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' will be available on September 18, 2012. You can pre-order it now on Amazon.com!


  1. Great Review Britta, cheers for sharing.

  2. You used proper citations!!! That's so amazing...

  3. I'm really fired up to read this now! Thank you for the thoughtful review, Britta!

  4. Wonderful review, you have me convinced to pick up the book. I had been debating about waiting to re-read The Hobbit until after the film or reading it now but this actually sounds like a very enjoyable alternative.

    1. Thank you, Carl! I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did :-)