Tuesday, 17 June 2003

The reverse of the medal and The hobbit

Listening to:

Handel, organ concerto op. 7 no. 3 in B flat major.

Just read:

Patrick O’Brian, The reverse of the medal.

The 11th book in O’Brian’s series, and a good one. There is not one casualty through naval combat in the whole book, and most of the action happens on land in England, so it’s something of a departure from the rest of the series. Nonetheless, the characters are familiar, and are evolving very slowly, so reading another instalment in the saga does feel a bit like catching up with old friends. O’Brian’s plotting is strong, so you don’t mind where he takes his cast. His characters are sympathetic; you want to continue reading about them come what may.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The hobbit.

This is my first officially mandated re-read book (though earlier books have been re-reads too). I’m pleased to report that it’s very good, right up to the end anyway. Tolkien throws varied chunks of action at long-suffering Bilbo, and each feels fresh. The comic trolls, followed by the goblins of the Misty Mountains and riddles with Gollum. Then perching in trees trying to escape from wargs and goblins. Rescued by eagles, they have to win over suspicious, shape-changing Beorn, before they can enter oppressive Mirkwood. Then there are spiders to fight before the wood-elves take the dwarves prisoner. Bilbo comes up with an inventive escape plan, and the final chapter at the Lonely Mountain can begin.

Bilbo steals a cup from the sleeping dragon’s hoard, and later engages Smaug in witty repartee. This is all great stuff. Suddenly though, we are thrown by a new device: the author cuts to a scene that doesn’t feature any of our heroes, and one which is chronologically earlier than where we’d left them. Smaug in action over Laketown is pretty cool, and Bilbo’s contribution to his death is explained, through Bard and his last arrow, but it’s still not quite what one might expect. And it gets worse. Tolkien then decides to explore the geo-politics of north-eastern Middle-Earth and treats us to some inter-species bickering, before finally springing the Battle of the Five Armies. Just as Pullman switched climaxes in The amber spyglass, Tolkien is suddenly veering off on a new path here.

It seems as if Tolkien suddenly decided that he needed to tell us all about the evil effects of greed, and to do it with a tone that is quite incompatible with the earlier parts of the story. This inter-species arguing is done well enough at the council in Rivendell in The fellowship of the ring, but that book has already moved a great distance from The hobbit and is much darker in tone. As for the Battle of the Five Armies and the miraculous appearance of the Eagles (and then Beorn, though only described after the event): feh. This feels like a device to allow Thorin a suitably heroic death and little more. Feh once more.

But enough carping; it’s a great, enthralling read for 90+% of its length. It’s also interesting to read it as a prelude to The lord of the rings. Gandalf purportedly thinks he will die taking on a bunch of wargs and goblins in The hobbit, but kills the Balrog in FotR. When trekking to Rivendell, there’s a comment made about people of the area not having heard of, or paying due respect to the king. But the official LotR history makes it clear that at this stage there hasn’t been a king for hundreds of years, not in the North, or even in Gondor. The elves of Rivendell are also rather silly in The hobbit, a tone that sits poorly with the elegaic feel of LotR where they’re all about to head west and leave the mortal world.

Kudos to Tolkien for letting us keep the early, children’s book (including the joke about the invention of golf!) that later had to be shoe-horned into a much more serious universe.

Now reading:

Sarah Waters, Fingersmith.

Apologies while I experiment with weird colour schemes and other devices for setting off my entries’ preliminary sections. I recently looked at my pages in Internet Explorer 5 & 6 and did not much like what I saw.