Professor Corey Olsen, better known as "The Tolkien Professor" from his eponymous podcast, provides a critical analysis of Tolkien's The Hobbit in his new book Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" just in time for the legions of moviegoers who will probably devour the book soon after seeing Peter Jackson's version of the Hobbit. The book is derived in part from his "Hobbit lectures" on his podcast, although it does go beyond the lectures.
Fans of "The Tolkien Professor" know Prof. Olsen's style, and he keeps true to it in this book. For those who haven't listened to the podcast (hundreds of free hours of college-level analysis of Tolkien's works - WHY AREN'T YOU LISTENING TO THE PODCAST?) Prof. Olsen goal is to make rigorous, academic analysis of Tolkien's works accessible to the public. He is absolutely brilliant but also explains his analysis in a way that any high-school educated person could probably understand. No "highfalutin" vocabulary in this book.
It might be useful to explain what this book is NOT. First, this is not a history of the writing of Tolkien's Hobbit. Prof. Olsen does not spend any time discussing the literary sources that influenced Tolkien or pouring over the multiple early drafts of the Hobbit. Prof. Olsen recommends John D. Rateliff's The History of the Hobbit for that account. Prof. Olsen himself is also offering an online course about the writing of the Hobbit at the Mythgard Institute. However, that's not this book.
Second, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" is not a detailed discussion about the history of Tolkien's Middle-Earth and how The Hobbit fits in to Illuvatar's song (if you don't know who Illuvatar, don't worry). In fact, Prof. Olsen is doing something rather risky in not only focusing on The Hobbit, but also deliberately ignoring The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillioj, and Tolkien's other Middle-Earth writings. That means he discusses Gollum's ring as "the ring", not "the Ring". Prof. Olsen tries hard to stay focused on understanding The Hobbit as the children's story it was originally in 1937 (or 1951), not how it as been reinterpreted in Tolkien's other works.
Rather, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" is, perhaps appropriately enough, focused on the story of the Hobbit. Prof. Olsen argues that the book is worth understanding both as a children's book and as an adventure story. Prof. Olsen engages in a close analysis of the book in an effort to better understand the story itself. He focuses on a few key themes, such as Bilbo Baggins' character development, the role of luck, and how the tone/style of the story need to be understood in light of the fact that The Hobbit was originally a children's book.
So, should you get this book? Are Prof. Olsen's insights useful or interesting? I definitely think so, but an example might help you decide. Many readers - even avowed Tolkien fans - loathe the songs and poems littered throughout The Hobbit. However, Prof. Olsen invites us to take the songs seriously and try to understand them (yes, even the Elves' silly Tra-la-la-lally song). He shows how the songs actually do tell us a lot about the characters and story. For the Elves' song, he argues that it was designed to transport younger readers into the mystical and sublime world of the Elves. Younger readers might not understand or appreciate Elvish mysticism directly, but the song conveys the fact that the Elves are less concerned about worldly matters. Likewise, the song introduces the very tragic history of the Elves in a palatable fashion. At the very least, after reading Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" you won't skip over the songs again.
Another spot where Prof. Olsen's analysis really heightened my appreciation of Tolkien's book is his discussion of the various emotional reactions to the dragon and Throrin's return. Prof. Olsen shows that most of the characters, including the dwarves and citizens of Laketown, tend to fluctuate between emotional extremes, rejoicing upon Throrin's return and despairing when Smaug the dragon arrives. The only ones to navigate a middle course are Bard and Bilbo. They remain practical and determined throughout the emotional highs and lows. It's a brilliant contrast, showing how the typical heroic dragon-slayer and the small Hobbit actually share one of the key traits required for heroes in Tolkien's world.
Overall, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" will probably be most useful for relatively new readers of The Hobbit who enjoyed the book after a first or second read but want to understand the story better. As I'd mentioned above, Prof. Olsen's writing style is very accessible. Prof. Olsen does not assume that readers have memorized The Hobbit and he quotes extensively in order to provide readers with the text he is discussing.
Longtime listeners of "The Tolkien Professor" might find some overlap between the "Hobbit lectures" and the material in this book, but there is enough new material to make it worth reading. You might find yourself skimming through some portions of Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit", but then slowing down to read other sections more carefully. I found the sections on "The Writing of The Hobbit" particularly interesting, but the analysis of the songs is also richer than what I remember from the podcast.
In short, with the Peter Jackson movies coming out in December, Tolkien fans are about to get flooded with books about the Hobbit]. Most of the "reader's companions" that come out will be absolute garbage, designed to get money from fans of the movie who are new to the book. Corey Olsen's Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" should and probably will stick out from this onslaught as both an intellectually satisfying and very accessible exploration of the book before The Lord of the Rings