on 12 June 2013
As other reviewers have already pointed out, this book follows on the heels of Professor Corey Olsen's very successful series of podcasts from his classes on Tolkien at Washington College. These podcasts range in content from Tolkien's major works ("The Silmarillion", "The Hobbit", "The Lord of the Rings", etc.) to his lesser-known stories such as "Farmer Giles" or "Smith of Wootton Major".
The focus of this book is obviously the seminal work, "The Hobbit". As in his podcasts, Olsen takes us gently through the book, spending time on each chapter and scene. He draws our attention to things which we might otherwise have missed, connections we might not have made, or things which we knew but perhaps didn't appreciate the significance of.
Importantly, Olsen chooses to avoid spending too much time focusing on the "feelings and thoughts" of Tolkien himself. He tries very hard to avoid interpretation of the text insofar as what Tolkien himself might have been feeling about it. For this type of study, look elsewhere as there are many selections available. Instead, Olsen focuses on the text itself, as presented, drawing conclusions based on context and evidence readily available between the covers of the book.
Indeed Olsen even goes out of his way to point out that, although he does make a very few references to other works such as "The Lord of the Rings" and even earlier drafts of "The Hobbit", his intention is to view the work for what it is "as published", and not its significance in the greater Middle-earth mythology.
The primary example of this is of course The Ring itself which, when "The Hobbit" was published, did not have the sinister overtones and personality it has since gained since Tolkien's later works were written. Olsen invites us to view The Ring, and all the events in the book for that matter, in this light. Although we may know what events come afterward, let us appreciate what Tolkien achieved within the covers of "The Hobbit" alone.
Great focus is spent on the characters of the story, of course. Bilbo's "internal struggle" between his Tookish and Bagginsish sides, his character development, his ever-growing adventurous spirit, and the major turning-points in his story are all major themes Olsen returns to again and again. We are invited to study the dwarves, both as individuals in the case of major characters such as Thorin, and also as a group and a race. We examine their pride, their haughtiness, their tendency towards foolishness and even ineptness whilst simultaneously acknowledging their courage and willingness to help a friend through...even if it might only be out of contractual obligation at first.
Bard, Thranduil, The Master of Lake-town, the goblins, the spiders, and of course Smaug all get their turn in the spotlight.
A wonderful read, well-written and presented by an extremely knowledgeable person.