"Very pretty!" said Gandalf. "But I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning. I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone."
"I should think so—in these parts! We are plain quiet folk, and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can't think what anybody sees in them," said our Mr. Baggins, and stuck one thumb behind his braces, and blew out another even bigger smoke-ring.
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Synopsis: Bilbo Baggins loves his cozy little dugout home and his six meals a day and his smoke rings. Therefore, he is not very pleased when the wizard Gandalf invites twelve unexpected visitors to tea and then bundles him off on a miserable and dangerous adventure. But there is more to Bilbo than he himself knows, and he finds himself burgling, riddling for his life, and even facing a dragon to help his friends.
Notes: The Hobbit belongs at the top of its fantasy/adventure category—clever, funny, artistically written, and containing the very unlikeliest of unlikely heroes. From his cartoonish name to his combination grumpy-old-man and adorable-puppy-dog personality, Bilbo Baggins is far from the standard handsome young farm boy who can usually be expected to venture forth on a quest, yet the story succeeds mightily as a heroic tale. And now you can all scold or mock me for the fact that I got thoroughly bored with this book despite its excellence and almost put it down.
The book is not to blame for my lacking the gene that creates Tolkien fandom—though I approximate that fairly well as a fantasy fan, which requires acknowledging a debt to the Professor—but then, I don't think I can be quite wholly blamed for the fact that the characters didn't walk off the page and take up residence in my heart. I'll admit, of course, that plenty of people find Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, Fili, Kili, Bombur, and the rest in a circle around their inner hearth. I just couldn't get attached enough.
Objectively, Bilbo is a fantastic character, complex and plucky and likable. Gandalf, however, while amusing, lacked the sense of power he exudes in The Lord of the Rings. Most of the dwarves were just alliterative names, though a handful were sometimes admirable and sometimes annoying—by authorial design, of course. Gollum and Bard and Beorn all proved interesting in their places, as did Smaug.
The action is more or less flawless. Goblins, terrifying wolves, fires, dark forests, giant spiders, disappearing Elves, a barrel-ride down a river, and a dragon-battle are a lot to fit into one small book, but Tolkien pulls it off. I'd like to say there was never a dull moment; if Rand al'Thor had been the protagonist, I would've been able to mean that. But those with the Tolkien gene—or at least a Y chromosome—should have no trouble staying hooked on the adventure.
Speaking of that Y chromosome: there are no named female characters in this book, as far as I can recall. Now, there are comparatively few named characters at all, and I'm no feminist by modern standards, so I'm not going to attribute any kind of ulterior motive to the author for that. Probably no female role occurred to him, or seemed to fit, especially considering that Tolkien lived and died before women really started running things in England. The lack may make the story harder for the average girl to get into, however. I wouldn't necessarily know; I'm an unusually girlish reader, which made things much harder for me.
Difficulties aside, The Hobbit is a brilliant, thoughtful little tale. Even I can comprehend why so many people love it. It's clear, for instance, that Tolkien loves his own protagonist; the little guy is treated with a great deal of fatherly tenderness, and from his unlikely beginnings Bilbo becomes a hero of the very best sort. It's hard to fault a tale containing that kind of glory, no matter how much my own emotions failed to invest themselves in it.
Recommendation: A near-perfect book for boys, as well as for girls who are less hung up on their own feelings than I am. Highly recommended.