Tolkien Week is officially in full swing! For those who love Middle-earth, it’s a time of festival, a time to gather under the (virtual) party tree to celebrate the man and the myth behind the stories we love. This year, of course, it’s a party of special magnificence as we wait for the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and amidst the flurry of merchandise and new trailers comes the worthy contribution of Dr. Corey Olsen’s first book: Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Hooray for the Tolkien Professor!
Those who are familiar with Olsen’s easygoing lecture style via his Tolkien Professor podcast series will be pleased to learn that he maintains the same level of accessibility and humor in his book. His commitment to bring scholarly discussion of Tolkien to the masses is apparent in the way he addresses the reader: as a fellow Tolkien lover who wants to delve deeper into the literary mysteries of The Hobbit. But despite the fact that one could almost imagine this as a conversation between friends at a kitchen table, with cakes at the ready and tea in the kettle, there is no lack of professionalism or scholarship. Olsen guides readers easily through the themes of The Hobbit with a mastery that comes from years of study.
Because Olsen intends for his book to be read alongside The Hobbit, chapter by chapter, he has arranged the book accordingly. Each chapter in The Hobbit brings new and enchanting people and places to the page, and Olsen gives them all consideration, so if you’re looking for Eagles and Elves, mountains and lairs, you won’t be disappointed! More importantly, however, are the running themes within the story that showcase Tolkien’s genius, and Olsen exposes these like veins of mithril in a dwarven cave. He traces the fascinating changes that take place as Bilbo, in his assumed role as Burglar, becomes a hobbit who is neither totally Took nor Baggins. Perhaps his runs of good luck – or bad luck – have a little something to do with those choices that shape him. Another theme is that of dragon-sickness, and while Bilbo has a unique experience of this due to his direct conversations with Smaug, each character is touched by the sickness in one way or another and must learn for himself just what kind of man, or dwarf, or hobbit he really is.
Olsen also makes a point of emphasizing Tolkien’s poetry, and of including some discussion on the writing of The Hobbit. The poetry is a point of personal interest for Olsen, who notes that his students often skim the poetry, assuming that there is nothing of value to be found within its lines. For this reason, Olsen delights in drawing readers’ attention to the way Tolkien’s legendary fastidiousness of word choice most certainly extends to the poetry. When discussing the history of the writing of The Hobbit, Olsen is careful use this information not to draw any conclusions about the author, but instead to enrich readers’ understanding of the story itself.
What’s really delightful about this book is that you need not be a literary scholar to get a deeper understanding of The Hobbit. Olsen does not expect readers to be familiar with Marxist criticism or iambic pentameter; one needs only to have spent time in The Shire, perhaps with a slightly disconcerting wizard, and to have fallen under the spell of a certain dwarf song. In Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the Tolkien Professor has given us a detailed, comprehensive, and above all, welcoming volume that will no doubt become a standard on bookshelves of amateurs and scholars alike.