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Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit

For my first book review I wanted to discuss something special. I couldn’t ask for better than the new edition of The Annotated Hobbit. Very special indeed.

Douglas A. Anderson put together the original Annotated edition back in 1988. You see, this particular book was my favorite version of The Hobbit: and my own copy is severely worn from constant re-reading (and as the years go by even MORE reading). You should see the poor, sad thing. There are books you just sink into, spending hours with, and this is one for sure. Now we have a brand new edition – overhauled and revised from the ground up. This new Annotated Hobbit is a little miracle all its own: the author has added and improved on something that was already the best Tolkien book in town. You sure hit the bulls-eye, Doug Anderson!

What a wealth of information this thing has. Of course, the main body contains Tolkien’s masterful tale, with all the adventure and sly humor that we love, but there is so much more. If you are completely unfamiliar with this kind of book, annotated means the original story is presented with extra blank space in the side margins; where you will find notes about, well.... about everything you can think of. Lots of stuff. These notes are about Tolkien’s private life, his work as a philologist, his varied inspirations gotten from other writers and his own personal experiences, and scores of illustrations. Connections are drawn from The Hobbit to the many details in The Lord of the Rings and also The Silmarillion. Some of the more helpful notes clarify language that is hopelessly British or a bit antiquated for today’s reader. The elucidation is brilliant.

Many gems run alongside the text: like how all the Dwarf names were inspired by Old Norse poems, as was the end of the Riddle Game were Bilbo quite fudged the rules by failing to ask a "real" riddle of Gollum, for example. The Norse god Odin did the exact same thing to win his own riddle games – twice. Knowing Tolkien’s fascination with ancient Nordic sources gives you a new angle on the proceedings. So much light is shed on the background of The Hobbit that you discover a whole new appreciation of the work.

Check out this note in the opening chapter where Bilbo lets out a shriek "like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel." Anderson says:

Tolkien was certainly aware of the narrator’s possible anachronism in using a metaphor involving the noise of a railway train in a story that takes place in what is otherwise a pre-industrialized world. For the 1966 revision of the text, Tolkien carefully considered the spacing of a possible replacement line here – "like the whee of a rocket going up into the sky" – but in the end rejected it....

In "Queer Lodgings" we get more proof of what an incredible linguist Tolkien was:

The name Beorn is actually an Old English word for "man, warrior," but originally meant "bear"; it is cognate with the Old Norse björn, "bear."

Ever wonder what inspired the author to put all those huge black butterflies in Mirkwood? Well, Anderson shows us beautiful drawings of the real thing and declares:

The Purple Emperor (Apatura Iris) is one of the largest and most elusive species of butterflies in England. They dwell in the canopy of leaves at the top of oak trees in woodlands....

I am enamored with details like that! Here is, I think, one of the best notes in the book. It tells us something from the point of view of a fellow who was very close to Tolkien:

In a 1977 speech to the Tolkien Society in England, Tolkien’s second son, Michael, said that as children, he, his two brothers, and his sister had each, at some point in their development, thought that the Troll chapter was the best chapter in the book. He continued, "We thought there was something rather nice about Trolls, and it was a pity they had to be turned to stone at all."

There is a cornucopia of illustrations too. Anderson has collected a grand gallery of various artists’ work from nearly every international edition. Wildly different from each other, these black and white illustrations range from fanciful, to dramatic, to downright awful. Livia Rusz created some splendid pieces of whimsy for the Romanian edition. Eight full color plates show that Tolkien himself was probably the best artist you could want for this material. But of course.

The real treasure here is right in the front of the book: the Introduction itself. Anderson has written a hugely successful examination of the story from genesis to print, supported by a marvelous assortment of promotional materials and dust-cover artwork from the publisher’s long-forgotten archives. He unravels with great affection the long publishing history of The Hobbit. It unfolds beautifully. My favorite piece, by far, is a 1937 advertisement placed by Tolkien’s publisher Allen & Unwin announcing the first appearance of the book. It shouts at you with great bold letters: "GENTLEMEN, THE HOBBIT!" as if you should stand up from your seat because someone important just walked into the room. What a hoot!

Gentlemen, the Hobbit!

The Appendices are chock full of goodies too. The centerpiece here is the most complete version of "The Quest for Erebor," which first appeared in a different form in Unfinished Tales. Tolkien’s set up is an episode in ROTK that was cut out before the book reached print. In Minas Tirith, where the four hobbits, Gimli, and Gandalf are resting after the destruction of the Ring, the wizard gives a fascinating account of how the whole affair with the dragon got started – and why he bothered to take a chubby little homebody like Bilbo along on such a dangerous journey. A section about Dwarven runes and all of Tolkien’s original maps are here too.

I’m left with nothing but admiration for what Anderson has accomplished. This book is not something you breeze through while riding the train to work. Rather, The Annotated Hobbit is an exemplary volume that you hold close to you, keeping it over the years as a keepsake. True blue lovers of Tolkien will find in its pages enrichment and satisfaction for a hundred rainy afternoons.

To read this book is to rediscover The Hobbit all over again. What could be better?

Much too hasty,

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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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