GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Seventy-five years ago, J.R.R. Tolkien released a book he originally wrote for his kids, "The Hobbit."
COREY OLSEN: (Reading) In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat. It was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.
RAZ: That's Corey Olsen reading, of course, the opening lines to "The Hobbit." Olson is known as the Tolkien Professor, and his new book is called "Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit." Now, "The Hobbit" isn't just a landmark piece of fantasy literature, it's a movement, a cultural movement, a work that's inspired everyone from director Peter Jackson to the band Led Zeppelin to Leonard Nimoy who even recorded his own homage to the book in the late 1960's, "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF BILBO BAGGINS")
LEONARD NIMOY: (Singing) In the middle of the Earth in the land of the Shire lives a brave little hobbit that we all admire. With his long wooden pipe, fuzzy wooly toes he lives in a hobbit hole and everybody knows him. Bilbo. Bilbo.
RAZ: And if you want to see the video of that, go to YouTube. Now, even though it's widely celebrated, "The Hobbit's" always kind of existed in the shadow of Tolkien's other great work, "The Lord of the Rings." And Corey Olsen, the self-described Tolkien Professor, thinks that's a great shame.
OLSEN: Even people who are Tolkien fans and who really love "The Lord of the Rings" tend to fall in love with "The Hobbit" when they're children and then move on to "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Silmarillion" and really not go back very much and certainly not read "The Hobbit" with the same kind of attention and respect that they tend to read Tolkien's other work.
RAZ: Why do you think that happened with "The Hobbit?"
OLSEN: Well, I think it's several things. The biggest difference, I would say, between "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" is the tone and the style. "The Hobbit" has a narrator character who is very much more intrusive than the narrator character in "The Lord of the Rings" and tends to speak more consciously addressing children.
And you can see - actually, if you go back and you look at the great popular children's books of the time, you know, of the 1930s and the several decades before that, you can hear the similarity in the tone that Tolkien's going for there with his narrator in "The Hobbit" similar to books like "Winnie the Pooh" and "Alice in Wonderland" and Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass."
And you can see some very similar approaches that he's taking there, but it's very different from what he does in "The Lord of the Rings."
RAZ: One of the most memorable scenes in "The Hobbit" is the so-called riddle scene. And we see - we found a clip of Tolkien reading part of that scene. Let's take a listen to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
J.R.R. TOLKIEN: All right, said Bilbo, not daring to disagree, and nearly bursting his brain to think of riddles that could save him from being eaten. Thirty white horses on a red hill. First they champ, then they stamp, then they stand still. That was all he can think of to ask. The idea of eating was rather on his mind. It was rather an old one, too, and Gollum knew the answer as well as you do. Chestnuts, chestnuts, he hissed. Teeth, teeth, my precious...
RAZ: Gosh, Gollum is just so weird every time I hear his voice.
OLSEN: Yeah. Yeah.
RAZ: Corey, but in your book, you actually point to this scene. This is a scene that you think represents a wider story of "The Hobbit" and what it was meant to be.
OLSEN: Oh, yes, absolutely. I tend to point to this as one of the scenes which, not only I think is of really central importance to this book as a whole, but is really for me one of the clearest examples of the kind of thing that I'm talking about. That is, this is, on the one hand, a really good story. You can hear how interactive, how dynamic Tolkien was making it.
You can tell from his reading that this is something that he conceived of as an oral performance. You know, this is something that he used to read to his kids, and "The Hobbit," still to this day, works so well aloud. I've already read it aloud to my sons, and it's fantastic.
But while this is, you know, has all of the kind of preformative appeal and is really, you know, Gollum is not too scary but quite creepy and you've got the fun of the riddle game and the kids get to try to guess the riddles, and everything, at the same time, there is a lot of sort of complexity here when you look at it carefully.
The riddles that each one of them choose to tell and how they express it, really, when we pay attention, shows us a really clear picture of Bilbo's bright cheerfulness and Gollum's despair. It's really quite sad. But, again, it's not obtrusive. It doesn't force itself upon you. You can just, you know, read it and have fun. And that's what most people do with "The Hobbit."
RAZ: I'm speaking with Corey Olsen. He is an assistant professor at Washington College in Maryland, and he's the author of the new book. It's called "Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit." Corey, one of the things that I loved about this book - well, looking back on it now - is that Tolkien wrote this for kids, right? I mean, this was written...
RAZ: ...and he didn't sort of whitewash it. And there were really dark themes. There are dark themes in this book.
OLSEN: Yes. He did, as you say, very strongly believe in that. He was born in 1892, so he grew up with a steady diet of Victorian fairy tales and stuff. And there was a trend, of course, in the 19th century to kind of gloss over that stuff. You know, Andrew Lang's collection of fairy tales takes out the more gruesome elements from the Brothers Grimm, for instance.
And Tolkien was strongly opposed to this. You know, he said, children aren't meant to be Peter Pans. You know, they're not meant to be just sheltered and protected from anything gruesome. They're meant to grow up. And that happens. You know, they can gain wisdom and strength from being exposed to these things and knowing that these things are out there.
RAZ: This book has incredible staying power. And, of course, everyone's sort of waiting for this film by Peter Jackson, which will come out at the end of this year. But, you know, you think about like "Harry Potter," which is an incredible series of books, and you - I said this: I wonder if we'll be talking about it in quite the same way we do now in 75 years.
But it's 75 years since "The Hobbit," and it's still a huge phenomenon. I mean, kids still read it and adults read it and there are movies made, and it's incredibly successful.
OLSEN: Yes. You know, he talked a lot about myth and the power of mythic stories, how myths, great myths, really sort of tap into things, images and imaginations and desires in people. And, you know, I think that was one of things that he - sort of one of his highest aspirations for his own stories is that there might be bits of it, that there might be elements of that kind of mythic appeal in his story.
And I think that he succeeded quite remarkably in that, and that that's what I would personally attribute that staying power to.
RAZ: That's Corey Olsen. His new book is called "Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit." Corey Olsen also teaches at Washington College in Maryland. Thank you so much for joining us.
OLSEN: No problem. Thank you.