Monday, August 4, 2014

Hobbit Lessons by Devin Brown


My introduction to Tolkien is rooted in three things:
Mr Sandy Shaller’s English class in IS 44
My best friend Pia’s brother Dion
The original D&D boxed set

Mr Shaller would have us write book reports and, to decide what book we wanted to write our report on, we would receive a long list of books. Beside each title there would be an E/M/H to say whether the book was easy/medium/hard.  On the first list he handed out, The Hobbit was one of the “hard” books.  I didn’t choose it the first time but I remember Pia reading it at some point.  She had borrowed her brother’s editions and read all of the books before I ever did.  Not long after I finally got around to reading The Hobbit, I was hanging out at my friend Alexis’s house and her older brother Mark introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons.  It didn’t take me long to recognize Tolkien’s influence on this game of which I had never heard and I enjoyed it.  I don’t even remember when I first read the one book and The Lord of the Rings.  I’ve read books that are inspired by Tolkien as well, including Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All, which I enjoyed very much.   

In other words, I’m open to reading books about books I love and fully expect I’ll love the book almost as much as I love the books that inspired the book.  (Does that make sense?  I sure hope it does.)

Hobbit Lessons: A Map for Life’s Unexpected Journeys by Devin Brown is an adequate and slender volume that explores The Hobbit and applies the story in ways that will “bring the book alive in a new way,” or so says the blurb on the back cover.  If by new they mean to make a delightful and charming story seem dull and uninspiring, then I guess this book is a success.

For one thing, I was baffled by the blurb purporting to draw lessons from The Hobbit when Brown has no problem making his points from The Lord of the Rings as well.  A misleading problem from title to blurb and I don’t know who is responsible for being so careless but it makes me wonder if the whole purpose of this book’s publication is to not, somehow, make money off the anticipated popularity of the films.  That’s fine but, in the end, the title and blurb become a disingenuous, misleading the reader.

The lessons themselves are banal.  The only redeeming quality is that they are complemented by lessons from the Bible.  This would make sense if Tolkien had not repeatedly insisted that his books were not Christian.  And shouldn’t he, himself, know? After all he was a devout Catholic (aka Christian) and a scholar; I think it’s safe to say he’s a reliable source on his own creation.  But that doesn’t stop Brown from finding parallels between Tolkien’s “lessons” and the deeper truth of the Bible.  In the end, much of his meaning feels forced and unnecessary.  If The Hobbit and/or The Lord of the Rings were not already overflowing with brilliant inspiration, a book like this might be beneficial.  And after reading, in the Art of Storytelling how important it is for the storyteller to leave the reader room to draw their own lessons from the story, this book becomes all the more extraneous.

Yes, I was disappointed and, yes, I’m sure other people would love this book.  But if you, like me, find this book superfluous and not meaty enough, I recommend The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy.  If you haven’t read this book, skip it and reread Tolkien.  Definitely the better choice.  

Note:  The author, Devin Brown, has written several books about Tolkien, his writings, and CS Lewis so this is not about poor scholarship.  Alas, this is more about dumbing down content for the masses which, to my mind, is an insult to the primary source texts.

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