Olsen, Corey. Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012. Print.
Granted that my expectations were low, but Corey Olsen’s book was much better than I expected. Internally, I tend to divide books on Tolkien into two categories: REAL BOOKS (with new information for scholars, academics, and high-level fans) and FAN BOOKS (which are basically just a super-fan talking about something they love). I'm morally okay with the latter, because it's cool when people just do their own thing, but readers do need to the limitations of such books firmly in mind. Olsen’s book clearly falls into this category of FAN BOOKS. It has no secondary research and offers nothing but various observations on various plot points. Nonetheless, it has a clear and delightful style, and he goes from point to point rather well. (It’s telling, btw, that I have to consider "clear logical progression of ideas" noteworthy a commercial book. I just read a book by another guy, someone who’s work has actually been cited in peer-reviewed journals, and his book was just embarassingly awful and meandering.) Basically, Exploring the Hobbit is a book-length close reading or meditation on Olsen’s favorite book.
The book’s value comes in two areas. First, the close reading results in some very nice observations. For example, when Bilbo imagines what an adventure is like in Chapter 1, Olsen notes “how tame this little adventure fantasy actually is” (24). Also doesn’t ignore more literary critical areas: also in Ch.1., “Part of what offends Bilbo in Gloin’s remark are the class implications of being compared to a grocer, when Bilbo is obviously not in the working class” (27). Or, “Bilbo objects to the ‘servant’ remark [by elf sentries with Arkenstone] and obviously does not like being seen as a person of such little consequence” (260). Also criticizes the Last Homely House. “If the fault of the Wood-elves was ‘distrust of strangers,’ the fault of the High Elves of Rivendell may well be too much isolation from the outside world” (292)—their song indicates that Bilbo wasted his time. The Master has a tendency to build “a new irrational fantasy on the smoldering ruins of the old one” (243), i.e., the dwarves stirred up the dragon against them deliberately. None of this is really NEW, of course, but it does display competent close reading, which not all fan readers can do.
Olsen’s also great at analyzing the songs—he pays much more attention to their thematic implications than I can force myself to do.*** That’s actually the most important part. If I, as a scholar, ever open Olsen’s book again, it’ll probably be to check out what his says about some song or another.
He has an interesting approach as well. He divides The Hobbit into three stages: the Solo Stage (1937-1951), the Revision Stage (second edition from 1951 to 1954), and the Assimilation Stage (1954-onward)—and he tries reading only from the lens of the first two stages (9).
The major weaknesses, of course, is the lack of secondary research, and the observations are interesting but not exciting. Ultimately, this is a very readable book, but a book-length meditation on a story of similar length usually just isn’t that useful. Books for “general” readers also have a problem in that Tom Shippey’s two books already aim for these readers. Olsen's book just doesn't come anywhere close to Shippey's.
Jason Fisher’s review in Tolkien Studies lambasts the book quite well (maybe even too well for a book that makes no pretensions at originality). He actually dislikes Olsen’s colloquialisms much more than I do – for example, I found passages like the following quite nice: “Bilbo is not just a bold adventurer lurking beneath a mild-mannered exterior; he is not some kind of hobbit Clark Kent in search of a very small phone booth” (24). But he also calls Exploring the Hobbit a “study guide” that also contains high levels of “tedious detail and unjustifiable length,” which is fair enough. Oh, and ouch: “Olsen’s book follows the style, arrangement, and manner of a pedagogue stubbornly repeating the same points to increasingly inattentive students, hoping they will eventually pay attention and the points will stick.”) I wouldn't quite go that far -- but, then again, I skip and skim quite a bit.
***Yes, I’m a horrible English major. When I did the poetry for my prelims, I googled a plot summary after reading nearly every poem. The “experience” of reading poetry slowly just doesn’t do anything for me.]