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Some Hobbitiana

Some new (Fall 1999) publications in the US, all related in some way to The Hobbit, deserve some attention here.

The Hobbit  \(\$12.00, ISBN 0-618-002219\) First, there is a new version of The Hobbit itself. Houghton Mifflin has just published a handsome new trade paperback edition, with an Alan Lee cover (the illustration is from the Chapter 19 of Lee’s 1997 illustrated edition of The Hobbit). I have been told, by those who understand such things better than I do, that the text in this edition is the first publication in the U.S. of the 1995 British edition. The Houghton Mifflin edition is photographically reproduced from the HarperCollins (London) edition. And there is a very short "Note on the Text" about the publishing history of The Hobbit on page xi.

This trade paperback edition of The Hobbit ($12.00, ISBN 0-618-002219) is also available in an attractive boxed set of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings ($45.00, ISBN 0-618-00225-1).

Poems from The Hobbit \$5.95 \(ISBN 0-618-00934-5\) Also from Houghton Mifflin is the tiny book (about 3 inches by 3 1/2 inches in size) entitled Poems from The Hobbit. This is a small Christmas stocking-stuffer like last year’s Father Christmas Letters. It is $5.95 (ISBN 0-618-00934-5), about fifty-eight pages, and it includes, like the title says, all of the poems from The Hobbit, with lots of Tolkien’s own drawings. The illustrations come from various sources, most notably Pictures by J. R. R. Tolkien (1979), which includes lots of doodles, borders, symbolic devices, and drawings of trees, some of which are included in the present book. Also there are several of Tolkien’s own illustrations to The Hobbit, and in this presentation the ink drawings have been colored (as they in fact appeared in Pictures by J. R. R. Tolkien) by someone named H. E. Riddett. This little book first appeared in England in 1993, where it was published by Tolkien’s British publisher, HarperCollins. It’s nice to see it finally available in the U.S., and it will make a delightful little gift this holiday season.

Our third item of new Hobbitiana is rather more unusual. It is The Hobbit: A 3-D Pop-Up Adventure, illustrated by John Howe ($19.95, ISBN 0-694-01436-2). It is published in the U.S. not by Houghton Mifflin, Tolkien’s usual publisher in America, but by HarperFestival, a division of the American branch of HarperColllins, Tolkien’s usual publisher in England (who also published this pop-up book over there).

The Hobbit: A 3-D Pop-Up Adventure \(\$19.95, ISBN 0-694-01436-2\) The back of the book describes this item as follows: "Each page features elaborate pop-up scenes, interactive pull-tabs, and secret pull-out scrolls that retell hero Bilbo Baggins’ incredible adventure." What this doesn’t tell you, and what you can’t see until you buy the book since it is shrink-wrapped, is that there are only five pages, and thus only five scenes. The first scene has only one pull-tab of text, whereas the other four scenes have two pull-tabs. (And if there indeed are "secret pull-out scrolls," they were made secret enough that I haven’t found any.)

The first scene is of Bilbo in his hobbit-hole serving the dwarves. A door can be opened which lets Gandalf in (and through which a dwarf stumbles). The second page is of Bilbo and Gollum and their riddle-game, while the third is of Bilbo and the spiders in Mirkwood. The fourth page is of Bilbo’s conversation with the dragon, Smaug, and the last scene is a battle-scene of the Battle of Five Armies.

Howe’s artwork is adequate (though he has done much better work), and the dragon scene is probably the best of the five depicted. But as a pop-up book it really seems an odd production. The artifice of a pop-up book seems to me to be ill-matched with a long narrative work like The Hobbit. Those who have already read the book will find that illustrating a mere five scenes does not do the story justice. The younger child who might first experience The Hobbit for the first time in this vastly truncated form can only be bewildered (and I’ll leave it for other arbiters of public taste to decide whether a scene with Goblins swinging axes at dwarves is appropriate fare for children).

As a specimen of the art of the pop-up book, this is really only a fair production. Anyone who has viewed the remarkable feats of paper-engineering by the likes of Robert Sabuda (see in particular his The 12 Days of Christmas from 1996) will find this production of The Hobbit merely unexceptional.

Still, it might find an audience, though I myself find it an ill-conceived and unnecessary thing–simply another product cranked out by the book merchandizing machine of something that remains such a true delight in its original novelistic form that no debasements of it are necessary.


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