Why I Read It: Correction - re-read it.
Summary: The quest to regain a homeland is complicated by competition between several races of beings in Middle-Earth.
My Thoughts: For some reason, I had forgotten how much of a hero Bilbo actually is.
I guess that when you read something at 13 and then read it again three decades later, things change. My broader view of the world in my 40s definitely impacted the way I viewed this book this time around, though I have to admit that I have trouble pulling myself away from thoughts of World War I when thinking deeply about this tale. It just seems too symmetrical when the Battle of the Five Armies finally breaks out in the end, and the flying force of eagles swoops in at the last second to save the day. But that's a whole different topic of discussion.
As much as I had misremembered Bilbo's level of heroism, I also had overplayed in my mind the role that Smeagol played. Perhaps I've got the stories jumbled, but I kept waiting for him to come back into the tale. Perhaps, so, too, did Tolkien. His story seems like such an open, unfinished portion of this book, that it only makes sense that his trail is picked up again in the Lord of the Rings series. Maybe the scenes of the early animated movie representation of the book stuck with me in a major way, influencing the way I've always thought about this tale. I know I expected more dwarves to die in the end, and that is a direct result of the first movie. I can still see the "camera" panning over the wounded warriors after the battle.
I think what I love best about the story is the level of mystery with which Tolkien taunts us, particularly regarding the life of Gandalf. He comes and goes, and for much of the book is dealing with "other business" in a separate, vaguely-defined world. He doesn't care to let the adventuring party know exactly what it is he is doing and where, and they don't press him on it; they know they shouldn't. His stiffness and brook-no-interference attitude lends a bit of subtle comedy to a book that is otherwise engrossing for its pure fantasy aspects. (There was, of course, the blatant joke about the founding of golf! Beyond that, the humor is masterfully masked within the personalities of the characters).
Tolkien excels at placing his characters in binds, and figuring out how to have the smallest and supposedly meekest and least-equipped character pry them free in believable ways. While we are supposed to carry with us a suspension of disbelief anyway when we read SciFi and Fantasy, if things get too far-fetched from what we consider humanly possible an author will lose us. Tolkien never does.
We end with triumph and tragedy, and must accept the latter with the former. It's something American audiences are only now starting to accept. As isolationist as many of us believe we are - does the average American really know what's happening in the world? - we have begun to see that the good guys do not always win and that sometimes victory is tainted with unexpected loss.