The Hobbit means something different and equally special to every kid who grew up reading it, or even better, having it read out loud to them. An ancient copy of the book is sitting on my desk as I write this: it’s been sello taped together twice (once by me at the age of seven, again by my Mom when she discovered what a botch I’d made of it), the pages alternate between yellow and a kind of burnished red, it smells like the inside of my Dad’s bookcase (a unique smell – can’t be described) and the title is written in shiny silver letters on the front. I remember my Dad showing the back of the book to me and my brother and saying ‘Now how can you tell this is an American reprint? The word ‘prequel’ on the back! ‘Prequel’ isn’t a word!’ and so on. It’s the same book I used to teach myself the basics of the Dwarven alphabet that I’ve used both as a remedy against boredom and a fairly decent party trick ever since. But most importantly, it’s the magic book my Dad used to spin adventures out of, using Tolkien’s genius and his voice to paint as complete a picture of Middle Earth in my little mind, and in my brother’s, so that knowing nothing of the existence of Rohan, Lothlórien, or Gondor didn’t prove a problem when I read The Lord of the Rings many years later: Middle Earth was my place, and I could never be lost in it.
What made The Hobbit even more thrilling to my miniature self was that the bulk of our first reading of it took place at Little Switzerland, which is a little resort quite deep in what I think was the Northern Drakensberg. They had horses and stray cats. But above all, they had mountains (MOUNTAINS, Gandalf!!). Now just imagine how exciting it is for a child to be on holiday in a place where there’s nothing to do all day but listen to a story, a story which soon turns the fairly unthreatening-looking mountains of the Drakensberg into the Misty Mountains, and Bilbo’s out there in the cold and the wet, water dripping down his nose, dreaming miserably of kettles, hearth fires and pocket handkerchiefs, and you’re worried about him and his friends and Gandalf (nah – not even kids feel comfortable worrying about Gandalf), so that with each new calamity that arises, you look out of the window at those peaks that seem so huge when you’re so small, and wonder if he’s safe.
The night scenes were the best of course, and it always seemed to be night time when the time came to read them. My Dad was an amazing Gollum, and to this day I maintain (much to the annoyance of other LOTR fans, including Daddy himself) that he was better than Andy Serkis. Ah well, maybe I’m just prejudiced. Anyway, I’ll never forget him growling ‘What has it got in its pocketses?’ and us sitting on the edge of our seats (or in my case, biting my fingernails; some things never change) and squealing ‘Oh nooooooooo’. But that was an isolated incident: for the most part, his Gollum made us laugh uncontrollably, the two best incidents being Gollum’s refined parting repartee to Bilbo as he runs for his life with the Ring on his finger (‘Thief, Bagginses! We hates it! We hates it! We hates it foreveeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer!’) and Gollum’s hilarious method of navigating the tunnels, which for years I thought was his way of counting to ten (one left, yes. One right, yes. Two right, yes yes. Two left, yes yes). This last anecdote is consistent with the effect Gollum had on kids after The Lord of the Rings movies first came out: to them he was, as he was to us, a cartoon character, some comic relief to stop us being scared at the horrible idea of Bilbo being stuck in a network of underground tunnels with a lot of murderous goblins on his tail and no way out.
The film version of The Hobbit opens today. When the first teaser trailer came out earlier this year, I remember rushing through to the lounge with my laptop to where Dad sat in his chair: still the same man, but grayer, with Parkinson’s. ‘Look!’ I told him, put the laptop on his knees and hit play. He was so excited. He couldn’t believe that our book, the book that is ‘our book’ to so many millions of people, had finally been made into a movie. After that, I’d frequently ask him ‘How long till December 14th?’ ‘What’s happening on December 14th?’ he would ask. Then I’d remind him. And he’d get excited all over again.
It’s been six months now since he died, and me and Mom are heading down to Musgrave tonight to watch it, without him. There are no words to describe the feeling. But I know that the moment it starts, that won’t matter anymore, because I’ll be back in our place, and he’ll be there too. Not that I’m saying he’ll be watching from heaven – I don’t believe in heaven. It’s just that for me, he’s as important in Middle Earth as Tolkien. Tolkien was its creator, Dad was its sound and colour.