The Hobbit or There and Back Again" is the first story of Middle-Earth that was ever read by the masses. And to this day it remains a beloved favorite due to Tolkien's exceptional writing, realistic and lovable characters, and the fantastic, complicated world with its unlikely hero: a fuzzy-footed hobbit.
Bilbo Baggins lives a pleasantly stodgy and dull life in the Shire, in a luxurious hole under a hill. ("It was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort") But his life is completely turned upside-down by the arrival of the wizard Gandalf and thirteen dwarves. The dwarves, led by the exiled king-in-waiting Thorin Oakenshield, want to regain the Lonely Mountain (and a lot of treasure) from the dragon Smaug, who drove out the dwarves long ago. Why do they want Bilbo? Because Gandalf has told them that he'd make a good burglar (even though Bilbo has never burgled in his life).
So before Bilbo is entirely sure what is going on, he is being swept off on a very unrespectable -- and dangerous -- adventure. Bilbo and the Dwarves battle goblins and spiders, are nearly eaten twice, are captured and Bilbo is forced to riddle with the treacherous, withered Gollum, and ends up escaping with a magical Ring. But even after these obstacles, the dragon Smaug is still in the Lonely Mountain, and Bilbo is not entirely sure what to do to deal with this enemy.
Author J.R.R. Tolkien had been crafting his mythos of Elves, Dwarves, Wizards and Men for years before writing "The Hobbit," but "The Hobbit" is the first story that people had the opportunity to read. It began as a line scrawled on a sheet of blank paper, and then into a bedtime story for his children. And even though it's overshadowed by "Lord of the Rings" and "Silmarillion," this book is an essential link. It's definitely sillier and lighter, but it provides the springboard for a lot of the stuff in "Lord of the Rings" -- especially the magical Ring that Bilbo finds in Gollum's cavern.
The concept of hobbits started in this book -- the quintessential peaceful "wee" people, based on British countryfolk, with simple pleasures and unexpected depths of strength and resourcefulness. And, of course, fuzz on their large feet. Tolkien's Elves are a little more ethereal and less dignified, and his dwarves are a bit more comical and less grim. But Elrond hints at the full majesty of the Elves, and Thorin Oakenshield is still the most dignified, proud and impressively flawed dwarf there is. The last chapters of the book hint at the epic majesty of "Lord of the Rings," and some of the same victory/loss themes. And of course, the idea that even little people -- like a hobbit or a bird -- can change the world.
Tolkien's writing is quick and light, while providing sufficient detail to let you picture what's going on. The dialogue is less influenced by Old English, and the pace is a lot faster (not surprising, since it was originally read to his kids before bedtime). Bilbo is a likable little guy -- he seems to be the last person whom you'd expect to be a courageous hero, but he shows incredibly strength and smarts when he's under pressure. Supporting characters like Thorin, Bard the Guardsman-turned-King, the king of the wood-elves, and even Smaug himself are never cookie-cutter, but multidimensional and immensely interesting to read about.
"The Hobbit" was written for children, but adults can appreciate and enjoy it just as much. So read this book, then scoop up "The Fellowship of the Ring" and continue reading. A timeless treasure and classic.