The Dim-Post

July 13, 2016

Notes on the Hobbit and the first Famous Five book

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:58 am

I finished reading the Hobbit to my daughter a few weeks ago. It started out badly:

Me: I loved this book when I was a little boy, and I think you’re going to love it too. Now, (clears throat). In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit . . .

Sadie: Is there a girl in this book?

Me: Not . . . Maybe in Laketown? I don’t think so though. His subsequent works have girls. I mean, women. Eowyn kills a Nazgul!

Sadie: I want a book with a girl in it.

After some negotiation (I promised to read Pippi Longstocking afterwards: it was dreadful) we persevered and the book was mostly enjoyed. It is a very uneven work. It starts out as an episodic children’s book with various playful narrative asides, like the C S Lewis books, and ends with the extended sequence on the Lonely Mountain with a far more adult tone. My daughter’s favourite thing about it was the map, and every few pages we would stop and check where Bilbo was on it. I remember also being delighted with the map when I read this book as a child. But which book had the first ever fictional map in it? I’ve looked on the internet and I can’t find out. People seem to think it was a Victorian thing. Stephenson, maybe?

Now we’re on to Five on a Treasure Island. It is fashionable to sneer at Enid Blyton, and okay yes it has dated badly in some respects, and there is a character called ‘Dick’ which leads to many amusing sentences. But in narrative terms it is possibly the best children’s novel I have ever read. You could teach a course on novel-writing using this book. Also, George’s refusal to conform to gender norms reads as very progressive today; Blyton anticipates Judith Butler.


  1. There was a map of the 100 acre wood in the House at Pooh Corner, I think, unless memory is committing a line fault.

    Comment by robhosking — July 13, 2016 @ 9:03 am

  2. You might like

    Comment by xy — July 13, 2016 @ 9:09 am

  3. She might enjoy “Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome. Very English adventures with a group of boys and girls in it. A sort of upmarket Famous Five. Mmm. More than 60 years ago. Oops!

    Comment by ianmac40 — July 13, 2016 @ 9:12 am

  4. I’ve never read Five on a Treasure Island, but The Enchanted Wood is still one of my favourite books. She was able to create such powerful visuals in my mind that over 20 years later it doesn’t take much effort to recall characters like Moonface and the Saucepan Man. I want to reread it but I don’t — I think it’ll spoil my memories if I do. I’m sure your daughter would like it though.

    Comment by Seb Rattansen — July 13, 2016 @ 9:24 am

  5. RLS’s original 1883 edition of Treasure Island had a map.

    Comment by Kevin Moar — July 13, 2016 @ 9:29 am

  6. “half men of o” is a good series – plus it has a girl in it

    Comment by framu — July 13, 2016 @ 9:59 am

  7. What’s your beef with Pippi Longtocking?

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — July 13, 2016 @ 10:07 am

  8. also – Dreamhunter – Elizabeth Knox

    set in the nelson area, young girl protagonist, cool idea (no one dreams so dreams have to be obtained from a parallel dimension and brought back to be broadcast to others as they sleep – or something like that)

    pretty easy read

    Comment by framu — July 13, 2016 @ 10:14 am

  9. What’s your beef with Pippi Longtocking?

    According to an acquaintance who grew up in middle Europe, Pippi was cool because she could do what she wanted whenever she pleased. Souinds fine to me.

    Never was a Blyton fan, but the fact that she’s still popular in a vast variety of languages must be some endorsement of her storytellling powers.

    Comment by Joe W — July 13, 2016 @ 10:19 am

  10. What’s your beef with Pippi Longtocking?

    Pippi doing whatever she wants, over and over again is incredibly boring. It’s very humiliating to look up from reading a child’s book to realise that your audience has been cheerfully ignoring you, playing with her toys for ten minutes.

    Comment by danylmc — July 13, 2016 @ 10:26 am

  11. I read my son the famous five when he was five and I edited out the worst bits as I read. He loved it so much he joined scouts (Keas) which he hated because they had the five year olds doing crafts, instead of going camping.

    Comment by MeToo — July 13, 2016 @ 10:27 am

  12. The Harry Potter books were a favourite of my daughter’s – Hermione is always using her smarts getting the boys out of trouble.

    I also loved the Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazons books but alas neither of my kids got into them.

    Comment by grantmnz — July 13, 2016 @ 10:29 am

  13. Dreamhunter is wonderful (as is all of Elizabeth Knox’s writing) but probably for teens up.

    Comment by Corokia — July 13, 2016 @ 10:32 am

  14. “Pippi doing whatever she wants, over and over again is incredibly boring”

    As a kid I found it pretty captivating, but different strokes, different folks, I guess. (I found the Hobbit terminally tedious, just to throw off the metric)

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — July 13, 2016 @ 10:53 am

  15. Anne if Green Gables is apparently very nice . Also a new movie in theatres now so could be a true multimedia experience.

    Comment by insider — July 13, 2016 @ 11:35 am

  16. Favourites from my son’s childhood include the Moomintrolls; anything by Phillip Pullman; Joan Aiken (a much under-rated author) and yes, The Hobbit. I found the Harry Potters didn’t lend themselves well to being read aloud and was very relieved when he could read them for himself.

    Comment by CarolS — July 13, 2016 @ 11:37 am

  17. I loved Noel Steatfeild’s stories especially
    Dancing Shoes
    Thursday’s Child

    Although the one that generally gets mentioned is
    Ballet Shoes
    and a movie made out of it

    Really strong stores about girls, looking to find out who they are, what they can do and making a success of themselves in an adult world. Often the girl who people thinks little of turns out to have hidden or overlooked talents.

    Dated now because they were written from around war time to the early 70’s but still great girl’s stories.

    Comment by mjpledger — July 13, 2016 @ 11:40 am

  18. whatever you do dont get out raymond briggs’ “when the wind blows”🙂

    Comment by framu — July 13, 2016 @ 11:46 am

  19. I’ve just finished rereading the Hobbit for a third time with my two older children. It seems to be a thing we do every four years. This time I found myself noticing the things that had been lifted out of The Hobbit into Dungeons and Dragons. Mostly I suspect because I discovered this very serious blog

    Comment by Robert Singers — July 13, 2016 @ 12:42 pm

  20. My boy won’t touch The Hobbit, seems fanatically opposed to it


    Comment by Antoine — July 13, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

  21. I’m pretty sure Gulliver’s Travels had a map – early 1700’s.

    Comment by Prince — July 13, 2016 @ 1:31 pm

  22. Try Alice in Wonderland. Or anything by Margaret Mahy.

    Comment by Plum — July 13, 2016 @ 1:39 pm

  23. My eldest daughter (now nearly 30) loved Swallows & Amazons as a child, with its cast of characters including a “Tittie” – a cause of much parental smirking but none from her. She also enjoyed books with feisty female characters such as the Trixie Belden series and wasn’t especially taken with The Hobbit as I recall. These days she is an excellent feminist.

    Comment by philstewart — July 13, 2016 @ 1:43 pm

  24. Momo is a great children’s book (and has a girl protagonist):

    Comment by RJL — July 13, 2016 @ 2:11 pm

  25. I never read The Famous Five but hoovered up The Secret Seven. I have no idea if their stories still hold up for modern kids.

    Also, try the Harper Singer books in the Pern series – Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. The lead character is a girl who befriends nine fire lizards.

    Comment by Ataahua — July 13, 2016 @ 2:15 pm

  26. Watership Down – the book is great and a whole lot less nightmare inducing than the animated movie.

    Comment by Exclamation Mark — July 13, 2016 @ 3:39 pm

  27. re: watership down (movie) its rumored to be getting a remake – to traumatise a whole new generation🙂

    Comment by framu — July 13, 2016 @ 3:43 pm

  28. The Swiss Family Robinson had a map, that was first published in 1812.

    I still remember reading Famous Five books until I simply couldn’t stay awake any longer no matter how hard I tried.

    I am nowadays struck by how prolific popular authors were back in the golden age of the written word. Blyton was apparently able to churn out up to 10,000 words a day and up to fifty books a year. W.E. Johns of Biggles fame wrote 175+ books as well as thousands of magazine articles and newspaper pieces.

    Comment by Sanctuary — July 13, 2016 @ 4:27 pm

  29. How many here are old enough to remember the flourishing era of children’s comics and magazines? We had a regular order of Look & Learn, Beano and Cor! As well as Commando and Battle war comics at our local bookstore. I used to adore reading those, and looking at the pictures of rockets and aeroplanes and stuff.

    Yup, those were the days when the local suburban shopping centres all featured a post office, a dairy, a haberdashery, a butcher, and a bookstore/newsagent.

    Comment by Sanctuary — July 13, 2016 @ 4:40 pm

  30. As well as Commando and Battle war comics at our local bookstore.

    I’m surprised you partook of that imperialist propaganda, Sanctuary!

    Comment by Gregor W — July 13, 2016 @ 4:51 pm

  31. We had a regular order of Look & Learn…M

    Look & Learn featured the work of acclaimed illustrator Ron Embleton, who also did artwork for Penthouse‘s Wicked Wanda strip. Once a degree of puberty & perviness had kicked in, Look & Learn functioned as the perfect gateway drug to high-end soft porn.

    Comment by Joe W — July 13, 2016 @ 5:15 pm

  32. “…I’m surprised you partook of that imperialist propaganda, Sanctuary..!”

    My mum was very concerned, she asked my teacher who simply said any reading was better than none at all. And in there own way, they stimulated imagination and curiosity about history.

    What me and my brother into trouble was one of our jobs was to go and collect the book order. We we hit 13 or 14, we forged a letter from our Dad adding “Playboy” to the order. We got away with it for over a year. Reading Playboy, despite it’s stimulating articles, was forbidden.

    Comment by Sanctuary — July 13, 2016 @ 5:20 pm

  33. Try The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

    Comment by Fergus — July 13, 2016 @ 5:45 pm

  34. “…Look & Learn featured the work of acclaimed illustrator Ron Embleton…”

    We also got the “Purnell’s History of the Second World War” magazine that featured the artwork of John Batchelor. That whole era produced some marvellous illustrators. I still have the lavishly illustrated, full coloured books on science and technology that were regular appearances in my Xmas stocking.

    BTW, as an authoritative, accurate, accessable, easily digestible and understood history of WW2 Purnell’s History of the Second World War is still excellent, the only things that are very much better covered today are the Ultra secret and the Soviet view of the war.

    Comment by Sanctuary — July 13, 2016 @ 6:14 pm

  35. I’ve just done a big binge read of Enid Blyton as I was taking them off my daughter’s book shelf – she’s gotten too old for them now. She was mad on the adventure series

    I hoovered up secret seven as a kid – more than the Famous Five. I think the ones I read as a child had been updated from the original – they seemed to fit into an 1980’s world.

    My favourites were the boarding school series and the mystery series

    The mystery series are quite dated now (especially the social side of it) although they have updated them recently so the newer ones maybe ok. The “whodunnit” aspect of it was really good – more sophisticated than the secret seven series.

    Comment by mjpledger — July 13, 2016 @ 6:16 pm

  36. I also read a lot of Enid Blyton between the ages of, I guess, eight and eleven: all very good, wholesome, mildly-exciting stuff. And there’s vast amounts of it – Blyton published 21 Famous Five books and 15 volumes of the Secret Seven, most of which I must have ploughed my way through. I’m afraid my vocabulary has been permanently affected by it, and I still find myself saying things like “don’t let’s!” and “how beastly!”

    Comment by Higgs Boatswain — July 13, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

  37. If you’re on Facebook, there’s a group there specifically to help find books that don’t lean on gender stereotypes:

    Comment by Cat — July 13, 2016 @ 7:02 pm

  38. (and also )

    Comment by Cat — July 13, 2016 @ 7:04 pm

  39. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – a neglected garden, neglected child, new life in the garden and how common sense and kindness overcomes the ‘norms’ of the day. My favourite book as a child and I have read it again recently.

    Comment by Wendy — July 13, 2016 @ 8:06 pm

  40. Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516 had a woodcut map, apparently

    Comment by gazzaj — July 13, 2016 @ 9:28 pm

  41. Fergus: ” The Wolves of Willoughby Chase”

    Oh crikey, thanks so much for reminding me! Although I was somewhat older than the target audience when that book was published, I read it with great pleasure. There were a couple more books in the “Wolves” series, as I recall.
    As a child, I read the Famous Five and the Secret Seven: all of them, I think. Also Trixie Belden, a book called “Island Spell” which had a female protagonist (can’t remember author).

    When my son was young, he and I loved nothing better than reading aloud: Swallows and Amazons, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Phillip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials (terrific writing), Harry Potter (till he was too old for reading aloud), Antony Horowitz, AA Milne and Babette Cole when he was very young. And so many others, including a great deal of non-fiction.

    I found that reading aloud makes poor writing and unevenness of tone more obvious. I also noticed the changes in tone in The Hobbit, and it’s glaring in Rings as you work through it. On the other hand, Jo Rowling got the tone bang on for each of the Potter books, even if the quality of the writing was pretty ho-hum.

    Speaking of Rowling, I’ve read one of her books for adults – The Silkworm – and really liked it. No beefs about the quality of the writing with that one!

    Comment by D'Esterre — July 13, 2016 @ 11:02 pm

  42. This entry took me to your post on The Hobbit movies. Jackson may not have ruined the book but those movies were farcical gave me a similar feeling to the one I get after eating KFC.

    Comment by Eltalstro — July 13, 2016 @ 11:33 pm

  43. I have no idea what the words “Eowyn kills a Nazgul” mean, but they put me in mind of this:

    Comment by Higgs Boatswain — July 13, 2016 @ 11:43 pm

  44. Watership Down – the book is great and a whole lot less nightmare inducing than the animated movie.

    My sister watched Watership Down for the first time, recently. Her Facebook summary. ‘Aw, what a bunch of cute little – Oh my God! Oh my God! They’re all dead! Oh my God!’

    I read the book about ten years ago. It’s great, but also very weird. Fiver was psychic!

    Comment by danylmc — July 14, 2016 @ 7:58 am

  45. I see two references to Winnie the Pooh and Anne of Green Gables. The latter seems to have been passed down in the female line in our families and especially I’d recommend for reading to a daughter, even though I never read it as a child, nor to my boys. But the girls love her.

    As to Pooh – well, sheer genius actually. I can’t help thinking how much of Calvin and Hobbs was inspired by it. Great to read aloud.

    As were the Harry Potter books, which attracted the older ones as I re-started the series for the younger. I don’t understand the comments above about them not being books to read aloud – worked fine with my crew.

    And ignore the child rolling around on the floor and such like while you read. It used to drive me crazy too, but I found out that they were always listening.

    Comment by Tom Hunter — July 14, 2016 @ 11:45 am

  46. I don’t understand the comments above about them not being books to read aloud – worked fine with my crew.

    I’ve read the first few Harry Potter books aloud to two children – the first time, I quickly and embarrassingly found myself continuing reading it for myself long after the child was asleep. Fortunately, in both cases by the time we got to Goblet of Fire they were happy to read the book themselves – that one gave me the ache.

    My daughter loved Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books. I couldn’t get past what an appalling Tory fantasy it was, but to her it was great stories about interesting people in an unusual environment. Eventually I remembered that I’d read no end of books about public-school life when I was a kid – Billy Bunter, Jennings, Nigel Molesworth, I read the lot.

    Comment by Psycho Milt — July 14, 2016 @ 2:01 pm

  47. @Psycho Milt
    Pamela Cox has written a follow-on series for Malory Towers. They are more complex but with the same feel. Not quite so Tory-nightmare.
    (They are available at my local library – maybe at yours.)

    Comment by mjpledger — July 14, 2016 @ 2:23 pm

  48. Usula LeGuin is a fantastic writer and A Wizard of Earthsea is a joy to read aloud. Unfortunately it’s way more scary than I remembered and I had to stop reading it to my five-year old daughter after three or four chapters.

    Comment by Conrad — July 18, 2016 @ 2:33 pm

  49. I’ve been thinking of trying those Earthsea books. But we’re going to go through all seven Narnia books now. Even the crappy last one. That’ll take a while.

    Comment by danylmc — July 18, 2016 @ 2:48 pm

  50. …all seven Narnia books…

    My then 8 or 9 year old niece was given the boxed set. While she persevered with them, being heavily into Harry Potter at the time she described their tone as “pompous”. Best to get in quick I reckon.

    Comment by Joe W — July 18, 2016 @ 5:39 pm

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