The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again
The hero of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is not a young guy when he starts adventuring. In fact, adventure finds him when he is "about fifty years old or so [... and] he had in fact apparently settled down immovably" (1.5). And we can't help but notice a similar trajectory in the life of author J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) Tolkien.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a hugely respected scholar of early Germanic languages and medieval literature, first at Leeds University and then at Oxford, in England. He had published some important contributions to the study of Middle English literature, most notably an edition of the anonymous poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 1926. He was also married and had four children: John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla. So he was pretty well settled into an ordinary life by the time he completed The Hobbit for publication in 1937 and changed the world of fantasy forever.
Of course, just because The Hobbit appeared in 1937 doesn't mean that Tolkien only started thinking about it the year he turned 45. Actually, Tolkien wrote his first contribution to Middle-earth – "The Voyage of Eärendel the Evening Star," based on "Crist," an Anglo-Saxon poem by Cynewulf – in September 1914, when he was just 22 (source: "Introduction," The Annotated Hobbit: Revised and Expanded Edition, pg. 4). He then went off to fight in the trenches of France in World War I, settled down to his various professorships, and continued his study of the languages of Old English, Old Norse, and Middle English. Through all this, though, Tolkien kept thinking over his hobbits, wizards, elves, and orcs.
By the time it was published, The Hobbit was really a culmination of about twenty years of imagining. In fact, Tolkien should give hope to obsessive nerds everywhere: you can sit around reading Icelandic sagas and making up your own languages (as Tolkien did with Quenya, his invented language of the elves) and it can lead to worldwide fame and respect.
But it took an enormous amount of time for all of that stuff Tolkien had imagined to develop into the coherent world of Middle-earth. The term "Middle-earth" doesn't even appear in The Hobbit, though the novel is clearly an essential part of Tolkien's larger mythology. By the time The Hobbit was published, Tolkien had only just begun to conceive of the scope of his creative project. In fact, The Hobbit began in a small way, as a means to amuse Tolkien's kids. As we mentioned earlier, he had four children, and he used to write down stories for his kids to enjoy; Tolkien then collected these tales into the novel we know and love today.
Tolkien didn't just make up his ideas from whole cloth: he had plenty of raw materials on which to draw, both from ancient folklore and from modern children's literature. The idea of hobbits grew out of Tolkien and his children's fondness for a book with the odd title The Marvelous Land of the Snergs, by Edward A. Wyke-Smith (source: Marjorie Burns, "Tracking the Elusive Hobbit (In Its Pre-Shire Den)." Tolkien Studies, Volume 4, 2007, pg. 208). Snergs by the way are a race of small but strong people. (Sound familiar?) And goblins belong to myth and legend, but Tolkien also pointed to George Macdonald's The Princess and the Goblins as a specific source (source: J.S. Ryan. "Folktale, Fairy Tale, and the Creation of a Story." In Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, pg. 118). And finally, the Old English heroic epic Beowulf also influenced Tolkien, as did the Finnish poem cycle Kalevala (source: John C. Hunter. "The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Critical Mythology and The Lord of the Rings." In Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Winter 2006), pg. 138). Talk about a list of what to read next!
We're not listing all of these sources just for fun – although we do love research. What matters is the fact that Tolkien himself bothered to trace all of these origins, and that such a thing as "Tolkien Studies" has cropped up in academic literature. The depth of analysis of Tolkien's invented folklore really indicates something about the kind of thought that Tolkien put into the development of his fictional world. He didn't just come up with a few poems plus The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – Tolkien's son Christopher published The History of the Lord of the Rings, a twelve-volume set of manuscripts and notes left to him after his father died. Tolkien laid a massive foundation for a world of fantasy that other writers have been mining for the past fifty years.
Which gets us back to The Hobbit as a stepping-stone for all of this great stuff. The Hobbit didn't start out as one of the most important fantasy novels of all time. It grew into the role over the course of about 25 years. Sure, The Hobbit did pretty well as a children's book when it was published, as did Lord of the Rings when it came out in 1954.
But, while Tolkien's books had fans, it wasn't until the 1960s that both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings really took off. Why did it take so much time for reading audiences to realize the wonder they had in their hands?
Fantasy writer Peter S. Beagle assigns this sudden popularity to the rejection of "industrial society" and "progress" for its own sake during the 1960s: faced with the damage that modernity was doing to the environment and its people, Tolkien's homey, old-fashioned visions of "the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green" (1.5) seemed like a positive refuge. In Beagle's words, Tolkien "found [our most common nightmares, daydreams, and twilight fancies] a place to live, a green alternative to each day's madness here in a poisoned world" (source: Beagle, Peter S. "Introduction," The Hobbit, 1973). So, as long as there are people who want to escape the world of the everyday, there will be lovers of Tolkien (and you can count us in!).
We have covered a lot in this "Nutshell": Tolkien's overall geekiness, his influences, and his novels as an escape from today's craziness. But there's one massive question mark that many people have tried to fill in. What does all of this stuff about hobbits and elves and dwarves really mean? For example, Tolkien was in the trenches in World War I: should we read The Hobbit as an anti-war book? Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and he was also good friends with C.S. Lewis: should we assume The Hobbit is a Christian allegory, like Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia?
We here at Shmoop can't answer these questions for sure. While we enjoy playing around with possible hidden meanings, we don't want to define Tolkien's work at the expense of the fun at the heart of this series. We respect Tolkien's own words on the subject: in his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien refused to describe his work as "allegorical" or "topical." Indeed, we think that the real secret of The Hobbit is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. There's a lot of careful thought going on in this book, sure, but it never gets so fancy that it forgets the importance of a good sense of humor and a strong sense of home. Which is why, if we had the chance to go to Middle-earth, we'd head there in a hot second.
Why Should I Care?
Well, to start out, let's let the author himself put in a good word! In a letter written in 1956, J.R.R. Tolkien reflected on his own work:
Having set myself a task, the arrogance of which I fully recognized and trembled at: being precisely to restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own: it is a wonderful thing to be told that I have succeeded, at least with those who still have the undarkened heart and mind. (source: Quoted in John C. Carpenter, "The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Critical Mythology and The Lord of the Rings." Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Winter, 2006), pg. 129)
At this point, we feel that you don't have to have an "undarkened heart and mind" to acknowledge that J.R.R. Tolkien has invented a new epic tradition, one that goes beyond "the English" to include a whole world of fans. With the publication of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, Tolkien has left writers and gamers alike with a vast mythical world to play around in. Indeed, an entire fantasy industry – from Dungeons and Dragons through Magic: The Gathering to World of Warcraft and Warhammer – owes its origins to Tolkien's invention of Middle-earth. So any novel that even mentions orcs owes Tolkien a huge favor. And it's pretty fascinating to get to read the tale that started it all.
But The Hobbit isn't just about the legendary legacy Tolkien has left us. We've loved this book since we were kids, and not because of the impact Tolkien has made on the world. Nope – we re-read it regularly because it's funny and wry, and because it tells us a classic coming-of-age story.
Yes, Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit of the title, is fifty years old at the beginning of the novel (so, definitely of age). Still, he's so unfamiliar with the larger world that he might as well be five. Over the course of The Hobbit, our hero meets elves and goblins and trolls aplenty. But what he really discovers is strength, wisdom, and courage within himself. Bilbo comes away from The Hobbit with a couple of sacks of treasure, sure, but what's immensely more valuable to him (and to us, the readers) is the respect he wins from all of the people he meets. Bilbo might not be big or impressive looking, but he's still able to change the course of history in Middle-earth. That's a lesson we're happy to learn any day.