In September 2017 The Hobbit celebrates its 80th birthday. Since being released in 1937 the book has been enchanting readers all over the world – both children and grown-ups, and has joined the ranks of world classics. As it happens with many books that are in for a legendary fate, The Hobbit did not seem to be especially planned for writing or publication. The written-down story began on the spur of the moment as Tolkien was marking examination papers and, turning over one of them and finding a blank page there, he wrote: In the hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Upon many occasions later the Professor admitted that he did not know or remember clearly why he wrote this line, but these ten words began the life of what would later became one of the most favourite and best books in literature. There are many aspects to The Hobbit that make the book truly special and set it aside from most stories labelled as children’s ones. Enjoyed by kids and no less by grown-ups, The Hobbit presents a tale where everyone can find something to their taste, regardless their age. While seemingly a light read, the story of Bilbo Baggins is deeply rooted in mythology, epic sagas, legends of old and Tolkien’s own creativity and has a lot more to it than shows at first sight. In the present essay I am going to single out five things that, in my opinion, make The Hobbit a very special book.
Those readers who begin their acquaintance with Tolkien’s works with The Hobbit might be rather surprised when they move on to reading The Lord of the Rings and, all the more so, The Silmarillion. Easy-to-read, light, at times whimsical and playful, full of jests, The Hobbit differs from the elevated, archaic style of both of these epics. Even thus said, ‘light’ in case of Tolkien does not mean ‘simple’. The Professor’s ability to use language, its varieties and various devices to the advantage of the story is well-known, and The Hobbit in this respect is no exception.The sense of humour is contagious and so carefully and harmoniously fused into the narrative, that readers will undoubtedly be laughing here and there at Tolkien’s phrasings, jokes or choices of words. Addresses to readers make them on the one hand very involved in the story, and on the other – side them with the not-so-omniscient narrator who confesses to not being aware of some aspects of the story. Though Tolkien later admitted that such a style for a children’s book was what children, and his own children in particular, in fact hated*, this approach makes The Hobbit a very unusual read.
Travelling and adventures
The genre of travelling in literature is one of the most favourite ones to read and among those that provide readers with a sense of adventure and can take one on a great journey without the need to leave their living room. In Letter № 183 Tolkien wrote:
For if there is anything in a journey of any length, for me it is this: a deliverance from the plantlike state of helpless passive sufferer, an exercise however small of will, and mobility – and of curiosity, without which a rational mind becomes stultified. (Though of course all this is an afterthought, and misses the major point. To a story-teller a journey is a marvellous device. It provides a strong thread on which a multitude of things that he has in mind may be strung to make a new thing, various, unpredictable, and yet coherent. …)
(Letters, № 183)
Through the eyes of a writer a reader can see other places and when we speak of such an author as Tolkien we can be guaranteed a vivid picture of the surroundings that our travellers encounter on their way. Any more or less distant journey which takes us away from home for a week or more can prove life-changing and none return from journeys even slightly unchanged. In The Hobbit readers not only have a chance to travel around Middle-earth and visit some remarkable places through the eyes of Tolkien the narrator and Tolkien the writer, but also notice the drastic change that Bilbo undergoes as the quest awakens the Tookish side in him and changes the Hobbit into “the mad Baggins” of his not-so-respectable, post-quest life.
Connections with Tolkien’s own mythology
When writing The Hobbit, Tolkien inevitably had the mythology of the Elder Days at the back of his mind and occasional references to the events and characters of old found their way into this story, too. These connections took time to shape and present themselves for what they are, and they link Bilbo’s story with the tales of old. Such characters as Elrond or Gandalf appear as early as The Silmarillion and Necromancer turns out to be none other than Sauron who first aided the first Dark Lord Morgoth in his evil deeds in the First Age and following his master’s downfall went on to creating more trouble on his own in the Second and Third Ages. The reference to the swords forged in Gondolin or wars of the past show how deep Bilbo’s adventure is rooted in Tolkien’s imagination, connect The Hobbit with his whole mythology and put it in its own rightful place among Tolkien’s extensive work, make it a part of a bigger story which began before Bilbo Baggins and will continue after him.
While some dismiss The Hobbit as a mere children’s book, there is serious learning behind it. When the book was released in 1937 some critics failed to see it as something more than a fairy tale and drew numerous comparison’s with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. However, there were those shrewd ones who saw to the core of The Hobbit, sensed the stories that had fuelled it and tied it with sagas of old and Anglo-Saxon lore. Inspired by those tales, Tolkien made The Hobbit rest upon the pillars of great expertise in the legends of old, making the book gravitate towards epic sagas rather than Carroll’s Alice. It was not a conscious move, though. In a letter to the editor of The Observer in 1938 commenting on a cup-stealing episode from The Hobbit which resembles a similar scene in Beowulf Tolkien noted that Beowulf “was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing” (Letters, № 25) and that The Hobbit”is not consciously based on any other book” (ibid.).
The Hobbit is full of poems and songs. Their role in the tale is not purely decorative, but a narrative one. In Tolkien’s writings poems should not be skipped, which is a mistake many first-time readers make, but be read with care as they are a well of information. All verses are very representative of the races that sing them and depict their history, culture and traditions. Some of them contain necessary information, like some of the Dwarves’ songs, while others underline a people’s character and their values, as it happens with the Elvish or the Goblin poetry. The significance of Bilbo’s composing songs lies in their showing his change throughout his adventures — the fact also noticed not without a tint of surprise by Gandalf. Tolkien’s sense of words and his learning in verse, a variety of poetic styles and devices show him as a talented poet who used language with mastery. He knew how to tie words together so that they could create the effect the author intended to, show the mood, the atmosphere and differences between the singers and their cultures.
*The Annotated Hobbit – p. 76
More on the topic:
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Douglas A. Anderson – The Hobbit or there and back again: revised and expanded edition annotated by Douglas A. Anderson; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2003.
- John. D. Rateliff – The History of the Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2011 (E-book edition).
Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.