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An image of the bookcover for The Hobbit

 


The Hobbit (1937)

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

After The Hobbit was published, Tolkien’s publishers asked him to write a sequel. He spent the next seventeen years of his life creating the three-volume Lord of The Rings. How is this sequel different than its predecessor? The Hobbit is a classic adventure story written specifically for children. The Lord of the Rings took on a life of its own for Tolkien, and became a highly serious and complicated trilogy aimed at an older audience.

When The Hobbit was first published, it was well received, but after The Lord of the Rings was published, both The Hobbit and the trilogy became incredibly popular and attracted cult-like followings.1

Unlike Twain, who was an adventurer and self-taught man, Tolkien led a sedate and scholarly life as Professor of Anglo-Saxon Literature at Leeds and later Oxford University. His fascination with Old English poetry dominated his life. The influence of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can be detected throughout The Hobbit

The Hobbit as an adventure story

Like Mole in The Wind in the Willows, Bilbo Baggins emerges from his underground home to begin an adventure. Initially attached to the comforts of home, Bilbo shies away from adventures. “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things!” he calls them.2

But when the wizard Gandalf convinces him to undertake a dangerous quest in search of a dragon, Bilbo accepts the challenge. The movement of the novel is away from security and comfort towards danger and risk-taking activities. Why is this pattern a common one in children’s literature? Child characters, like their young readers, must eventually leave the security of home and explore the larger world in order to develop.

Circular organization of the novel

The subtitle of the novel – “There and Back Again” – signals its principle method of organization.

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Major settings in the novel:

  • Bag-End
    • Bilbo leaves the comfort of home
  • The Last Homely House
    • 1st place of refuge and restoration
  • Misty Mountains
    • Bilbo encounters storms, goblins, Gollum, wolves
  • Beorn’s Hall
    • 2nd place of refuge and restoration
  • Mirkwood Forest
    • Bilbo encounters a forest, giant spiders, elves
  • Laketown
    • 3rd place of refuge and restoration
  • The Lone Mountain
    • Bilbo encounters the dragon, Thorin, goblins
  • The return trip back through each of these places

The circular journey is a characteristic pattern in children’s literature. The most common form of it –from home to the wider world and back again – is a pattern derived from fairy tales.3 Why do authors use it? It reflects the pattern of childhood development: as children leave the comforts of the known world, they encounter the challenges of growing up, eventually recreating a new form of home as adults.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo’s adventures gradually increase in difficulty, preparing him for his final encounter with the dragon. His dramatic change from complacent hobbit to courageous hero is made possible by the mastery of increasingly dangerous experiences.

The journey

Why use the journey motif?  The physical excursion is one of literature’s most enduring metaphors for psychological, emotional, moral, and spiritual development. As characters expand their geographic horizons, they broaden their experience and develop inner resources. The journey “there and back again” signals completion and fulfilment of the pattern.

The road that Bilbo follows is dangerous and hard to follow. Bilbo’s journey takes him farther and farther away from the security of civilization. He crosses a series of borders, starting with a place called the “Edge of the Wild.”4 Tolkien, who devoted years of his life to a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,5 modelled Bilbo’s journey into the wilderness after Sir Gawain’s.

As in Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child and DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Bilbo deteriorates physically as the journeys progress, but develops morally, spiritually, and psychologically.6

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The Hobbit and Old English literature

The journey into the wilderness is marked by three places of respite, punctuating the three major landscapes in the novel: the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood Forest, and the Lone Mountain.7 These three resting places are each modelled after the Old English mead hall. For the medieval protagonist, the mead hall, as a place of community, banqueting, tale-telling, and security in an uncertain world, serves an important restorative role. In The Hobbit, the three resting places, revive Bilbo’s flagging spirits and provide him with the strength he needs to face each subsequent encounter with danger.

The central axis of the novel is the meeting between Bilbo and the dragon, a scene modelled after the Old English classic, Beowulf. The dragon’s cave in The Hobbit is called the “dungeon-hall,” an inversion of the Old English mead hall.8 In Beowulf, the confrontation with Grendel and his mother prepares the hero for the slaying of the dragon.9 Likewise, Bilbo’s meeting with Gollum is a trial run for his later successful confrontation with the dragon.

Notes

1. Leslie Ellen Jones, J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003), 91, 121.

2. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again (1937; London: HarperCollins, 1995), 4.

3. As Maria Tatar expresses it, the typical fairy-tale hero escapes “from a lowly condition at home to a world of enchantment and finally back to a modified and elevated form of his original condition.  The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 71.

4. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 49. The Edge of the Wild plays a similar role to the town of Edge in Garth Nix’s Lirael, another place bordering the edge of civilization.

5. In J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, Leslie Ellen Jones writes, “Tolkien spent almost half a century . . . working on translations of Gawain, Pearl, and the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo, which were finally published posthumously. Aside from his epics of Middle-earth, these can be said to be the literary works that lived with him longest, were constantly in his head, and provided a subtextual backdrop to his fiction writing.” (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003), 57.

6. The mouse and his child literally deteriorate as they travel: “Most of their fur was gone by now, and what was left was long past mildew, and sprouting moss. Their whiskers were blackened and draggled; their tails had lost their snap; their glass-bead eyes were weatherworn and dim, and the last shreds of the blue velvet trousers flapped forlornly about their legs.” Russell Hoban, The Mouse and His Child (1967; New York: Scholastic Press, 2001), 124. In Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, the elegantly attired toy rabbit also falls apart as his journey progresses: “Who, having known before, would have thought that he could be so happy now, crusted over with garbage, wearing a dress, held in the slobbery mouth of a dog and being chased by a mad man?” (Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2006), 88. Bilbo’s appearances similarly changes for the worst: “He had lost hood, cloak, food, pony, his buttons and his friends.” Tolkien, The Hobbit, 84.

7. William H. Green argues that there is a four-part division in the novel. “The Four-Part Structure of Bilbo’s Education,” Children’s Literature 8 (1980): 133-40.

8. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 193.

9. Just as the dragon in Beowulf is killed by the combined efforts of two people – Beowulf strikes the first blow, weakening the dragon, and Wiglaf strikes the mortal blow – so too is the dragon killed by two characters in The Hobbit.