J.R.R. Tolkien is considered to be the founder of modern fantasy literature, mostly due to “The Lord of the Rings.” Although “The Lord of the Rings” is a remarkable work of creativity and imagination, the success, and reverence awarded to it by its admirers has eclipsed the brilliance of its predecessor “The Hobbit.” Beginning with a simple line of narration scribbled on a student’s paper while Tolkien was a professor, “The Hobbit” tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, one of a race of short, hairy, man-like creatures known as hobbits, who enjoys a simple life in a rural village. One day, Bilbo’s quiet existence is unexpectedly interrupted when the wizard Gandalf shows up on his doorstep with a band of twelve dwarves, who hope to enlist Bilbo’s help in liberating their ancestral home from a ferocious dragon named Smaug. Bilbo reluctantly agrees, and along the way he and his comrades fend off trolls, are befriended by elves and beasts, slay monsters, outwit goblins, and become soldiers in a devastating battle of five armies, from which they emerge victorious, but far from unscathed. Less expansive, but no less captivating than its successor, Tolkien’s flagship work both introduces readers to what can truly be considered a modern mythology, and tells a tale of adventure containing universal statements about the inherent destructiveness of war, the effects of experience on character, and the human spirit’s enduring need for mythology and heroism.
From his earliest days, Tolkien understood what it meant to endure hardship and loss. After losing his father at the age of four, he suffered the death of his mother three years after the two of them were disowned by her family when she converted to Catholicism (Green, J.R.R. Tolkien). But the event which undoubtedly had the deepest effect on Tolkien was his time spent in the trenches of World War I. Other artists who fought in “the Great War” used the experience as inspiration for their work. The most famous being, of course, Ernest Hemingway, whose time spent as an ambulance driver and war correspondent was reflected in his books ‘A Farewell to Arms,’ ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ and ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls.’ On his experiences in the war, Hemingway soberly reflected: “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates (Croft, 2002).” What made World War I especially brutal was the juxtaposition of modern technology with antiquated fighting techniques. Soldiers on opposing sides faced each other in the same kinds of battle formations which had been used for centuries, but fought with mechanized weaponry, thus resulting in casualties so numerous the numbers remain incalculable. Soldiers would spend months at a time in crowded, muddy trenches where it was almost impossible to ward off infection and disease, then march across the dreaded “no man’s land,” where they were exposed to artillery shells, nerve gas, and machine gun fire. The most tragic part of this experience was that engagements would usually end with little to no new territory being gained by either side. While not a straight allegory for the war, much of the imagery Tolkien infused into “The Hobbit,” and later “The Lord of the Rings,” is certainly reminiscent of his experiences. Landscapes such as the Desolation of Smaug that were once “green and fair” are now bleak and barren and littered with the corpses of the dead. Bilbo’s loss of dear friends gained over the course of his journey is another element Tolkien borrowed from his biography, writing in the Introduction to the second edition of“The Lord of the Rings,” “it seems now often forgotten that to be caught by youth in 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead (Croft, 2002).” The hardening experiences of war are certainly not lost on Bilbo Either. While the hobbit is not young – he is what humans in this world would consider middle-aged – he is very childlike in personality and behavior. At several points in his journey, Bilbo complains about the uncomfortable conditions he is forced to endure and longs for the security and familiarity of his hobbit-hole. Even the Shire, essentially a hole in the ground, is symbolic of a womb (Matthews, 1975), with his being torn from it and forced into such dangerous situations, representing the end of his infantile existence, and the beginning of adulthood.
The hardships which Bilbo is forced to endure melt away his soft and callow nature, and bestow upon him the maturity needed to achieve his destiny. The first transformative incident in the story takes place when Bilbo and the dwarves must pass through a network of mountain tunnels lorded over by goblins. AT one point Bilbo is knocked unconscious and gets separated from the dwarves. In this underground scene, the hobbit displays unprecedented courage for the first time, choosing to face the challenges of life rather than withdraw from them. The danger at this time is Gollum. Once a hobbit himself, Gollum stumbled upon one of the legendary rings of power and was corrupted by the dark magic held within it. By tricking Gollum, Bilbo acquires not only the self-esteem needed to fulfill his responsibilities as a mature and trustworthy leader, but also gains the ring which will help him to complete his mission (Matthews,1975).
By the time Bilbo returns to the Shire his change is complete. The hobbit who left home without even a pocket handkerchief has conquered his fears and doubts, becoming a war hero with a magic ring and bags of gold. Even the great wizard Gandalf comments, “(something’s the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were (Sullivan, 1985).” This image of someone who is sensitive and inexperienced enduring the horrors of war and emerging stronger on the other side raises an interesting question: why, when so many other artists were made cynical by their experiences in World War I, did Tolkien choose mythic heroism for his subject matter? First, we should look at who Tolkien was before the war. After the death of his mother, the young Tolkien became a ward of Father Morgan, a Catholic priest and family friend whom he both feared and respected. During this time he studied medieval languages, mastering subjects years ahead of him, and even inventing his grammars. Tolkien continued his pursuits as a student at Oxford, studying Latin and Greek. But it was the languages, histories, and mythologies of early Britain and Northern Europe that truly captured him (Green, J.R.R. Tolkien). Tolkien Borrowed liberally from Nordic myth and lore to create Middle Earth, with many motifs and character types being shared by the two. Gandalf the Grey is heavily inspired by the god Odin: both are wanderers often described as “an old man with a staff, . . . a long gray cloak, and a white beard;” and perform extraordinary feats of magic. Gandalf’s friend Beorn who fights in the shape of a great bear is reminiscent of the berserker warriors of Viking legend who were consecrated to Odin, and the Eagles Gandalf Summons to the Battle of the Five Armies were sacred in Norse myth to Odin. Another significant motif is that of the ring. Magic rings were prevalent in Nordic lore. Warriors would wear silver or gold arm rings to signify the sanctity of the oaths they would swear to their liege-lords. The ring in Tolkien’s work as well as in the Germanic mythological tradition which inspired it encircles the universal dualistic principle of Good and Evil. Most importantly of all, the primary story arc of “The Hobbit” centers on a decidedly Northern quest for dragon’s gold and culminates in the slaying of the dragon Smaug by Bard, a human hero. (Brunsdale, 1983).
What does this have to do with Tolkien’s experience in the war? Quite a lot. A very enlightening quote from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” where he says: “taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war.” Meaning that his choice of fantasy as a means of self-expression grew out of a desire for escapism when faced with the horror and devastation of war (Croft, 2002). Having been exposed to the wanton brutality of mechanized combat, the scholarly and sensitive Tolkien returned home convinced that the evil powers of industrialism had been set loose in the world and that mankind had the ability to pacify the forces of darkness through a renewed interest in myth.
The epics and romantic poetry enjoyed by Tolkien were created during a period when Europe’s dominant military aristocracy was the driving force of Western culture. “Beowulf,” “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and other stories made sense in a chaotic world where the poor lacked the means to defend themselves, and thus depended on heroic figures for protection. But with the rise of the middle class towards the end of the Middle Ages, and the inundation of scientific thought brought on by the renaissance and the enlightenment, the heroic ideals of the ancient world were resigned to irrelevancy. This attitude was carried into the early twentieth century and made it difficult for “The Hobbit” to receive recognition as a serious literary work. At this point in history, adult fiction was dominated by naturalism, realism, and modernism. Authors like Joyce, Faulkner, and Woolf used experimental techniques and stream-of-consciousness narration to craft stories about imperfect characters navigating the challenges and ambiguities of modern life. Novels like “Mrs. Dalloway” and “Ulysses” rejected battles between the armies of good and evil, and focused instead on those being waged within man’s psyche. Fairy tales and fantasies written during this period were viewed as children’s stories, or dismissed as lowbrow entertainment, much like pulp detective novels. Even science fiction, such as the work of H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley had to reflect contemporary issues. Because of these factors, “The Hobbit” initially Succeeded only as children’s literature. It was not until the 1950s and 60s that Tolkien’s writings began to earn the fame and recognition denied to them in previous decades. Children of the baby-boom generation who had grown up reading tales of Middle-Earth found inspiration in Bilbo’s exploits, and hoped to display the same fortitude in their fight against the pointlessness of the Vietnam war. Indeed, the various forms evils which Tolkien feared had been set loose upon the world were still at large, and heroism was still needed to combat them. It was the idealistic simplicity of Tolkien’s mythology, along with the hope that courage could triumph over the greed of a corrupt establishment that afforded “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” the success needed to spearheaded them into the twenty-first century, where they enjoy a lasting cultural relevance which many of their author’s more serious contemporaries failed to achieve (Green, J.R.R. Tolkien).
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit …” One wonders what Tolkien thought when he wrote this opening line on the back of a student’s paper. Was it simply an interesting phrase he scribbled down so as to not forget it, or had he finally found the perfect opening line for the masterwork that had been brewing in his mind? While Tolkien hoped that the “The Hobbit” and its successors would reach a wide audience, there is no way that the author could have even imagined the iconic status his stories would achieve. What was criticized at its publication as cheap entertainment for children has grown into its own mythology, enticing legions of fans throughout the world and across generations.While many today scoff at those who enjoy fantasy, dismissing their literary preferences as immature escapism, there is an undeniable appeal to the beauty of Tolkien’s work. On the surface, the tales of Middle Earth are exciting adventures, but if we dig deeper, we find a richly and intricately crafted tapestry containing lessons and ideas which are intrinsically significant to us as human beings. There are great challenges we must face, and although we may not be ready when the call comes to face them, it is our ability to persevere through hardship that makes us strong. We may lose pieces of ourselves, and be forced to say goodbye to loved ones along the way, but true heroism always endures.
Brunsdale, M. M. (1983). "Norse Mythological Elements in The Hobbit." . Mythlore 9.4, 49-50.
Croft, J. B. (2002). "The Great War and Tolkien's Memory: an examination of World War I themes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.". Mythlore.
Green, W. H. (n.d.). J.R.R. Tolkien.
Matthews, D. (1975). "The Psychological Journey of Bilbo Baggins." . " A Tolkien Compass, 29-42.
Sullivan, C. W. (1985). "J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit: The Magic of Words.". Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children 's Literature. Children 's Literature Association,, 253-260.