Critical Context

Although Tolkien’s scholarly work was well-known by 1937, The Hobbit made him famous as a writer of fiction. There was no contradiction between the activities that gained for him these two very different reputations. From his youth, Tolkien had been fascinated both by languages and by the great cycles of folktales— for example, the Arthurian legends or the Norse Eddas— that embodied the imagination of a people. He was later to complain about the lack of such a cycle for the English (he considered the stories of Camelot too much a mixture of British, Celtic, and Continental sources to qualify), and he yearned to give his own country a heroic cycle of legends set in a secondary world. Moreover, he knew from his studies and later from helping to compile the Oxford English Dictionary that the history of a language is the history of a people. He was convinced of the close connection between a language and its literature.

From his youth, he delighted in constructing mythical languages, and while still an undergraduate, he began to compose stories that embodied those languages. The stories that make up The Silmarillion (1977) were certainly begun before his service in World War I, and, although he did not live to see their publication, they were always his first love.

The grand mythos of which The Silmarillion was only one part might have remained a father’s bedtime story had not Tolkien been a regular member of the Inklings, the literary circle gathered around C. S. Lewis at Oxford University between the World Wars. As the circle of people who knew of The Hobbit grew, the work came to the attention of publisher Stanley Unwin, who accepted the book for publication. The popularity of the work in both Great Britain and America prompted Unwin’s request for a sequel, leading eventually to The Lord of the Rings. When Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, he was not beginning a story or creating a setting anew: On the contrary, he was placing the tale within a larger framework, a history of thousands of years. It was a history he already knew intimately because he had been working on it for more than twenty years.

The Hobbit differs from his The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion in being explicitly written as a children’s book, but as a specimen of its type it is in no way inferior to them, either by itself or as an episode in the greater saga of the end of the Third Age of Middle-earth. If the narrator of The Hobbit seems intrusive at times or seems to be talking down to his audience, one must remember that styles change, even the styles of children’s books. The proper comparison for The Hobbit is not to Tolkien’s works intended for adults but to the works of his contemporaries intended for children. The book’s audience must be considered as well: Until children find the narrator’s presence oppressive, it seems pointless for adults to complain.

Although Tolkien may have preferred other stories of his own, stories with a greater range of human emotion, no story of his has carried more readers on the first stage of their journey to Middle-earth than has The Hobbit, and although those readers may be young, they seem to develop a taste for the trip.