An enduring fantasy classic, The Hobbit tells the story of retiring, hairy-footed Bilbo Baggins, who becomes the comical hero of an epic quest. Chosen by a wizard, the hobbit leaves the comfort of his armchair to accompany a troop of dwarves across a treacherous land in hopes of reclaiming treasure from a dragon. On his journey, Bilbo travels through forests, valleys, and mountain tunnels, and he meets elves, goblins, men, and other creatures he has never before encountered. Although he chances upon a valuable object that gives him an advantage against foes, the challenges of the quest test the hobbit’s courage and intellect to their limits. By the end of the novel, Bilbo has discovered the danger of greed, the thrill of adventure, and a side of his own nature he has never before known.
Written in 1937 by J. R. R. Tolkien, the novel pits good against evil in a vast, intricate fantasy world created from Tolkien’s imagination and scholarship. Gentle satire, witty dialogue, and evocative description make Tolkien’s creation uniquely compelling. Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis said that The Hobbit’s appeal lies in its depiction of “a world that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it but which, once found by the right reader, becomes indispensable to him.”
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in South Africa to English parents but spent his youth in England. Both of Tolkien’s parents had died by the time he was a teenager. He married his teenage sweetheart, Edith, who was also an orphan. Tolkien served briefly on the Western Front in World War I; some scholars speculate that Tolkien’s feelings while he was away at war may have inspired the hobbit’s longing for home. Tolkien came back to England ill with “trench fever,” a disease that afflicted many soldiers during World War I. While recovering, he began to write stories in which he first developed the fantasy world of The Hobbit and its sequel, The Lord of the Rings.
Later, while working as a university professor, Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for his own four children. He did not intend to publish it; however, a publisher friend had his own son read the book, and the boy’s positive reaction spurred publication. The novel was a quick hit with critics and readers. Its first print run of fifteen hundred copies sold out in England within three months. During the 1940s, when paper was rationed because of World War II, supply could not always meet demand for the book. Today, three-quarters of a century later, The Hobbit is still beloved by children and adults. Since the first printing, one hundred million copies have been sold, and the text has been translated into fifty languages.
It took many more years for Tolkien to produce the sequel to The Hobbit. The enormous manuscript for The Lord of the Rings was published in three parts in 1954 and 1955. English critics received The Lord of the Rings trilogy less favorably than they had The Hobbit. The new story was too long and complex for children, and fantasy literature for adults had not yet become a popular genre in England. In the United States, Tolkien’s books were better received because fantasy stories for adult readers had developed from American science fiction.
Tolkien’s popularity grew in the 1960s and 1970s. He is credited as the “father of fantasy,” responsible for a renewed interest in “sword and sorcery” literature that has driven the success of contemporary fantasy epics such as the Harry Potter series. Tolkien’s work recently entered a new era of fame with the production of high-profile Hollywood films based on The Lord of the Rings books and The Hobbit.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the significance of Bilbo’s Took side versus his Baggins side.
2. Explain why Bilbo is an unlikely choice as a participant in an adventure.
3. Discuss how Bilbo is changed by his adventure.
4. Identify the role of wealth in the novel.
5. Describe the book’s various characters and discuss their morality.
6. Discuss the ideas that the book seems to endorse (justice, generosity, and nature) and to criticize (violence, greed, and industrialization).
7. Describe the landscape and the fantastical elements of Tolkien’s world.
8. Identify Tolkien’s use of humor to satirize human nature.