What is the context of The Hobbit?

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In literature, context refers to all factors that influenced an author in the writing of his story. There's the historical context, the socio-political context, and even the literary context. Knowing the context of a work can help us understand and appreciate what we're reading. Let's take a look at two:

1)Literary context.

Tolkien was well-known for his love of languages. From his beloved mother, Tolkien learned Latin, German, and French. Later in life, he learned Finnish, Welsh, and Old Norse. From these, Tolkien invented unique languages for the world of Middle Earth such as Sindarin and Quenya (two Elvish languages), Dwarvish, Entish, and Black Speech (the cursed language of Mordor). Also, many of the characters in Middle Earth had names rooted in the Anglo-Saxon or Norwegian languages. The name Sauron, for instance, means 'filth' or 'uncleanness' in Old Norse.

Tolkien's invented languages provided a context for his characters to tell their unique stories. Although these languages appear more prominently in the Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion, they alert us to the fact that the unique histories of specific races are preserved through linguistic awareness. For example, Gandalf's sword, Glamdring, is translated as Foehammer in Sindarin, one of the Elvish languages of the Third Age of Middle Earth.  The Orcs so feared this sword that they called it Beater. Glamdring itself had a unique history; as Elrond informed Gandalf in The Hobbit, the sword was originally wielded by the fierce king of Gondolin in battle against Orcs. So, every language tells of unique histories in Middle Earth. In understanding the literary context, we come to appreciate the importance of language in preserving history.

2)Historical Context

Tolkien served as a Second Lieutenant with the Lancashire Fusiliers (11th Battalion) during World War One. It was said that he never forgot the horrific scenes he was exposed to during the war and that he wrote both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a sort of cathartic exercise.

Most of the writing Tolkien did during the war was said to have been done in mess-halls and make-shift army tents in between battle. He wrote because it was a way to process his horrific experiences. The Hobbit was published in 1937, almost twenty years after the war; The Lord of the Rings was published between 1937 and 1949. We can only imagine the devastation, fear, and terror Tolkien must have experienced.

Read about Tolkien's war experiences and how they inspired the battle scenes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

After you read that, you will fully appreciate this battle scene from The Hobbit.

Goblins had scaled the Mountain from the other side and already many were on the slopes above the Gate, and others were streaming down recklessly, heedless of those that fell screaming from cliff and precipice, to attack the spurs from above...Victory now vanished from hope. They had only stemmed the first onslaught of the black tide...The goblins gathered again in the valley. There, a host of Wargs came ravening and with them came the bodyguard of Blog, goblins of huge size with scimitars of steel...the goblins were stricken in the valley, and they were piled in heaps til Dale was dark and hideous with their corpses.

Tolkien infused the reality and horror of war into The Hobbit; each conflict on Middle Earth served to illuminate how invested the author was in portraying the eventual triumph of good over evil. His own helplessness on the battlefield always haunted him, but his stories gave him back his humanity.  When we understand the rationale and premise of a story by examining its historical context, we learn to understand the overall themes and message behind the story itself. In the end, understanding both historical and literary contexts greatly enriches our reading experience.

Hope this helps!

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