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(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Although many people read The Hobbit only as a precursor to Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings (1968 as omnibus; original volumes The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954; The Two Towers, 1955; and The Return of the King, 1955), the earlier book deserves discussion for its own considerable merits. The third edition, revised from the original, is considered the standard.

Tolkien is one of the preeminent fantasy writers of the twentieth century. For many readers, his books provide the standards by which to judge all other fantasy. Tolkien’s success lies in his ability to “sub-create,” a process he defines in his essay “On Fairy Stories” as the artist’s ability to create a “Secondary World” that follows consistent internal rules. By describing in depth the peoples, geography, and history of his invented world, Tolkien offers an imaginary world so vividly portrayed in its complexity that readers do not so much suspend disbelief while reading as much as simply believe in Middle-earth.

One component of Tolkien’s success as a sub-creator is his profound knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse literature. He freely borrows its trolls, goblins, dwarves, elves, and dragons, as well as the quest motif. The quest is an archetypal pattern of fantasy literature present in fairy tales, romances, and epics; it provides structure for both the plot and character development in The Hobbit. Quest stories depict people, most often young, who leave home in search of some object. On the journey the protagonists pass a series of tests, often encountering evil and attempting to destroy it. At the end, the heroes return home fundamentally altered, with their identities reshaped.

Bilbo is a model quest hero. Readers easily identify with him. At the beginning of his travels he is not particularly...

(The entire section is 594 words.)