The Creative Philosophy of Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit is sometimes dismissed as a mere children's story by critics and readers, especially when compared to his Lord of the Rings. Obviously, The Lord of the Rings is a much more sophisticated and elaborate work than its predecessor.
However, as simple as the novel may seem, The Hobbit is an important work in its own right. Tolkien finally realized his vision of an imaginary world and history he had been creating for years before the book was published in 1937. More significantly, Tolkien established the groundwork of his theories on the creation—and usefulness—of mythology and fantasy in culture as he wrote The Hobbit. His work continues to serve as a bridge between cultures of the past and the present.
Tolkien often denied that he wrote The Hobbit only to entertain children. As one of his biographers, Daniel Grotta, maintains in J. R. R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth, Tolkien's purpose in writing The Hobbit can be found in a statement he made about The Lord of the Rings: "In The Lord of the Rings, I have tried to modernize the myths and make them credible."
Tolkien knew the importance of mythology to language and culture. He believed that people needed myths to link them with the past, thus helping them cope with the uncertainties of the present and giving them hope for the future. Grotta makes an analogy between the roots of a plant and the myths of a culture to explain this concept:
In an era of unprecedented change, the links to the past are stretched to the breaking point, and a people without roots are likely to become, analogously, a people without branches or flowers. The roots of the past—mythology—are no longer acceptable in their traditional form and have to be recast in a more contemporary, relevant mode.
Therefore, Tolkien created a mythology that was accessible to people in the twentieth century. His most famous lecture, "On Fairy-Stories" (1947), detailed his thoughts on the importance of fantasy and mythology to culture. He noted that in a world filled with wars, poverty, and disease, people turned to fantasy for comfort. He used the powerful metaphor of a prisoner confined in jail to illustrate this longing for "far away and long ago." The wish to escape is reasonable in this context; similarly, the reader of fantasy literature wishes to escape to a better world.
In "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien also developed his theory of the "sub-creator." He believed that stories and myths, regardless of how fantastic, should contain components of the real world in order to help the reader "suspend disbelief." For example, the geography of Middle-earth is similar to that of the Earth with forests, rivers, and mountains. While there are strange races and amazing creatures, there are also humans and familiar animals such as horses and birds. These familiar elements allow the reader to accept, at least temporarily, the fantastic elements. Grotta explains the dynamics of sub-creation:
When a fantasy world is consistent with the real world—with variations and differences of course— the storyteller or mythmaker is less a creator than a sub-creator. He discovers rather than invents a never-never land that is at once similar to and unlike our own.
This concept explains the narrator's familiarity with Middle-earth in The Hobbit. The narrator is like a professor or historian who has discovered Bilbo's chronicle of his adventures, the Red Book of Westmarch. The narrator shares the evidence of this fantastic world with the reader.
Tolkien freely borrowed from the myths of the past. This practice made sense, not only because he was a scholar intimately familiar with ancient myths, but also because he was trying to link past and present. He was especially proficient at plundering Norse mythology. For example, the names of all the dwarves in The Hobbit were lifted directly from The Elder Edda
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