Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1538
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...
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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 inThe Hobbit were lifted directly from The Elder Edda, a group of poems from a thirteenth-century Icelandic text. The names of Gandalf and the forest of Mirkwood also came from Norse mythology.
Of course, Tolkien didn't limit himself to Norse mythology. The Hobbit also shares many of the characteristics of Arthurian legend. Gandalf plays a role similar to that of Merlin. The dwarves are on a quest, much like the Knights of the Round Table. There are powerful artifacts in both stories: the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend and the ring of power in The Hobbit. Tolkien was captivated by the dragons, or dragon-like beasts, that he found in the myths of many cultures; in fact, Smaug the dragon is one of his most fascinating creations.
Tolkien, along with Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, profoundly influenced contemporary fantasy. All of these authors used the elements of mythology in their works, and the fantasy, horror, and science-fiction writers of today are building from their strong foundation.
A study of the character of Beorn in The Hob-bit demonstrates this continuity. Beorn is a shape-shifter, a man who can change into a bear. Tolkien was aware that shape-shifting creatures have been part of the mythology of many cultures. Several of the Greek gods changed form at will, and the Europeans of the Middle Ages feared vampires and werewolves. Beorn is essentially a good creature, but several contemporary writers have continued this thread of past mythology by using shape-shifters as villains.
For example, in Peter Straub's Ghost Story (1979) an evil shape-shifter seeks vengeance on a group of old men. The shape-shifter in Stephen King's It (1986) terrorizes a small town by taking the forms of various movie monsters.
Another element of myth that serves as a thread from ancient mythology to contemporary fantasy is the magical artifact. Perhaps the most famous of these items is the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend. The Holy Grail was the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. The Knights of the Round Table searched for it to save King Arthur. There are several magical items in The Hobbit, the most obvious being the ring of power discovered by Bilbo in Gollum's lair. The adventurers also find three enchanted blades made by elves in the cave of the trolls.
There are many examples of magical items in contemporary fantasy as well. In Michael Moorcock's Elric (1970s) series, the albino elf Elric brandishes a mighty sword called Stormbringer. Elric has a symbiotic relationship with the sword, which is capable of stealing the souls of its victims. Another interesting example of a "magical" relic is in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun (1980-83) series. The protagonist, Severian, is an apprentice torturer who finds the Claw of the Conciliator. The Claw is capable of healing people and even bringing them back from the dead.
The influence of Tolkien and his contemporaries on modern fantasy literature is obvious. However, there have also been some unexpected effects on popular culture. The phenomenon of the fantasy role-playing game is a perfect example. "Dungeons and Dragons" is probably the most popular of these games. Using fantasy literature and mythology as its basis, the game allows players to choose from a variety of races (human, dwarf, elf, etc.), classes (fighter, wizard, etc.), and "alignments" (good, neutral, or evil) to create characters. Each different type of character has various strengths and weaknesses. A referee, known as the
Dungeon Master, designs adventures for the players using a number of resources, including manuals, maps, and charts. The outcome of each adventure is determined by the choices the players make and the roll of several different types of die. The game is limited only by the imagination of the Dungeon Master and the players.
A quick study of the game's guidelines reveals Tolkien's influence. The "halfling" character race is blatantly patterned after Tolkien's hobbits. In the game, halflings perform best as thieves because of their ability to move silently, hide quickly, and sneak into tight spaces. Of course, these are the characteristics that prompt the dwarves in The Hob-bit to recruit Bilbo Baggins.
"Dungeons and Dragons" was popular with teenagers and college students during the 1970s and 1980s; however, the game has received some bad press over the years due to some unfortunate incidents of players taking it to extremes. The popularity of "Dungeons and Dragons" has also decreased because of the increased availability of video, computer, and on-line fantasy games.
Tolkien's work, and fantasy literature in general, remains very popular. At this writing, plans for a live-action film version of The Lord of the Rings are underway. It seems as if the modern world still has a place in its heart for Tolkien's fantastic realm.
The most successful writers of fantasy have followed Tolkien's pattern: they discover their worlds rather than create them. In the 1973 introduction to The Hobbit, Peter S. Beagle wrote: For in the end, it is Middle-earth and its dwellers that we love, not Tolkien's considerable gifts in showing it to us. I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it. Tolkien died two months after Beagle's introduction was written. One hopes he had the chance to read it; he would have been pleased.
Source: Don Akers, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000. Akers is a freelance writer with an interest in fantasy literature.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3896
When it was first published in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit was an immediate success. Reviewers noted its ties to ancient northern European myths and legends, especially Beowulf and the Eddas, and praised it for its strong component of adventure, its humor, its imaginative scope, and its intelligent presentation. At least one reviewer asserted that the book was destined to become a classic of children's literature. Allen and Unwin, who published the book, must have agreed, for they were soon urging Tolkien—who really wanted to work on the mythological materials that would eventually be published, some years after his death, as The Silmarillion—to produce "another Hobbit." But history has denied The Hobbit the status it deserves as an important children's book. World War II Tolkien's work on The Silmarillion materials, and the length to which The Lord of the Rings eventually grew—in addition to familial and professorial duties—prevented Tolkien from publishing his "next Hobbit" until 1953-1954. The Lord of the Rings then eclipsed The Hobbit; the sequel became the main work, and The Hobbit was relegated by many—critics and readers alike—to prequel status. In fact, the Ballantine paperback edition of The Hobbit announces, on the front cover, that this book is the "enchanting prelude to The Lord of the Rings." Instead of being recognized as a touchstone of children's literature, The Hobbit became an additional, but somewhat less important, part of a larger adult work.
In the mid-1960's, when Tolkien's books became a cultural (and also a counter-cultural) phenomenon, The Hobbit's status as a children's book was pushed even further into the background. The controversial Ace Books' paperback publication, followed by the highly-publicized and "authorized" editions from Ballantine Books, created a much larger interest in Tolkien's fiction than had previously existed. At that time, publishers were responding to a renewed interest by adults in fantasy literature by reissuing, in paperback, classics of fantasy by everyone from William Morris to Robert E. Howard; this fantasy-hungry market devoured Tolkien. That led to everything from college courses about Tolkien specifically and fantasy in general (which, in turn, resulted in an explosion of articles and books on Tolkien and fantasy), to the creation of a large group of adults with money to spend on Tolkien-related paraphernalia, and time to spend in Tolkien clubs or at Tolkien or fantasy conventions.
In and of itself, none of this activity is bad; but it has taken attention away from The Hobbit as a children's book. Most of the articles and books listed in Richard C. West's Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist deal with aspects of The Lord of the Rings or with aspects common to both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Few articles and no books deal solely with The Hobbit, and much of what does focus on The Hobbit concerns itself with identifying some of the ancient sources on which Tolkien drew. While those who have discussed The Hobbit in its own right have noted some of the aspects which suggest that it was aimed at young readers, very few have discussed it, first and foremost, as a children's book.
In Tolkien's World, Randel Helms deals with The Hobbit as a learning experience for its author, through which he prepared himself to write The Lord of the Rings:
Taken in and for itself, Tolkien's children's story deserves little serious, purely literary criticism. But we cannot take The Hobbit by itself, for it stands at the threshold of one of the most immense and satisfying imaginative creations of our time, The Lord of the Rings.
More recently, in Tolkien and the Silmarils, Helms has suggested that The Hobbit is important as a "mid-wife" to the birth of The Lord of the Rings out of The Silmarillion, commenting that "The Hobbit could be called The Silmarillion writ small." While this latter observation may increase the critical importance of The Hobbit, it does not bring us any closer to understanding it as a children's book. Helms does, however, recognize and enumerate three major characteristics which separate The Hobbit from The Lord of the Rings, and which also help to identify it as a children's book: intrusions by the narrator, a plot about growing up, and word or language play. These characteristics are not found only in The Hobbit, of course; as Lois Kuznets notes in "Tolkien and the Rhetoric of Childhood," they are a part of a general rhetoric found in various classics of children's literature.
There are more than three dozen incidents in The Hobbit of direct intrusion by the narrator— intrusions such as "I must say" or "I can tell you," in which the narrator refers to himself in the first person singular before going on to give the reader some information or to offer his own opinion on the events taking place, and other intrusions such as "that comes at the end of the tale" or "as you have heard," in which the narrator directs the reader's attention to some other events in the story. In addition, of course, there are various explanations of or comments on the story which any omniscient author might make, but which are written in the same tone as the more direct narrator intrusions and must, therefore, also be credited to the narrator.
As Jane Nitzsche points out in Tolkien's Art: A Mythology for England, the narrator's intrusions have "annoyed readers and critics" alike. And because Tolkien later repudiated the technique (by example in The Lord of the Rings as well as in interviews and in critical articles about writing fantasy), most of these annoyed critics and readers have passed over the narrator's intrusions as merely a way one writes for children or as the sort of flaw one often finds in an early work. A few critics, however, have suggested that the narrator's intrusions were not a mistake in narrative style—regardless of Tolkien's later comments. Nitzsche, for example, likens the narrator in The Hobbit to the narrator in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and suggests that Tolkien's narrator, like Chaucer's, is quite separate from the author and must be treated as another character in the novel. And Kuznets sees the narrator as someone who "promises protection and companionship even when one is reading alone."
But the sources for the narrator's intrusions may be quite different from the ones that these critics suggest. There are similar moralizing comments by the narrator of Beowulf, many of which occur in the digressions but are actually comments on actions in the main story. And in the main story itself, the narrator occasionally makes a direct evaluative comment. When Wiglaf finally comes to Beowulf's aid against the dragon, for example, the narrator says, "so should a man be / a thane in need" (lines 2708-2709). Even closer in narrative style to The Hobbit, however, is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which there are numerous first person narrator intrusions. After describing some of Arthur's Christmas feast, for example, the narrator of that poem says, "Now will I of their service tell you no more, / for everyone well knows that no lack was there" (lines 103-131). It is possible, then, that Tolkien took his narrative pose not from other children's literature or from a sense of having to talk down to an imagined naive listener, but from two poems (and from other ancient and medieval works like them) with which he was very familiar, and in whose image he may well have been casting many aspects of The Hobbit. Tolkien's debt to Celtic and Scandinavian sources has been established in other matters and should certainly be considered here.
About the second major element which marks The Hobbit as a children's book, its plot about growing up, there is little debate. Every critic recognizes that Bilbo Baggins "grows up" as a result of his adventures, that he matures and accepts responsibilities toward the end of the novel which he could not have even imagined in the first chapter, and that by the last chapter it is a much more competent hobbit who returns to the Shire and puts things back into order there. The hobbit who left home without even a pocket handkerchief has become the friend of eagles and elves, has rescued his companions time and again, has faced and conquered his own doubts and fears, and has returned home with a magic ring and bags of gold. As Bilbo and Gandalf approach the Shire, Bilbo recites some new verses to "Roads Go Ever Ever On," and Gandalf comments, "Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were."
But there is some debate over how to analyze this plot. As already noted, Helms sees The Hobbit as Tolkien's learning experience and, like many other critics, comments on the close parallels between the episodic structures of both works, concluding that "The Lord of the Rings is The Hobbit writ large." In addition, of course, he notes the real and important differences between the two works, especially those which make one a children's book and the other a work for adults. Helms also offers a more or less tongue-in-cheek Freudian analysis of The Hobbit which, focusing on caves and swords and the like, reduces the story to a psychological ritual of emerging manhood. Timothy R. O'Neill, however, in The Individuated Hobbit, presents a serious Jungian analysis of Bilbo's journey as ajour-ney into his own subconscious.
Most other critics, like Helms, have set up their discussions of The Hobbit to balance, if not directly preview, their discussions of The Lord of the Rings. Nitzsche discusses The Hobbit as a children's story, similar to but less complex than The Lord of the Rings, which she discusses as an epic. In One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien's Mythology, Anne Petty suggests that "the most profound and ominous elements of LOTR are quarried from [The Hobbit]," and she employs Propp's morphological analysis as a means of illustrating just how similar the two works are. And Katharyn Crabbe, in J.R.R. Tolkien, deals with The Hobbit as a fairy tale before dealing with The Lord of the Rings as legend and The Silmarillion as myth.
A third major characteristic of children's literature, word or language play, is an important part of The Hobbit, and it seems to me that it exists on at least three levels. On the most obvious and simplest level, there are the puns, sound effects, silly songs, and made-up words which have most annoyed the critics and which, quite probably, have most delighted the children. The broadest pun, perhaps, involves the beheading of the goblin king, Golfimbul, which not only won a battle but also, when the head went down a rabbit hole, began the game of golf.
Also on this level are the sound effects, from the ding-dong-a-ling-dang of Bilbo's doorbell in the Shire to the swish, smack! of the goblins' whips far under the Misty Mountains. At various points in The Hobbit, the reader encounters the songs of the goblins and the elves. All of these songs are so whimsical that they undercut the basic natures of the singers; that is, the reader finds the goblins less fearsome and the elves less wondrous after hearing their respective songs. (In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote much more serious songs and poetry.) And finally, there are words such as "con-fusticate" and "bebother," which Bilbo uses when he is annoyed with the dwarves. If nothing else, these words, songs, sounds, and puns should catch the ears of children and, perhaps, make them more attentive to all of Tolkien's words.
The second level of word or language play involves various traditional uses of language, much of which a child would recognize and be familiar with. The riddling contest between Bilbo and Gol-lum is probably Tolkien's most dramatic use of traditional language, and except for Bilbo's last riddle (which is not actually a riddle at all), all of them are traditional riddles, some of which a child might have already heard. Thus, Bilbo's riddling session with Gollum could catch the interest of children, and, by acquainting and re-acquainting them with traditional riddles which have variants in their own world, prepare them for the riddling Bilbo does with Smaug, a session in which the riddles belong primarily to Middle Earth and have no close variants in the child's world. Similarly, Tolkien's use of proverbs is both traditional and original. Proverbs such as "Third time pays all" have variants such as "Third time's the charm" in the reader's world; but Bilbo's proverbs, "Every worm has his weak spot" and "Never laugh at live dragons," while they are structured like familiar proverbs, belong essentially to Middle Earth.
Tolkien includes other language-based activities with which children would be familiar. Gan-dalf s mimicking of the trolls' voices to save Bilbo and the dwarves and Bilbo's name-calling to lure the spiders away from the dwarves are both activities which have their parallels in the child's world. And a child, much more than an adult, understands the effectiveness of mimicry and name-calling. Also, Tolkien's use of runic writing and maps would be familiar, at least in principle, to young readers. To be sure, most children are not familiar with runic writing as such, but they do invent various kinds of secret codes and maps which use otherwise meaningless symbols to stand for letters and which show the way to a secret camp. The concept of a secret runic writing or a special map, then, would not be all that strange to young readers.
The third level of word or language play in The Hobbit introduces the reader to some fairly sophisticated linguistic concepts. One such concept involves the nature of names as symbols. Bilbo is merely polite to the old man who appears in front of his hobbit hole in chapter one, but when that old man announces that "I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me" Bilbo becomes quite excited. It is the old man who has the power, but Bilbo reacts to the name, the symbol, more strongly than to the old man, the object for which the symbol stands. The symbol has aroused something in Bilbo that the object did or could not.
Other incidents involving names as symbols abound in The Hobbit. At one point, Bilbo asks Gandalf why Beorn calls an unusual geological formation a "Carrock;" Gandalf answers that Beorn "calls things like that carrocks, and this one is the Carrock because it is the only one near his home and he knows it well." Rather than a symbol of meaning, the name is a point of reference, a way for someone—in this case, Beorn—to locate himself in his world. It is also, of course, a sign of ownership; giving something a name is an assertion of the right to give it a name. Tolkien also suggests that names can be relative. The swords found among the trolls' spoils are called Orcrist, "Goblin-cleaver," and Glamdring, "Foe-hammer," by the dwarves and the elves, but the goblins, against whom they were used, call them Biter and Beater.
Knowing the names of people, places, and things is important for more than merely functional reasons; Tolkien strongly suggests that, in addition to a knowledge of languages being power (as in the case of Elrond's knowing how to read the runes and, thereby, giving Bilbo and the dwarves the power to open the secret door), the languages themselves may be magical. Certainly there are magic spells, mostly Gandalf s, which open doors and make either friendly or destructive fire, but Tolkien does not stop there. He suggests that there is power inherent in language and that words, used effectively, can move people in ways they do not fully understand.
In the first chapter, for example, the dwarves sing about a dragon who killed dwarves to get their gold and harps, and about a quest to win back those treasures. The dwarves' song has a profound effect on Bilbo:
As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick.
And later in the book, when Bilbo is talking to Smaug, he feels "an uncomfortable desire … to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug." Bilbo has almost fallen under a "dragon-spell," and although Tolkien says no more about it, Smaug's language is an example of language which has power far beyond its denotative or connotative value. This language is magical.
Although these three characteristics—an intrusive narrator, a plot about growing up, and word or language play—may help identify a story as one aimed at a young reader, their presence alone does not identify it as a classic. But they can be a guide. I have dealt with the word or language play of The Hobbit in some detail to illustrate that Tolkien put a lot of care and craftsmanship into the writing, the actual language, of this book. This feature may, in fact, be the key to The Hobbit's stature. Tolkien was, after all, a philologist, and he knew the historical and cultural depths of words. Simonne d'Ardenne, Tolkien's student, friend, and colleague in philology, asserts that "Tolkien belonged to that very rare class of linguists, now becoming extinct, who like the Grimm brothers could understand and recapture the glamour of 'the word.'" In his essay, "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien himself said that it was "in Fairy Stories that I first divined the potency of words" and suggested that it is the power of language that creates the fantasy world. In other critical works, especially "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and "Chaucer as a Philologist: The Reeve's Tale," he illustrated that a knowledge of the individual words themselves, in as much of their original and contextual meaning as we can establish, is invaluable to understanding a literary work as a whole. Thus, it comes as no surprise when Verlyn Flieger suggests, in the preface to Splintered Light:
Above all, he gives us back words, those tired old counters worn with use, and makes them new again in all their power, variety, and magic. He remembers for us what we have forgotten, that spell is both a noun and a verb, that it means incantation as well as the formation of a word by letters, and that to use it in either sense inevitably involves using it in both senses.
And because of Tolkien's language, the reader retains vivid pictures from The Hobbit long after the actual reading has been completed, pictures which make him always slightly dissatisfied with the renderings on the Tolkien calendars or the interpretations of various illustrators and animators. The reader draws his pictures directly from Tolkien's language, a language in which any word may be used in many senses simultaneously. Gan-dalf alerts us to this early in the book when he asks Bilbo what he means by "Good Morning!" "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?" And Bilbo replies that it is all of that and more.
Almost all fantasy writers and critics agree that it is its language upon which a fantasy novel stands or falls. In "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," Ursula LeGuin argues that the heroes of High Fantasy must speak as if they are from Elfland—and not from Poughkeepsie or Washington, D.C. The style is important, she continues, acknowledging Tolkien, "because in fantasy there is nothing but the writer's vision of the world … A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks here is the creator's voice. And every word counts."
When all of those words are woven together, they make a story. As a term of literary criticism, "story" has fallen on hard times. In "On Stories," C.S. Lewis suggests that critics have paid much more attention to literary works in which the story, "the series of imagined events," is there as a vehicle for something else—social criticism, for example—than they have to literary works "in which everything else is there for the sake of the story." This, it seems to me, strikes right to the heart of the critics' problems with The Hobbit; the novel is first and, perhaps, foremost a good story, and those who refuse to deal with it on that level—or who are ignorant of that level—have little recourse but to try to deal with the source materials, the psychological patterns, or the stirrings of an imagination which would not reach full fruition until The Lord of the Rings.
The Hobbit is a touchstone, finally, because it is a very good story, and it is a good story primarily because Tolkien was a philologist. This means, as I have already suggested, that Tolkien knew about words and knew how to choose them effectively. But he was also a philologist of his time, a time in which, as Flieger notes, "philology, mythology, and anthropology were coming to be seen as formed from the same matrix." And so The Hobbit, a children's book, reverberates with mythic and legendary resonances from its connections to Tolkien's own mythological creation, The Silmar-illion, as well as from its connections to northern European, especially Scandinavian and Celtic, myths and legends. The novel opens with dwarves from The Elder Edda and a wizard close to druidic traditions, and it does not close until after the vanquishing of a dragon (certainly kin to the Midgard Serpent) right out of Beowulf.
But Tolkien was not merely borrowing materials from ancient sources, he was telling a traditional story. This, too, was a result, in part, of his being a philologist. As a philologist, Tolkien studied not only the ancient words, but also the documents in which they appeared—Beowulf,The Mabinogion, The Elder Edda, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the rest. He knew, from those studies, that the traditional story teller was less an inventor of new materials that a refiner of old ones. In The Celts, Gerhard Herm notes that, among many other materials, the Bards had to learn "all of the old stories circulating that the public invariably wished to hear again and again, in the same traditional form." Tolkien, then, took the traditional materials he knew and retold them as The Hobbit.
Tolkien's fiction, while written in the twentieth century, is more closely patterned after mythic and heroic narrative (in both content and style) than it is after more recent literatures. And judged as a traditional narrative, as a "good story" carefully crafted by a master of language, The Hobbit is clearly one of the classics of children's literature.
Source: C. W. Sullivan III, "J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit: The Magic of Words," in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Children's Literature Association, 1985, pp. 253-60.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1271
J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit has received very little serious critical attention other than as the precursor of The Lord of the Rings. It has usually been praised as a good introduction to the trilogy, and as a children's book, but anyone familiar with psychoanalysis cannot avoid being tantalized by recurrent themes and motifs in the three stories. Bilbo's story has surprising depths that can be plumbed by the reader who is receptive to psychoanalytic interpretations.
The central pattern of The Hobbit is, quite obviously, a quest. Like so many heroes before him, Bilbo sets out on a perilous journey, encounters and overcomes many obstacles (including a confrontation with a dragon) and returns victorious after he has restored a kingdom and righted ancient wrongs. However, this pattern is so commonplace in literature that it is not a very helpful signpost. But it may help in other ways.
Let us first look briefly at The Hobbit for its folk ingredients, that is, the common motifs or story elements which it shares with folk narratives. There are, of course, the creatures themselves: dwarves, elves, trolls, animal servants, helpful birds and, the most frequently recurring of all folk adversaries, the treasure-guarding dragon. There are magic objects in abundance: a ring of invisibility, secret entrances into the underworld, magic swords, and doors into mountains. Dreams foretell and taboos admonish, the violation of which could bring dire results.
There are tasks to be performed, riddles to solve, and foes to be outwitted or outfought. Folk motifs form the very warp and woof in the texture of this tale, which is not surprising since Tolkien, as a medievalist, is immersed in folk tradition, a tradition that gives substance not only to the best known epics but to most medieval narratives and to fairy tales.
In fact, it is probably its resemblance to what today's readers see as the nursery tale that has resulted in The Hobbit being relegated to elementary school shelves….
But even if The Hobbit is only a children's story, it should be analyzed more closely for deeper levels of meaning, for it is the kind of story that has provided the most profound insights into the human psyche….
Bilbo Baggins' journey [is] a metaphor for the individuation process, his quest… a search for maturity and wholeness, and his adventures ….. symbolically detailed rites of maturation… .
... [At] the beginning of the tale, Bilbo's personality is out of balance and far from integrated. His masculinity, or one may say his Tookish aggressiveness, is being repressed so that he is clinging rather immaturely to a childish way of life. He has not even begun to realize his full potential. The womblike peace and security of his home is disturbed with the arrival of Gandalf, who may be seen as a projection of the Jungian archetype of the wise old man since he resembles the magic helper of countless stories….
At the outset of their adventure, Bilbo, like a typical young adolescent, is uncertain of his role, or persona, to use a Jungian term… .
One of the most crucial incidents of the story takes place when Bilbo finds himself unconscious and separated from the dwarves within the mountain domain of the goblins. In this underground scene he must face an important trial; he must make a decision whose outcome will be a measure of his maturity…. With unprecedented courage he decides to face life rather than to withdraw from it. This decision marks an important step in his psychological journey.
The danger he decides to face at this time, of course, is Gollum, the vaguely sensed but monstrous inhabitant of the underground lake. The association of this adversary with water and the attention given to his long grasping fingers and voracious appetite suggest a similarity to Jung's De-vouring-Mother archetype, that predatory monster which must be faced and slain by every individual in the depths of his unconscious if he is to develop as a self-reliant individual. The fact that the talisman is a ring is even more suggestive of Jungian symbology since the circle is a Jungian archetype of the self—the indicator of possible psychic wholeness. The psychological importance of this confrontation is further supported by the imagery of the womb and of rebirth which marks the details of Bilbo's escape…. Whether the spider with whom Bilbo battles is interpreted as a Jungian shadow figure, embodying evil, or as the Devouring-Mother facet of the an-ima is immaterial. The symbolism is clear without specific terms: a lone protagonist must free himself from a menacing opponent that has the power to cripple him forever. With the aid of a miraculously acquired sword and a magic talisman, he is able to face the danger and overcome it… .
From this point on, Bilbo has the self-esteem needed to fulfill his responsibilities as a mature and trustworthy leader. It is through his ingenuity that they escape from the dungeon prisons in the subterranean halls of the wood-elves. This last episode also reveals telling symbolic details in that the imprisonment is underground and the escape through a narrow outlet into the water is yet another birth image.
The climactic adventures of Bilbo are of course the episodes with Smaug, who, like the traditional dragon of folklore, has laid waste the land and is guarding a treasure. If viewed in the light of Jun-gian symbology, the contested treasure can be seen as the archetype of the self, of psychic wholeness. Thus this last series of events marks the final stages of Bilbo's quest of maturation… .
A truly critical question arises in considering [the incident where Bilbo acquires the Arkenstone] and the remainder of the story. I have taught this work many times and am constantly hearing complaints of dissatisfaction from students who feel that the last part of the book is both puzzling and anticlimactic. Many report that they felt a real loss of interest while reading the final chapters. Why does Bilbo keep the Arkenstone without telling the dwarves and then use it as a pawn in dealing with their enemies? Why, they ask, did Tolkien have a rather uninteresting character, rather than Bilbo, kill Smaug? Why is Bilbo, the previous center of interest, knocked unconscious so that he is useless during the last Battle of Five Armies? Isn't it a fault in artistic structure to allow the protagonist to fade from the picture during episodes when the normal expectation would be to have him demonstrate even more impressive heroism?
Answers to these questions are clear if the story is interpreted as the psychological journey of Bilbo Baggins. It stands to reason that Tolkien does not have Bilbo kill the dragon because that would be more the deed of a savior or culture hero, such as St. George, or the Red Cross Knight, or Beowulf. The significance of this tale lies in fact in the very obviously anti-heroic manner in which Tolkien chooses to bring Bilbo's adventures to a conclusion. As a result, Bilbo emerges as a symbol of a very average individual, not as a figure of epic proportion. Bilbo has not found eternal glory, but, rather, the self-knowledge that a willingness to meet challenge is not necessarily incompatible with a love of home…. [At] the conclusion of his adventures Bilbo finds the greatest prize of all: a knowledge of his own identity. In maturing psychologically, he has learned to think for himself and to have the courage to follow a course he knows to be rightin spite of possible repercussions.
Source: Dorothy Matthews, "The Psychological Journey of Bilbo Baggins," in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lob-dell, Open Court, 1975, pp. 29-42.