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John D. Rateliff, ‘The Hobbit, a cornerstone’

John D. Rateliff places The Hobbit firmly in a long literary tradition of fantasy works for children. The author explores how Bilbo Baggins grows from comic sidekick to true hero, in the process raising readers’ hopes of reading more about hobbits.

The Hobbit is the first work by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien that most people read. This is fortunate, since it contains in a single story all the elements that make Tolkien so exceptional. It introduces us to Middle-earth, a vastly appealing landscape with its own self-contained history. It tells an enthralling story of an unexpected adventure populated by an array of traditional fairy-tale and folklore creatures, all of whom have been brought to life through Tolkien’s distinctive individual take on each. Most importantly, its unassuming point-of-view character shows how even an ordinary person can grow to become a hero: Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit himself. Standing at the very end of a golden age of English children’s literature, The Hobbit offers a complete story yet leaves its readers hungry for more, which in turn led to ‘more stories about hobbits’ in the form of The Lord of the Rings, and to the widespread acceptance of Bilbo’s world as one of the most popular of all imaginary landscapes.

Thror’s Map with special instructions written in runes.

The Golden Age

The Hobbit stands firmly in the great tradition of classic English children’s fantasy. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle (1922), and A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), it is, apart from its excellence, completely unlike each of its predecessors within that tradition, creating its own unique fantasy world that both resembles and stands apart from the everyday world of the reader. Each of these works stands alone and is self-contained, yet many of them gave rise to sequels or other works featuring the same character(s) or set in the same imaginary world. More importantly, each is written to appeal to a double audience: both to young readers and to adults. In the case of The Hobbit, it is the playfully intrusive narrator who smoothly bridges the gap between the two, allowing him to inform, remind, tease, and reassure the reader as needed.

‘Not the hobbit you were’

In most such books, the main character remains unchanged whatever happens to him or her: Alice is much the same when she comes out of the mirror at the end of Through the Looking-Glass as when she went down the rabbit-hole at the beginning of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, while Pooh and Dr. Dolittle have an endearing ability to remain exactly the same wherever they find themselves and whatever happens to them.

The Hobbit is unusual in that Bilbo changes greatly over the course of the story; beneath the surface of exciting adventures and unexpected encounters which vividly present all the wonders of its fantasy world, The Hobbit tells the story of a quiet, ordinary person who finds himself suddenly called upon to do extraordinary things. And, somewhat to his surprise, he discovers that although very much out of his depths at the beginning of his adventure he has great talent at his new vocation and rather enjoys it.

‘I picture him as a small man (about three feet high), fat in the stomach, with ears only very slightly pointed (to convey a hint of an elvish strain), brown hair, and brownish complexion, no beard on his round & genial face, a shapely head. The only feature peculiar to the species is the possession of hair on the feet’.

Draft letter from Tolkien to a German publisher, 1938.

Although he’s too modest to ever quite realize it, he becomes a true hero, willing to sacrifice his promised reward if it will save his friends and avoid a senseless battle. In the end he returns home, unchanged in appearance but now confident in his own judgment and willing to trust his luck, to befriend unconventional folk, and to live his life without regard to what the neighbours think, remaining ‘very happy to the end of his days, and those were extraordinarily long’ — as close to ‘happily ever after’ as we are likely to come.

‘Pass[ing] . . . into the world of epic’

Many readers have noted a change in the story’s tone once Thorin & Company arrive at the Lonely Mountain, giving the final third of the book a different, more serious, feel than the sometimes frightening, sometimes amusing account of Bilbo’s adventures on the journey east. In part this is simply the result of the story’s now building to a climax as J.R.R. Tolkien makes the dragon surpass all previous threats encountered by our heroes. But it also comes from a deliberate decision on the author’s part to incorporate ideas that came to him in the course of writing the book, abandoning his original outline (in which Bilbo killed the dragon) in favour of a more complex resolution.

Thus the true climax comes not with the dragon himself, impressive though Smaug’s scenes are, but in the working out of the dragon’s curse on the treasure, which draws almost all the friends and foes Bilbo encountered since leaving the Misty Mountains into one great battle over possession of Smaug’s hoard. The unexpected death of several characters, including some of the most likable among Bilbo’s companions, brings home a sober lesson about adventures: there’s a price to pay for doing away with a great evil, and not everyone who makes the world a better place lives to see it.

‘More stories about hobbits’ (the wide world)

In addition to its many virtues in its own right — the wonderful encounter with Gollum (the rewritten version, published in the second major edition, which is a tour-de-force that is among the best scenes Tolkien ever wrote), the portrayal of Smaug (“Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities”), the beginning of our acquaintance with Gandalf the Grey, the stubborn but loyal characterization of Thorin Oakenshield and his fellow dwarves, and of course the figure of Bilbo himself — The Hobbit led to great things.

The book also opened the door to Tolkien’s other most well-known work, The Lord of the Rings, when its success led the publisher to request that the author write a sequel, or at least another book about hobbits. When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, he had already been writing works set in what came to be called Middle-earth for fifteen years, but Bilbo’s story showed him the way to present his private mythology to a wider audience.

Exploring Bilbo’s world, and telling more about hobbits, and delving into the few loose ends left over at the end of Bilbo’s adventure led him to create the companion volume, the work by which he is best known: The Lord of the Rings.