The Hobbit

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

The Hobbit is one of the few classics of fantasy that needs little introduction:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations

What do you say about the second most famous book by the world’s most famous fantasy author? Without The Lord of the Rings, there would be no genre of modern fantasy, and without The Hobbit there would be no Lord of the Rings. There was certainly fantasy before Tolkien (see my earlier columns about William Morris and Lord Dunsany in particular), but it was Tolkien who pulled together all the disparate threads of pseudo-medieval romance, fairy tales, folk tale, novelization of myths, children’s literature, and adventure stories to create the genre as we know it by producing the masterpiece that serves as the paradigm — the book by which all other fantasies are judged. The Lord of the Rings (LotR) divides all other fantasy authors into precursors or successors of Tolkien, and its popularity has long since spread beyond just genre readers into the general public (witness its being declared “Book of the Century” by several end-of-the-millennium polls a few years back, none of them genre-oriented). Only two other modern fantasies have had this kind of impact and universal acceptance: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland [1] and L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. But Carroll’s book is one-of-a-kind, with no true heirs; it stands alone rather than as the wellspring of a tradition — the only remotely successful work in the same vein being Carroll’s own brilliant The Hunting of the Snark (1876). Similarly, though the Oz books were very popular (Baum himself wrote fourteen between 1900 and 1914 and the series was continued by his estate for years after his death) their impact on modern culture comes entirely through the 1939 movie [2] and they too failed to establish any widespread or long-lived “tradition” of similar books by other writers.

By contrast, Tolkien is a much-imitated author; there was a time when few fantasy books appeared without some reference to “like Tolkien” or “the next Lord of the Rings!” in the cover blurb, and just this fall a new author’s publisher arranged with a major bookstore chain to shelve his book out of alphabetical order so it would appear in the Tolkien section rather than by the author’s name, a fairly transparent ploy to attract attention by implying the book was something Tolkien’s fans would like. So deep and pervasive is Tolkien’s influence that most readers and fantasy authors no longer consider his major innovations particularly “Tolkienesque” but simply generic fantasy; they work with his toolbox just as he drew on actual medieval lore and simply accept his constructions as “found” artifacts. To take a single example, Tolkien’s elves are a brilliant innovation: He reintroduced into English literature for the first time since Spenser (in his little-read but masterful King Arthur epic The Faerie Queene) [3] the idea of elves as human-sized, near-immortal, elusive, and dangerous beings. Before Tolkien, the word “elf” conjured up images of flower-fairies and twee, cute little rather silly fairy-folk: Peter Pan‘s tiny, flighty, winged Tinkerbell perfectly encapsulates the dominant image of an elf or fairy (the two words were used interchangeably) during the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. There are echoes of this silliness in the Rivendell chapter of The Hobbit and the elves singing “tra-la-la-lally” in the trees, but things shift dramatically by mid-story (the scenes in the hall of the wood-elves, who are elusive and evocative and yet believingly flawed), and by the end of the book the elves are presented as the most dangerous element in the elven-human-dwarven alliance in the Battle of the Five Armies. Even the spellings “elves” and “elven” are deliberate choices by Tolkien harkening back to Elizabethan times in defiance of the accepted twentieth century forms “elfs” and “elfin,” while the parallel “dwarves” and “dwarven” are Tolkien’s inventions which he was hard-pressed to preserve from the efforts of well-intended proofreaders (note the title of Disney’s movie, which debuted the same year The Hobbit was first published: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). [4] Tolkien was a philologist, a lover of words who understood that even a subtle shift in spelling could change the associations of a word and help it escape a whole host of unwanted connotations, and his fictions have had so great an impact that “elves” and “dwarves” now conjure up quite different images in a reader’s mind than “elfs” and “dwarfs”. The “Precious Moments” little folk of a century ago have by and large given way to the human-sized yet more-than-human ancient race familiar through D&D and the literally hundreds of fantasy novels written in the post-Tolkien era and in “the Tolkien tradition.”

“Gandalf!… Not the wandering wizard…
who used to tell such wonderful tales…
about dragons and goblins and giants
and the rescue of princesses
and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons?
Not the man that used to make such
particularly excellent fireworks!…
Dear me!… Not the Gandalf who was
responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses
going off into the Blue for mad adventures?
Anything from… visiting elves to stowing away
aboard the ships that sail to the Other Side?
. . . I beg your pardon, but I had no idea
you were still in business.”

— Mr. Baggins meets the wizard

There and Back Again

By the time he came to write The Hobbit in 1930-1933, [5] Tolkien had already been writing fantasy for at least a decade and a half, going back to his “Earendel” poems of c.1914 and The Book of Lost Tales (c.1916–1920). He already had in place his cosmology (how his fantasy universe was organized) and cosmogony (how it came to be), his pantheon with all its complex interactions between his demiurges, his peoples and their mythic histories. He had written long narrative poems about Turin and about Beren and Luthien, a collection of myths about the struggles between the Valar and the wars of the elves, and much more. What was lacking was a human perspective, a way of transforming a collection of myths into a coherent story. Tolkien solved this problem by bringing together the two parts of his creativity: the mythic background from his “Silmarillion” cycle (the “Lost Tales”) and the narrative flow from the various stories he had written for his children (the original drafts of Farmer Giles of Ham and Roverandom). The result was The Hobbit, a book unlike any that had preceded it. In the relatively short space of some three hundred pages Tolkien lays down the blueprint for the modern fantasy novel (which he later expanded upon for his own LotR), complete with all the now-necessary paraphernalia: a map, a strange unfamiliar alphabet (based in this case on the traditional Old English runes [6]), a world like our own in the past (compare Lake Town with the Swiss Lake Villages of the Neolithic era) but with features never found in history, only in folklore (dragons, goblins, elves, dwarves, giants), the coming together of a band of very disparate adventurers to achieve their goal, an epic quest to find (but then renounce) a great treasure, an inexperienced protagonist who grows into a true hero, and perhaps best of all a world which, varied as it proves, promised far more riches left unrevealed at the end of the story.

One of Tolkien’s most effective techniques as an author is the way he blends traditional fairy-tale creatures (albeit re-imagined ones bear the strong stamp of his imagination, as per the already-discussed elves) with new ones of his own creation. Alongside the dwarves and elves and trolls, the goblins and giants (who would have fit in well in an array of earlier works, from the mid-Victorian stories of George MacDonald to the Elizabethan chapbooks about Jack the Giant Killer), he inserts wholly new creatures — most notably the hobbit himself, but also Gollum and Beorn (and, in LotR, the ents and the balrog), not to mention the giant eagles and talking spiders. This knack enables him to expand beyond the material he has inherited from folk-tale and myth in new and interesting ways, as well as allowing him to generate a good deal of humor by juxtaposing some of the various elements (as in the sometimes hapless Bilbo’s conversations with the grand and solemn beings he encounters along the way).

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his treatment of the dragon Smaug. A distant threat hovering in the back of the reader’s mind since the beginning of the book, Smaug proves to be everything rumor promises and marks the rediscovery of the dangerous dragon back into fantasy. Before The Hobbit, dragons had diminished from the epic foes fought by legendary heroes such as Beowulf and Sigurd to become the sly, comic creatures of such books as The Reluctant Dragon, The Land of Green Ginger, or any number of comic retellings of the St.George & the Dragon tale. [7] Tolkien, by contrast, re-created the dragon as a believable fantasy menace, making them intelligent, powerful, evil, implacable:

“I kill where I wish and none dare resist.
I laid low the warriors of old
and their like is not in the world today.
Then I was but young and tender.
Now I am old and strong, strong, strong…
My armour is like tenfold shield,
my teeth are swords, my claws spears,
the shock of my tail a thunderbolt,
my wings a hurricane,
and my breath

— Smaug boasts

Smaug is perhaps the greatest of all fantasy dragons, the icon of ancient wisdom, reptilian malice, enormous power, endless greed, and uncontrollable fury captured in one figure, who has the power to bring death and destruction on a wide scale even after his own death. He is not a mindless monster or a quaint polite figure but a vivid personality combined with one of the great archetypes of myth: the book’s chief villain, a sharply drawn character, a monster, and a force of nature all in one. Tolkien originally intend to have Bilbo kill the dragon, stabbing him in his sleep, but wisely thought better of it and had the dragon die in the midst of a rampage, perishing along with his own victims by a combination of his own hubris and a hero’s willingness to take a final desperate chance [8] — a great villain deserves a great death scene, and The Hobbit delivers in spades. Not even as great a work as The Lord of the Rings can match The Hobbit in this one point: its depiction of one of the great iconic creatures of fantasy brilliantly realized.

Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum.
I don’t know where he came from,
nor who or what he was.
He was Gollum! — as dark as darkness,
except for two big round pale eyes…
Goblin he thought good, when he could get it;
except for two big round pale eyes…
but he took care they never found him out.
He just throttled them from behind,
if ever they came down along anywhere
near the edge of the water while he was prowling about.
They very seldom did, for they had a feeling
that something unpleasant was lurking down there,
down at the very roots of the mountain…
Sometimes [the Great Goblin] took a fancy
for fish from the lake, and sometimes
neither goblin nor fish came back.

The Importance of Being Baggins

The Hobbit holds the enviable distinction of being perhaps the only fantasy more widely read than The Lord of the Rings. Although overshadowed by its sequel (and a marketing campaign that labeled it as a “charming prequel” to LotR), the earlier book is quite distinct in its own right. Many readers never move past The Hobbit to the sequel, and of the many who do some actually prefer its self-effacing and self-contained tale to the grand epic that followed and grew out of it. We should not forget that, in a famous Locus poll (1987) of the all-time greatest fantasy books, The Hobbit came in second only to The Lord of the Rings, getting far more votes for first place than Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (which came in a distant third). For most, the story of Bilbo’s adventures serves as an introduction into the world of Middle-earth, the first of two complementary tales. We must remember, however, that The Hobbit was intended as a stand-alone work, and it is best appreciated as such. Tolkien never intended to write a sequel and only did so when the original book proved so popular that the publisher demanded more of the same. Even so, seventeen years passed between the publication of The Hobbit and the first volume of its “sequel”, The Lord of the Rings, which turned out to be quite distinct in theme, intended audience, approach, and scope from the earlier book.

This is not surprising, since Tolkien never repeated himself: The Hobbit is as different from The Lord of the Rings as either is from The Silmarillion, “Leaf by Niggle”, or Farmer Giles of Ham. The fantasy world that both books share dated back to the early days of World War I, but Tolkien chose to put it to a very different use in The Hobbit than he had for his earlier tales, picking and choosing from among the material he eventually re-wrote into The Silmarillion. For example, prior to The Hobbit, dwarves had always been an evil people in Tolkien’s works, minions of Morgoth and allies of the orcs. Re-imagining them as the mostly sympathetic companions of the hero in The Hobbit would have been just as startling to anyone who had read Tolkien’s earlier unpublished work as if he had chosen a goblin for his hero. Many characters and elements from Tolkien’s earlier stories appear in The Hobbit, either in the story itself or mentioned as part of the background: Elrond and the half-elven, the three races of the elves, the Necromancer (the villain of the Beren and Luthien story, who in time becomes the namesake villain of The Lord of the Rings), Gondolin, the old dispute between the wood-elves and dwarves (i.e., the quarrel over Luthien’s silmaril that led to Thingol’s murder; cf. The Silmarillion, chapter XXII), and even (in the original draft) Beren and Luthien themselves. But he has given a new coherence to them by throwing them into the background of his new story; out of a wealth of old material he has made something new that is nevertheless enriched by all the previous stories that underlie it. And in turn The Hobbit provided him with the blueprint for his masterpiece, the crowning achievement of the genre: The Lord of the Rings.

In the end, The Hobbit deserves accolades on its own merits; it is full of good things, and by itself would have won Tolkien fame as one of the greatest of all fantasy writers. Within the space of a single book he evolves the modern genre, moving from the fairy-tale mood of the opening chapters to the grand epic of the scenes at the Lonely Mountain, where friend turns on friend, heroes betray their companions, and the author displays a willingness to kill off likeable characters; something unheard-of in the children’s books of the time. What starts out as a children’s book with a delightfully intrusive narrator (“I imagine you know the answer, or can guess it, since you are sitting comfortably at home and have not the danger of being eaten to disturb your thinking”) becomes something that transcends any given age or audience. Tolkien’s book stands out from its precursors and contemporaries by his willingness to introduce gray into a fantasy world of black and white, his believably flawed hero, his assumption that the good guys will often be tempted to take an easy way out (as when Thorin, talking to the Great Goblin, is described as “not quite knowing what to say… when obviously the exact truth would not do at all”) or behave in less than admirable ways (“You are not making a very splendid figure as King under the Mountain,” said Gandalf [to Thorin]. “But things may change yet.” [note: they do]). It’s hard to imagine any other book of the day featuring a character like Gollum, a sinister, sympathetic, menacing, pathetic, wholly horrible figure. Everything about him is left a mystery: where he came from, what he was, how he came to be as he is — all that is left is a vivid, indelible impression. This chapter may stand as the single best piece of fantasy writing, from the tour-de-force of a character waking up alone and lost in total pitch blackness, through the encounter with the dangerous yet piteous Gollum, madman and murderer and lost soul all in one, to Bilbo’s decision to not repay evil with evil, whatever the cost. And, of course, the introduction of a certain little gold ring that plays a major role in determining the outcome of the rest of the book, not to mention setting up the quest for the book that followed. In short, “Riddles in the Dark” can stand for The Hobbit itself; it both opened up a vast horizon, and a working method that others could imitate but never quite match. And the rest, as they say, is history.

[F]or ever after he remained an elf-friend,
and had the honour of dwarves, wizards,
and all such folk… but he was
no longer quite respectable.

He was in fact held by all the hobbits
of the neighbourhood to be ‘queer’
— except by his nephews and nieces
on the Took side…
[H]e did not mind…
though few believed any of his tales,
he remained very happy to the end of his days,
and those were extraordinarily long.

A Shelf Full of Hobbits

Since Tolkien’s work is so successful, there are literally dozens of different editions that have been published over the last sixty-seven years, and that’s not even counting all the foreign translations. The first edition is now highly collectable, with copies in good condition going for thousands of dollars; it differs dramatically from the second and all subsequent editions in that the Gollum story was later re-written to match the sequel (LotR) — in the original, Gollum did not try to kill Bilbo after he lost the riddle-contest but instead showed him the way out; this variant of the familiar story can be found in Doug Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit (1988; 2nd rev. ed. 2002). Tolkien, ever the perfectionist, also made many small changes to the book over the years; Anderson’s edition incorporates all of these as well as providing the original readings for comparison.

For those artistically minded fantasy fans, there have been many illustrated editions over the years, from the solemn grandeur of Alan Lee (1997), to the children’s book mode of Michael Hague (1987), to the cartoony Rankin-Bass (1989, illustrated with stills from the animated film). There has also been a reasonably faithful graphic novel adaptation by David Wenzel (1989-1990). Many of the foreign editions are illustrated, some beautifully and some so ineptly as to stagger belief; a representative selection of this art can be found in Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit. The best illustrator of Tolkien’s work remains Tolkien himself; his black and white drawings reveal a good deal of how he saw Bilbo’s world and thus provide a valuable addition to the story, and his five color paintings are beautiful, especially the stained-glass-window-ish “Bilbo Comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves” of the barrel-riding Bilbo on the tree-lined forest river and “Conversations with Smaug”, an exceptionally detailed portrait of the great dragon upon his hoard, complete with depictions of the Arkenstone, mithril-shirt, and a dwarven curse on an inscription.

While we have been lucky enough to get Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings to wash the taste of the 1978 Bakshi film out of our minds, there has as yet been no announcement of a forthcoming comparable film of The Hobbit, although Tolkien fans everywhere live in hope. If we discount a miniseries on Finnish television, The Hobbit has never been filmed except for a single bad cartoon adaptation from Rankin-Bass in 1977, which at least had the benefit of an excellent cast of voice-actors (John Huston as one of the best Gandalfs ever recorded, Richard Boone as Smaug, Hans Conried of “Bullwinkle” fame as Thorin, et al.).

Luckily, several excellent audio adaptations have been released over the years, with the best being Tolkien’s own reading of the Gollum chapter (available as part of the “J. R. R. Tolkien Audio Collection”). The best of the non-authorial versions is the wonderful full-cast radio play from Minds Eye Theatre (available in a wooded boxed set). Nicol Williamson’s four-record set, although regrettably somewhat abridged before release and now long out of print, is also highly recommended, particularly for the troll scene (“Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrow“). Recorded Books Inc. offers an unfortunately pedestrian but nonetheless unabridged reading by Rob Englis, and more recently Durkin-Hayes Audio has released a new (abridged) recording by Martin Shaw, whose accent interestingly enough gives a more working class/proletariat slant to the tale.

Alive without breath
As cold as dead
Never thirsty, ever drinking
All in mail never clinking

— Gollum’s riddle

The Hobbit and Your Game

Tolkien’s influence on roleplaying games is greater than that of any other author, even Robert E. Howard; all but one of D&D‘s player-character races come directly from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (the sole exception being gnomes, which as a result have always been something of a fifth wheel), as does the concept of the player-character party (characters of widely varied background, race, and abilities uniting for an adventure): one of the two or three fundamental core elements of RPGs. The original edition of D&D was quite open about its borrowings, until a cease-and-desist from the American company that owned the licensing and film rights resulted in the renaming of a goodly portion of the creatures in the original “Monsters and Treasure” book (1974; one of the three booklets that made up the 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons game): thus hobbits became “halflings”, ents >”treants”, balrogs > “balor”, and Nazgul > “wraiths” and “spectres”, while wights (i.e., barrow-wights) simply silently dropped the explicit Tolkien connection. Oddly enough, the name “orc”, Tolkien’s invention for a goblinoid race, remained unchanged on the dubious logic that it resembled an Old Irish word for pig. Still, while the game has developed far from its roots (as have all the RPGs deriving from it — that is, every RPG in existence), Tolkien’s influence still remains a strong background element even now, with significant overlap between Tolkien fans and roleplaying gamers.

Besides its influence on D&D, Tolkien’s Middle-earth has been the inspiration of two licensed RPGs. The first was Middle Earth Role Playing (“MERP”), a much-read, little-played game published by Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) in 1984 and followed by dozens of supplements over the next dozen years. Although featuring some beautiful artwork and maps, especially on its early releases, MERP was notorious for its torturous rules system and bizarrely un-Tolkienesque development of his setting (a female Nazgul, an adventure featuring Morgoth’s daughter, spell-casting priests as standard PC party members, and so on). An associated collectable card game, Middle-earth: The Wizards followed in 1995, again with stunningly beautiful art and glitch-filled rules. Iron Crown also published several Hobbit-based boardgames: The Battle of Five Armies (1984), The Lonely Mountain (1984), and The Hobbit (1995); of these, The Lonely Mountain is the most interesting (explore the dungeon and escape without alerting Smaug) and The Hobbit has the highest production values (but unfortunately again with significant rules glitches).

A second Tolkien RPG debuted from Decipher in 2002; although called simply The Lord of the Rings it includes material from The Hobbit as well. Several supplements have followed, benefiting greatly from the game’s close ties with the Peter Jackson films (stills from the films are used as illustrations throughout the core book). A second LotR-based collectable card game has also seen the light of day, likewise using photos from the films. Remarkably enough, neither of the two officially licensed Tolkien RPGs have ever recreated the quests from either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings in adventure form.

Finally, there have a number of Tolkien boardgames from other RPG publishers, dating all the way back to TSR’s Battle of the Five Armies (1976) through classics such as SPI’s War of the Rings (1977) and ICE’s Fellowship of the Ring (1983); more recently, the world’s most famous boardgame designer, German Reiner Knizia, released The Lord of the Rings, perhaps the most innovative Tolkien boardgame ever (Hasbro, 2000) featuring as it does the idea of cooperative rather than competitive play (i.e., all the players work together against a common foe, rather than try to beat each other); it has since been followed by several supplements, including one based on The Hobbit (Fantasy Flight, 2001). Beyond these, there have been several Tolkien-based computer games over the years, most recently a series of major releases tied into the Peter Jackson films. For those who like their roleplaying gaming through a computer, rumors of a MMORPG based on Middle-earth have been circulating for the past several years, and its eventual appearance seems highly likely.


[1] Here I am considering both parts of Alice in Wonderland — e.g., Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) as two parts of a single book. Even if they are considered separate works, the essential point still holds, that Carroll proved inimitable and did not found a tradition of Carolingian fantasy; indeed, his own horribly sentimental and sappy Sylvie and Bruno (1889 & 1893) shows he could not sustain his own success.

[2] All the familiar tag-lines associated with Oz — “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” “Surrender Dorothy!” “If I only had a brain” “Auntie Em! Auntie Em!” “I’m melting!” “There’s no place like home” and so on — come from people quoting the movie, not the book. The degree to which the book, with its FOUR witches, has been overshadowed by the movie can be indicated by the title itself: Baum’s book is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The movie drops the Good Witch of the South (among much else) and adds such elements as the threat to Toto from the malicious neighbor (Miss Gulch), Dorothy’s running away from home, and all the connections between characters in Dorothy’s Kansas and those she meets in Oz (adding the three farmhands who correspond to the Scarecrow, Lion, and Woodsman, the mean old lady who corresponds to the Wicked Witch, the traveling showman who corresponds to the Wizard, and so on). Perhaps most strikingly, the “Emerald City” in the original book is white; it only looks green because its inhabitants wear green-tinted glasses, and the movie’s famous “ruby slippers” are instead “Silver Shoes” in Baum’s tale.

[3] In Book One of The Faerie Queene, which retells the story of St. George and the Dragon, characters keep mistaking George for an elf because he’s such a great warrior; like Aragorn, he is a human raised by elves who excels the human norm. Unfortunately, few read Spenser’s tale because (1) they are put off by its being in verse, (2) no one has told them the best way to read Spenser is to ignore the allegory and just read through and enjoy it for the story, and (3) all modern editions of his book retain the Elizabethan spellings (unlike his contemporary Shakespeare, whose spellings are almost invariably modernized). Any fantasy fan who can read Shakespeare might want to give Spenser a try sometime and might be pleasantly surprised by how like a fantasy novel they will find his story of knights, maidens, evil enchanters, treacherous and beautiful sorceresses, bold and capable heroines, monsters, enchantments, and of course the Dragon.

[4] The first paperback edition of The Hobbit, the 1961 Puffin edition (an imprint of Penguin), actually used “dwarfs”, “dwarfish”, and “elfish”, much to Tolkien’s displeasure.

[5] Tolkien began the story sometime during the summer of 1930 and finished it in January of 1933; for more specifics on how we can establish these specific dates from the surviving evidence, see my forthcoming book Mr. Baggins: The History of The Hobbit.

[6] Tolkien even went to the trouble of transcribing a long, detailed version of the book’s title into the design that runs all along the borders of the dust jacket, providing different versions to match the English and American editions.

[7] Tolkien himself wrote one story with a sly, clever, and rather cowardly dragon (Farmer Giles of Ham‘s Chrysophylax Dives), who nevertheless proves extremely dangerous when fighting under conditions of his own choosing, perfectly capable of slaughtering or putting to flight an entire kingdom’s cadre of knights. See also his poem “The Dragon’s Visit”, an amusing cautionary tale about a peaceful visiting dragon who, when provoked, destroys an entire town and all but one of its citizens.

[8] For more on this and Tolkien’s other rejected plot-ideas in the original draft of The Hobbit, see The History of the Hobbit. For the opening chapter of The Hobbit seen from Gandalf’s and the dwarves’ point of view, see “The Quest of Erebor”, published in Unfinished Tales (1980) and as an appendix to the second edition of Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit (2002).

Leave a Reply