A symbolic character
The race of the hobbits came from one sentence, idly jotted down one summer’s afternoon on the blank page of an examination paper J. R. R. Tolkien was marking. But the creation of the tales and the peoples that inhabit them are all part of a much more complex story that stretches from Tolkien’s own childhood and his academic studies. In many ways, the hobbits were the characters Tolkien was always destined to create, such was his love of the simple things in life, the English countryside, and his devotion to his friends. The hobbits came to symbolise everything that Tolkien held dear, and the links between his life and his works make for a fascinating study.
The Tolkien children remember the story of The Hobbit as having many different aspects and more than one improvised alternative ending. Inspired by a favourite bedtime book for his children, The Marvellous Land of the Snergs by E. A. Wyke-Smith, in about 1926 J. R. R Tolkien began telling his stories of hobbits. Wyke-Smith’s popular children’s book tells of the adventures of two children, Sylvia and Joe, who are often assisted by a race of small, thick-set people who live in a secret kingdom on earth. Over many years, The Hobbit was developed slowly from different and unconnected impromptu oral tales made up by Tolkien to entertain his children. Informed by his scholarly studies of dragon-slaying and mythological quests, they became so much more than just bedtime stories, and were later absorbed into the tale of Bilbo Baggins as it was committed to paper.
The completed manuscript
The Hobbit was almost never finished in the form we have it. As his children grew older, it seems Tolkien saw less and less relevance in a completed, written version of The Hobbit. It required the interest of the publishers George Allen & Unwin to prompt him to revisit the typescript and set his mind to revising and finishing the story. Returning to the tale, Tolkien injected new weight to its themes, altered the fate of some main characters, and even changed some of the names. For instance, for much of the writing of The Hobbit, Gandalf was in fact the name of the head Dwarf, with the name Bladorthin given to the wizard. With new impetus, Tolkien had his story ready for publication in December 1936.
An instant classic
Initial criticism of Tolkien’s first book was positive, some critics even immediately placing The Hobbit in the sphere of great children’s books. It was compared to such works as Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, George MacDonald’s Phantastes, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. For the latter, C. S. Lewis in particular drew parallels between Bilbo Baggins and Mole, drawing attention to their prosaic nature and their symbolism of a rural ideal. The Hobbit was always very much a book for children, more so than the much darker stories of Middle-earth that went into making The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.
An unlikely hero
A few critics made the point that The Hobbit does not try to overwhelm readers by taking them to plains too distant to relate to. Thematically the story is concerned with the issues that face our own world, and Tolkien was nothing if not human. He had experienced loss, failure, and, most significantly perhaps, the horrors of the First World War, all of which informed his creations and mythology. He knew the depths to which human experience could sink, but he also knew the heights to which human endeavour could soar. In Bilbo Baggins, Tolkien had created a character who could carry on his shoulders a great deal of the author’s own worries, beliefs and dreams.
Expanding the story
Although the book was woven into the mythology that Tolkien was building in The Silmarillion and connected works throughout his life, The Hobbit was always meant to be a standalone work. The story’s success, however, put pressure on its author to create something in the same vein for his next book. Tolkien had created a problem for himself, initially, in that he had given birth to strikingly memorable characters. He felt that their story had been told, but it would soon become clear that he needed to explore the world of Middle-earth and its characters further. Never meaning The Hobbit to have a sequel, Tolkien could certainly never have dreamed of the epic that would come from it.
Extract taken from 3-Minute J.R.R. Tolkien by Gary Raymond, foreword by John Howe, published by Ivy Press on 28th January 2013 http://www.ivypress.co.uk/books/3-minute-jrr-tolkien/.
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