There and Back Again
What J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit still has to offer, 80 years after its publication
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” So began the legendarium that dominated a genre, changed Western literature and the field of linguistics, created a tapestry of characters and mythology that endured four generations, built an anti-war ethos that endured a World War and a Cold War, and spawned a multibillion-dollar media franchise. J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is probably best remembered today by the sword-and-sandal epic scale of The Lord of The Rings films, but it started in the quiet, fictionalized English countryside of the Shire. It started, 80 years ago in a hobbit-hole, with Bilbo Baggins.
Although Tolkien created the complicated cosmological sprawl of The Silmarillion and stories like the incestuous saga of Túrin Turambar told in The Children of Húrin, Middle-earth itself is mostly remembered today as something akin to little Bilbo in his Hobbit-hole: quaint, virtuous, and tidy. Nowadays, George R.R. Martin’s got the market cornered on heavily initialed fantasy writers, and his hand guides the field. High and epic fantasy are often expected to dip heavily into the medieval muck of realism, to contain heavy doses of sex and curses, gore and grime, sickness and believable motives and set pieces. Characters like Martin’s mercenary Bronn of the Blackwater are expected to say “fuck.” Modern stories, even when set in lands like A Song of Ice and Fire’s Essos that are filled with competing faiths, tend toward the nihilist, and mostly atheist. Heavenly beings are denuded of potency and purity; while the gods may not be dead, divinity certainly is.
Modern fantasy and its subgenres, as represented in Martin’s work, might be positioned as anti-art in relation to Tolkien. In that way, Tolkien still dominates. While the watchword of the day is subversion—twisting tropes, destroying moral absolutes with relativism, and making mockeries of gallantry and heroism—subversion still requires a substrate. So although fantasy creators in all media have devoted most of their energies in the past eight decades to digesting Tolkien, so in turn Tolkien has become part of the fabric of their works. There’s a little Bilbo in Tyrion, a bit of Smaug in Eragon’s dragons, a dash of Aragorn in Shannara’s Shea Ohmsford, and a touch of Gandalf in the wizards of Discworld.
That’s why, on this week’s anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit and of the entrance of Tolkien into the fantasy genre, it’s important to reread and reconsider his works, and his first especially. Although the short and whimsical book is considered lightweight compared to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s still in many ways the best that literature has to offer. Tolkien is first a linguist, and it’s not only his creation of elvish, dwarvish, and orcish languages out of whole cloth that impresses, but also the way he toys with English and illustrates the power of language itself to create. Ever a good author surrogate, Bilbo’s true arms and armor aren’t his trusty half-sword Sting or his mithril shirt, but—as Gollum would find out—his words and riddles. As Bilbo tells Smaug, the dragon:
I come from under the hill, and under the hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air. I am he that walks unseen. … I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number. … I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water.
Bilbo’s warrior-poetry is big and boastful enough to go toe-to-toe with Muhammad Ali.
The hobbit’s journey from the comforts of the Shire through the mysterious dwarven ruins in the bowels of mountains and to the lair of a treasure-hoarding dragon double as a Bildungsroman, not only for the protagonist but for Tolkien as well. In the climax of the book, when the hero despairs at the greed and collapse of diplomacy that leads to the pointless Battle of Five Armies, so is revealed Tolkien’s hatred of war. His own experiences as a soldier in the trenches of World War I gave him a worldview that blended an old-world genteel Christian Englishness with an acid skepticism of power that wouldn’t become mainstream in American audiences until 40 years later during the Vietnam War.
The internal and external quests of The Hobbit are perhaps especially important today. In a time when young men in particular seem disaffected, unmoored, prone to violence and radicalization, and are dying at accelerating rates from “deaths of despair”—suicides and overdoses, mostly—the central lessons of the book aren’t found in the fantastic elements, on the backs of Eagles, or in the scope of Tolkien’s maps. Rather, the important lessons are found in the development of Bilbo and his dwarf companions Thorin, Balin, Fíli, and Kíli: the dignity of humanity, the virtue of generosity, a respect for life, a duty to do good, and the ways in which brotherhood can be used to move men toward those ideals. In a world today where nuclear doom—for which The Ring can be read as a metaphor—hangs over every country, where efforts to work for common good seem to crumble, and where inequality and hegemony seem likely to persist in perpetuity, perhaps those quaint values are more crucial now than ever.
Some things in The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings trilogy can be left behind. The world of Middle-earth betrays forms of paternalism, imperialism, and racial essentialism that have no use today. But other elements that are now often derided—like Gandalf’s tendency to act as a demi-deus ex machina and the books’ belief that good always prevails—are actually paramount to the works’ legacy. The true ethos of a nihilistic society, where bad-news fatigue and eroding faith in truth and in human institutions are enduring enough to create a durable meme out of the “This is fine” dog, might be a desperate need to seek assurance that things might actually turn out fine. And the overwhelming lesson of The Hobbit’s time “between the Dawn of Færie and the Dominion of Men” is that things might not turn out fine, but that people can become whole through the effort of making them so.