Among the (modern) fairy tales that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote (his least “epic” Fantasy work, so to speak), The Hobbit is undoubtedly his greatest achievement. But what to say about this novel “for children” that has not already been said? There may not be much to talk about, but I will try in the space of this article to consider The Hobbit from a perspective in which it is not usually seen: as a forerunner and pioneer in (modern) fairy tale writing.
A Little History
Let us start by the facts: today, September 21st, it has been 84 years since the publication of The Hobbit, debut novel of J.R.R, Tolkien and the work that cemented his literary career. After all (and as it is revealed in The Lost Road) Tolkien was completing his works on the “Elder Days”—which at that time included the Ainulindalë, The Silmarillion, the Annals of Valinor and Annals of Beleriand and the Lhammas—when, in late 1937, Stanley Unwin, his publisher, would reject an early version of The Silmarillion for publication and would ask the author instead for a sequel to the successful Hobbit.
Thus, Tolkien replied to Unwin that he would “consider the matter” and shortly before Christmas ’37 he would write to him saying that he had written the first chapter of “a new history of Hobbits.” That story, which was to become The Lord of the Rings, would keep the writer away from the myths and legends of Middle-earth for the better part of the next 17 years, ultimately leading to Tolkien never completing those stories.
In this way the success achieved by The Hobbit can be seen, at the same time, as a blessing and a curse: thanks to it we have The Lord of the Rings, but largely because of it, Tolkien never completed his magnum opus, that new mythology “dedicated to England” that he had embarked upon after suffering the horror of the trenches of World War I, and which had been the real engine of his literary production for more than 20 years. The obvious question then arises, was that trade worth it? And considering that that answer lies solely in the subjective realm, we have its corollary: what made The Hobbit such a successful work?
The New and the Old
Answering a question like the one above is equivalent to immediately falling into the realm of the purely speculative, literary self-help, the prophets of editorial marketing and, in the worst case, the ripper/forensic doctors who literary critics usually are. Even so, I think it is possible to talk about several common ideas or agreements around the qualities of The Hobbit.
Among these, the one that is mentioned most often is the combination of an evidently ancient tradition—one that is clearly revealed in the names of the Dwarves taken from the Scandinavian Völuspá, the runes, and even the plot of the story, just to mention a few—with a literary style, for lack of a better word, definitely modern. This style is clearly noticeable in the narrator’s comments, intrusive pieces in which he is dedicated to criticizing the characters or putting them in evidence, and even in the particular choice of a “hero” who is neither young nor brave nor adventurous—or at least he doesn’t appear to be.
Now what does this have to do with the success of the story?
Maybe nothing, but it seems to me that a story that rescues the full potential of original narratives (sc. myths and legends) like The Hobbit has a unique opportunity to appeal to our most primitive narrative instincts. There is something about the maps, the runes and the “tales” of distant and forgotten lands that awakens a longing and a nostalgia in us that is difficult to deny. This phenomenon is so powerful and inexplicable that it has worked in the most diverse narrative forms; if in doubt, ask George Lucas and the millions of Star Wars fans.
On the other hand, why aren’t we all readers of classics, then? There may be many reasons for this, including the poor presentation in schools of these works, their relative sanitization, or even their minimization as mere historical relics, but let’s agree that even ignoring these, there is an insurmountable problem in all of them: cultural distance. Humanity may not have changed its narrative interests in the last ten thousand years, but it has definitely evolved in how these stories are presented.
Thus, the other half of the magic of The Hobbit is in taking those ancient elements and presenting them to the reader in a fresh and challenging way. While other cultists of the classic choose to imitate the form of the epic or romance, Tolkien stuck with the background and reshaped it, using the modern novel in a way that, hitherto, it had not been exploited.
Like a fairy tale.
Once Upon a Hobbit
When we think of fairy tales, we usually remember the Disney versions or, at best, the Brothers Grimm’s ones. In Tolkien’s time, the problem was more or less the same: although there was closer proximity to fairy tales in their traditional forms, the “evil” influence of Perrault and other authors had contributed to “Frenchify” fairy tales, in the opinion of the English author. This phenomenon, to which Tolkien attributes so many evils—including turning the ancient fairies into Tinkerbell miniatures—had accomplished two main things. On the one hand, it had relegated fairy tales to nursery rooms, and on the other, it had made the format of these narratives synonymous with predictable and unmistakably non-modern stories.
Although I think Tolkien could not have cared less about being modern, it is true that his literary interest always bent on rescuing the traditional. In this sense, the English author was painfully aware that the “literati” had made a fundamental mistake in scorning classical forms in favor of their praise of all that seemed modern. Thus, the scenario for the Oxford Professor was undoubtedly hopeless: either submit to modern currents or be forced to create merely academic material.
And it was here that The Hobbit providentially appeared.
Because the air that distinguishes The Hobbit from, for example, Peter Pan—another classic modern fairy tale—is that Bilbo Baggins’ adventure takes its sources in the oldest roots of the fairy tale, before the formula of “Once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after.”
Or, in other words, before the “Frenchification” of this literary form.
Thus, the style that Tolkien cultivates in this work—on the one hand modern in its way of presenting history and classical in its elements—is really an example of how to write a fairy tale that has everything that distinguishes a classic fairy tale and, at the same time, that it is soaked in the same novelty that we expect from any relevant work of our time.
In this sense, Tolkien succeeded in defeating the classic-modern dilemma through a third way. One that allowed him to rescue classical values without losing the possibility of passing on that love for the old to an audience as wide and diverse as that of fairy tales.
P.S.: The original version of this article was written in September 2014 for the now (defunct) website Fantasía Austral. I have only updated some of its writing to make it clearer but remains, in essence, the same article.
Did you like what you just read? Awesome! Please help me by leaving a comment, sharing with a friend, or by joining my Patreon. I’m trying to support myself with my writing, and any help is appreciated.