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There and Back Again: The Story of The Hobbit

Hobbit image

“The Hobbit” opened this weekend to strong ticket sales, but did it live up to the hype? Let us know in the comments!

We like to add a little UW twist to our Member Movie Nights. For our UWAA member night at The Hobbit last Friday and Saturday, UW History Professor Robin Chapman Stacey graciously agreed to share some thoughts on Tolkein and the book that gave rise to the film. Have you seen The Hobbit? Tell us what you thought of it in the comments!

Unlike its considerably darker successor The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), The Hobbit was a work intended originally for children, having begun as bed-time stories told by Tolkien to his sons. Tolkien had not envisaged publishing the story until an early version of the manuscript fell into the hands of an employee of the Allen and Unwin publishing firm. Unwin’s ten-year old son gave the resulting typescript an enthusiastic thumbs-up, and The Hobbit became an enormous popular success practically overnight. Published in September of 1937, it was sold out by Christmas; by the time its “sequel” LOTR was published nearly twenty years later, it was in its seventh edition.

Even in its origins, however, The Hobbit was deeper than it looked. Tolkien was a professor at Oxford, a philologist, and a specialist in the heroic languages and literatures of the medieval North. Many of his characters and plot elements came directly from the ancient works he knew so well: the dwarf names from the Old Norse Völuspá; the theft of the cup from the Old English poem Beowulf; the dragon’s soft underbelly and salvific bird speech from the Norse tale of Sigurd and the dragon Fáfnir; the riddle game from yet another old Norse story. Even the riddles exchanged by Bilbo and Gollum have ancient antecedents.

And yet Tolkien’s story is anything but a standard heroic tale. As critic Tom Shippey has observed, a large part of the genius of The Hobbit—and certainly much of its comedy—comes from the juxtaposition of this ancient world of dragons and heroes with the endearing fussiness of Bilbo, the unlikely burglar recruited by Gandalf to join the dwarves on their grand adventure. Bilbo is the epitome of Edwardian middle-class English life: comfortable in his home and habits, fond of tea, ornamental waistcoats, and generous meals taken throughout the day. He is absolutely the last creature in the world one would expect to find bedding down next to dwarves and wielding an ancient sword, and yet it is his good sense and bourgeois belief in fairness that ultimately saves the dwarves from disaster. One has only to compare the dwarf Balin’s last words to Bilbo with Bilbo’s to him to see the comic clash between styles and lifestyles: “‘If ever you visit us again, when our halls are made fair once more, then the feast shall indeed be splendid!’ ‘If ever you are passing my way,’ said Bilbo, ‘don’t wait to knock! Tea is at four, but any of you are welcome at any time!’”

Indeed, Tolkien (who once termed himself “a hobbit in all but size”) is having fun with language throughout the tale. “Bag End” (the plain English version of the snobbishly Frenchified term “cul-de-sac,” which Tolkien immortalized in the name of Bilbo’s objectionable relatives, the Sackville- Bagginses) was the name of Tolkien’s aunt Jane’s farm. “Baggins” is northern English slang for a laborer’s tea or snack eaten between meals; and “auction” a play on a dialect word for “mess.” “Burglar” itself is related to the word “bourgeois,” and while the origins of the word “hobbit” are murky, Tolkien later invented for it a fictitious, but linguistically plausible etymology meaning “hole-dweller.” This is in large part what separates Tolkien from many contemporary authors working in the fantasy genre. Rather than inventing worlds and creatures first and only then imagining the languages they might speak, Tolkien began with language and worked from there to discover the nature of the world in which such a language would make sense. As he later described how he came to begin The Hobbit, he was marking exams when he came on a page the candidate had left blank. “I wrote on it: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ Names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like.”

The Hobbit may have begun as a children’s story, but as Tolkien began writing what would ultimately become LOTR, he went back and revised Bilbo’s adventures so as to integrate them into the much more adult world of Middle-earth. He removed several of the authorial asides (which he had come to regard as patronizing and unserious) and, more importantly, changed the nature of the Ring itself. In the first edition merely a magical device that Gollum was willing to bet as his stake in the riddle game, the Ring became in subsequent editions something altogether more sinister—the One Ring of Sauron, an item Gollum would never have risked, and one so corrupting as to cause even the naturally honest Bilbo to lie. Indeed, it was to this process of bringing Bilbo’s tale further into Middle-earth that Peter Jackson made appeal on Facebook this past July in announcing his decision to incorporate into his film material from the LOTR appendices and present his film version of the book in three parts rather than two: “in the words of Professor Tolkien himself, [it was] ‘a tale that grew in the telling.’”

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