Tolkien's The Hobbit: 
A Medieval Philologist Writing in Victorian/Edwardian Genres

"Though the episode of the 'wargs' (I believe) is in part derived from a scene in S.R. Crockett's The Black Douglas, probably his best romance and anyone one that deeply impressed me in school-days, though I have never looked at it again. It includes Gil de Rez as a Satanist."
--Letter to Michael Tolkien, 1967/68

"It [The Hobbit] was unhappily really meant, as far as I was conscious, as a 'children's story', and as I had not learned sense then, and my children were not quite old enough to correct me, it has some of the sillinesses of manner caught unthinkly from the kind of stuff I had had served to me, as Chaucer may catch a minstrel tag. I deeply regret them. So do intelligent children."
--Letter to W.H. Auden, 7 June 1955

"Mr. Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm's fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it--so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge. And what more can hobbits do? They can be comic, but their comedy is suburban unless it is set against things more elemental."
--Letter to Stanley Unwin, 16 December 1937

"If you think it good, and fair (the compliment to The Hobbit is rather high) to maintain the comparison--Looking Glass ought to be mentioned. It is much closer in every way [than Alice in Wonderland]  . . . "
--Letter to Allen & Unwin, 31 August 1937

While certainly, as we've seen this semester, the medieval worlds of Tolkien's Northernness inspire much of the mythos informing Middle-earth, the narrative style and shape of The Hobbit (and to an extent The Lord of the Rings) is informed by Victorian and Edwardian fictional models, ones that have their roots in a number of literary streams, including the Gothic supernatural, the Celtic and Medieval revivals of the nineteenth century (Pre-Raphaelite, Chesterton-Belloc), the Victorian thriller, Victorian Christmas fairytale books (Thackeray, Grahame), the Nonsense writers (Lear, Carroll), the national folklore collections, and the pastoral, as well as the period's children's literature in general. Yet, at the same time, one must not forget that what continues to make Tolkien's works so popular is his appropriation of these styles and approaches to make a new thing in its own right. 

 

One way to begin to understand this cultural milieu is to examine Tolkien's other children's works, ones that he wrote for his own sons and daughter--Roverrandom, the Father Christmas Letters, and Mr. Bliss. The former two contain aspects of the blending of fantasy and humor that typify the period, while Mr. Bliss is closer in spirit to the Nonsense writers and the whimsy of the Victorian Christmas book. All three works combine visual illustration as a partner in the texts' effects. (We will see other examples of this whimsy and humor mixed with fantasy when we read Farmer Giles of Ham and Smith of Wooton Major.) Examine the following passage from Roverrandom (ca. 1927):

Roverandom - as we had better call him too, for the present, to avoid confusion - didn't mind.  His new wings were great fun, and the moon turned out to be a remarkably interesting place, so that he forgot to ponder anymore why Psamathos had sent him there.  It was a long time before he found out.

In the meanwhile he had all sorts of adventures, by himself and with the moon-Rover.  He didn't often fly about in the air far from the tower; for in the moon, and especially on the white side, the insects are very large and fierce, and often so pale and so transparent and so silent that you hardly hear or see them coming.  The moonbeams only shine and flutter, and Roverandom was not frightened of them; the big white dragonmoths with fiery eyes were much more alarming; and there were sword-flies, and glass-beetles with jaws like steel-traps, and pale unicornets with stings like spears, and fifty-seven varieties of spiders ready to eat anything they could catch.  And worse than the insects were the shadowbats.

Roverandom did what the birds do on that side of the moon: he flew very little except near at home, or in open spaces with a good view all round, and far from insect hiding-places; and he walked about very quietly, especially in the woods.  Most things there went about very quietly, and the birds seldom even twittered.  What sounds there were, were made chiefly by the plants.  The flowers - the whitebells, the fairbells, and the silverbells, the tinklebells, and the ringaroses; the rhymeroyals and the pennywhistles, the tintrumpets and the creamhorns (a very pale cream), and many others with untranslatable names - made tunes all day long.  And the feathergrasses and the ferns - fairy-fiddlestrings, polyphonies, and brasstongues, and the cracken in the woods - and all the reeds by the milk-white ponds, they kept up the music, softly, even in the night.  In fact there was always a faint thin music going on.

But the birds were silent; and very tiny most of them were, hopping about in the grey grass beneath the trees, dodging the flies and the swooping flutterbies; and many of them had lost their wings or forgotten how to use them.  Roverandom used to startle them in their little ground-nests, as he stalked quietly through the pale grass, hunting the little white mice, or snuffing after grey squirrels on the edges of the woods.

The woods were filled with silverbells all ringing softly together when he first saw them.  The tall black trunks stood straight up, high as churches, out of the silver carpet, and they were roofed with pale blue leaves that never fell; so that not even the longest telescope on earth has ever seen those tall trunks or the silverbells beneath them.  Later in the year the trees all burst together into pale golden blossoms; and since the woods of the moon are nearly endless, no doubt that alters the look of the moon from below on the world. (27)

The text pays extensive attention to the natural details of its fantastic world, a realm that is both strangely pastoral and strangely supernatural all at once--a common move in fairy-tales. The odd detail of birds unable to fly being stalked by a toy dog with wings or of a world with giant inorganic insects and startling shadowbats creates a realm both familiar and distanced.  The reader is invited to become a curator of the moon's entomology and horticulture but through the playful experience of a very earthly dog, despite the wings. A few pages later, the narrator goes on to observe about Roverrandom and his companion the moon-dog, Rover:

But you must not imagine that all of Roverandom's time was spent creeping about like that.  After all, the dogs knew that the man's eye was on them, and they did a good many adventurous things and had a great deal of fun.  Sometimes they wandered off together for miles and miles, and forgot to go back to the tower for days.  Once or twice they went up into the mountains far away, till looking back they could see the moon-tower only as a shining needle in the distance; and they sat on the white rocks and watched the tiny sheep (no bigger than the Man-in-the-Moon's Rover) wandering in herds over the hillsides.  Every sheep carried a golden bell, and every bell rang each time each sheep moved a foot forward to get a fresh mouthful of grey grass; and all the bells rang in tune, and all the sheep shone like snow, and no one ever worried them.  The Rovers were much too well brought-up (and afraid of the Man) to do so, and there were no other dogs in all the moon, nor cows, nor horses, nor lions, nor tigers, nor wolves; in fact nothing larger on four feet than rabbits and squirrels (and toy-sized at that), except just occasionally to be seen standing solemnly in thought an enormous white elephant almost as big as a donkey.  I haven't mentioned the dragons, because they don't come into the story just yet, and anyway they lived a very long way off, far from the tower, being all very afraid of the Man-in-the-Moon, except one (and even he was half-afraid).

Whenever the dogs did go back to the tower and fly in at the window, they always found their dinner just ready, as if they had arranged the time; but they seldom saw or heard the Man about.  He had a workshop down in the cellars, and clouds of white steam and grey mist used to come up the stairs and float away out of the upper windows.

'What does he do with himself all day?' sad Roverandom to Rover.

 'Do?' said the moon-dog.  'Oh he's always pretty busy - though he seems busier than I have seen him for a long time, since you arrived.  Making dreams, I believe.'

 'What does he make dreams for?'

'O! for the other side of the moon.  No one has dreams on this side; the dreamers all go round to the back.' (30)

The tone here is whimsical, pedestrian, and fairly parental at points. The two dogs are treated as dogs, but also are anthropomorphized as children acting as children would on a summer holiday, free to romp and play but with a sense of the watching eye of the adults not far off. Their adventures are quite pastoral in tone, even if lunar and devoid of most animals. And their conversation is like that of children, too, wondering at what the grownups do all day, except of course, the surprising juxtaposition of the Man in the Moon's daily vocation being that he works with terrestrial dreams. The text plays the game of faerie by coming in and out of focus within the normal. If Tolkien would eventually come to regret some of this tone and manner, it is a good reminder for us that the Tolkien of the late 1920's and 1930's is not entirely the same person and writer as the Tolkien of the 1950s, nor for that matter the Tolkien of the late 1910's and early 1920's. His literary sensibilities do evolve somewhat. This earlier sensibility is surely present in The Hobbit, a book he wrote as "children's literature," in the 1937 edition even more so than in the revised 1951 edition. What he perhaps never loses is an appreciation for humor and whimsy present in the rustic and in the common. 

Many of the literary echoes of the novel have their origins in medieval, especially Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse sources, and this sensibility certainly plays a large role in many places, most manifestly so once Bilbo and company come to Lonely Mountain and experience the Battle of the Five Armies. Still, The Hobbit's approach could not exist without cultural shifts and attitudes made possible by the 18th and 19th centuries:

  1. The notion of a revalorized past, which may include the discovery or invention of a national past, offers a setting that is distanced by time from the present but that is still capable of offering a vision of a people with age-old yet relevant values. Each in their own way, the Welsh, Irish, and Scottish traditions sought to recover their distinctive past from British dominance. This ironically can be seen in the quasi-historical creations of the period. James MacPherson's Ossian tales (1761-1765), based on Scottish Gaelic ballads, claim to have be simple translattions from native sources. He in fact changed characters and plot lines while greatly expanding his own embroidered text. Such works were conceived in a time when the space between fiction and history was still blurred, especially as to whether fiction needed the authenticity of history to make it acceptable. This impulse was also present in those wanting to uncover the English past, such as Thomas Chatterton's forged medieval poems (1760's) of one "Thomas Rowley," a 15th century monk, and Edward Davies' mixture of research and literary invention in Celtic Researches (1804) and The Mythology and Rites of the British Druids (1809). They prepared the way for the openly fictional love of former times and cultures as evidenced by Sir Walter Scott's Highland novels and latter by William Morris' novels, which directly influenced Tolkien's Book of Lost Tales. Such works suggested that a sense of truth lies in the reconceived past that is larger than historical fact. 

  2. The gothic and the grotesque also play an important role in the rise of Victorian and Edwardian fantasy. Early gothic novels like Monk (Matthew) Lewis's Ambrosio and Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho paved the way for a lurid interest in the darker, erotic side of existence, a psychic and entertaining release through abandonment of the norms. This impulse becomes absorbed in the 19th century not only in the obvious supernatural thrillers, such as Elizabeth Gaskell's supernatural tales and the gothic horror of Arthur Machen, but also in the more mainstream fictional world of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde), as well as in children's literature, even the world of Nonsense, such as Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," or fantasy such as E. Nesbit's Five Children and It, The Story of the Amulet or The Magic City.

  3. We have already discussed the folktale collections and emergent nationalism of the period, as well as the late Victorian relegation of the fairy tale to the childhood nursery. An evolutionary mentality made it possible to both cherish folklore and fairy tale collections and yet dismiss them as products of one's childhood not to be taken seriously. Tolkien rejected in his "On Fairy Stories" (1939) this attitude as evidenced by Andrew Lang, yet he was not entirely above it in the 1920's and 1930's. Indeed, making The Hobbit children's literature allowed him to engage the themes and ideals he loved so under the very ruse of a parental tale told for credulous youth.

  4. A trend begun with eighteenth-century treatises on education like those of John Locke's Some Thoughts on Education (1690) and Jean Jacques Rousseau's Emile (1762) only progressed farther in the nineteenth century with the Romantic movement. What has often been called "the invention of the child" took place in this time, not in the sense that childhood has ever been ignored, but in the sense that it was increasingly treated as a separate phase of human life and one increasingly different in character from adulthood. The gentle treatment of children, the innocence of children, and the maturation of children became assumed models by most.  This ideal gave rise to both the tone and subject matter of children's literature, as well as the very literary creation of the children in those works, though the type of child differed greatly.

  5. The Horacian dictum that literature is "to teach and to delight" found itself broken apart in the literature intended for children.  The early Puritan "good godly books" and the works associated with the Sunday School were not necessarily devoid of enjoyment, but the 19th century reaction to these approaches tended to stress a literature of entertainment without tired moralisms. This is not to say that both strains were not still present in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Kenneth Grahame characterized them as the free, enjoyable Arcadians versus the moralistic Olympians. 

  6. The Kelmscott Press's socialism, associated with Wiliam Morris and his circle, as well as the third way of Roman Catholic Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton's distributism, found 19th century medievalism very conducive to visions of a just political and economic order centered around family and guild where production naturally occurred in co-operative structures. As Chesterton quipped, "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists." Ironically, the medieval setting could be seen to support both emotional anarchism and emotional monarchism. 

  7. The contrast between the healthy country and the urbane and corrupt city is a classical stock as old as ancient Rome. The pastoral tradition becomes an important element in Victorian fantasy. The Wind in the Willows, for example, a work that Tolkien loved, can treat its animal characters as noble creatures bound to the English countryside, even as they also embody aspects of the Scottish Presbyterian kirk, the neo-pagan Pan, and the fussy English hole-dweller.  Such a tradition has the ability to both make the natural world comforting and to make it strange, to uncover the "fantastical" (Chesterton) in the unnoticed nearby. This quality can work in various ways. For example, it is instructive to compare The Hobbit to P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins (1934), a work only three years its senior. Both works combine a certain quality of wonder and bemusement with the ability to make the world strange, but while Tolkien must remove his Edwardian Bilbo to another time and place, Travers' Poppins in the tradition of E. Nesbit clearly enters the mundane world, bringing the fantastic with her.

  8. The Nonsense writers, such as Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and Hilaire Belloc, opened up a perspective of the silly, giddy, and delirious, but often with a deep structure that was still noticeably sad or desolate. Nonsense writers are particularly interested in what happens when the expected word is replaced by the unexpected or nonsensical. Children's literature often become potential sites for the merger of fantasy and the comic, and this in part may explain why comparisons were made between Carroll's Alice and The Hobbit. Tolkien's love of the pun and the playfulness of the elvish, even the goblin, songs owe some of their debt to this approach.

  9. The heirs of Sir Walter Scott, the Victorian and Edwardian adventure writers, such as H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, and S.R. Crockett, offered "books for boys"--a world of exciting travels and quests, with themes of heroism, comradery, and exotic places. Tolkien read Haggard's King Solomon's Mines with appreciation and loved She. The former has often been cited as an influence upon The Hobbit

Characteristics of the Edwardian Adventure Story (Jared Lobdell)

  1. "The story is framed in familiarity . . . but unlike the fairy-tale its action is time-specific. . . even if it's feigned history."
  2. "The characters are types, though they often rise to the dignity of archetypes."
  3. "It is the character of nature, not the characters of the actors, that is 'realised'."
  4. "The adventures are not solitary, but they are almost universally a happy few."
  5. "The adventures are narrated by the most ordinary of the happy few."
  6. "There is a recurring motif of the past alive in the present."
  7. "The world of adventurers is essentially an aristocratic world."
  8. (Often) "The actions of the characters are more in black and white and less in shades of grey than we are used to in our 'realistic' fiction."

The fairy tales and children's literature that Tolkien comes to reject include the world of A. A. Milne, which perhaps he rejected for its overly sweet views of childhood, and that of George MacDonald, though he admits that the goblins of The Hobbit are drawn from the goblin tradition of MacDonald's Curdie books, "except for the soft feet which I never believed in" (Letters 178). What Tolkien rejects is the dream-like quality of MacDonald's world, a world modeled on that of Novalis, and perhaps its view of children as moving in that nonlinear state. Nonetheless, The Hobbit is a text breaking free slowly from its world.

[Sources for this discussion include Lobdell, Jared. The Rise of Tolkienian Fantasy. and Adams, Douglas. Tales Before Tolkien.]


Discussion Questions

  1. How are the more playful, jocular tone, sound effects, and word play of the Nonsense writers present in The Hobbit?

  2. What are some examples of the parental tone that Tolkien came to regret? How does the 1951 edition downplay this some? (e.g. I-You exchange, explanatory asides; insider "of course, doubtlessly you know" explanations.)

  3. Does The Hobbit assume the modern "invention of the child"? Explain.

  4. What is the expected effect on the reader of characters such as the goblins and wargs, Gollum, or the spiders? Are they gothic in spirit? On the other hand, are they softened by a humorous presentation?

  5. Do all of Lobdell's characteristics of the Edwardian adventure story equally apply to The Hobbit?

  6. How successfully does Tolkien's novel abide by his principles in "On Fairy Stories"? Explain.

  7. In what sense are some of the landscapes of the novel pastoral in tone or attitude? Which ones are not?

  8. While obviously in one sense The Hobbit is not a political novel, what shape do the political structures of the story take? (Shire, Rivendale, Goblintown, the Wood-elves, Lake Town) How does the setting of faŽrie assist these?

  9. Can The Hobbit be considered feigned history in the same way as The Silmarillion? Why or why not?

 

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding