A Medieval Philologist Writing in
"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
[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
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
--Letter to Stanley Unwin, 16 December 1937
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
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
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.
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.'
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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)
- "The story is framed in familiarity . . .
but unlike the fairy-tale its action is time-specific. . . even if
it's feigned history."
- "The characters are types, though they often
rise to the dignity of archetypes."
- "It is the character of nature, not the
characters of the actors, that is 'realised'."
- "The adventures are not solitary, but they
are almost universally a happy few."
- "The adventures are narrated by the most
ordinary of the happy few."
- "There is a recurring motif of the
past alive in the present."
- "The world of adventurers is essentially an
- (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.]
How are the more playful, jocular tone,
sound effects, and word play of the Nonsense writers present in The
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.)
Does The Hobbit assume the
modern "invention of the child"? Explain.
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?
Do all of Lobdell's characteristics of the Edwardian
adventure story equally apply to The Hobbit?
How successfully does Tolkien's
novel abide by his principles in "On Fairy Stories"?
In what sense are some of the
landscapes of the novel pastoral in tone or attitude? Which ones are
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?
Can The Hobbit be considered
feigned history in the same way as The Silmarillion? Why or why not?