On 21 September 1937 the publication of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit – widely regarded to be one of the best children’s books of all time – started a new literary craze. The short adventure story about a little hole-dwelling creature and his adventures in an increasingly sinister wider world has never been out of print, and would give rise to a thousand other works of fantasy, including The Lord of The Rings.
Beneath the surface of the relatively light-hearted novel, however, critics have also noticed darker themes, relevant to the troubled time between the wars, that also contribute to the book’s enduring fame and adaptability.
Tolkien had been born and raised as a child in British South Africa, where a bite from a large spider gave him a lifelong hatred of the insect that can be seen in his fantasies. A few years after moving to England he was already a twelve year-old orphan, and had to build a new life at boarding school in Birmingham, where he would acquire the friends and literary interests that would shape his life.
Just before starting at Oxford a trip to Switzerland with school-friends gave rise to a lifelong fascination with powerful untouched landscapes, and he wrote many years later that tearing himself away from the mountains was heartbreaking.
By the time Tolkien – whose first name was John – graduated with a degree in English in 1915 the complexion of the world had changed, and he was already under pressure to join the army from those around him. The following year, as a healthy young man, he was ordered to join a regiment in France as an officer.
His baptism of fire came at the Somme, which was a cruel fate for any bookish young man. Tolkien was immensely fortunate in surviving all the assaults that he lead, and perhaps more fortunate still when he contracted trench fever and had to be invalided home for the rest of the war.
In the dark fetid trenches – in constant fear of death – he had began to write new fantastical languages and his creations of high fantasy began to take shape. Before the end of the war his battalion had been almost completely wiped out, and, as he would sadly recall in old age, all but one of his close friends were dead.
After the war Tolkien settled down to raise a family with Edith – the love of his life – and become an academic, specializing in old English texts like Beowulf, which profoundly influenced his own works. In his down time he enjoyed writing stories for his children, and doodled the first line of The Hobbit whilst marking some papers some time in the early 1930s.
By the end of 1932 the story was finished, though never designed for wider publication. Instead Tolkien lent it to is friends, including C.S Lewis, the author of the Narnia books, and a student of his called Elaine Griffiths, who liked the manuscript so much that she showed it to the publishers George Allen and Unwin in 1936.
When Mr Unwin’s ten-year old son enjoyed the tale, it was published, much to Tolkien’s surprise, in September 1937. All the original copies, which were designed and illustrated by the author, sold out in weeks, and new print runs were almost constant until paper rationing began during the Second World War.
The book was such a success that Tolkien was soon approached over a sequel – what would eventually become The Lord of The Rings. In anticipation of the second work’s darker tone and themes, Tolkien then revisited The Hobbit to make the two flow better. One important change was to the scene where Bilbo wins the ring from Gollum. In the original the latter handed it over fairly amicably, but later his anguish was added to showcase the corrosive power of the ring.
A war influence?
In the eighty years since The Hobbit was published it has been subject to pages and pages of literary criticism, as writers have tried to work out Tolkien’s influences and analyse the effect of the First World War on his work.
One clear thread running through it all is the influence of Norse mythology. Many of the names in the book, including Gandalf, are taken out of old sagas, as are the races of trolls elves and dwarves. Even Tolkien’s famous middle-earth is derivative of the Midgard of Norse mythology – the realm of men where we all reside.
It is the mixture of old and new however, that makes The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings so timeless and successful. For in both works, the overall hero is not a great sword-wielding warrior but a small and mostly unremarkable hobbit – the classic every-man who displays forms of heroism that are not those of Beowulf but are equally effective.
Many critics link this in some way with the First World War, where mechanised conflict meant that displays of strength and obvious courage were pointless. Almost every account of the opening battles of the war is furnished with a brave officer, sword in hand, riding in front of his men in defiance of the enemy, only to be shot dead almost immediately.
The dragon Smaug, the overarching villain of The Hobbit, also illustrates this theme. Though he is almost exactly like the intelligent yet malevolent dragon in Beowulf, even down to some descriptions lifted almost verbatim, he has the most modern anachronistic dialogue of any character, and descriptions of the terrible “desolation of Smaug” bear a strong resemblance to the ravaged earth of no-mans land.
These depictions of supernatural earth-shaking forces of destruction are present in the historical and fantastical works of many survivors of the war, who had to live in a newly fragile world.