The Hobbit: A Classic?
Lost in his imagination of things creative and wonderful, the balding professor suddenly awoke to the drudgery of his academic life.
Thousands upon thousands of words, page after page of term papers– what a mind-numbing slog! John R.R. Tolkien: the Oxford professor, the grader, the slayer of term papers battled on. Then it happened. A blank sheet of paper, needlessly attached at the end of another dreadful essay, a plain page long forgotten by some careless pupil just lay there, tempting him, daring him with its emptiness. Escaping his grading toils, Tolkien picked up his pen and in a flash there it was, the simple, single sentence that would breathe new life into his fading genius and usher him onto a world stage and into a new world: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” (Shippey 65).
Seventy-five years and one hundred million copies later, The Hobbit towers above the mounds of modern mythology, regarded by expert and child alike as one of the best books ever written – in a word, a classic (“On This Day”). The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien must be considered a classic work of literature due to its genre-altering rejection of the god-like Homeric hero in favor of the nerd hero, its timeless ability to engage multiple generations of readers, and its power to supersede the boundaries of its own genre and influence artists’ creations across many other fields. In order to determine whether or not The Hobbit is indeed a classic, some simple history of the book and the man behind it would be beneficial.
Tolkien’s The Hobbit follows the unexpected adventures of a little comfort-loving country bumpkin known for a big appetite, even bigger feet, and an unusual character flaw – for unlike most hobbits, Bilbo Baggins secretly yearned for adventure. Caught up with thirteen gold-hungry dwarves, a mysterious though noble wizard, and employed as the company’s official burglar, Bilbo traverses the perilous path to the Lonely Mountain, seeking to dethrone the mighty dragon Smaug and claim the legendary treasure. Fighting off spiders, goblins, trolls, and wargs along the perilous journey, the hardy band of treasure hunters slowly trekked their way across the magical and wild realm of Middle-Earth. Often described by Tolkien as longing for his little hobbit-hole and daydreaming about second breakfast, the riddling and scheming little hobbit outwits enormous murderous spiders, escapes the magical prisons of the wood elves, and eventually matches wits with a terrible fiery red dragon (Goncalves 45). Ending right where the story started, The Hobbit concludes with Bilbo safely back in his little hobbit hole, home, though he is not the same hobbit who worried so much about forgetting his handkerchief early in the tale (“SparkNotes: The Hobbit: Plot Overview”). No, this hobbit-hero has been forever transformed by events larger than life, sucked into a reality much greater and more fantastical than anything to be found in the Shire.
Tolkien believed that great writing begins with great words, thus he sought out and found numerous ancient words dating back centuries ago which gave his writings an air of authenticity (Shippey 57). In Tolkien and the Great War John Garth discusses how Tolkien’s extensive studies into old Germanic and Nordic cultures, languages, and myths influenced his writings (Garth 15). When the dwarves are in Bilbo’s house, Tolkien has them sing lengthy ballads chalk full of antiquated and old-sounding words – frequently for pages at a time, intended to create a feeling within the reader that the tale is indeed almost real. In sharp contrast to this historical realism, however, Tolkien sometimes appears playful with words and puns, such as the name “Bag End,” Bilbo’s house, refers to the back of a bag, in a certain sense a cul-de-sac (Anderson and Tolkien 46). Although Tolkien’s interest in ancient words did have some impact upon The Hobbit, arguably, a more important way in which his personal life affected the book was the aftermath of his traumatic experiences as a young soldier caught up in the Great War. Volunteering to serve his country in World War I, Tolkien left his home to become a British private, a foot soldier in the soggy trenches of a war-torn France.
Becoming gravely ill due to the terrible conditions of trench life, he went back to England and his young wife for treatment, then eventually returned to the front, just in time to join the initial bloody charge at the Battle of the Somme in France. Once again falling ill, Tolkien returned home, never to fight as a soldier again (Garth 247). Ironically, this sickness perhaps saved his life and career, as his battalion was obliterated shortly thereafter – almost every single man in his company perished. Memories of death, mud, blood, the agony of suffering would haunt Tolkien as he resided in Great Britain for the remainder of his life. Even though Tolkien had left the war and all its devastation, death, and destruction, the war stayed with Tolkien. Some of the greatest, most enduring themes of The Hobbit can be traced back to Tolkien’s war experiences.
For example, at the end of the story, when Bilbo arrives back in the Shire after his adventure, he attempts to reenter his old life. To his dismay, however, he is never quite the same hobbit again, for though the Shire has not changed, something inside Bilbo had. He never truly felt at home again among neighbors who could not possibly understand what Bilbo went through. This sad scenario is comparable to Tolkien and all the other young war veterans coming home after their bloody victories in the mainland of Europe. Tolkien, changed by the horrors of war, the memories of death, pain, and the terrible machines of death (tanks, machine guns, mustard gas, etc.
), must have felt out of place among his compatriots unable to comprehend what he endured (Jardine). While Tolkien did have the passion and the motive to write a touching novel, enthusiasm alone cannot determine whether a book is a classic. What then is the definition of a classic work of literature? How is it that some receive universal accolades from professors and English teachers across the globe while millions of trashy romance novels are sold over the web each year yet no literary expert even takes notice? This past week for instance, the number two selling book on Amazon.com was Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever – now how many honors English teachers are going to add that to his or her summer reading lists (“Amazon Best Sellers: Best Books”)? A classic is more than just another popular book; it is somehow deeper, richer, somehow leads the reader to new places where he has never been before. Like many other deceptively simple ideas that are so easy to say, but so impossible to define (e.
g. love, intelligence, beauty), the term classic evades a simple, universal definition. This is not to say that some literary experts have not attempted to solve this riddle, however. For example, according to Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, “A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.” For this paper, perhaps a more applicable, straightforward definition of a literary classic would be a book that has the following three characteristics. First, the book is such a brilliant and original creative work that the novel somehow breaks the mold of its genre.
Second, the book stands the test of time through generation after generation of readers long after its conception. Third, the novel’s themes are so universal and powerful that the book rises above its literary boundaries, influencing other mediums of the arts. Demonstrating that The Hobbit’s status as a literary classic, Tolkien tossed away the genre’s normal hero. Throughout history, there have been many typical examples of adventure novels where the hero wields some amazing, almost supernatural power, such as Hercules’ unlimited strength or Merlin’s magic. In stark contrast to this traditional champion, Tolkien’s redefined hero possesses no super-human abilities, no boundless strength, and not much bravery (Goncalves 44).
Bilbo, however, possesses one “weapon” that saves his life on more than one occasion – he is very skilled and clever with words. When he is in a tight, dangerous situation, Bilbo keeps his head and falls back on his large vocabulary. For example, while trapped under the immense Misty Mountains, Bilbo competes with the treacherous creature Gollum in a riddle game of life or death. Riddling with the treacherous creature Gollum, who wants Bilbo for his supper, the terrified hobbit eventually outwits the twisted creature and brilliantly. Yet again, in another tight spot, Bilbo was able to make up riddles and poems on the spot saves him in the dark forest of Mirkwood when, in a final effort to free his friends from the clutches of giant spiders, Bilbo composes a song intended to infuriate the spiders into chasing him and leaving the dwarves unguarded (“Sparknotes”). Once again, Bilbo’s clever plan involving wordplay succeeds beyond his wildest dreams.
Bilbo accomplished all these remarkable feats without the normal hero’s typical assets. One of the characteristics of a classic is that the novel must somehow enhance the domain of literature; the book is so original and creative that it changes literature forever. Tolkien’s The Hobbit instigated a completely new genre – fantasy (“Tolkien, J. R. R. (1892-1973) Summary | BookRags.com”). Snatches of Tolkien are seen in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. For example, both Frodo and Harry Potter embark on a quest to destroy a magical object, leading to the ultimate defeat of the all-powerful antagonist. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings renovated another branch of literature when Tolkien revolutionized the typical elf.
Though Shakespeare viewed elves as almost faerie like, several inches tall and flitting about with tiny wings, Tolkien reinvented elves to be almost a symbol of the “perfect human”. Tolkien’s elves continue to be widely used by emerging authors such as Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, a mythical adventure novel portraying elves as the perfect human, intelligent, powerful, and heroic. Another modern fantasy author, Stephen R. Donaldson, author of Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, creates a mythical land and language — writing strategies that can be traced back to Tolkien (Dalesandro). Shaping the prototype of the fantasy genre, The Hobbit easily fulfills the timelessness requirement of a classic. In its first production in 1937, only about three thousand copies of the book were sold – this pleasantly surprised the doubtful publishers, who quickly printed many more copies of this book (“Publication History of The Hobbit”).
According to Ranker.com, over 100,000,000 copies have been sold to this day; The Hobbit has only gained popularity since its initial debut. In addition, the major film companies MGM and Warner Brothers have poured over five-hundred million dollars into this production – thereby becoming bankrupt in the process. With these overwhelming figures in mind, The Hobbit’s appeal must be to an audience greater than that of the United States and the United Kingdom. These major American film companies are betting their futures on their faith that the message, themes, and characters in The Hobbit will appeal to audiences worldwide (“Elijah Wood Back For The Hobbit “). While Tolkien had an undeniable effect his own field of fantasy literature, The Hobbit similarly cut across the domains of artistry, music, and cinematography.
Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy currently has netted just over one billion dollars in total sales, and both parts of the upcoming movie The Hobbit, also made by the academy-award winning Jackson, are expected to reap considerable profits. Following Tolkien’s themes of death, unlikely heroes, and massive battles, George Lucas’ Star Wars, Tolkien’s fantasy in the future, has had a profit of over $1.8 billion largely due to the popularity and continuity of themes, conflicts, and ideas used by Tolkien (“The Lord of the Rings Movies at the Box Office”; “Star Wars Movies at the Box Office”). In the realm of music, bands such as Led Zeppelin seem to include references to Tolkien’s elf-queen Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings (“Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin Songfacts”). In the field of visual arts, many artists’ careers are intertwined with the popularity of Tolkien’s books. Alan Lee, for example, painted the illustrations in many of today’s books regarding Lord of the Rings (“Alan Lee Profile”).
Drawing numerous paintings inspired by The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, artist Ted Nasmith’s career depends on the fame of Tolkien’s books (Nasmith). Tolkien’s novels also influenced many video games, such as Warcraft, a massively popular online game with orcs, trolls, and many other “tolkienesque” creations. When a pebble is tossed into a small pond, the moment of time in which the tiny rock is actually touching the surface of the water is minute as the pebble quickly sinks into the depths. However, the ballista has left its mark upon the surface in the form of ripples, growing ever larger. This idea can be compared to Tolkien and The Hobbit.
Although the amount of time taken by Tolkien to write those ten little words that begin a genre is diminutive, the effects of The Hobbit, his “pebble,” are still ever growing and expanding; the pond is still rippling from The Hobbit.