By David Barnett
21 September 2017
The Hobbit, that retelling by Mr JRR Tolkien of the adventures of Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, is celebrating its 80th birthday, albeit with no party of special magnificence nor, perhaps, much talk and excitement in Hobbiton or beyond.
But while the the book is not as venerable as its hero – Bilbo died aged 131, we are told in Lord of the Rings; hobbits live, on average, to the age of 96.8 years according to the wonderful number-crunching site lotrproject.com – it is still an anniversary worth noting.
These days, The Hobbit is considered nothing more than a childish taster or over-long prologue to Tolkien’s more revered Lord of the Rings trilogy: a sanitised scene-setter filled with folk songs and poems that came before the grownup book that explored war, death and the corruption of men. But while The Hobbit was undeniably written as a children’s book, it is far more than a mere prequel and its significance in modern literature, and fantasy in particular, cannot be overstated.
But perhaps there is a more satisfying anniversary to be celebrated here, as 2017 marks 100 years since Tolkien, effectively invalided out of the army after coming down with trench fever fighting in the Somme, began writing his first story, The Fall of Gondolin. Eventually published in The Book of Lost Tales, a decade after Tolkien’s death in 1973, this story laid out a rich and detailed history of his Middle-earth. Twenty years after first putting pen to paper – that paper apparently being sheets of military marching music Tolkien found in his barracks – The Hobbit was published on 21 September 1937.
While we can point to other authors who played a part in creating the genre of heroic fantasy – from the epics such as Homer’s Odyssey and the Scandinavian myths, through to Lewis Carroll and Lord Dunsany, to Conan creator Robert E Howard and Fritz Leiber, whose fantasy duo Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser debuted in 1939, two years after The Hobbit – the themes and tropes laid down by Tolkien continue to shape fantasy to this day. A quest. An artefact of power. An unlikely or unwilling hero. Fantastical races of elves and dwarves, orcs and goblins. Dragons. Monstrous spiders. The shadow of profound evil falling across a pastoral, peaceful, medieval world. Fantasy may have evolved a lot since Tolkien’s day, but these building blocks can still be seen in most contemporary novels in the genre.
Like all good myths and legends, The Hobbit began in the oral tradition, as a story that Tolkien imparted to his sons John, Michael and Christopher. The genesis of the story was the opening line, idly scrawled by Tolkien on a piece of paper: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” It went no further, until he breathed life into Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, Thorin and his band of dwarves, and wretched Gollum through stories told, as Christopher remembers, “with his back to the fire in his small study of the house in north Oxford”.
Christopher recalls these storytelling sessions happening around 1929. Eight years later George Allen & Unwin printed the first 1,500 copies of The Hobbit. By the end of December it had sold out, in no small part due to Christopher Tolkien writing to Father Christmas “to give The Hobbit a vigorous puff … and proposing it to him as an idea for Christmas presents”.
I think I was 10 or 11 when I first read The Hobbit, and swiftly moved on to The Lord of the Rings. It was quite a jump, akin to the chasm between studying physics at O-level and A-level. As with physics, the first I found relatively straightforward, the second challenging. Unlike physics, which I quickly dumped, The Hobbit threw open the literary Doors of Durin to a whole universe of fantasy writing. I imagine this was a common trajectory for many.
When it first came out, one reviewer called The Hobbit “juvenile trash” that suffered “impotence of imagination”. By the 1970s, no fantasy novel was worth the name lacked a blurb along the lines of: “Comparable to Tolkien at his best!” These days, to call a modern fantasy novel Tolkienesque feels a little like faint praise. Over the last eight decades, we’ve been there, done that and bought the Mithril T-shirt. And Tolkien’s writing does have its problems: his books, even The Hobbit, are too long and wordy, and there are racist overtones, with the good guys generally being white European in appearance, while the nasty orcs are dark-skinned and the gold-hungry dwarves uncomfortably reminiscent of toxic Jewish stereotypes. Epic fantasy, though by definition steeped in the past (albeit one that never was), has moved on, to become more diverse, more inclusive, more questioning – precisely as it should be.
But The Hobbit endures and it remains a remarkable book that continues to capture imaginations. So let’s raise a glass of ale to The Hobbit, 80 years young. And while we’re at it, according to the books 22 September is Bilbo and his nephew Frodo’s birthday. Any excuse for a party. Who knows, there might be fireworks.