On September 21st, 1937, something truly magical happened.
Book publisher George Allen & Unwin published a children’s novel. The book was the first fiction novel by a certain Oxford professor named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and the story in question was The Hobbit.
Little did they know it would mark the beginning of something truly epic and sow the first seeds to a whole new genre of storytelling: High Fantasy.
Released to glowing reviews, the book’s critical success prompted the publishers to ask Tolkien to write a sequel. On July 29th, 1954, The Fellowship of the Ring was published.
However, the release of The Lord of the Rings also changed many critics and readers’ opinions of The Hobbit. People began to view it as a first, less successful, attempt to tell the epic story that Tolkien later wrote.
This phenomenon, seeing The Hobbit as a “downgrade” of Tolkien’s storytelling, seems to continue with every new generation that discovers Middle Earth.
Maybe not among Tolkien’s more passionate fan-base. But, quite often I come across reviews like: “I liked The Hobbit, but it just wasn’t as epic as The Lord of the Rings.”
I feel the comparison between these two works is unfortunate.
Today, on The Hobbit’s eighty-second birthday, I want to look at The Hobbit through the lens it was supposed to be viewed: as a children’s story.
The Hobbit tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins, a respectable hobbit living a quiet life of comfort. Early on you learn that, although his father was the respectable Bungo Baggins, his mother was the remarkable Belladonna Took. The Tooks, although a great and prosperous family, had the bad taste of being adventurous.
One day, an old friend of the now-deceased Belladonna comes to Bilbo’s door; a certain wizard by the name of Gandalf. Bilbo finds himself hosting not only the wizard but his thirteen dwarven companions. It’s at this moment his adventurous Took side springs forward, and he joins them on an adventure.
Their goal is the Lonely Mountain where the dwarfs plan to reclaim their ancestral home and its enormous treasure from the devious dragon Smaug. Along the way, they’ll encounter trolls, elves, goblins, giant wolves and massive spiders.
And, of course, after a chance meeting, Bilbo will play a game of riddles…
There’s no doubt that, if you approach The Hobbit after you’ve read or watched The Lord of The Rings, you’ll wonder what happened. Where are the heroic characters, the complexity, and the sense of doom; the overwhelming scale of the story. It’s an understandable query if you haven’t done your homework.
However, it’s an unfair one.
I the forewords to Harper Collins deluxe edition of The Hobbit you can read snippets of the correspondence between Tolkien and his publishers as they discuss a sequel. Tolkien seems quite baffled at people’s fascination with hobbits, and at one point he writes:
“And what more could Hobbits do?“
In fact, at this point, Tolkien was working on The Simarillion. It wasn’t until his publishers urged him to write a sequel that The Lord of the Rings as an idea was born.
The Hobbit is not a prologue to The Lord of the Rings; it’s an adventure story told to a child. To our contemporary ears, the language might feel too complicated for a children’s story. It might even fool someone into thinking it’s a book for an adult audience. But that was never the author’s intention.
Stylistically, these two books represent contrasting types of storytelling.
The Lord of the Rings is an epic, beautiful tale where the fate of the world is at stake. Despite the many moral and military victories, there is a constant undertone of melancholy, of something magical coming to an end.
In contrast, The Hobbit is a small scale, often humorous fairy tale.
As an adult, you can glimpse a larger, more complex story written between the lines: the grown-up version. When reading, you can sense the grand tale hovering in the foreground; the epic scale of the Battle of the Five armies. The foreshadowing of the Necromancer. In Thorin’s madness and last-minute redemption, you can see the blurry outline of Boromir’s fate.
Because Tolkien created such vast mythology and sophisticated world, the potential of a truly legendary tale is there within your reach; you can almost touch it.
But, when we make that comparison, we’re interpreting the story though the eyes of an adult; one who already knows what happened next.
If we’re going to compare The Hobbit with any other works of fiction, it should be with titles like The Chronicles of Narnia; children’s fantasy.
Not The Lord of the Rings: that’s horribly unfair to poor Bilbo; who, although he never had to walk to Mordor and climb Mount Doom, did a lot of awe-inspiring stuff.
The Hobbit is a charming, witty story with a lovable protagonist. It’s a story where the little guy is told he’s not big/strong/skilled enough to make a difference. And then repeatedly outwits people larger and stronger than him, saving the day.
That’s amazing when you’re a kid. It’s with those eyes The Hobbit should be read and judged. If you can do that, it’s a wonderful story.
The Hobbit is also a less intimidating introduction to Tolkien’s world.
I love Lord of the Rings: it a fantastic read, but not a simple one. Tolkien’s world and voice, although beautiful, is dense and not easily digestible. The Hobbit is a great place to start for any novice, young or old.
I love The Hobbit, but I don’t feel the same emotional connection to it as I do with The Lord of the Rings. I’m guilty of the unfair comparisons I talk about in this post.
For me, that changed when I stopped seeing The Hobbit as a prologue to The Lord of the Rings. Because it’s not. When I finally saw that, I could cherish The Hobbit for what it is: a really well-written, original, and entertaining children’s story.
Whatever your opinion about The Hobbit might be, it’s worth remembering that without its critical and financial success, there would never have been a Lord of the Rings. And who knows what the High Fantasy genre would have looked like without it.
For that reason alone, The Hobbit deserves to be celebrated on its birthday.
So, here at the end of all things, be honest: how many of you rage-clicked on this post, thinking I was going to defend The Hobbit movies?