The first work by Tolkien set in Middle-Earth, The Hobbit, was first published as children’s literature (which it largely is, if compared with his other much darker tales) gaining wide acclaim and awards in that category. The lore of Middle-Earth was then still not fully formed in Tolkien’s mind. Upon writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had to make several emendations to the second edition of The Hobbit so as to better accommodate the sequel.
Famously, the first sentence of the book, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” was first written by Tolkien – bored while marking his students’ work – on the back of a student’s paper. Tolkien claimed that the word hobbit was a simple creation of his, that no thought had gone into it and that it didn’t have anything to do with the also hole-dwelling rabbit. Shippey (2003) however has a different theory of the word’s roots: he sees it as a compound of the word rabbit and the Old English for hole-dwellers. He also makes a rather interesting point on the similarity of hobbits and rabbits.
Rabbits, while seemingly denizens of the English countryside, are actually a species originated from the European continent. Likewise, hobbits are not truly denizens of Middle-Earth as it were, but rather the link for the ‘foreign’ reader to that wild, heroic and fantastical land. This function is carried on semantically throughout, with hobbits making use of language that is not originally English and decidedly modern, like potatoes, tomatoes and tobacco. This linking function also works through their association to the decidedly mundane, as opposed to heroic characters like Gandalf and the dwarves whose names come straight from the Old Norse poem Voluspa (also known as The Seeress’s Prophecy – and the primary source of Norse mythology that has survived to this day. It is also, most likely, the oldest poem of The Poetic Edda).
The Lord of the Rings does not need much introduction. Widely beloved and now even more famous than it already was due to the movies, its full cultural influence is hard to measure; having generated spin offs in several media and inspired countless other artists. Tolkien only came to write it after being convinced by his publishers to write a sequel to The Hobbit. Like Niggle and his tree (xxxx), Tolkien’s true desire was to write the encompassing history of Middle-Earth in the form of The Silmarillion alongside the beautiful ‘leaf’ that is The Lord of the Rings. This, however, was rejected by the publishers who also proceeded to divide The Lord of the Rings into the three parts known today as The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, perhaps giving birth to the now rather common trend of the multi-volume Fantasy series.
As far as criticism of his work has gone, it would be fair to say that Tolkien’s work has long suffered – like many other artists before him – from a lack of understanding of his mode of writing. Critics will often deride and degrade works like LOTR and The Hobbit due to their ‘lack of character depth’, or simply due to their ‘lack of maturity’ – whatever that is supposed to mean. In other words, they are judging a Fantasy work by the yardstick of Realistic fiction. To do so is the equivalent of judging an Impressionist painting by the standards of Neo-Classical painting, which will lead to the misunderstanding of not one but two equally impressive modes of art.
Tolkien’s characters must work on the level of archetype for his overall metaphor to achieve its full effect. Gandalf must not only be A Wizard he must also be THE Wizard, a summation of all wizards and wise paternal figures and all the meaning that it conveys. The same applies to most characters within his works, such as Aragorn and Smaug, the dragon. Thus Fantasy, Tolkien’s perhaps above all others, is better aligned with Romance, Myth and Epic rather than the Realistic novel and Drama. The mimetic particulars are in the outer edge, not the centre, whereas the abstract essence is the focus not the by-product. Here is a quote from Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics that I have always found to sum the whole of it better than I could ever hope to articulate,
“The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography (…) Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.”
There are many great passages in the LOTR, but the one below comes from Sam talking to Frodo and reflecting on the difficult times they have to face. It is one of the most memorable quotes in book and those who have lived difficult times, anywhere in the world, at any time in history, for any reasons, will certainly understand what he means.
It’s like in the Great Stories, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those are the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too young to understand why. But I think I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something-that there’s some good in the world, and it’s worth fighting for!
- Anon. (1999) The Poetic Edda. Larrington, C. (trans) Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Shippey, T. (2005) The Road to Middle-Earth. London: HarperCollins.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. (1990) The Hobbit. London: HarperCollins.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. (1991) Lord of the Rings. London: HarperCollins.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. (1983) The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. London: HarperCollins.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. (2001) Tree and Leaf. London: HarperCollins