Tolkien Week: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”


It has been a while since my last blog post but let’s face it, for Tolkien Week and Hobbit Day (arguably both today and tomorrow) one takes time out of their busy schedule to recognize the very thing that inspired the writing and reading in which I participate.  For those unfamiliar with Hobbit Day or its significance to fantasy nerds everywhere, you may read up on it here on the LOTR Wiki page.  Of course, several people argue that because of the difference between the Shire calendar and our own, the actual birthdays of Bilbo and Frodo should be celebrated on September 12 instead.  Well, for me, every day is Hobbit Day so it doesn’t matter which day I post this, as long as it gets posted.

Hobbit Day officially is tomorrow, September 22, but today in 1937 The Hobbit was first published and with that publication came the first line of a story that would become legendary and iconic: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”  The writing of The Hobbit was as much an unexpected adventure for Tolkien as it was for Bilbo Baggins.  Although Tolkien had created quite a lot of what would become his sub-creation of Middle-earth some years prior with the collective works which would eventually be published as The Silmarillion, the journey through the writing of The Hobbit was relatively unknown.  As an Oxford professor, J. R. R. Tolkien taught medieval history and he loved his country dearly, but sadly, he understood that the Norman invasion of 1066 had basically eradicated any and all early history of England up to that point.  It had been a personal goal of Tolkien to create a purely “English” mythology.  He immersed himself in Norse, Celtic, Greek, and other ancient legends to draw upon their literary appeal.  In a letter, written around 1951, Tolkien expressed that he understood the Arthurian tales were as close as he would get to an English mythology.  The problem was, despite being powerful and romantic, the tales of Arthur were “imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with [the] English” and they too “explicitly [contained] the Christian religion.”[1] Arthur, had he existed, would have been of Roman decent, and over time the legend had become heavily influenced by French storytellers.  For this reason, Tolkien felt that the stories did not do the English people justice.  As far as religion was concerned, Tolkien was a dedicated Catholic, so he had no problem with the Christianity alluded to in the Arthurian tales, but he felt that these types of literature should not push a certain theme or message.  Tolkien highly disliked allegory and mentions his opinion several times throughout his letters and in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories.”  To create an English mythology was Tolkien’s ultimate goal, but knowing that is not enough to understand the passion found in his narratives.  We must understand his heart in order to understand his stories.

As early as 1914, while still a student at Oxford, Tolkien had written the first of many poems that would become part of his own personal mythology; “The Voyage of Earendel.”  Tolkien had a circle of friends who had formed a literary group in which they read and composed poems, seeking one another’s approval and criticism.  This group helped shape his ideas, but his friends kept asking what his poems were about.  Even Tolkien did not know, but he assured them that he would find out.  By 1915 he had begun his “nonsense fairy language” which would evolve into Elvish.[2]  Combining his new language with his poems, Tolkien steadily added to his works which would eventually become The Silmarillion.  Before he could continue, however, the first of two world wars began, pulling Tolkien, along with his friends, into the conflict.

Tolkien served his country during the Great War and he saw firsthand the evil of mankind.  He had to bid farewell to many of his comrades because by 1918, all but one of his closest friends had perished.  He stood by, day after day, watching the bodies pile up in the trenches, awaiting his day to die.  It was the trench fever which finally took him away from the war and back to his home in England and his new bride, Edith.  His experience in the trenches certainly molded him, and they later would leak onto the pages of his writing.  His ultimate motivation to continue his faery stories came in the form of a letter written by one his friends from the Oxford literary group.  The last letter he wrote to Tolkien before his death in the trenches encouraged him to write an epic, and begged that he “may say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them.”[3]  Finally, Tolkien sat down and committed himself to creating the mythology which he strove to do for so long.  His stories reflected his experiences through the 1920s, including his multiple visits to the hospitals, which gave him plenty of time to read the Old Norse and Finnish legends he loved so much.  These became the foundation for tales such as The Children of Hurin and “The Fall of Gondolin.”  His own relationship with his wife led to the romantic, and highly personal, tale of Beren and Luthien.  In fact, the name Luthien is engraved on Edith’s tombstone.  On a very personal level Tolkien’s stories were immensely passionate and growing in complexity.  Knowing a little bit about Tolkien’s personal and professional background, we can understand that The Hobbit of 1937 was not the beginning of a journey; nor, of course, was it the end.  It was merely a small step in the grand staircase of Tolkien’s mythology.

In describing his version of a “fairy story,” Tolkien coined the word “eucatastrophe,” which simply means the opposite of the known word “catastrophe.”  Eucatastrophe refers to “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argue is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).”[4]  The idea of thirteen exiled dwarves traveling to battle a fire-breathing dragon for their lost homeland seems futile.  So too does the image of a lonely hobbit walking through Mordor to destroy the One Ring of the Dark Lord depict hopelessness.  Tolkien takes these events that should turn tragic, as expected, and creates a surge of emotion when an unexpected happy ending occurs.  I use the term “happy ending” very loosely, because in truth, Tolkien resisted for a terribly long time in The Hobbit to produce such an ending to the story.  Even in the very end, when all hope seems lost and Thorin and Company storm onto the battlefield, defying death and defeat, Thorin falls and so do his nephews and heirs, and the kingdom he fought so hard to reclaim now passes to a new strain of the line of Durin.  A new generation is born and a new era of kingship enters the mountain.  This is not the happy ending of fairy tales we know, or that the 1937 audience would have known, but it is altogether a different and still very good ending.

At this point, the fantasy genre had finally been established.  Tolkien, the father of fantasy literature, spent most of his life devoted to his creation of Middle-earth and even today, forty years after his death, Christopher Tolkien is still publishing his father’s works as he makes his way through unseen manuscripts and scribbled notes.  In a 1955 response to a fan letter, Tolkien quoted his friend C.S. Lewis as once having said, “If they don’t write the kind of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves.”[5]  True to that statement, both Lewis and Tolkien went on to write two of the most beloved fantasy series in literature.  It is to the Lewis quote that I have devoted this blog and it is on this day that I dedicate this post to Tolkien and his stories and in doing so, say a hearty “thank you” for inspiring, not only me and my writing, but generations of readers who can now go forth in the fantasy spirit and carry on the legacy which started today, September 21, 1937.

[More to come this week in celebration of Tolkien Week, thanks for reading!]

[1] ‘Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien,’ pg. 144

[2] ‘Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien,’ Carpenter, pg. 85

[3] Carpenter, pg. 100

[4] ‘Letters,’ pg. 100

[5] ‘Letters,’ pg. 209

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