Small beginnings: The enduring appeal of The Hobbit

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in cinemas from Wednesday. Picture: Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in cinemas from Wednesday. Picture: Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM.
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THERE’S something fitting about the workaday way The Hobbit came into being.

JRR Tolkien, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, was, so the story goes, marking exam papers one day in the early 1930s when he came across a blank sheet of paper. On a whim, he scribbled down a few words: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” This would become the first line of one of the greatest classics of all time.

Consider that short, simple and unassuming sentence, doing so much more than you might expect. A bit like a hobbit, really. It begins with something humdrum – a hole in the ground – and ends with something extraordinary – a hobbit. This masterful balance of the real and unreal, the known and unknown, the mundane and the mythical, was what I loved about The Hobbit when I first devoured it as a child. It’s what made me name my favourite teddy bear Bilbo, regularly demand second breakfast and run around whenever possible with a ring on my finger screaming “I’m INVISIBLE!”. Perhaps it’s what made me fail to notice, until years later, the disappointing lack of female characters (yes, I still feel cheated).

Nevertheless, here was a fairytale with dragons, wizards, elves and – gulp – ­giant talking spiders. But also waistcoats, pocket handkerchiefs, seed cake, pipes and a reluctant halfling hero who thinks adventures are “nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” Middle Earth was a strange and wonderful world not because it was ­inhabited by furry-footed foodies, but because it was so familiar.

This week, when the first instalment of The Hobbit film is released, we will finally get to see how Peter Jackson’s grand vision compares. There are concerns. First, the burning question of how the director, who has devoted a quarter of his life to adapting Tolkien for the screen, will pull off squeezing three films out of a slim 300-page book (The Lord Of The Rings, by comparison, is more than 1,200 pages, and was, to state the obvious, already a trilogy). There are reports that the revolutionary 48-frames-per-second technology induces nausea and there are also concerns about animal welfare, following claims that dozens of animals involved in the production died unnecessarily. And however will we cope without Viggo Mortensen’s smouldering, mud-spattered Aragorn?

But there is another problem. The Lord Of The Rings. Seventeen years after The Hobbit was published, its sequel followed, becoming one of the best-selling novels in history. The Hobbit has since been relegated to second best, despite selling more than 100 million copies. It is generally seen as the light, slight and twee relation to the dark and sprawling masterpiece that is The Lord Of The Rings. It is a mere children’s book.

The film is already at a disadvantage because it’s a prequel following a masterpiece of a sequel (two words of warning: Star Wars). But we would do well to remember which one came first. The book that the New York Times, in its 1938 review, described as having “no age limits. All those, young or old… will take The Hobbit to their hearts.” The book that WH Auden called “one of the best children’s stories of this century” and that CS Lewis claimed was a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings is undertaken by children.

Tolkien never saw The Hobbit as a children’s book exclusively, though its first reader was a publisher’s ten-year-old son, who was paid a shilling for the privilege. It’s one of those so-called children’s books (RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island is another) that are transformed by an adult re-reading. Thomas Shippey, the renowned Tolkien scholar, has argued that this is partly because the author flouted one of the main conventions of children’s literature when he made his hero a middle-aged bachelor instead of a child.

The point is, Bilbo already knows himself. He is fully fledged, a child-sized adult torn between the comfort-seeking Baggins of his father’s side, and the ­adventure-seeking Took of his mother’s (just as, in a beautiful piece of mirroring, Gollum is tormented by the good hobbit in himself, Smeagol, and the ring-corrupted creature). When Gandalf ­persuades Bilbo to go with the dwarves to retrieve the treasure from the dragon Smaug, he doesn’t want to. At first it seems that he must go against his own nature. Yet the journey reveals qualities he didn’t know he possessed, such as courage, resourcefulness and tenacity. Bilbo’s quest, like all the best ones, will venture into his own heart of darkness.

The Hobbit is nowhere near as merry as people like to think. There are a lot of silly songs, admittedly. And OK, it doesn’t have the unremitting bleakness of the fires of Mordor and we don’t yet know that Bilbo’s magic ring is in fact the “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them”.

But main characters die, and not always heroically. The dank and claustrophobic Mirkwood is as terrifying as any haunted forest you’ll find in a horror story. Gandalf remains a mysterious, shadowy figure, forever disappearing when he is most needed. The bipolar creature Gollum is one of literature’s great tragic villains. Greed is a central theme and Thorin’s dying words to Bilbo pack a particular punch when read as a grown-up in the 21st century: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a ­merrier world.”

Every so-called children’s book that has since flirted with danger, darkness and, yes, death has The Hobbit in its sights. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books all owe as much to Tolkien as The Hobbit does to Norse myth and Beowulf. And though the promise is in the book’s title – There And Back Again – we can’t see how Bilbo will ever return to his beloved Shire. Remember, this is a novel written between the wars, after Tolkien had served as a signals officer at the Somme. He wrote The Hobbit as a war veteran, mourning a world already lost. “Can you promise that I will come back?” asks Bilbo at the start of The Hobbit. ­Gandalf’s reply is curt, cheerless and painfully honest: “No.” «

Twitter: @Chitgrrl

• The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in cinemas from Wednesday