Sep 21 2010 5:34pm

A merrier world: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit

The Hobbit isn’t as good a book as The Lord of the Rings. It’s a children’s book, for one thing, and it talks down to the reader. It’s not quite set in Middle Earth—or if it is, then it isn’t quite set in the Third Age. It isn’t pegged down to history and geography the way The Lord of the Rings is. Most of all, it’s a first work by an immature writer; journeyman work and not the masterpiece he would later produce. But it’s still an excellent book. After all, it’s not much of a complaint to say that something isn’t as good as the best book in the world.

If you are fortunate enough to share a house with a bright six year old, or a seven or eight year old who still likes bedtime stories, I strongly recommend reading them a chapter of The Hobbit aloud every night before bed. It reads aloud brilliantly, and when you do this it’s quite clear that Tolkien intended it that way. I’ve read not only The Hobbit but The Lord of the Rings aloud twice, and had it read to me once. The sentences form the rhythms of speech, the pauses are in the right place, they fall well on the ear. This isn’t the case with a lot of books, even books I like. Many books were made to be read silently and fast. The other advantage of reading it aloud is that it allows you to read it even after you have it memorised and normal reading is difficult. It will also have the advantage that the child will encounter this early, so they won’t get the pap first and think that’s normal.

I first read The Hobbit when I was eight. I went on to read The Lord of the Rings immediately afterwards, with the words “Isn’t there another one of those around here?” What I liked about The Hobbit that first time through was the roster of adventures. It seemed to me a very good example of a kind of children’s book with which I was familiar—Narnia, of course, but also the whole set of children’s books in which children have magical adventures and come home safely. It didn’t occur to me that it had been written before a lot of them—I had no concept as a child that things were written in order and could influence each other. The Hobbit fit into a category with At the Back of the North Wind and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and half of E. Nesbit.

The unusual thing about The Hobbit for me was that Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit and a grown up. He had his own charming and unusual house and he indulged in grown up pleasures like smoking and drinking. He didn’t have to evade his parents to go off on an adventure. He lived in a world where there were not only dwarves and elves and wizards but signs that said “Expert treasure hunter wants a good job, plenty of excitement and reasonable reward.” He lived a life a child could see as independent, with people coming to tea unexpectedly and with dishes to be done afterwards (this happened in our house all the time), but without any of the complicated adult disadvantages of jobs and romance. Bilbo didn’t want an adventure, but an adventure came and took him anyway. And it is “There and Back Again,” at the end he returns home with treasure and the gift of poetry.

Of course, The Lord of the Rings isn’t “another one of those.” Reading The Lord of the Rings immediately afterwards was like being thrown into deep magical water which I fortunately learned to breathe, but from which I have never truly emerged.

Reading The Hobbit now is odd. I can see all the patronizing asides, which were the sort of thing I found so familiar in children’s books that I’m sure they were quite invisible to me. I’ve read it many times between now and then, of course, including twice aloud, but while I know it extremely well I’ve never read it quite so obsessively that the words are carved in my DNA. I can find a paragraph I’d forgotten was there and think new thoughts when I’m reading it. That’s why I picked it up, though it wasn’t what I really wanted—but what I really wanted, I can’t read any more.

I notice all the differences between this world and the LOTR version of Middle Earth. I noticed how reluctant Tolkien is to name anything here—the Hill, the Water, the Great River, the Forest River, Lake Town, Dale—and this from the master namer. His names creep in around the edges—Gondolin, Moria, Esgaroth—but it’s as if he’s making a real effort to keep it linguistically simple. I find his using Anglo-Saxon runes instead of his own runes on the map unutterably sweet—he thought they’d be easier for children to read. (At eight, I couldn’t read either. At forty-five, I can read both.)

Now, my favourite part is the end, when things become morally complex. Then I don’t think I understood that properly. I understood Thorin’s greed for dragon gold—I’d read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and I knew how that worked. What puzzled me was Bilbo’s use of the Arkenstone, which seemed treacherous, especially as it didn’t even work. Bilbo didn’t kill the dragon, and the introduction of Bard at that point in the story seemed unprecedentedly abrupt—I wonder why Tolkien didn’t introduce him earlier, in the Long Lake chapter? But it’’s Bilbo’s information that allows the dragon to be killed, and that’s good enough for me, then or now.

Tolkien is wonderful at writing that hardest of all things to write well, the journey. It really feels as if he understands time and distance and landscape. Adventures come at just the right moments. Mirkwood remains atmospheric and marvellous. The geography comes in order that’s useful for the story, but it feels like real geography.

Noticing world differences, I’m appalled at how casually Bilbo uses the Ring, and surprised how little notice everyone else pays to it—as if such things are normal. Then it was just a magic ring, like the one in The Enchanted Castle. The stone giants—were they ents? They don’t seem quite ent-ish to me. What’s up with that? And Beorn doesn’t quite seem to fit anywhere either, with his performing animals and were-bearness.

The oddest thing about reading The Hobbit now is how (much more than The Lord of the Rings) it seems to be set in the fantasyland of roleplaying games. It’s a little quest, and the dwarves would have taken a hero if they could have found one, they make do with a burglar. There’s that sign. The encounters come just as they’re needed. Weapons and armour and magic items get picked up along the way. Kill the trolls, find a sword. Kill the dragon, find armour. Finish the adventure, get chests of gold and silver.

One more odd thing I noticed this time for the first time. Bilbo does his own washing up. He doesn’t have servants. Frodo has Sam, and Gaffer Gamgee, too. But while Bilbo is clearly comfortably off, he does his own cooking and baking and cleaning. This would have been unprededentedly eccentric for someone of his class in 1938. It’s also against gender stereotypes—Bilbo had made his own seedcakes, as why shouldn’t he, but in 1938 it was very unusual indeed for a man to bake. Bilbo isn’t a man, of course, he isn’t a middle class Englishman who would have had a housekeeper, he is a respectable hobbit. But I think because the world has changed to make not having servants and men cooking seem relatively normal we don’t notice that these choices must have been deliberate.

People often talk about how few women there are in LOTR. The Hobbit has none, absolutely none. I think the only mentions of women are Belladonna Took, Bilbo’s mother (dead before the story starts) Thorin’s sister, mother of Fili and Kili, and then Bilbo’s eventual nieces. We see no women on the page, elf, dwarf, human, or hobbit. But I didn’t miss them when I was eight and I don’t miss them now. I had no trouble identifying with Bilbo. This is a world without sex, except for misty reproductive purposes, and entirely without romance. Bilbo is such a bachelor that it doesn’t even need mentioning that he is—because Bilbo is in many ways a nominally adult child.

I think Bilbo is ambiguously gendered. He’s always referred to as “he,” but he keeps house and cooks, he isn’t brave except at a pinch—he’s brave without being at all macho, nor is his lack of machismo deprecated by the text, even when contrasted with the martial dwarves. Bilbo’s allowed to be afraid. He has whole rooms full of clothes. There’s a lot of the conventionally feminine in Bilbo, and there’s a reading here in which Bilbo is a timid houseproud cooking hostess who discovers more facets on an adventure. (I’m sure I could do something with the buttons popping off too if I tried hard enough.) Unlike most heroes, it really wouldn’t change Bilbo at all if you changed his pronoun. Now isn’t that an interesting thought to go rushing off behind without even a pocket handkerchief?

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Tudza White
1. tudzax1
Isn't pegged down to geography? There's a damned map inside the front cover, and all the details carry over into LOTR so far as I can remember.

Not set in the Third Age? That's crazy talk. It marks the beginning of the rise of Sauron. We find in the notes that the whole expedition was in part a play by Gandalf to clear out the dragon so there would be one less thing to worry about when this came about, as he knew it would. Pity he didn't realize he was speeding things up a little in the process.

The LOTR either follows a timeline set up by The Hobbit or they both follow the whole outline of the four ages. Gondolin is mentioned, so Tolkein has a notion already of where The Hobbit fits in there.
Tudza White
2. tudzax1
I'm also a little confused. If a woman cooks for herself, likes clothes, and has no children, is she also an adult child?
james loyd
3. gaijin
I think the stone giants were probably early versions of the trolls in LOTR. Very different from the talking trolls with common names in The Hobbit.

I read a chapter of The Hobbit each night to my first child when he was only a few months old. Great bonding experience/sedative. However, I have trouble reading it aloud without attempting an English accent.

Lastly, I believe Tolkein said his own children hated the bits where the narrator spoke directly to the reader and assumed it was a child. Tolkein agreed about the condescention and wished he had left those parts out.
James Goetsch
4. Jedikalos
I've read it to all five of my children when they were little (long, long ago). I would even sing the songs in the book to them, making up my own melodies--and I found out when they were older that they all had thought that was the only way they could be sung! They all loved that book so much (and went on into the deeper waters of LOTR as well). Thanks for stirring up pleasant memories.
JS Bangs
5. jaspax
I think Bilbo is ambiguously gendered...

Really? 1938 was decades before I was born, so I'm hesitant to declaim about it too confidently, but... really? JRRT was about as far as one can get from a progressive or a feminist, so I find it pretty bizarre to suggest that he's playing any gender games with Bilbo's identity. Far more likely that Tolkein was relaying a certain idea of an eccentric bachelor, as you said, an archetype that doesn't necessarily exclude baking and doing dishes.

The rest of the review was great.
Tex Anne
6. TexAnne
But The Hobbit was written after most of the books you mention--Tolkien and Lewis were colleagues, of course, but MacDonald was a Victorian and Nesbit was most thoroughly Edwardian.

I think I know what you mean by "ambiguously gendered," but I don't agree. I find it much more likely that Tolkien was thinking about the kind of Oxford don made famous by Carroll (minus the creepy "art photographs," of course). The kind of person who isn't really asexual, but who doesn't live in their body, either.
j p
7. sps49
I really really like The Lord of the Rings, and it is one of my favorite works.

But I loooooove The Hobbit.

I'm still trying to get my mother to read it.
Stefan Jones
8. Stefan Jones
Coincidentally, I've been thinking about rereading The Hobbit before plunging back into the trilogy.

I'm guessing that Beorn is a minor Maiar, one of the class of beings to which Gandalf, balrogs, the eagles, dragons and Shelob belong.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Tudzaz: I mean the geography (and the map) was made up for the story, rather than the geography being an underlying fact about the world that the journey has to go through. I mean Tolkien made up *all* the geography, even though he drew maps, but in LOTR it feels as if he had the maps first, and here it doesn't.

As for time, I meant the same thing -- of course he fitted it into the Third Age when he wrote LOTR, but I'm not sure it was in his mind when he was writing The Hobbit. If you think how long ago Gondolin was, for instance, then it's very odd to find trolls with those swords, and goblins that remember them so well.

And as for a woman as an adult child -- if she's in a children's book as a child's eye character, then absolutely she can be.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Jaspax: I don't think Tolkien was consciously playing games with gender, I just think it's really surprising how unsolid Bilbo's masculinity seems when you think about it.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Texanne: Tolkien and Lewis were colleagues, but the Narnia books were published between 1950 and 1956, which is a long time after 1938. I'd also read other magic-adventure stories by Blyton and others -- it was the inability to name the others that made me leave them out. I didn't read a whole lot of C.20 fiction as a kid, but "the one about a magic silver teapot and all the seasons as people..." isn't a great citation.
Tex Anne
12. TexAnne
Ha, Lewis' misty nostalgia fooled me! I loved Blyton's non-magical adventure books, when I could find them. I'll keep an eye out for the magical ones. Do they also end with ginger beer for everyone?
13. Hatgirl
The Hobbit was the first "real" book I ever read, when I was six. Although I have reread it many times since then, it is my six-year-old memories that I access when I think about the plot. The dwarves descending on Bilbo's neat and ordered house is the funniest thing ever, the barrel escape plan is the most exciting thing ever and Thorin disowning Bilbo is the most upsetting thing ever.

As for female characters, there was of course Lobelia Sackville-Baggins *shudder*. But when I read LotR, I assumed that one of the hobbits had to be a girl and decided it was Merry. And that all of the "he"s must be typos :-D It was years before I realised I was wrong....
Stefan Jones
14. OtterB
I always trace my SFF readership as beginning the year I was 9 with two books. One was this, loaned to me by my English teacher when I had finished the other books we were supposed to be reading in our "independent reading time," and the other was Andre Norton's Time Traders, which I found for myself in the school library

I didn't come to LOTR for another several years, which is probably just as well. I don't know if it wasn't available in the US at that point (I would have read the Hobbit in 1966 or 67) or if I just didn't find it. The idea of looking for more books by the same author, if they weren't right there next to it on the library shelf, was not in my repertoire at that point.

I haven't reread The Hobbit in a long time. I should.
Stefan Jones
15. Dr. Thanatos
I agree on reflection that the Hobbit is only set in the Third Age in Middle-Earth in retrospect; if you read the trilogy first then the Hobbit, as I did many many years ago, you are struck by the much more simplistic world view: the cockney trolls, the invention of golf, the giants, Gandalf's relation with the Eagles, the vagueness of the geography after LOTR was published]. I have never read the original edition, and I would wonder if the references that Tudzax1 cites regarding Sauron etc were present originally or only appeared in the re-write that changed, for example, the story of how Bilbo got the Ring. I agree also that the Ring is treated much more casually especially by Gandalf...

I think it is usefull in understanding the story to not try to make it fit too seriously into the LOTR world, as that only draws attention to the contradictions and detracts from the simple enjoyment of the story.
Stefan Jones
16. (still) Steve Morrison
Tolkien did say “Though a skin-changer and no doubt a bit of a magician, Beorn was a Man” in a letter to Naomi Mitchison.

As far as the time of the action goes, Tolkien hadn’t even thought of the “ages” of Middle-earth when he wrote The Hobbit; that framework came much later, when he wrote The Lord of the Rings and the early versions of the Akallabêth.
Ursula L
17. Ursula
I think that part of what is going on is that The Hobbit is a very different story when retconned with The Lord of the Rings versus what it looks like when read on its own. 

By itself, it is a good and simple story.  One hobbit's adventure, followed from beginning  to end.  A simple landscape.  A fascinating and wondrous magic ring.  If you read The Hobbit first, it is a complete story.

But if you then go on to read The Lord of the Rings, it becomes something different.  The map gets superimposed on a much more complicated one.  The use of historical runes is replaced with a new and fictional language.  The magic ring changes from wonderful to evil.  

This fits, I suppose, nicely with Jo's theory of different types of series.  On one level, The Hobbit is a stand-alone.  On another, it is the prologue of a series of the sort that is one story broken into several volumes.  
Stefan Jones
18. HelenS
I found The Hobbit quite tedious to read aloud, actually, even though I loved the book myself. I think Tolkien had taught himself a lot about pacing and readability by the time he wrote LOTR (which I'm now reading to my son and finding much easier going so far, despite there being such a lot of it). There are so many scenes in The Hobbit that just drag.

Interesting point about gender. I must think on that.
David Goldfarb
19. David_Goldfarb
In amongst that catalog of ways that The Hobbit isn't really compatible with The Lord of the Rings, I'm amazed that you don't mention the Elvish poetry. The Elves of Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring are ancient, wise, skilled in lore and craft. The Elves of Rivendell in The Hobbit sing things like,

O! Tril-lil-lil-lolly.
The valley is jolly.
Ha ha!

I first read The Hobbit when I was 5 years old. My parents had the green faux-leatherbound edition (probably from the Book-of-the-Month Club). I had that copy into adulthood; I gave it to my brother when he had children. I came to the end of the book and read the bit about "If you like hobbits and want to know more about them, read The Lord of the Rings..." and of course immediately wanted to do that. As I recall it, we had a copy of The Two Towers lying around and I tried to start with that, reading the synopsis of the first volume. I quickly and sensibly decided that was unsatisfactory, and got my parents to take me out to a bookstore and buy the first and third volumes. I still have those copies, though three and a half decades later they're a bit battered. (They say three moves is like a fire; these books have survived half a dozen moves and a fire.)
Stefan Jones
20. AlainV
I chanced upon the Hobbit in an indirect way. It was back in the 70s. I had just tried to read LOTR since so many people were excited about it. I found LOTR incredibly boring and did not manage to make it past the first volume on that first try. So why were people so excited about LOTR? I did some research and found Edmond Wislon's 1956 critique of LOTR: "Oo those awful orcs". In it he mentioned "The Hobbit" and described it as a real delight. So I read "The Hobbit" and discovered that he was right. It was a marvelous little tale. After that I tried once more to read LOTR and actually forced myself through all three books of it, groaning all the way. It was a nearly complete waste of time. The only good that came of ot was that it made me appreciate even more how "The Hobbit" was such a tiny, perfect masterpiece.
Nancy Lebovitz
21. NancyLebovitz
One minor pleasure from The Hobbit-- the Dwarves carry musical instruments when they're questing, and they have songs as a normal way of conveying information.

As for gender, I'm not sure about Bilbo as ungendered, but Tolkien has quite a bit to undercut conventional ideas of masculinity in LOTR-- in particular, the idea that the arts of peace should be valued above the arts of war.

6. Texanne:
Whatever is going on with hobbits, they most assuredly live in their bodies.

Treebeard is the character I suspect was modelled on one or more Oxford dons.

Sauron is literally unembodied, and it's hard to imagine Saruman taking much notice of either physical pain or physical pleasure. I bet he chose his rainbow robes because they fit a theory, and never realised they looked tacky.
Rachel Howe
22. ellarien
Bluejo@11: "The one about the magic silver teapot and all the seasons as people." Oh, my. I read that one too, probably at around 8 or 9 -- and no, I can't remember title or author either, but I remember it had a slightly creepier version of that shimmery, magical feel I loved in Elizabeth Goudge.
Kam-Yung Soh
23. KYSoh
John Rafeliff's "The History of the Hobbit" is a recommended read if you are interested in discovering how The Hobbit came to be how it is today.

There's a section near the end of the book where Rateliff puts in Tolkien's attempt to 're-mould' The Hobbit into the style of "The Lord of the Rings" and I have to agree with the comment on the aborted attempt: "it's good but it's not The Hobbit".
Stefan Jones
24. a1ay
On the servant point: technically Sam isn't really a servant either. He's a gardener. He doesn't live in the same house as Frodo, and he just does the gardening; when Gandalf comes to visit, Frodo gets the tea himself. Pippin's an aristocrat, as far as the Shire goes - he's a Took - but we never hear about the Tooks having servants either.

And I think that Tolkien's making a serious point here about power. Hobbits don't have (or apparently want) servants. Post-Smaug, Bilbo could certainly afford one, but he doesn't. They're also very resistant to the lure of the Ring, which is the embodiment of power over others.

Did Tolkien himself have servants? If he lived in college, he had a scout, but that's not quite the same thing (nor is a soldier-servant for an officer).

The other great thing about The Hobbit is that, as Tolkien noted, all sorts of hints of "things higher and deeper and darker" creep in - you never find out who or what the Necromancer is, or where Gondolin is, but you get hints. Contrast that with the Narnia books: if you hear about something, you're going to see it.
Steven Halter
25. stevenhalter
The Hobbit isn’t as good a book as The Lord of the Rings.

Well, they are certainly different books (and TLotR is 3) and The Hobbit is stylistically simpler than TLotR, but on the whole I prefer The Hobbit. I never liked Frodo as a character nearly as much as Bilbo. Also, there always seemed to be more filler in TLotR than The Hobbit.
James Hogan
26. Sonofthunder
Ahh...The Hobbit. I remember reading this in my middle school library before school. Yep, that's how much I liked it. I do so love the style - instead of being the more intense LotR, The Hobbit is a book to just get lost in and enjoy. And I haven't read it in far too long!! I need to go find a copy. As my sister has my copy thousands of miles away...

Thanks for the lovely post, Jo!
Zdrowie Odchudzanie
27. odchudzanie
I really really like The Lord of the Rings, and it is one of my favorite works. But I loooooove The Hobbit.
Wesley Parish
28. Aladdin_Sane
My experience of The Hobbit is quite a bit different to yours - I undertook a particular English course in High School, which entailed reading The Hobbit as one of its set texts. It seemed a good idea at the time, but I never did any of the work that was required for that particular course. I never got out of the book, re-reading it at least once that year ... then almost immediately following, picking up The Lord of the Rings ...

Prior to that I had traipsed around various - somewhat bowdlerized - English translations of the Graeco-Roman classics and the Norse myths; prior to that I had read a set of books on folktales from the like sof Russia, Yugoslavia, Germany, France, Scotland, etc, and I knew what a Selky, a Lorelei was ...

but before that I'd been warned about, threatened, one might say, one day, with being eaten by the local woodland spirit, the masalai, in Edwaki in the West Sepik District as it was then - just part of the locals trying to take us extpats in and make us over to be like them... so I guess I was kind-of ripe-and-ready for literary encounters of the magical kind.

As far as "gender" goes in The Hobbit, the story's aimed at a very specific audience that is going to take seed-cake over squabbles with the infuriating opposite sex, any day. And Tolkien had mostly sons - he didn't really have any choice in the matter. As I understand it, he had written down some stories he had been telling his children, as a light relief to writing The Silmarrillion -
but I could be wrong.
Stefan Jones
29. Ken Cadow
What a thought-provoking post.

My father read the Hobbit to my brothers and me when I was seven or so. I still feel myself sliding into him as he sat on the edge of my springy old mattress (he sat on my bed because mine was closest to the lamp). I’ve read it to each of my three kids, more than once.

I loved the Hobbit for its completeness: its there-and-back-again. LOTR can’t be called incomplete: the ring must be destroyed, Sauron must be overthrown, and it happens. And most of the hobbits end up back in the Shire. But I loved LOTR for its dependence on histories that were only hinted at. So much of LOTR suggested gateways to other stories, genealogies, places. And in that sense, it was incomplete, despite the appendixes of Book III. When the Silmarillion came out, and later, Unfinished Tales, I read them with the enthusiasm of an explorer. I revisited the trilogy annually for about 20 years in a row, with a feeling that I was the tenth companion, impervious to the snow on the mountain passes because of my elfishness, nobly knowledgeable about the lore of the West because of my bloodlines to Numenor, less affected by the dark of Moria because of my dwarfish affection for tunnels, and totally out of my league, like a hobbit.

Being a male, I never questioned Bilbo’s gender. I think the title of this post: A Merrier World, is cleverly apt. Thorin’s dying words to Bilbo were along the lines of “If men valued song, food, and … ~something~ above hoarded gold and treasure, it would be a merrier world.” In other words (so that I don’t have to misquote), if men were more like Bilbo, the world would be a better place. This, I suppose, could be considered Bilbo’s greatest victory—stubborn, war-prone Thorin, at the end, has come round to his way of thinking. I recall reading in several sources how Tolkein’s experience as a soldier in WWI informed his storytelling. I don’t think Bilbo is gender-ambiguous, I think he represents Tolkein's idea of a more desirable masculine model.
james loyd
30. gaijin
I think we may be reading too much into the gender aspect. Yes, at that time things like cooking and cleaning were considered to be feminine, but keep in mind that Bilbo is a hobbit. Was there ever an invented race more preoccupied (and therefore occupied) with food and the activities surrounding it?

Bilbo keeps a close watch of his pantry's contents, cooks and makes tea, eats, and washes dishes to be ready for the next meal which is likely to take place soon. These things are more ritual than chore.
Andrew Mason
31. AnotherAndrew
The silver teapot story is, I believe, The Winter of Enchantment by Victoria Walker. Thank you for reminding me of it.

It strikes me that the children's fantasy tradition - Nesbit, Goudge, Lewis, Walker, Garner etc. - generally either is set in our world, or begins with a journey from our world, while the adult fantasy tradtion of which LOTR is the classic text tends to be wholly otherworldly. It's interesting how The Hobbit manages to be literally of one kind while creating the effect of the other.

While it's true that there is stuff in The Hobbit that doesn't fit neatly into the world of LOTR, I think this can be exaggerated; there's stuff in LOTR that doesn't fit neatly into its world either - at least if you want its world to be neat. Beorn is still around, and so are the eagles. I think people often take the Free Peoples in the Lore of Living Creatures as a complete list of the intelligent beings of Middle Earth, and get annoyed when there are beings that don't fit into it - but there are actually quite a lot. As I think I've said before, we should remember that these stories have in-story authors, and so a limited viewpoint. The beings whose origin is explained in The Silmarillion are the beings the elves who wrote The Silmarillion knew about.
Stefan Jones
32. DBratman
You're entirely right in discerning that The Hobbit "isn't quite set in the Third Age." Ihe Third Age as we know it from LOTR didn't exist in Tolkien's mind when he wrote The Hobbit, and the relationship between The Hobbit's setting and the few references to the (already written) Silmarillion (e.g. Gondolin) are extremely vague: it's not clear how long ago this stuff happened, if indeed it was very long ago at all. Tolkien is really being playful with the references to his mythology (which his children, The Hobbit's original audience, wouldn't then have read) the way he is with similar references in The Father Christmas Letters and Roverandom.

You are also very discerning in wondering if there's a connection between the stone giants and the Ents. I think there is. The giants are not very much like trolls, who are dull and lumpen. The Ents evolved greatly in the course of writing LOTR, as the published drafts show, and the early version of Treebeard is more alarming, unpredictable, and even nasty - like the implications of Gandalf's description of the giants. (Also, the word "Ent" means giant.)
Stefan Jones
33. a-j
I am also of those of the Free Peoples who prefer The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings. My mother read it to me when I was about 8 or so and I was enchanted, but also horrified that Tolkien had 'cheated' by (SPOILER) killing off some of the dwarves at the final battle. I complained loudly and my mother gently told me the appalling truth that even the goodies can die in war.
I prefer The Hobbit for the reasons Ms Walton states. It's a children's book and a story first which is why, of course, attempts to fit it into the LOTR world tends to be awkward. I like to think of it as a sort of pilot episode which I happen to prefer to the actual series!
Nancy Lebovitz
34. NancyLebovitz
24. asay:

I agree-- hobbits are probably less hieracrchical than humans, just as they're less violent.

Also, it's convenient for the story that Bilbo has a very uncomplicated household.
Stefan Jones
35. HelenS
I would like to add that I'm troubled by the implication in the second sentence that The Hobbit's being a children's book is integral to its being not as good as The Lord of the Rings. I think its flaws show that Tolkien had not fully mastered the form, not that the form itself was undermining Tolkien's storytelling.

Also, if I remember correctly, British children's literature at that time had recently gone through a dreadfully twee period, and was only just beginning to recover. Tolkien wasn't immune, as his early writing shows.
Jo Walton
36. bluejo
Ken Cadow: The whole line is "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world".

I think "cheer" is a sadly thin word in English to carry that weight of meaning -- in Welsh we say "hwyl" and Irish people call it "crack".
Steve Downey
37. sdowney
I've read The Hobbit aloud twice all the way through, for each of my children. And for me, it was definitely one of the gateway drugs into real SF&F.

The deaths in the story were surprising to my boys also. In most kids books, all of the heroes make it back. But, if I recall correctly from CT's histories, The Hobbit was not fully intended to be a children's book, but that was the only acceptable form for telling the story that he wanted to tell.

And today is Bilbo's and Frodo's birthday!
Stefan Jones
38. Youichi
What a coincidence, I *AM* currently reading The Hobbit to my bright six year old and my eight year old who still loves bedtime stories, and we are all loving it.
Lisa Parkin
39. LParkin
Jo- I think you make a lot of really great points about The Hobbit. I read it in middle school and haven't read it since. I never really thought of this book as a children's book...but I guess that's because I was a child and that whole series was a stretch for me- just like trying to wrap my brain around the other high school reading level books I was attempting.

It is very interesting that that book is obviously apart of the story of The Lord of the Rings but is obviously set apart from it. Like you mentioned, Bilbo uses the ring often without many consequences and easily and un-messily solves all the challenges that he faces.

Maybe Tolkien fans can just think of The Hobbit as a necessary introduction into the fabulous world of Bilbo, Frodo and the gang and enjoy watching the (pending) movie-version. :)


Chuk Goodin
40. Chuk
After all, it’s not much of a complaint to say that something isn’t as good as the best book in the world.

But you didn't say that.
Stefan Jones
41. Dr. Thanatos
Happy Birthday Bilbo and Frodo!

For those interested in the ongoing legal battle between the Baggins family and Smeagol, check out the Reread of "The Land of Shadow"
Stefan Jones
42. Janice in GA
I commend to you all the class and lectures from The Tolkien Professor, most of which are available by podcast. He has a series on The Hobbit, and his Tolkien class lectures include the Silmarillion and the LotR.

I think I read The Lord of the Rings first, when I was 15. It hadn't been available in paperback in the US for very long IIRC. Later on I came to the Hobbit, and I bought the Silmarillion as soon as it came out in 1977 (I think.)
Stefan Jones
43. (still) Steve Morrison

The maps were indeed in the first edition; several of Tolkien’s letters from that period (to his publishers) discuss them.
Stefan Jones
44. Marc Rikmenspoel
Tolkien has inspired many Metal bands (and other musicians) over the years. My favorite such music is the Austrian Ambient Black Metal project Summoning, which is the work of Richard "Protector" Lederer and Michael "Silenius" Gregor. Much of their best work takes its inspiration from The Book of Lost Tales and The Lays of Beleriand, but they've plundered poems and lyrics from LotR and The Hobbit too.

In particular, on Summoning's Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame album there is a trio of songs that are based around the marching song of the Dwarves found early and late in The Hobbit. The Summoning pieces are titled In Hollow Halls Beneath the Fells, Our Foes Shall Fall, and The Mountain King's Return. The latter two are among my favorites of Protector and Silenius' works, and I can't listen to them without thinking of The Hobbit, or read the book without hearing those songs in my head.

Summoning are an acquired taste, but those of us who like them tend to REALLY like them ;-)
Wesley Parish
45. Aladdin_Sane
I wonder if it's worth pointing out that The Hobbit took shape in a milieu of gnomes, treacle-addled morality, and fairies at the bottom of the garden?

I remember reading some of those books as a child, courtesy of my maternal grandmother, who had somehow managed to accumulate a number of such stories for her grandchildren, and also, courtesy of some other relatives, most of whom I've forgotten. (One of the only stories I can still recall with approval was in a Boy's Annual volume, or some such thing, and gave the tale of a knight who decided to fight a demon infesting his lands. The train driver wondered why the man in the shiny suit atop a horse didn't move before the steamtrain ran him down. :)

Of course The Hobbit starts off in the style it does - an adult child getting shoved into an adventure. Though that indicates just how it differs from those stories - Bilbo has practically no external responsibilities: he's a child. But he's got his own house and does everything for himself: he's an adult.

But the Battle of the Five Armies is Old English/Old Norse in its savagery. And the question of compensation for Laketown after Smaug has had his fun, that is definitely not your average child's adventure.

It's been a few years since I last re-read it. It may be time to dust it off and open the dread covers ... the road goes ever on and on ....
Stefan Jones
46. Tehanu
Some of the poetry in The Hobbit is at least as good as the hobbit songs in LOTR:

Sing all ye joyful, now sing all together!
The wind's in the treetops, the wind's in the heather,
The stars are in blossom, the Moon is in flower,
And bright are the windows of Night in her bower!

I'm quoting from memory - think I got it right.
Stefan Jones
47. pilgrimsoul
I enjoyed the Hobbit which I read after I read LOTR. When JRRT could transcend ideas of what he thought a children's story should be there are moments of great beauty and wonder.
Stefan Jones
48. a-j
I wonder if there may be a correlation between those of us who prefer The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings and those of us who like the Tom Bombadil bit in the latter? Certainly I loved the mystery of Gandalf in the former and was slightly disappointed when it was 'explained' in LOTR and its appendices. Tom Bombadil fulfils a similar role in the later book. Just a thought.
Jo Walton
49. bluejo
a-j: I am very fond of Bombadil, and I like LOTR better. But when I was reading The Silmarillion for the first time and I discovered Olorin, and recognised it as Gandalf's name in the West when he was young I actually bounced out of my chair.

I think we like mysteries because we can go on talking about them and coming up with new answers. We would say want them to be solved, to be solvable, but really I think some of us are happier with things that are open than things that are nailed down.
Stefan Jones
50. pilgrimsoul
When I read LOTR for the first time Bombadil made me tired. He grew on me after I saw the work as a whole. Maybe he fits more into the world of the Hobbit? Can folks comment on their reactions?
Stefan Jones
51. (still) Steve Morrison

Tolkien said something like this himself, several times. In one of his letters to his son Christopher, he wrote:
those who enjoy the book as an ‘heroic romance’ only, and find ‘unexplained vistas’ part of the literary effect, will neglect the appendices, very properly.

and in another:

A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving. I think you are moved by Celebrimbor because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed, distant trees (like Niggle’s) never to be approached – or if so only to become ‘near trees’ (unless in Paradise or N’s Parish).

Stefan Jones
54. A. Temple
"For children" unfortunately often implies lesser, or not as good, not as worthwhile. Tolkien himself wrote about this attitude in On Fairy-Stories.

You may be reading too much into The Hobbit regarding gender roles. Adults who do for themselves are not necessarily women or children. Men who like beautiful clothes need not be women or effeminate. In former times, beautiful clothes bespoke the gentleman, not the 'invert'.

You of course take 1938 British values (as you have read of and perceive them) into account; whose 1938 values are another matter. Tolkien's values were not exactly those of 1938 Oxford, but of earlier times and places.

He said the hobbits were "just rustic English people" -- as he saw and remembered them from his Midlands childhood. They wouldn't have had servants.

He said he was "a hobbit in all but size." He made it clear that they live not the life he lived, but that he would wish to.

I believe it's not that there's a lot of the conventionally feminine in Bilbo; but that there's a lot of Tolkien in Bilbo.

Vicki Rosenzweig
55. vicki
OK, Tolkien said that Beorn was a Man, though a skin-changer, but I still think of him as being, like Tom Bombadil, sui generis; they both seem strongly connected to the bit of the world they live in, and protect.
Vicki Rosenzweig
56. vicki
OK, Tolkien said that Beorn was a Man, though a skin-changer, but I still think of him as being, like Tom Bombadil, sui generis; they both seem strongly connected to the bit of the world they live in, and protect.
Chin Bawambi
57. bawambi
I actually read LOTR every year - usually around Christmastime but I always read The Hobbit first. I feel that The Hobbit is not only part of Middle Earth but feels more like it than The Silmarillion ever did to me.
Chin Bawambi
58. bawambi
Edited for double-post. I actually think that Tolkien's use of ambiguous genders as we are used to them enhanced the fantasy as it makes Hobbits clearly not human.
Stefan Jones
59. pilgrimsoul
@ bawambi 58
Did you mean this? "Hobbits clearly not human" clearly they ARE and the West Midlands late 19th century version of Englishhumans.
Stefan Jones
60. Jinian
Seriously, Aladdin_Sane @ 28? Tolkien had no choice in his characters' gender due to having mostly sons? I hope I've misunderstood! Since we still don't have uterine replicators (dammit), it seems inescapable that he had at the very least met a woman in his life to get those sons upon. I realize Writing the Other hadn't been published yet, but come on.
Andrew Mason
61. AnotherAndrew
Jinian: I think what Aladdin Sane was saying was that Tolkien would not have been well-advised to write about women in this instance because the story was specifically aimed at his sons. it's a matter of audience reaction, not of what he knew about. He was not, in general, incapable of writing about women; there are plenty of female characters in the First Age works. Why there are so few (though not none, and a couple of prominent and active ones) in LOTR is a vexed question, much debated during the re-read.
Jo Walton
62. bluejo
AnotherAndrew: The existence of Jane and Priscilla Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien's daughters, appears to have been elided in this discussion.
Stefan Jones
63. pilgrimsoul
@ bluejo 62
I know about Priscilla. I am certain I have never come across a mention of Jane. Where did you find her?
Andrew Mason
64. AnotherAndrew
bluejo@62: Well, both the previous participants in the discussion said 'mostly', so I don't think Priscilla is being wholly elided.

What consequences this has for The Hobbit would depend on dates. How old was Priscilla when the stories were being told? (If, indeed, they were told to children in the first place, which doesn't seem to be certain.)
Stefan Jones
65. HelenS
Tolkien had an aunt called Jane Suffield, but no daughter Jane. Priscilla was born in 1929 and The Hobbit was published in 1937.


"The Hobbit" wasn't written for children, and it certainly wasn't done just for the amusement of Tolkien's three sons and one daughter, as is generally reported. "That's all sob stuff. No, of course, I didn't. If you're a youngish man and you don't want to be made fun of, you say you're writing for children. At any rate, children are your immediate audience and you write or tell them stories, for which they are mildly grateful: long rambling stories at bedtime. "

'The Hobbit' was written in what I should now regard as bad style, as if one were talking to children. There's nothing my children loathed more. They taught me a lesson. Anything that in any way marked out 'The Hobbit' as for children instead of just for people, they disliked-instinctively. I did too, now that I think about it. All this 'I won't tell you any more, you think about it' stuff. Oh no, they loathe it; it's awful."

So it sounds to me as though he did tell them some of the stories from The Hobbit, because the stories were there to be told, but not because he was specially making the stories for them. There's a subtle difference. The Father Christmas letters and such, now, those were definitely for the children, but he wasn't talking about those to the NYT reporter.
Stefan Jones
66. Timothee
Feminist's crap. - That little directions given to the readers (stupid kids, Jo?) to discover - is Bilbo's (so-called) "gender" clear or not? - simply wonderful! - Pretty good feminist-insider job . But also easy to track. I think I'm not interested in reading more Jo Walton's feminist literary criticism. And I do think that Tor publishing house should avoid people with such obvious agenda - for me it's enough (goin' back to cooking and house keeping - woman's stuff as Jo Walton suggests) - you now see what hypocrisy is by the way - once men bashing for not cooking, then for cooking. Pathetic.
Stefan Jones
67. Bilbo's Boots
Always amusing to see what offends, but I thought the suggestion about Bilbo's gender was a hoot. And Hatgirl's idea that Merry might have been a girl is one I'll suggest to my kids as I'm reading to them. Fun, that's what it's about, and after you've read the books thirty times over the years, every new perspective is another leaf to turn over. Nice post.

And hey, did you ever notice that Bilbo also never "settles down and gets married," instead taking in his young nephew, who lives with him for years, and who then also never marries after Bilbo's departure?Wonderful new facets to Tolkien's work! Much serious work to be done.
Brandon Lammers
68. wickedkinetic
I think the reason for the bachelor Baggins is because its a different sort of story if they're abandoning their family on a reckless adventure they probably won't survive...

and I don't think 1 NYT's article is evidence that he did not spend years telling his kid's stories and then used that as source material for his works. his first written (and unpublished or unsuccessful originally) kids work was Roverandom - heavily influenced and written specifically for his children, also starting as bed-time stories....

it has many more similarities to the Hobbit then the LOTR works. you can tell he is an inexperienced writer - and the constantly moving structure highly-dense 37-act (as opposed to 3 act) design of both stories - all the adventures and encounters packed on top of each other - speak to the need to keep the attention of young children, come up with something random and unexpected to follow up wherever last night's story left off - I can't believe the bedtime stories legend is all fallacy -

I do agree the quotes from that article evidence his desire to reinvent fantasy literature as a respectable genre for grown-ups - which he can definitely be credited with to a HUGE extent - but the Hobbit was published and marketed as a kids book and was written in a very kid-friendly way - perhaps it was the nature of the times that he knew it was the only way he'd get it published....

also wanted to point out that I believe the narrator of these books is believed to be Bilbo himself - so throwing in things like 'poor hobbit' and the like have an entertaining irony for me - I believe it is part of the tolkien lore that Bilbo wrote down his own adventures and then later wrote down Frodo's as well....

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