The Literary Power of Hobbits: How JRR Tolkien Shaped Modern Fantasy

When I first read The Lord of the Rings in 1957 I had the now-impossible experience of reading a book I had never heard of by an unknown author. It was an unforgettable and unrepeatable experience, and I’ve never lost the sheer wonder of that discovery, compared by C. S. Lewis to lightning from a clear sky. I still envy my past self, getting to read Tolkien for the first time. If I could live one event in my life over, it would be that one.

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Failing that, I did the next best thing; I read it to my children. Then, as a newly-returning graduate-school assistant, I read it to my students and found in them an audience ready and waiting for what Tolkien had to offer. In the face of academic skepticism, I wrote my PhD dissertation on Tolkien and have been lucky enough to teach and lecture on and write about J.R.R. Tolkien for the past fifty years. I’m still doing it.

The popular notion is that J.R.R. Tolkien single-handedly transformed the genre of modern fantasy. This is just plain wrong.  Tolkien did not transform modern fantasy. He invented it.

It is safe to say that no such formally recognized genre was popular before he wrote. What passed for fantasy before 1954 was the work of niche authors such as Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, William Morris and Mervyn Peake. Their fantastic works—Dunsany’s were whimsical short (sometimes very short) stories—were either culturally derivative (Dunsany’s Irish, Morris’s Norse) or personally idiosyncratic (Eddison’s conceit that all his major characters are avatars of one another, and his pseudo-Jacobean diction, Peake’s grotesque self-enclosed castle-world).

The appearance of The Lord of the Rings was a seismic event in popular culture, not just giving rise to generations of second-rate imitators (though it did that as well), but creating an audience that had not previously existed. The marketing since then has been relentless and not over-scrupulous.

Tolkien did not transform modern fantasy. He invented it.

I recently pulled a book off a shelf in the fantasy section of my local bookstore that said “Tolkien” on the cover.  None of it was by the man himself. It was a collection of maps drawn by other hands in conformity with Tolkien’s descriptions of his world.

The book that Tolkien presented to the reading public back in 1956, while it borrowed unabashedly from the great treasure trove of Northern European mythology, was something greater than the sum of its parts.

Readers were introduced to a world they had always wanted but never dreamed they could have, a world called Middle-earth (Anglo-Saxon Middangeard, Old Icelandic My∂gard), a world wherein the fantastic met the mundane, where Elves and wizards and talking trees and the terrifying because ill-defined Dark Lord—in short, fantasy at its most fantastic—shared space with pubs and post offices and beer and bread and cheese and mushrooms.

This extended narrative, variously called a novel, a trilogy and a saga (it was none of these) was unique, a one-of-a-kind work that established a new literary genre and spawned a host of imitators. It has given rise to a number of sub-categories such as urban fantasy, and is frequently bundled with science fiction, as in the work of Ursula Le Guin. Of Tolkien’s seven and counting decades of followers, a few have grasped the form but most (Le Guin is an exception) have missed the essence of what Tolkien called a Secondary World.

Tolkien didn’t just write fantasy; he wrote about it. His seminal essay “On Fairy-stories” is one of the great theoretical discussions of the technique and content of fantasy, right up there with Spenser and Coleridge.

To him fantasy was not just a literary genre, not just a particular kind of fiction; it was a Secondary World with its own laws and conventions, and it commanded Secondary Belief. It was a world you could enter, a world you could also, if you had the imagination, the desire and the skill, create.

This world he called Faërie, and there is no more important noun or verb (for it is both) in his lexicon. Faërie (he also spelled it fayery—compare “cookery,” “witchery”) means “enchantment,” the process or practice of enchanting, and the altered state of being enchanted, put under the spell of words.

It wasn’t magic, which he dismissed as artifice, manipulation of the real world. It was was what he called “sub-creation,” the imitation by mortals of the work of God the original Creator, in which, declared unequivocally, “We make still by the law in which we’re made.”

Calling creativity a “law” makes it sound inevitable, like gravity or the rule of three;  but it isn’t inevitable, and Tolkien didn’t think it was easy. For him it required what he called “elvish skill,” and the “inner consistency of reality.” In other words, you can’t just say “Once upon a time” and leave it at that; your fantasy world has to stay true to tits own norms.

If you give your Secondary World a green sun, all its colors will be commensurately different from those in our world. If your hobbits are three feet tall they won’t live in high rises. Their homes will fit into holes in the ground and have low ceilings.

Much of the success of Tolkien’s world is due to the purity of his original purpose, which was not to write fantasy but to create a so-called mythology for England, a fictive replacement for a presumed lost English myth overridden by Christianity.

He called his myth the Silmarillion after its central artifacts the Silmarils, three jewels whose possession was the initial cause of its all-consuming war. Its world was called Arda, its gods were called Valar, its inhabitants included Elves and eventually Men (humans), and rather grudgingly, Dwarves. The story is about war and is the first and most persuasive evidence that Tolkien may as legitimately be called a war writer as a fantasist.

Hobbits were no part of Tolkien’s original plan. They entered rather late and through a side door, as the unexpected central characters in a children’s story, The Hobbit which Tolkien invented for his own children but which found an immediate and lasting worldwide audience. And of which The Lord of the Rings was the commissioned, longed-awaited and trebly successful sequel.

Tolkien’s personal folklore (a genre fathered and furthered by him) holds that in an idle moment he scrawled on the blank last page of an exam he was grading: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” and then invented a story to go with it.  This is disingenuous. However legitimate the story, the word hobbit was itself pre-existent; it occurs in a nineteenth century collection of folklore called The Denham Tracts, but the oracular Oxford English Dictionary continues to credit Tolkien.

It was the hobbits’ down-to-earthiness and common humanity that grounded the rather high-flown Elvish world of the Silmarillion and made it accessible.

It was the hobbits’ down-to-earthiness and common humanity that grounded the rather high-flown Elvish world of the Silmarillion and made it accessible. It was also and almost inadvertently, the hobbits who gave it faërie.  There was something paradoxically enchanting about their mix of small but not elfin (what the Brits call “twee”) with pubs and fireworks and railway trains.

It wasn’t magic and it shouldn’t have worked. But it did. The world can be grateful.


Spiderweb Alley - Flieger, Verlyn

Spiderweb Alley by Verlyn Flieger is available via Gabbro Head.

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