The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien - Episode1 - Meet The Writer That Created The Fantasy Genre!
Hi, I’m Christy Shriver- and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us.
I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast. This week we begin our adventure into the life and work of one of the greatest fantasy writers of all time- J.R.R Tolkien, the creator of The HOBBIT, the book we are going to read, but also the author of The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. Christy, those are his most important works, but they weren’t his only works.
True- Tolkien was not first and foremost a novelist. In fact, he really wasn’t first and foremost a writer at all, and he didn’t fit into the mold of the writers of his day. He was a contemporary of Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and that whole slew of modern writers, but he was nothing like them and not a part of their world at all. He is the very antithesis of the moto “make it new”.- As Pounds famously stated modern writers should be. And in many ways, he hasn’t been accepted by the literary establishment either of his day or even afterwards. Harold Bloom,, who I read a lot and have a lot of his commentaries, found him moralizing (which I don’t see at all). Many found and find his writing awkward and unprogressive- and in those ways, they weren’t wrong. He can be awkward and he’s deliberately REGRESSIVE not progressive. He was doing a totally different thing- ironically- but an ancient one, not a new one- he was myth making. You could sa, he was making something new, just not in the same way as Pound and his contemporaries. He had no interest in doing that.
It does seem a little ironic that the establishment wanted him to make it NEW in the exact same way as everyone else. Some might suggest that is the very opposite of new.
Well, it’s incredibly ironic- and not without adversity. CS Lewis, Tolkein’s lifelong friend, had a terrible antagonism towards TS Eliot, and they have often been called nemeses- Tolkein stayed out of that fray, as far as I know. But he was writing and defining what imagination was so differently than Fitzgerald and Eliot and all those other writers. I’m not sure- although they both were using words to communicate, their writings should be compared at all. So, let me compare them…
Ha! More irony….Are we going down that road again?
Well, ironically-we are NOT going down that road again. In the modern world, and by that I mean that post ww1 world, psychology was so important. It played such an important role in how writers were writing and what they were trying to write about. Think about Prufrock or Gatsby- there is this deliberate style of manipulating language with puns and metaphors and synechoche and most importantly irony- but these are all semantics= they are playing with the words. Tolkien did absolutely NONE of that. Where as everything is a symbol in Gatsby- Nothing is a symbol in Lord of the Rings. Nothing is allegory, which is why I don’t understand why Bloom finds him particularly moralizing.
Well, the characters do have moral codes and values. And that is kind of a motif all the way through, especially when we start talking about Elves and things.
I guess that’s what he means, but for Tolkien that is a function of the historical nature of myths – the expressions of values of a culture, not in creating personal themes to comment on modern life, modern man, how we should necessarily live our lives. We are NOT supposed to be reflecting on ourselves when we read the Hobbit or any of his books. We are supposed to be getting OUT of ourselves- out of “feelings” as my students say. The stories are sheer fantasy. In the preface to Lord of the Rings, he asserts very emphatically that the book has no symbolic meaning or message, no purpose other than to “hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times, maybe excite them or deeply move them.” He goes on to say that he prefers “history true or feigned to allegory, the latter implies domination by the author, whereas history bestows freedom on the reader, since it represents accidents, real or imagined, as accidents, things that just happen to happen.” And of course that is what we are going to have in the Hobbit- starting with an unexpected party.
From a historical sense, I can see why these books were so immediately successful during the time period Tolkien wrote them. Despite the celebrations, the parties and parades that we see in all the photographs about the end ofWW1- that war left the world in a dark place. It was brutal. There was a silence that characterized it- a deep quiet loss that fell over much of the world. People’s hearts were broken, confused and anguished by the most destructive war the world had ever seen. Historian Paul Johnson has called the First World War “the disastrous epoch for mankind.” No one was untouched by death- that is not hyperbole; that is historical fact.
And that is so hard for people of my generation or younger to understand. For many of us, not all of course, wars are things that happen far away to other people or people who volunteered to go as a career option with very little expectation of dying. That was not that reality for Tolkien. War was personal. Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien’s son said in a documentary I watched on his father that Tolkien was a jovial young man full of friends who all went to war. He himself went to war in March of 1916, was involved in the Somme Offensive and came back to find that every single one of his former classmates, with one exception, was dead.
Well, that was the experience of the entire world. In that offensive you mentioned the British casualty list was over 600,000 in just four months and here’s another brutal reality- there was no ground gained- so basically- it was pretty much pointless death.
Of course, Tolkien’s writings are about death- but not like Eliot’s. For Tolkein, the way out of despair and into delight of what he called the primary world was through the imagination and what he called the secondary world. Another criticism of Tolkien and fantasy literature in general is that it is “escapist”. The accusation is that you don’t like your reality so you’re going to live in an altered one- you deny reality by pretending it doesn’t exist- you escape it. This has always been my criticism of video game world, although I have to be honest and say, my criticism may be unfounded because I don’t know enough about video game world from personal experience. But Tolkien doesn’t look at fantasy that way. He says fantasy fiction doesn’t provide escape as in the sense of a deserter of reality- but for the admirer, reader and creator of fantasy, the purpose of the fantasy is to resist domination or definition by one’s current reality. In other words, it keeps you from being consumed. It empowers the reader to confront the challenges of the primary world.
It's an interesting but subtle distinction- escapism in the first sense is unhealthy and negative, but in the sense he is describing, he is creating a positive force of personal empowerment and coping.
Exactly, and a distinction he was not the first to make. Lots of people have compared Tolkien to the engraver William Blake who we featured a little while back. Blake also believed in a specific definition of imagination and tried to create in what Tolkien would call the primary world his visions of what he saw in his own secondary world- these were his engravings. Blake thought the energy and courage to reinvent the world was the freest form of imagination.
So, Christy, since it’s new book day, you know I want to get into the life and times of Tolkien himself, but since he basically did create a new sub-genre of fantasy- I think it would be helpful, at least for me, to define fantasy per se because I’m not sure I know if I could.
Fantasy literature is something we all are familiar with whether we use that term or not because there have been so many good and popular fantasy worlds that have come after Tolkein- not just books, movies too. So many that we that we all love- Harry Potter, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean. These are fantasies. You might even could say Disney as a whole, really. In some ways, even against Tolkien’s insistence, lots of these are actually metaphorical, how can they not be. But what marks them as fantasies is that they all have aspects of a supernatural world that cannot be our world. They take us out of our world. They have archetypal heroes- a lot of times the heroes are orphans, unlikely heroes. They do things like go on quests. They encounter elements of the Supernatural- things that don’t exist and could never exist in our world. They often find wise counselors, they have traveling companions; they build relationships with wonderful people to travel with, they conquer evil foes. Some of the modern ones DO have social commentary, although Tolkien frowns on that sort of thing and insisted that was a corruption of the genre. I want to read another famous Tolkien quote, and here he sounds very much like the stuffy professor I have him pegged as in my head, “I should like to say something here to the many opinions or guesses that I have received or have read concerning the motives and meaning of the tale. The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of the readers, amuse them, delight them and at times maybe excited them or deeply move them….as for any inner meaning or message it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical…I cordially dislke allegory in all of its manifestations.”
So, you’re saying it’s not an allegory nor does the story mean anything. No symbols.
He is very firm in his continual insistence on that in spite of everyone trying to make something different of his work- it is NOT an allegory. I think people just assume that since he’s best friends with Lewis and Lewis’ children’s stories ARE allegorical than Tolkein’s were too- he is not happy with that assumption.
Well, that and the fact that he was a deeply devoted man of faith.
Yes- that’s true- but so was Eliot and people don’t do that to him. But anyway, I think that’s a good Segway to get into his life story- at least up until the part where we meet Bilbo Baggins and then we will leave the primary world and enter into the secondary world.
Great plan- will we get past the title today, Christy, I know sometimes we don’t.
Yes- the goal is to get through chapter 1, but we’ll see how it goes. You know we don’t want to go past the metaphorical bell at the end of the period.
Ha!! And here I thought we weren’t doing metaphors anymore.
Tolkien does not approve- that’s for sure- and we quite literally are not doing bells anymore either. If you are listening to this in real time, and if you are listening from the United States, this is the second week of June 2021, and most schools around here have finally gotten to summer break after the most notorious school year in our lifetime- Covid School. Many students around the world didn’t have real bells at all this year, but hopefully by the fall- or spring- depending on which side of the equator you live- that will be behind us.
We do sincerely hope and pray that is true.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in South Africa amazingly, where his father worked for the Bank of Africa. The climate as well as the spiders really frightened Tolkien’s young mother, Mabel, so they decided to return to England when little Ronald was just three years old. His father was supposed to come back later on that year, but he contracted rheumatic fever and died in Africa. So, Tolkien himself knew what it was like to have humble origins. Mabel lived a little while with her parents but rented little cottages where she raised her two sons. Probably the most important thing to come out of that time period, as far as we’re concerned today is that Mabel converted to the Roman Catholic faith when JRR was only 8 years old.
Of course, you have to understand this was an unpopular decision for Mabel to make during this time period. England was openly and virulently anti-Catholic during those years. To be Catholic was to be Un-British in the minds of a lot of people.
Well, including her immediate family. They cut her off financially because of her refusal to denounce her Catholic faith. Later in a letter, Tolkien said this about his mother, She was a “gifted lady of great beauty and wit, greatly stricken by God with grief and suffering who died in youth (at 34) of a disease hastened by persecution of her faith.” She died of diabetes, but the financial challenges and the stress of this rejection did not help. Tolkien was only 12 years old when he and his brother Hilary became orphans. Father Francis Morgan, their parish priest, became their legal guardian, took responsibility for them and raised them.
Of course, it’s understandable that part of Tolkien’s absolute commitment to the Catholic faith was in part a tribute to the commitment his mother showed. It was his identity all of his life. But more than that, the values instilled by his mother and Father Francis informed how he viewed the world. The values of Tolkien are also the values of Middle Earth.
I guess you get to do that when you create your own world. Changing subjects a little bit, I want to highlight Tolkien’s love life- it’s kind of sweet. He fell in love with a girl named Edith who was also an orphan. She was three years older and not a Catholic. Father Francis did not approve of this relationship and forbade Tolkien to continue it or even communicate with Edith until he turned 21. Dutiful sweet Tolkien obeyed his guardian and focused on his schooling. His efforts were rewarded by gaining admission into Exeter College, Oxford. He studied English language and literature. What we would call his junior year but five days after turning 21 he revisited Edith. And after she converted to Roman Catholicism, they were formally engaged to be married. Tolkien graduated in 1915, enlisted in the service, received a commission as a second lieutenant, went to training, and in March of 1916, he used his last military leave before going to France to marry Edith. The Tolkien’s were to have 4 children.
Well there you go- finally a happily ever after at least in his personal life.
He did have a happy personal life. Although he was by no means a feminist and very much a man of that generation, they seem to have gotten on very well. He also doted on his children. He made stories for them, and not just The Hobbit- he wrote Christmas stories every year, letters from Santa and he went to a lot of effort, that we know of, to be a very present father. It’s nice.
So moving out of the personal and into the professional, when we see the career choices Tolkien made after the war, it makes sense that so much of his legacy has to do with names, and places, and history of places. It was the driving focus of his life, but I think it’s worth mentioning that the book that would eventually become The Silmarillion-in some sense- 60 years later after he died, he started during the war, even in the trenches but a big chunk of it while recovering from trench fever, in 1917. The myths that are the world he created in all of his stories clearly were spinning in his head from early on and developed over the years really- kind of a sped up version of how myths actually develop.
No doubt- and next week, we will tell a bit of the story of the Silmarillion because it does play a big part in the Hobbit, although indirectly. After the war, Tolkien joined the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary, which I think is pretty cool, did well at that, but eventually became professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University where he stayed for 34 years. Teaching was his passion, and of course I love that. He was dedicated to research and writing and advancing students. He graded lots of papers- something we know a little about.
To be sure.
And the truth be told, he might never have published anything were it not for his friends one being the famous CS Lewis who encouraged him both to write and publish. In 1936, he allowed himself to be talked into submitting for publication a book he called There and Back Again, or The Hobbit. It was a children’s book so the publisher, Stanley Unwin, employed his ten year old son, Rayner to read it for. He paid him one shilling. Garry, I’ve heard that term many times, but I don’t know, to be honest, what a shilling is.
I know, most Americans don’t, and when we study it, we get totally confused because a British pound is worth 20 shillings, half a sovereign is worth 10 shillings, a crown is worth 5, a florin is worth two and there are 12 pennies in a shilling.
Goodness, how did people keep up with it.
Because it was money and in their best interest to do so. The British used this system for centuries- it dates to the Roman Occupation. But just as a reference, for young Rayner, he could buy a pack of gum for 1 penny- so for an entire shilling he could get 12 packs of gum. Great compensation for his raving review of Tolkien’s work. I love his one paragraph critique where he said, now remember he’s 10, the book “should appeal to all children between the ages of 5-9”.
So, in his case, he was too mature for the fantasy?
Maybe so. But he was right. It definitely appealed and more than just that crowd. It sold well. Unwin asked Tolkien to write a sequel, and he did. But it would be another 12 years before we got to the Trilogy that turned him into an icon, The Lord of the Rings.
He had NO idea it would be a turning point in his life. The story of how he even had the idea is mythical. It was the summer of 1930- I watched of Tolkien telling the story. He had just moved into a new house and he was grading a pile of student exams.
That sounds like work.
He did suggest it was terribly dull and mind numbing. When he got to an exam where there was a blank page he got excited. These are his words, “I had an enormous pile of exams…I remember picking up a paper and actually finding…there was one page…that was left blank…So I scribbled on it, I can’t think why. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” And so it began….later on Tolkien decided he would go back went back and imagine what exactly a hobbit was. .
Well, what is it.
Let’s let Tolkien tell us. Read for us his description from page 2.
I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, goodnatured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it). Now you know enough to go on with. As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit of Bilbo Baggins, that is was the fabulous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, head of the hobbits who lived across The Water, the small river that ran at the foot of The Hill. It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbitlike about them, and once in a while members of the Tookclan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer. Not that Belladonna Took ever had any adventures after she became Mrs. Bungo Baggins. Bungo, that was Bilbo's father, built the most luxurious hobbithole for her (and partly with her money) that was to be found either under The Hill or over The Hill or across The Water, and there they remained to the end of their days. Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his makeup from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out. The chance never arrived, until Bilbo Baggins was grown up, being about fifty years old or so, and living in the beautiful hobbithole built by his father, which I have just described for you, until he had in fact apparently settled down immovably.
By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes (neatly brushed) Gandalf came by.
And so we have gone in the hole into the ground and entered into Tolkien’s glorious secondary world. Let me explain a little bit more what that term means, for from what I know, that’s an expression Tolkien made up. For Tolkien the secondary word is a made up consistent, fictional world. What he means by that is that the author creates the parameters and then respects those parameters. There must be internal consistency or it can’t be a real place in our minds. When we suspend our reality and enter into this secondary world, we must understand the rules of this new world and they can have a life of their own. For example, in Star Wars, we can believe you can fly in an X-Wing Fighter and kill people with light sabers because those are consistent realities in that world. We can also believe there is a force and it can make you levitate. It makes sense according to the rules Lucas created when he created that secondary world. In Tolkein’s case as well as Lucas’, the secondary world has its own geography, languages, timelines, genealogy and everything is interdependent. It all makes sense in that imagined world. In my copy of the book, before you even get to page one there are two maps and one of them has words written in Elvish that I can’t even read because the letters aren’t in a real alphabet in the primary world.
Is it true, because I’ve always heard this, that Tolkien made up his own languages.
It is absolutely true, and we’ll talk more about this next week when we talk about the Silmarillion and the elves and the first and second ages and all the back story that goes on before the first hobbit, little Bilbo, ever shows up. But what’s so interesting, is that for Tolkien the languages came before the story. Tolkien LOVED languages and words and the history of words He spoke over 35 languages himself – several of them dead like Latin and Old Norse. He really understood what languages were about. So when he wrote Quenya or high elvish, which is just one of the dozens of languages Tolkien dreamed up for the inhabitants of Middle Earth- to be more specific Quenya is part of the Elvish language family which alone has over 15 languages and dialects- he wrote a complete language in the way that a language would be created. He even invented a sign language for the dwarfs. One time Tolkein actually said he wished the book wasn’t even in English, he said, this, “I should have preferred to write in Elvish.”
WhatAnd how is that even possible?
Because he completely understood how languages evolve. His languages, I will say, didn’t have a complete vocabulary because they didn’t need one. There’s no word for pepperoni pizza because he didn’t need that word, but there would be a word for the things that he needed words for. AND the words would make sense- their etymologies would align with each other. Their phonetics were consistent. He didn’t just put any sounds together that he wanted to- they made sense within the language he was inventing. This is what I mean, I don’t speak Japanese, but I lived there for a year, so I can recognize Japanese when I hear it. I know the sounds they make, how they fit together, and if someone were to say jibberish and call it Japanese, I would know immediately they were full of garbage. He created languages that had unique cadences, grammatical patterns and words that were consistently connected to each other. It’s crazy.
And he did it for the sport of it?
It’s incredible. This is what he said, “The basic pleasure in the phonetic elements of a language and in the style of their patterns, and in then in the higher dimension, pleasure in the association of these word-forms with meanings, is of fundamental importance. This pleasure is quite distinct from the practical knowlesge of a language, and not the same as an analytic understanding of its structure. It is simpler, deeper-rooted and yet more immediate than the enjoyment of literature.
He loved words for their own sake- not for what they could do.
Exactly, and he learned them not to speak them. I mentioned he spoke all those languages- that’s probably not totally true. He could read and write in all those languages- he may not have been a fluent speaker like we think of today.
I know we need to get back to Hobbits because that was my first question, but let me ask one more question about these languages- why make up so many? Just because you can.
Partly maybe, Tolkien understand language is intimately connected with culture. He completely dismissed Esperanto- that universal make up language was supposed to facilitate communication between people. Language has history and mythology and legends. Names are stories. “Memphis” is actually the Greek adaptation of “Men-nefer,” meaning “enduring and beautiful.” The Egyptian city was capital of ancient lower Egypt around 3000 BC. The Tennessee city was named for its relation to the river. And so, for him- to create a secondary world, it just had to have all of that or it didn’t exist at all.
And so where did the inspiration come from the Hobbit?
Hobbits are US. They are identical to humans with whom we can identify., Hobbits are specifically Middle class British citizens of the early part of the 20st century who lived in the area. They are English people coping in a world that is fantastical, challenging, far too big for them. When we meet Bilbo Baggins he’s doing what English do- drinking tea. And he’s very English in his tastes and attitudes not so much English of today, but the English of Tolkien’s day. In chapter one, the dwarfs are not impressed with him at all. They see no value in him at first. Gandalf insists they bring him so they won’t have an unlucky traveling number and he claims he’s a burglar, but every reader can tell that’s not who he is. He’s running around as a good host. Offering to be at everyone’s service. What Tolkien represents for us in this first chapter is an entry point into the secondary world. One way he does it is through the language. Notice how Bilbo speaks. “Don’t wait to knock! Tea at Four! What about a little light?” He’s speaking the way we speak in the real world. But look how Gandalf speaks, he speaks with these archaic speech patterns that let us know, he’s not from our world. It’s subtle, but it gives us a place to start.
We can also see the difference in the two worlds by the values. Bilbo values respectability, hospitality, his appearance, his garden. The dwarfs and Gandalf have these lofty values of combat, courage, things of heroes and legends.
And just like us, when Bilbo listens to them talk he gets caught up in the magic of it, the excitement of it.
Oh yes, his Took side.
Yes- because if you are reading a fantasy- you must by definition have a Took side- or you wouldn’t be reading the tale. But also, if you are reading at all, you likely have a part of you that is a Baggins.
There is a very famous letter by Tolkien where he said this, ““I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats”.
Exactly, and just like Bilbo, we too are to be taken in- invited into this wonderful secondary world with beautiful landscapes, trolls and orcs, elves and dwarfs and of course- let’s not forget
Oh no, we definitely cannot forget dragons.
For over the misty mountains cold to dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day to seek the pale enchanted gold.
The dwarves of yore….read page 14
And next week, I guess that’s where we’ll go- into the caves and through the mountains looking for gold and adventure. We hoped you enjoyed this first discussion of The Hobbit. Next week, we’ll begin our journey to the Misty Mountain, learn about elves and orcs and all the ages of Middle Earth.