Origins of The Hobbit
A CultureMap®
by Nat Bennett
Published on 12/16/13

Building on his success in adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for the big screen, New Zealand–based director Peter Jackson has turned Tolkien’s Hobbit—a slim fairy story—into a hefty trilogy of special effects–laden films. This map goes back to the source and looks at what influenced Tolkien as he created Middle-earth, a land that evokes northern European legends in which unlikely heroes struggle against great powers of evil.

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J.R.R. Tolkien  (1892–1973 | English author)
to  The Hobbit  (J.R.R. Tolkien | novel | 1937)

In a 1955 letter to English-born poet W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkien explains the origin of The Hobbit. The idea came to him in the late 1920s as he was grading papers at Oxford University. Suddenly seized by inspiration, he found a blank page and wrote the opening line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Not sure exactly what a hobbit was and wanting to find out, Tolkien began working on his first novel.

Tolkien had already spent decades imagining Middle-earth, which became the setting for the adventures of his hobbit protagonist, Bilbo Baggins. In 1916, following his return from the trenches of World War I, Tolkien wrote what he called his “Book of Lost Tales,” and in the decades that followed, he published several poems in academic and other journals. But before The Hobbit, Tolkien had not sought a readership wider than his own family and friends for his mythlike stories of a world of magical powers, exotic creatures and legendary bravery and betrayal. In Bilbo, Tolkien created an endearingly reluctant hero who, despite his small stature and hairy feet, gives a human-like aspect to the race that inhabits his fantastical Middle-earth.

J.R.R. Tolkien  (1892–1973 | English author)
to  World War I  (1914–1918)

J.R.R. Tolkien arrived in France in June 1916 and served as a signal officer for the British army. Within weeks he had participated in the Somme offensive, which, after one day, left 20,000 British soldiers dead and nearly twice as many wounded. Tolkien described the ensuing weeks as an education in the “animal horror of active service.” In the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, John Garth speculates that World War I provided Tolkien with “key themes, such as mortality and immortality”; it “probably contributed to his desire to create ‘a national epic,’ and…may have also helped to reveal to him the interdependency of language and mythology.”

Tolkien argued against allegorical interpretations of his stories—he insisted they were not meant to represent events in his own era. It is impossible, however, not to view Tolkien’s adventures as reflections of his wartime experiences. Indeed, the author wrote some of the poems and stories that later became The Silmarillion, his posthumously published prequel to The Hobbit, in the trenches during the Great War. In his tales of Middle-earth, readers see the terror and glory of the battlefield and the courage that can arise amid events controlled by vast and shadowy forces.

J.R.R. Tolkien  (1892–1973 | English author)
to  Beowulf  (author unknown | epic poem | 8th century)

A philology professor at Oxford University, Tolkien made important contributions to traditional scholarship before he became admired for his fantasy stories. The author’s most enduring legacy as a scholar of English literature is perhaps his lecture entitled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” in which he presents what came to be a widely accepted defense of the literary importance of Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem about a warrior hero in Scandinavia. Tolkien criticized his fellow academics who had dismissed Beowulf as a mere curiosity or at best a source of cultural information about aspects of the Anglo-Saxon past. Instead, Tolkien insisted, readers value it as an epic poem that—by way of its fantastical elements (dragons and monsters)—conveys a distinct Old English aesthetic. As Tolkien puts it, “Beowulf is not an actual picture of historic Denmark or Geatland or Sweden about A.D. 500. But it is (if with certain minor defects) on a general view a self-consistent picture, a construction bearing clearly the marks of design and thought.” Tolkien set the same standard for his own writing. Behind The Hobbit’s seemingly juvenile quest story lies Middle-earth, a vast world Tolkien carefully crafted and reconsidered over many decades.

The Lord of the Rings  (J.R.R. Tolkien | novel | 1954–1955)
to  The Hobbit  (J.R.R. Tolkien | novel | 1937)

According to J.R.R. Tolkien scholar John D. Rateliff, Tolkien’s first draft of The Hobbit was simply a tale to tell his children at their “fireside reads.” The novel changed considerably as Tolkien wrote and rewrote it. For instance, Tolkien had originally intended for Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit, to kill the dragon Smaug. But by the time Tolkien got the hobbit to the dragon’s lair at Lonely Mountain, Bilbo had become a cunning trickster figure. He is a sly fox, not a dragonslayer.

Tolkien revised The Hobbit even after its publication. He realized while writing The Lord of the Rings that the version of Middle-earth he developed for the longer novel did not resemble the one he had sketched in The Hobbit. For example, he revised the Hobbit chapter “Riddles in the Dark,” which introduces readers to the creeping, wheedling Gollum. This is where Bilbo obtains the ring of power that gives rise to The Lord of the Rings. The original version, however, offered no hint of the ring’s sinister nature. Rateliff reveals that Tolkien began to rewrite the lighter Hobbit to match the darker style of Rings. But as with so many of Tolkien’s writing projects, he abandoned it.

The Lord of the Rings  (J.R.R. Tolkien | novel | 1954–1955)
to  Norse Sagas  (authors unknown | Scandinavian myths | 12th–14th centuries)

The Norse sagas are a diverse collection of stories, some adapted from oral histories developed over centuries. The sagas incorporate poetry in an otherwise direct, spare prose style to depict the history, battles and family feuds of medieval Iceland (saga derives from an Old Norse word meaning “to tell”). J.R.R. Tolkien admired the sagas and lamented that the English language lacked a rich body of early literature—all that exist are a handful of scraps and few complete works, the most famous of which is the epic poem Beowulf. The French-language romances about King Arthur, despite their depictions of England, didn’t satisfy Tolkien the philologist.

Tolkien’s stories, most prominently The Lord of the Rings, demonstrate his attempt to create a mythical English history written in the native tongue. For The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien adopted the Norse form of prose narrative interspersed with verse stanzas. He also borrowed many of the sagas’ themes—prophetic second sight, named weapons, danger from the east—and elements, such as dwarves, trolls, battle animals and shapeshifters. Like the sagas, The Lord of the Rings chronicles the adventures of striving mortals caught in the dire crosscurrents of powerful magic.

World War I  (1914–1918)
to  The Lord of the Rings  (J.R.R. Tolkien | novel | 1954–1955)

The Lord of the Rings revels in battles fought by armed cavalry, bowmen and foot soldiers with swords and spears. But the novel also alludes to the mechanized warfare introduced during World War I, in which J.R.R. Tolkien served. The aerial attacks of the Nazgûl recall the devastation wreaked by biplanes, and the destructive oliphants charging through the Rohan ranks may remind some readers of WWI-era armored tanks.

In one of the most exciting scenes from The Two Towers (2002), part two of Peter Jackson’s first trilogy of Tolkien-inspired films, tree-like creatures called Ents lay waste to the fortress of Isengard and the iron machines of the evil wizard Saruman. This extensive battle—only briefly recounted in the book—takes place in a world where an unnatural escalation of warfare can be turned back by harnessing the power of nature. Jackson’s film allows viewers (especially fans of the book who have imagined this scene) to relish an epic showdown uncomplicated by the morally and philosophically complex questions raised by World War I, which pitted men from supposedly civilized nations against one another.

World War I  (1914–1918)
to  New Zealand

The hobbits’ bravery in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional War of the Ring echoes New Zealand’s sacrifice in World War I. Still a tiny rural nation at the outbreak of the war, New Zealand sent more than 10 percent of its 1 million citizens overseas to participate in the conflict. Of those, nearly 20,000 gave their lives—2,700 at the battle of Gallipoli and 12,500 on the western front. Although fighting to support England (New Zealand was then a dominion of the British Empire), the country also sought to preserve itself. Too small to defend its own borders and in need of the British market to purchase its wool and dairy products, New Zealand counted on the British navy to clear trade routes.

New Zealand’s participation in the Great War established a national symbol when its soldiers adopted a name for themselves: Kiwis. The kiwi is a flightless bird that was able to evolve on the New Zealand landmass because it lacked predatory mammals. Weak-sighted and nocturnal, kiwis are threatened with extinction, but they are highly alert, can run as fast as a human and can defend themselves with a surprisingly vicious slashing attack from their sharp claws.

The Hobbit  (J.R.R. Tolkien | novel | 1937)
to  New Zealand

Filmed in director Peter Jackson’s native New Zealand, the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films form one giant travel advertisement. According to The Christian Science Monitor, the “annual tourist influx to New Zealand jumped from 1.7 million in 2000 to 2.4 million” in 2006, a 40 percent surge. New Zealand’s official travel website lists 60 separate Rings tours of the breathtaking locations that stood in for the mythical landscapes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories—such as Kaitoke Regional Park, the real-world version of the film’s elven enclave Rivendell, and Tongariro National Park, where the filmmakers staged the heroes’ ascent of Mount Doom.

While these tours show off New Zealand’s natural beauty, a few go a step further and offer a re-creation of life in Middle-earth. One, the Lord of the Rings half-day tour from Southern Lakes Sightseeing, “includes elevenses (morning tea for hobbits).” But perhaps most popular is a farm in the rural town of Matamata, which served as the location for Hobbiton in all of Jackson’s Tolkien films. After the Rings trilogy the New Zealand government left Hobbiton in place to attract tourists, but the set was closed to the public during principal photography for the three Hobbit films.

Beowulf  (author unknown | epic poem | 8th century)
to  Norse Sagas  (authors unknown | Scandinavian myths | 12th–14th centuries)

Beowulf is the Anglo-Saxon national epic of England but, like the Norse sagas, it takes place in Scandinavia. Many scholars believe that an oral tradition as rich as the sagas once existed in Britain and that Beowulf is but one exemplar from a much larger body of stories and poems that were lost. The first blow to the preservation of Old English literature occurred when, following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the English aristocracy began to favor the French literary forms of ballads and romances. (The Normans, descended from Norse Vikings, lived for centuries in the region of northern France that came to be known as Normandy.) Industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries dealt the second great blow when masses of people moved from the countryside to the cities, dismantling local storytelling traditions that had flourished in rural communities. But echoes of the historical sagas and fairy stories lived on. As Oxford professor John Earle explains, “It would be true to say that the Norman Conquest dealt a fatal blow to Anglo-Saxon literature; but it would also be true to say that the cultivation of Anglo-Saxon literature never came to an end at all.”