Hobbit: From Children's Story To Mythic Creation

2044 words - 8 pages

Hobbit: From Children's Story to Mythic Creation

"Mr. Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it - so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge."

-J.R.R Tolkien, letter to his publisher (quoted in Carpenter 1977, 182).

The Hobbit started as little more than a bedtime story for Tolkien's children. Like most of his fellow academics, Tolkien viewed fantasy as limited to childhood. The result was a book written in a chatty, informal style that contrasts sharply with that of its serious successors. The narrator makes frequent patronising and intrusive asides, such as "And what would you do, if an uninvited dwarf came and hung his things up in your hall without a word of explanation?" (H, 18). The language approximates baby-talk at times (nasty, dirty wet hole oozy smell"), and modifiers ("terribly", "lots and lots") abound.

Many critics, including Tolkien himself, have viewed this as the chief weakness of the book. Although the tone does evoke the oral tradition through which myths were originally created, it detracts from the power of the book. It renders villains are more comic than truly threatening, its heroes more endearing than awe-inspiring. One commentator feels that The Hobbit "lacks a certain intellectual weight" and "deserves little serious, purely literary criticism" (Helms 1974: 53).

The important words here are "purely literary". The novel cannot be studied in isolation, but must be seen against the broader backdrop of Tolkien's literary philosophy and the entire mythic tradition. For the writing of The Hobbit both influenced and was influenced by the profound intellectual change its author was undergoing, namely the development of the philosophy of mythopoeia, or myth-making.

In his lecture "On Fairy Stories", delivered only a few months after The Hobbit was published, Tolkien expressed the view that myth represents truth about humanity and its environment far better than the crude factuality of science is able to. It allows people to see in a new light what has become commonplace and drab. Although Elves, for instance, do not "exist" in a scientific sense, they embody the creative skill and immortality of the human spirit, and therefore do exist.

As Tolkien put it, the storyteller "makes a Secondary World in which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is "true": it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside". He called this process sub-creation: by creating a parallel world, the myth-maker emulates God, the supreme creator. The Bible is the ultimate, divine fairy story because it reconciles historic with mythic truth, and all man-made myth will reflect this. Tolkien famously disliked allegory, and saw myth as an entirely different art form.

In addition, Tolkien believed, fairy stories offer an escape from the gloom of modern life and, through...

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