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  • Yehoshua Paul

1937 - The Hobbit

1937. A busy year. In the United States, the Ohio river floods, leaving a million people homeless and 385 people dead, FDR is sworn in to a second term, and the Golden Gate Bridge opens to pedestrian traffic. In the Soviet Union, Trotskyists are executed, and the Great Purge is approved; over the next year at least 724,000 people are going to be killed, and many more will be sent to the Gulag. In Spain there is a civil war, and the German Luftwaffe enthusiastically helps out by bombing the Spanish cities of Jaen and Guernica. China and Japan are also busy; they’ve got the Second Sino-Japanese War to fight out. Finally, in the United Kingdom Neville Chamberlain becomes Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and “Peace in our time” is just around the corner.

Less important, but possibly more interesting: Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, mysteriously go missing while attempting to circumnavigate the globe, the first issue of Detective Comics is published, flying cars are invented (but fail to sell), spam (the canned meat) is invented, and J. R. R. Tolkien writes The Hobbit – arguably the second most important book in human history after the bible.

Waterman Arrowbile flying car

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), CBE (Commander of the order of the British Empire), FRSL (Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature) is the father of modern fantasy and creator of hobbits.

Tolkien’s accomplishments are many, but he is best remembered for creating Middle Earth, a fully fleshed out fantasy world with its own geography, botany, religions, languages, and history. Tolkien began working on Middle Earth during the Great War. While fighting in the Battle of the Somme, he came down with trench fever and was discharged and sent back to England. During his recovery, he began to work on The Book of Lost Tales, which would serve as the future basis for The Silmarillion, the mythology of Middle Earth. After his recovery, he and his wife, Edith went for a walk in the woods where she danced for him in a clearing, an incident in which Edith briefly became the beautiful elf Luthien, in Tolkien’s imagination, and inspired the story of "Beren and Luthien”.

After the war, Tolkien went into academia. He worked on the Oxford English Dictionary project, became the youngest English professor at the University of Leeds, and then a Professor of Anglo Saxon at Pembroke College. While at Pembroke he created the Elvish languages and an accompanying mythology, and in the early 1930s wrote The Hobbit for his children. By 1932, he had finished the manuscript and lent it to several friends, including C. S. Lewis (who wrote Narnia), and a student Elaine Griffiths. Griffiths lent the manuscript to Susan Dagnall who lent it to her boss, Stanley Unwin, founder of the George Allen & Unwin publishing house. Unwin paid his 10 year old son, Rayner, a shilling to read the story and write a book report on it. Rayner immensely enjoyed this experience, and after submitting some very positive feedback ("This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9"), his father decided to publish the book – and all was good in the world.

The Hobbit is the first published book story to take place in Middle Earth. It tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit. Hobbits are a diminutive race, half the height of humans, a bit smaller than dwarves, who wear no shoes because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm hair. Hobbits are a good natured people who prefer living comfortable quiet unadventurous lives from the comfort of their homes where they can enjoy second breakfast. Bilbo Baggins is a typical hobbit, of mixed ancestry. On his father’s side, he is descended from a respectable line of Baggins hobbits who would never dream of doing anything remarkable. However, his mother was Beladonna Took, and his grandfather was the Old Took, head of a clan whose members would discreetly go off on adventures. Bilbo was a respectable hobbit, who never ever dreamed of adventuring, but one day he had the fortune to wish good morning to the Wizard Gandalf. Gandalf remembered Bilbo’s grandfather, and decided to do him a favor – he falsely advertised Bilbo as a burglar to Thorin Oakenshield and his party of 13 dwarves who were on their way to slay a dragon and reclaim a kingdom.

This mix up results in Bilbo joining the party (in exchange of one fourteenth of all treasure gained) and he embarks on a journey that takes him over hills and under hills, across the Misty Mountains and through Mirkwood, until they reach the Lonely Mountain where the dragon Smaug slumbers. In the process Bilbo and the dwarves get captured by trolls, goblins, spiders, and wood elves, spend several uncomfortable nights with no shelter, or in trees after being chased by Wargs (giant wolves), and several meals are skipped. New friendships are made with Elrond and the elves of Rivendell, giant eagles, the shapeshifting Beorn and intelligent crows, and Bilbo discovers a magic ring which turns him invisible.

All in all the hobbit is a very fun book, and definitely one older kids can enjoy. The first thing you notice when opening the book is the runes and the map, which immediately stirs your imagination. And then you start reading the first chapters and the characters are brought to life in a way that further draws you in and makes you want to know even more what happens next. Later on the book gets a bit tedious as there is a large amount of journeying, which on the one hand really helps flesh out Middle Earth, but on the other hand gets repetitive as the plot in each location follows a pretty fixed pattern. However, there are enough other fun elements to make you want to keep reading. I’ve now got Durin’s Day marked in my calendar (October 29, 2019), and I enjoyed reacquainting myself with the Dwarvish runic system. I also enjoyed the poetry and songs as well as the riddle game with Gollum, an ancient tradition which should be practiced more often. It is always worth making a visit to Middle Earth, and if you haven’t read any of Tolkien’s work yet, The Hobbit is a good and easy place to start.

Thror's map with runic instructions for accessing the Lonely mountain

The Omer today is courage in foundation. The Hobbit is the foundation of modern fantasy. Without it you wouldn’t have pointy eared elves, good-hearted dwarves, and of course hobbits, which later inspired the D&D races of halfling and kender. And Middle Earth is the progenitor of all the shared fantasy worlds created ever since from Krynn to Toril to Athas. Courage is also not lacking, as Middle Earth was literally conceived in the middle of the great war, and the characters of The Hobbit embody this pretty well from Bilbo Baggins who chases after the dwarves to join them on their adventure to Thorin Oakenshield and his party, determined to reclaim their kingdom and slay a dragon. However, there is another more important, more fundamental courage, which is often neglected when discussing The Hobbit - the courage to share your writing with others. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for his children, not the wider world, and originally the manuscript was only shared with close friends. It takes a lot of courage to publish a book. You never know how the readers will react (or even if the publisher will accept the manuscript), and yet somehow Tolkien managed to find the courage to lend his book to a student – and modern fantasy was brought to life.

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