The Hobbit: Tolkien’s Old English fairy tale
As Peter Jackson celebrates his birthday this week many Tolkien fans across the world are eagerly awaiting the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, due to hit the cinemas in December.
However, while The Hobbit may lack the detail, darkness, and complexity of The Lord of the Rings, it makes up for it with the simplicity of its message and its interesting relationship to an ancient English literary tradition.
As a professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien would have been very familiar with the Old English culture expressed in works like Beowulf. In The Hobbit, he crafted a story for children that refers to an ancient Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian culture, rather than the more familiar traditions of German fairy stories, and explores ideas that he would go on to develop further in his other writings.
Far over the Misty Mountains cold. . .
Like the poems of Homer in Ancient Greece, Anglo-Saxon England was a culture in which reciting songs, poems, and stories would have played an important part, both as entertainment and as a way of developing important social bonds. In Middle Earth, spoken language is seen to be just as important as language written down.
Throughout the book, music and song are recurring themes – when the dwarves arrive at Bag End they first tell the story of Smaug the Dragon in song. The merry nonsense ditties of the Elves at Rivendell are contrasted quickly with the cruel marching songs of the Goblins, showing that the different cultures of Middle Earth have developed different types of songs for different purposes. In Anglo-Saxon England the tales and poems recited by rival kingdoms and warrior bands may have reflected their own values.
As in Beowulf, the characters share tales and songs in the drinking halls of their hosts; when the adventurers are given hospitality by Elrond, Beorn, and later, by the men of Lake Town, they are welcomed with singing and feasting and the sharing of mead.
As the story nears its end, Tolkien evokes the rich history of Middle Earth and hints at more stories to come, through shared oral traditions. This reflects how a poem, saga, ballad, or lay can reflect the values of the present through referring to bygone times and shared histories – imagined or otherwise.
‘When the tale of their joumeyings was told, there were other tales, and yet
more tales, tales of long ago, and tales of new things, and tales of no time at all.’
Riddles in the Dark
One of the most famous scenes in The Hobbit involves a battle of wits between Bilbo and the creature Gollum. Lost in the tunnels under the mountain Bilbo is forced to bargain with Gollum over a game of riddles:
What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees
Up, up it goes.
And yet never grows?*
Anglo-Saxons, and perhaps their European forebears, loved to play guessing games with riddles. Many still survive from this period and some of the most famous are recorded in the Exeter Book (dating from the 10th century). Tolkien not only evokes this Old English tradition but uses this scene to suggest the importance of shared linguistic identity.
Bilbo and Gollum are shown to share a knowledge of the same riddles and to be able to interact with each other despite their differences. Gollum remembers the riddles taught to him by his grandmother and Bilbo recognizes many of them as well-known old chestnuts. Despite a gap of 500 years between them, they can still communicate on the same cultural level.
‘Riddles were all he could think of. Asking them, and sometimes guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played.’
Gollum’s origins are hinted at in The Hobbit and, in The Lord of the Rings, we learn that he was once a Stoor Hobbit living a similar peaceful existence to Bilbo.
Bilbo, and later Frodo, both recognize something of themselves in Gollum. It is this that leads Bilbo to pity and spare him, and which leads Frodo to trust him against his better judgement. It is telling that in this first scene Tolkien uses shared linguistic heritage to stress their similarity.
‘If more of us valued food and cheer and song, above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world’
The Hobbit is a parable on the dangers of greed – a theme which fills all Tolkien’s writings. The ability of beautiful objects to corrupt individuals in Tolkien’s stories is shown by the several powerful jewels, such as the Silmarils and the Arkenstone, and later in the power of the One Ring. In The Hobbit treasure is much coveted and desired and Tolkien describes it lavishly.
The greed of Thorin Oakenshield and the dwarves eventually leads to their downfall as they become possessive and obsessed with keeping all their regained treasure for themselves. It is Bilbo alone who remains unswayed by the desire for gold:
‘I would give a good many of these precious goblets’ he thought ‘for a drink of something cheering from one of Beorn’s wooden bowls.’
This shows Tolkien at once celebrating and rejecting key aspects of the Old English literary tradition. While he embraces the importance of song he moralizes against the preoccupation with treasure that fills Beowulf and similar works. In Anglo-Saxon culture, the exchange of beautiful objects was an important focus for power and social cohesion. For example, the names and personalities given to objects such as swords shows that they were viewed with almost as much reverence as the humans that wielded them.
Tolkien decides to update this element in his story with a more modern (and perhaps more Christian) idea of what is really to be valued. In his opinion, Bilbo’s desire for a quiet, outdoor life away from conflict and from treasures, represents an England that was rapidly disappearing in Tolkien’s time. The First World War, motivated by the greed of empire and driven by the mechanism of the Industrial Revolution was a watershed in Tolkien’s life and that of his country.
For Tolkien, if people could value good company and simple pleasures over a desire for wealth and power the world might seem a better place.
*Answer: A mountain