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About this book

J. R. R. Tolkien is arguably the most influential and popular of all fantasy writers. Although his position and status have long been controversial, his popularity has not faded. His best-loved works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, have sold millions of copies around the world and continue to enthral readers young and old.

This lively collection of original essays examines The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the light of children's literature theory and approaches, as well as from adult and fantasy literature perspectives. Exploring issues such as gender, language, worldbuilding, and ecocriticism, the volume also places Tolkien's works in the context of a range of visual media, including Peter Jackson's film adaptations.

Table of Contents


The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are probably the most widely read and most imitated works of fantasy ever written; they have affected directly or indirectly a great deal of fantasy produced for adults and for children across the world. Their importance has been increased by the electronic communications revolution, which has blurred the distinctions between print and other forms of text. As Steve Jackson observed, they have had ‘a huge influence over all the role-playing games, from Dungeons and Dragons to Warhammer and … Fighting Fantasy’2 — and on into vast multiplayer role-playing games such as World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004–). Similarly, readers have become writers to an extent unimaginable when Tolkien’s books were published, and ‘sub-Tolkien’ writing has become a staple of creative writing courses. As Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James note:
The current popularity of The Lord of the Rings has been fuelled by the fantasy genre’s recursive plundering of its own material, by ‘mentorship’ (people handing the book on to their children and to other people’s children), the long historical memory of fandom and of course by the impact of Peter Jackson’s three spectacular movies.3
And, fundamentally, ‘most subsequent writers of fantasy are either imitating [Tolkien] or else desperately trying to escape his influence’.4
Peter Hunt

1. The Hobbit, the Tale, Children’s Literature, and the Critics

While The Hobbit is a text for children, and The Lord of the Rings adult fiction, the literary-historical relationship between the two is complicated. With the publication of the first volume of The Lord of the Rings in 1954 the status of The Hobbit as children’s literature was problematised: although initially conceived by J. R. R. Tolkien in isolation from its successor, and published as literature for children, it could now be seen as a precursor to a more complex and ambitious narrative — a perception that was only reinforced with the posthumous publication, in 1977, of the third major work of the Tale, The Silmarillion.1 In fact, from the very beginning, The Hobbit has occupied a precarious liminal space between fictions thought appropriate either for children or for adults.
Keith O’Sullivan

2. Sources and Successors

In this statement Tolkien reveals his indebtedness as an author to a wide range of sources: ‘all that has been seen or thought or read’ over the course of his life, mixed and merged in his mind like the fertile soil of a forest floor. Tolkien maintained a lifelong interest in northern European languages and mythology, medieval literature, fairy stories, and the genres that became known during his lifetime as science fiction and fantasy. His career as a philologist (literally translated, a ‘lover of language’) and medievalist reflects the same fascinations, and the origins of many aspects of the Middle-earth tales can be traced to borrowings from medieval languages and literature. However, Tolkien’s acknowledgement of texts and experiences that have ‘long ago been forgotten’ also implies the importance of ‘low’ culture encounters such as popular culture and childhood reading. In discussing Tolkien’s sources and successors — those who influenced him and those whom he, in turn, influenced — this essay will circle around the question of how formal and informal encounters with language and literature contributed to Tolkien’s fiction and to the fantasy literature after The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. (In giving an account of Tolkien’s linguistic and literary influences, this essay must regrettably overlook many of even his most important personal experiences, including family and romantic relationships, his lifelong Roman Catholicism, and his service during the First World War.) Tolkien’s writing as a popular author and his work as an academic were, ultimately, two parts of the same myth-making project for England and the English-speaking world.
Maria Sachiko Cecire

3. The Pastoral Impulse and the Turn to the Future in The Hobbit and Interwar Children’s Fiction

To describe Tolkien’s The Hobbit as an escapist novel has become something of a cliché, and a problematic one at that. Frequently associated with retreatism and nostalgia, and often conflated with pastoralism, escapism is viewed as the defining characteristic of children’s fantasy fiction and is also associated with British interwar children’s literature in general.1 As Marcus Crouch argued, although life in 1920s Britain was ‘fundamentally changed’ it is, nevertheless, ‘difficult to see much of this reflected in the children’s literature of the decade’.2 Certainly it is true that anyone seeking to map social and political preoccupations in interwar children’s literature is faced with a difficult task.3 Quite possibly this difficulty arises from what Peter Hunt describes as the indirect effects of events such as the First World War, which ‘set the tone’ for children’s literature of the 1920s and 1930s.4 Overall, while the interwar years have sometimes been viewed as a period of cultural crisis in Britain — shaped by cultural jeremiads decrying a civilisation on the brink of collapse — children’s literature is frequently positioned as a means of escaping the modern world into a pastoral idyll.5
Hazel Sheeky Bird

4. Tolkien and the Traditional Dragon Tale: An Examination of The Hobbit

C. S. Lewis once wrote that we have ignored ‘story as story’ as we pursued, among other approaches, the ‘delineation of character’ or the ‘criticism of social conditions’.1 Needless to say, literary theory has put story even further into the background. In few instances has this been more evident than in the post-1966 attempts to delve into the ‘meaning(s)’ of J. R. R. Tolkien’s most popular works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; fewer such analytical assessments have been attempted with The Silmarillion — and for good reason. But Brian Rosebury has argued that modern and post-modern critical approaches to Tolkien’s fiction have yielded, at best, mixed results: ‘There is something about Tolkien’s art which eludes the conventional strategies of contemporary criticism, even when these are deployed with sympathy and patience.’2 Following Rosebury’s argument, I would argue that we should return, building on the lead provided by C. S. Lewis, to the story itself and to Tolkien as a storyteller.
C. W. Sullivan

5. Tolkien’s Language

If we start from the rudimentary position that The Hobbit is a work of children’s literature since, at the point of composing and publishing the text, J. R. R. Tolkien understood himself to be writing for young people, then it is tempting to assume that its very language — what Tolkien termed its ‘linguistic matter’1 — must somehow relate to children. After all, what is there to a text, to any text, if not language? What else, if not its linguistic matter, could make The Hobbit a children’s novel? Of course, there are the illustrations; but as Tolkien’s early critic, the ten-year-old Rayner Unwin, averred: ‘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 9’2 (punctuation his own). Tolkien, however, was vehement in his antipathy to the idea that literature must be morphologically altered to make it fit for children: ‘Do not write down to Children or to anybody. Not even in language,’3 he enjoined in 1959, two decades after the publication of his children’s masterpiece. While by this point in time, Tolkien had made his peace with the fact that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings did appeal to children, he was nonetheless insistent that if this was so, it was certainly not on account of anything he had consciously done to them: ‘I am not specially interested in children,’ he wrote, and ‘certainly not in writing for them: i.e. in addressing directly and expressly those who cannot understand adult language.’4
Louise Joy

6. There and Back Again: The Gendered Journey of Tolkien’s Hobbits

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have always sat a little awkwardly as part of the canon of children’s fiction. While The Hobbit was probably composed, at least initially, with a child audience in mind, its position on what Randall Helms calls ‘the threshold of one of the most immense and satisfying creations of our time, The Lord of the Rings’,3 has often led to the former being relegated to the position of a children’s story that informs the more noteworthy and adult latter tales. Conversely, critics such as Colin Manlove see The Lord of the Rings as itself merely a rewrite of The Hobbit, suggesting that the series is purely an ‘overblown version’ which is more ‘simple and one-sided’4 than its counterpart. J. R. R. Tolkien’s own comments on the books have added to the confusion of categorisation, as while he stated that his trilogy ‘was not specially addressed to children or to any other class of people’ but was instead directed ‘to any one who enjoyed a long exciting story’,5 the complexity of the books and the narrative length Tolkien here alludes to demands, not necessarily an older, but certainly a more mature reader than The Hobbit. Children’s literary critics have therefore been somewhat divided as to which of Tolkien’s texts should be in the canon, with one, all, or none variously included.
Zoë Jaques

7. Tolkien and Worldbuilding

One of Tolkien’s distinctive contributions to fantasy writing lies in the example he set as a builder of worlds. Fantasy and science-fiction novelists, game designers, and role-play enthusiasts all acknowledge Tolkien as a master in the art of constructing a universe with its own history and geography, flora and fauna, cultures and languages, magic and physics. Tolkien may be known as the builder of only one world — Middle-earth1 — but it is a world almost six decades in the making, and has a depth and detail to which other writers, whether for adults or children, can only aspire.
Catherine Butler

8. A Topoanalytical Reading of Landscapes in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

It is often assumed that Tolkien’s fiction is inextricable from its medieval sources and influences. For Tom Shippey, ‘Tolkien cannot be properly discussed without some considerable awareness of the ancient works and ancient work which he tried to revive.’1 Shippey excludes the naive readers of Tolkien — children and adults both — who may not be aware of and have access to these ancient works but who may still ‘intuit the echoes’2 of these intertexts and enjoy the works. Furthermore, Shippey imposes a kind of hierarchy of sources to a reading of Tolkien’s fiction, discounting the value of a familiarity with other kinds of texts, especially contemporary texts. Yet these texts, I argue, are equally important to our understanding of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Twentieth-century fiction provides an important source for the plot and atmosphere of these texts. For instance, there is no medieval correspondent for the episode in The Hobbit when the dwarves are captured by Elves and each put in separate cells. This episode recalls a similar event in John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935) when Kay and his friends are imprisoned. By evoking Masefield, Tolkien hints to the reader that the dwarves — like Kay and his friends — will soon escape. Tolkien uses this kind of narrative intertextuality throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and so caters to a different kind of reader and a different kind of reading experience. Thus, although The Hobbit was ‘written for children’3 and The Lord of the Rings was published for an adult audience, both address a dual readership.
Jane Suzanne Carroll

9. Tolkien and Trees

Our sense of the forest derives as much from the depictions we encounter in stories heard or read in childhood as from actual encounters, and the expectation of enchantment or the sense of threat with which fictional forests are endowed animates our ‘readings’ of actual forests. At first, it might appear that the trees and forests of Tolkien’s Middle-earth are used primarily to stand for the natural world, in opposition to the unstoppable forces of modernity, but they are a multi-layered portrayal, with subtle links to fairy tale and folklore, and complex psychological symbolism. As Richard Hayman observes: ‘Trees are important in Tolkien’s work because they stand for attitudes to nature in general … woods for Tolkien therefore offer temporary respite from the modern world, whether they are actual lived experience or the stuff of myth.’1 It is only by tracing the representation of trees and forests from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, that it is possible to see that Tolkien’s ‘attitude to nature’ is central to both his particular use of fantasy, and his belief in the power of fantasy to imbue lived experience with meaning. For Tolkien, fantasy does not signify escape, but a deepening of understanding. In Tree and Leaf he claims that, ‘[t]he magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations … to hold communion with other living things’.
Shelley Saguaro, Deborah Cogan Thacker

10. From Illustration to Film: Visual Narratives and Target Audiences

The afterlife of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has been composed primarily of adaptations and embellishments set firmly in specific visual media, and this essay will consider the ways in which these adaptations address their target audiences through visual narrative. The analysis is divided into four sections: illustrated editions, focusing on Alan Lee’s illustrations for The Lord of the Rings (1991) and The Hobbit (1997);1 cinema animation — Ralph Bakshi’s animated adaptation of the first half of The Lord of the Rings (1979);2 computer graphics — Hobbit computer game released by Beam Software in 1982, and the graphic novel, in particular David Wenzel and Charles Dixon’s adaptation of The Hobbit (1991), illustrated by David Wenzel;3 and mainstream cinematic adaptations — Peter Jackson’s film trilogy (2001–3).4 This essay is not concerned with cataloguing the changes made to Tolkien’s novels in adaptation, as this has been amply addressed elsewhere, particularly in relation to Peter Jackson’s films.5 The focus instead is on the methods used by adapters to address specific audiences through a range of visual media. As we shall see, in each of these adaptations, the visual narrative conveys assumptions about the age and level of sophistication of the reader or viewer.
Kate Harvey
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