The second Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug, has grossed over $500 million dollars during its first three weeks in theaters. Director Peter Jackson’s depictions of Middle Earth and the creatures that dwell there continue to have powerful commercial appeal.
Contrary to what some moviegoers believe, hobbits were not invented by Peter Jackson. They are in fact an invention of an English professor and writer named J.R.R. Tolkien. The “J.R.R.” stands for John Ronald Reuel. As a boy he was most commonly called Ronald, which is what I will call him too.
Certain events in J.R.R. Tolkien’s life ended up in his stories about hobbits. For instance, as a toddler, Ronald received a painful bite from a tarantula spider. Later in life J.R.R. Tolkien would ridicule the idea that there was a correlation between an author’s personal life and his writing. Perhaps, but it is also true that Tolkien’s most popular books feature giant, treacherous spiders which are defeated by frightened, boy-sized hobbits.
Tolkien’s father died when he was very young. His mother, Mabel Tolkien, taught young Ronald Latin and French. Ronald loved Latin, and tales of dragons. Tolkien wrote his first story when he was seven. It was about “a green great dragon.“ As a grown up author, Tolkien’s central character in The Hobbit is a supersized dragon named Smaug.
Mabel Tolkien converted to Catholicism in 1900, when Ronald was eight. Her Baptist family disowned Mabel for switching religions. England was Catholic for many centuries, but during the Reformation in the 1500’s England broke away and created its own church, known today as Anglicanism. Ever since the Church of England formed, English converts to Catholicism have had their mental health questioned, and been reproached for being anti-social, even anti-English.
It was in the pre-insulin days of the twentieth century that Mabel Tolkien died of diabetes, ten years after converting to Catholicism. Tolkien credited his mother with giving him a love of languages and creative endeavors. He also believed that anti-Catholic bigotry contributed to his mother’s early demise. What was certain was that Ronald and his brother, Hilary, were now orphans. Mother’s final wish was for her boys to be raised Catholic, so a Catholic priest and friend of the family, Father Francis, took the Tolkien boys in and continued their Catholic education.
Tolkien graduated from school and went right into the Army. He saw action at the battle of the Somme, where British and French forces gathered to strike at a heavily fortified German position. After a week of constant shelling British and French troops began an infantry assault. As they approached, the Germans emerged from their concrete bunkers and opened murderous fire on the slowly marching thousands. One German machine-gunner recalled:
“The officers were in the front. I noticed one of them walking calmly carrying a walking stick. When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them.“
Thousands of brave young men were slaughtered, day after day. By the time Ronald Tolkien’s battalion reached the trenches at the front line, the stench of death was overwhelming. Corpses - mutilated, bloated, barely recognizable as human - lay sprawled where they fell. On Friday, July 14, Tolkien’s battalion went over the top. Many in his battalion were mown down, but he survived to return to his trench. Later he would discover that all his friends perished in the battle.
Tolkien remained at the front until November, 1916, when he was carried off. What finally laid him low was not explosives, shrapnel, rifle or machine gun fire. It was what doctors called “pyrexia of unknown origin.” The Tommies called it trench fever. Transmitted by lice, it affected thousands of soldiers. It was Tolkien’s ticket home.
He brought home more than a fever. The memory of the “animal horror” of trench warfare never left him. Neither did his respect and admiration for the rank and file English soldiers, the Tommies. Later, Tolkien would tell a letter writer that the hobbit Sam Gamgee “is indeed a reflexion (sic) of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.“
Back home, Tolkien started a family with his wife, Edith, and a literary career as a philologist (linguistics) at OxfordCollege. There he dwelled for decades, happily pursuing his passions of language and mythology. By the time Tolkien wrote his famous books, his proficiency with languages and ancient myths was unmatched, possibly in the entire English speaking world. The origin of hobbits is explained by Tolkien’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter:
“Among the different aspects of Tolkien’s humanity, there is one which deserves special attention, that of the paterfamilias…He started by giving them (his children) a most pleasant childhood, creating for them the deep sense of home, which had been denied to him, as he lost his father when he was a small child, and his splendid mother a few years later. And to provide all this Tolkien accepted the tedious burden of examining in several English universities, which, of course, took up much time that he might have devoted to his research. But, however busy he was, he always found time to rush home and kiss his younger children goodnight.
“And it was this great love of his children that prompted him to invent and create the delightful hobbits and their mythology. They were wildly discussed at the breakfast table and the nursery.”
According to Tolkien, writing The Hobbit was less intentional. “All I remember about the start of The Hobbit,” he told W.H. Auden, “is sitting correcting School certificate papers. On a blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it, for a long time…”
Hobbits are short, vaguely human creatures with curly hair, furry feet, a love of plate and bottle, and an aversion to risk taking. According to Tolkien, “The Hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects the generally small reach of their imagination - not the small reach of their courage or latent power.”
In a letter from a reader, Tolkien explained his idea of a hobbit:
I picture a fairly human figure, not a kind of 'fairy' rabbit as some of my British reviewers seem to fancy: fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg. A round, jovial face; ears only slightly pointed and 'elvish'; hair short and curling (brown). The feet from the ankles down, covered with brown hairy fur. Clothing: green velvet breeches; red or yellow waistcoat; brown or green jacket; gold (or brass) buttons; and a dark green hood and cloak.
Hobbits lived in a part of Middle Earth called The Shire, a rural idyll very similar to England’s West Midlands where Tolkien’s mother was born, and the Sarehole area where Tolkien lived as a boy. The Shire was Tolkien’s idealized version of all that he loved best about England. He finished writing The Hobbit and entertained his children with readings from the book.
Years passed. Quite by accident The Hobbit came to the attention of a London publishing firm, who persuaded Tolkien to submit his book for publication. In 1936 The Hobbit was published as a children’s book. Adults liked it too, and The Hobbit did well enough for Tolkien’s publisher to ask for a sequel. Eventually Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, a decidedly more serious and grownup book that also attracted a younger audience.
Tolkien lived long enough to see his books sold all over the world in all different languages. He became the father of fantasy literature, inspiring countless authors to create their own worlds for stories of good and evil. And Tolkien inspired a young film director named Peter Jackson to bring Middle Earth to the big screen, with magnificent settings, costumes, weapons, and special effects. One wonders what JRR Tolkien would say if he woke up today to find his books and ideas mainstreamed into western culture - all because of that one day when, out of the clear blue sky, he wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…”
Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, A Biography, New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Humphrey Carpenter, Editor. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.
Joseph Pearce, Tolkien, Man And Myth, A Literary Life, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1998.
Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts, Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1999.
Spartacus Education website for the Battle of the Somme.