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Tolkien trivia: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” – the opening line of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is among the most famous first lines in literature, and introduces readers to the most homely fantasy creatures ever invented: the Hobbits. Hobbits are a race of half-sized people, very similar to humans except for their hairy feet. They live in the lush countryside of The Shire, part of Tolkien’s imaginary Middle-Earth, also home to his famous works The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

In a letter, Tolkien once wrote “I am in fact a Hobbit” and he did indeed share many of their traits. Like a Hobbit, he loved gardening, good food, the comfort of familiar home terrain, and smoking a pipe. Both the Hobbit and his creator are beloved by many, and once a year, they are celebrated. Twenty-two September marks the shared birthday of the Hobbits Bilbo Baggins and his nephew Frodo, and has therefore been declared Hobbit Day.  To extend the festivities, and because we all know Hobbits love a good party, a full week surrounding this date is feted as Tolkien Week.  Celebrate yourself, by taking a look at some interesting facts on Tolkien and his works.

Tolkien had a very prominent circle of friends. The Inklings (as they called themselves) where a group of writers and scholars, who regularly met to discuss literature and critique each other’s work in the facilities of Magdalen College or The Eagle and Child, a local Oxford pub. Other prominent members were C. S. Lewis, creator of the Chronicles of Narnia and Charles Williams, writer and editor at Oxford University Press. The name was a clever pun, as Tolkien explained: “suggesting people with vague or half-informed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink”.

  • As scholar and professor, Tolkien’s most influential work was his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936). His argument for the monsters as central defining features for the hero’s personal development and structure of the Old English epic poem has changed the way it is approached by scholars ever since.
  • Scholars argue these monsters have found their way into Tolkien’s own writing. The man-shaped Grendel and the greedy dragon resemble Bilbo Baggins’s adversaries in The Hobbit. We know them as Gollum and Smaug the dragon.
Image credit: “Bust of J.R.R. Tolkien in Exeter College, Oxford”. Picture by Julian Nitzsche. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Apart from Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon and Norse stories, another source of inspiration surely came from Tolkien’s contemporary England. Tolkien compares the English (himself included) to the Hobbits, and the luscious countryside of the Shire is often seen to be inspired by rural England.  Critics often compare Hobbiton with Sarehole near Birmingham, Tolkien’s childhood home.
  • Religious scholarship debates the extent to which Tolkien’s work can be read in a Christian context. Some argue against, citing the heavy influence of Norse and Germanic mythology. Others argue for it, citing parallels between Tolkien’s and biblical characters. The fight between the two Hobbits Sméagol and Déagol results from the former not being able to endure his friend finding the one ring. The fight ends fatally for Déagol and starts Sméagol’s transformation into the creature Gollum. It is understood to be a recasting of Cain and Abel in the Old Testament.
  • In Tolkien’s universe, the struggle between good and evil also is one between nature and technology. The dark lands of Mordor contain fortresses of steel and technology whereas the forces of good are generally living in accordance with nature.  Forests in particular are the central force of nature and important locations for the narrative. The story’s impact on environmental issues became apparent when it developed a cult following among the Hippie community in the United States in the 1960s, who took Fangorn (Treebeard) as a symbol of their biocentrism. It even inspired late activist David McTaggart to found Greenpeace.
  • The film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit were filmed in New Zealand. The immense success of the franchise, paired with clever marketing brought a surge in tourism to the country. Tolkien’s legacy not only impacts the country’s tourist industry but also its employment law. The Hobbit/Actors Equity dispute between the film makers of The Hobbit and the State led to an adjustment of employment law in favour of the industry to ensure filming of The Hobbit would be continued in the country.

Featured image credit: “House, Home” by StockSnap. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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