On September 21st, 1937, J. R. R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' was published in England. Since then something like 100 million copies have been sold all over the world, and it's been translated into over 40 languages (Tolkien's personal favorites being Icelandic and West Frisian, both of which appealed to his linguistic interests). The Telegraph reports:
What has made the book such an enduring success? There are lots of reasons why one would not have expected it to be. Too much poetry! No female characters at all! (How will Jackson get round that one?) A lot of professorial quibbling over words!
But maybe Tolkien’s boldest defiance of accepted children’s-fiction practice was that he offered no child figure for the reader to fix on. It’s true, the hero Bilbo Baggins is “only a little hobbit”, so he’s a kind of surrogate child, but he’s put in positions no child could be expected to identify with.
Like finding himself alone, in the dark, playing riddles for his life with a creature who means to eat him, or being trussed up by a giant poisonous spider, or — worst of all, alone and in the dark once again — being sent down a tunnel at the end of which he can hear a dragon snoring. Tolkien presents a very cold-blooded image of courage, and expects it to be understood.
He adds to it the element we call moral courage. Bilbo decides (on his own again) that his dwarf companions have got it wrong in their greedy defence of the dragon treasure, and so secretly gives away the greatest treasure of all, the Arkenstone, to his friends’ besiegers, to use as a bargaining point. And then he goes back to be exposed, in the end to confess, because they’re his friends still.
Anyone could have told Tolkien this is not kids’ stuff. Nor, for instance, is the death of Thorin Oakenshield. An American lady told me once that she read the whole book to her sons, aged seven and ten, and when they got to this scene, she saw the tears rolling down their cheeks. Until JK Rowling started producing 700-pagers, publishers used to say that children’s books had to be short nowadays, because the kids’ attention spans were also short.
They were wrong. Just as she brought back length, so Tolkien boldly, or maybe unthinkingly, brought back emotional depth.
Much of this came from the ancient heroic world of epics and sagas, and fairy tales too, which Tolkien drew on so much. His re-creation of Middle-earth has affected every fantasy writer since, even those who struggle to get away from it. If we imagine elves and dwarfs, trolls and goblins and dragons, Tolkien’s images will be the basis for them. You can make changes, like Terry Pratchett, whose elves are heartless monsters and whose dwarfs are at axes drawn with trolls, not goblins, but Discworld had Middle-earth as a model.
Tolkien made publishers realise that heroic fantasy was potentially mass-market. Even George Martin’s Game of Thrones might not have found a taker if Tolkien hadn’t made the first breakthrough.
. . .
Some time in late 1914, Tolkien and three of his schoolmates decided they would bring about a cultural revolution in England, seemingly through poetry. It was a project of astonishing self-confidence for four young men just out of school, and a Birmingham grammar school at that. Within three years two of them were dead and Tolkien was in hospital, invalided from the Western Front. They succeeded, though. Tolkien may not have brought about a revolution, but he did set up a counter-revolution, quite against the literary tide of irony and self-doubt.
He brought back old images of heroism and epic action, old mythic patterns, and fixed them in the modern mind. The Hobbit was his Odyssey, Tolkien an unexpected and unlikely Homer.
There's more at the link.
The original publishers of 'The Hobbit', now Harper Collins, are organizing a worldwide 'Second Breakfast' commemoration for tomorrow. Click the link for details.
I'm sorry the first instalment of Peter Jackson's 'The Hobbit' film trilogy couldn't be ready in time for tomorrow's anniversary. You've probably seen the first trailer for it, released earlier this year - but have you seen the recently-released second trailer? If not, here it is.
There are also 8 (so far) video reports about the making of the movie. You can view them all at its YouTube channel. I'm still angry that Mr. Jackson has chosen to disregard Prof. Tolkien's literary legacy by expanding the book into a movie trilogy, including material from other sources . . . but I guess I'm a purist when it comes to a great work of literature like 'The Hobbit'. I don't think greatness should be second-guessed by latecomers!