John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was an Oxford professor in the early 1930’s. While correcting papers, he came across a page that had been left blank. Feeling a rush of inspiration, he wrote: “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” What was a hobbit? He didn’t know. He also didn’t know that this was to be the genesis of Middle-earth; a living, breathing world that would appear in numerous novels and short stories, lovingly crafted both by him and his grandson Christopher. And it all began with The Hobbit.
Bilbo Baggins is our titular hobbit, a creature much like a human except it’s only half as tall with incredibly hairy feet. Bilbo lives quietly and comfortably in the lush greenery of the Shire. This kind of living was intimately familiar to Tolkien as it was a thinly veiled allegory for the British middle-class. Like the hobbits of the Shire, they led a cozy existence closed off from the wider world. With no excitement or thrills, their main preoccupation was maintaining their creature comforts. The Hobbit is less an indictment of these sheltered people than a stirring reminder that, beneath the haze of our routine living, each of us has an intrinsic desire for adventure and danger.
For Bilbo, that adventure and danger comes in the form of Gandalf the Grey. A wise and powerful wizard, he arrives at Bilbo’s home with a company of dwarves. Their gold has been stolen by the greedy dragon Smaug, and they ask for Bilbo’s aid in reclaiming it. But the great beast slumbers in the Misty Mountains, a long ways from the Shire and the thought of leaving on such a treacherous escapade terrifies Bilbo. Though initially unwilling to leave the security of his armchair, the call of adventure proves more than he can resist. And just like that, the home-bird hobbit leaves on an quest that will test every ounce of his wit, cunning and bravery.
Bilbo’s quest is a classic hero’s journey: he meets new friends, encounters dangerous enemies, and discovers new sides to himself he never thought existed. However, what sets The Hobbit apart is the sheer detail with which this world is brought to life. We never doubt Tolkien’s all-encompassing knowledge of his world and his characters. This led his good friend (and fellow author) C.S. Lewis to write in his review: “[Tolkien] has the air of having invented nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons first hand…” . Indeed, the fact that so many elements of his world (tree-dwelling elves, mountainous dwarves) have become reliable fantasy staples is testament to how perfectly they were realised here.
The Hobbit was a children’s book but it instantly had mass appeal. Its follow-up, The Lord of the Rings, was aimed at that book’s now adult fans and established Tolkien as one of literature’s greatest storytellers. He would return to Middle-earth many times, delving even deeper into its history, peoples, culture, customs and language. With each new story, we were given another glimpse into the man’s endless, limitless imagination. That, in turn, has fuelled the imagination of millions of readers and left the world of fantasy a far richer place.