December 12, 2012

The Hobbit as a Fantasy Classic

J.R.R. Tolkien first published The Hobbit in 1937 and it was met with wide critical acclaim. Regardless of whether it is seen as merely a prelude to the epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy or a classic children's story, the success of The Hobbit is undeniable. I personally believe the biggest impact The Hobbit has had has been on the fantasy genre itself and the idea of the "fantasy classic." 

I've always felt that a lot of the "classics," the books that we consider part of the literary canon, have a tendency to seem inaccessible to the modern-day reader. We're at a loss, unable to understand aspects of the culture and society in which these classics take place. Of course, you can put in the research and get a better picture of the book through the author's history, world history, and acquire some past cultural knowledge, but not many people are going to do that outside of an academic environment. In a way, it defeats any possibility of reading these books for pleasure. I myself am guilty of attempting to read classics but not putting in the research needed to really appreciate these works.

Where does that leave us, then? The overall pace of the literary market is very fast-moving. A recent release that everyone is currently raving about now has the very strong potential to fall by the wayside in only a year or two. And then there's the fact that it's becoming easier and easier for anyone to get published. I find it difficult to determine what will be lasting, what will continue to receive critical acclaim years from now. While I certainly won't stop reading books out of curiosity, it's nice to read some books that do leave such a lasting history.

This, then, brings us to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. There are many reasons why I'm a big fan of fantasies, but one is that they don't age in quite the same way that literary fiction does. While it still could be helpful to know that Tolkien imitated the British countryside and all of Europe in creating Middle-earth and that the War of the Ring was influenced by World Wars I and II, those are not facts that will truly change our entire understanding of the story. It's always been my belief that with fantasies and stories set in other worlds unlike our own, it is easier to focus on the messages and themes and not be distracted by outdated cultural references and histories. Fantasies are wonderful because readers go into the story knowing absolutely nothing about the setting, so the author does take the time to craft the world and explain it.

The Hobbit transcends the boundaries between child and adult audiences. Although initially marketed to children, I personally believe that all of its complexities and intricacies are better realized by adult readers. There is something to be said about the fact that the story has the potential to connect with younger and older audiences, however. While younger readers may not connect with the characters quite as easily (I still feel like I'm too young to really get them), Tolkien offers plenty of ways for the younger reader to connect with the story. Messages of individual strength, fortitude, resourcefulness, and personal rights/entitlement are things that can understood by all on some level. 

I know I can't be the only one who reads about an epic fantasy journey and feels overwhelmed by the vastness of it all. This sentiment isn't necessarily indicative of The Hobbit, although this story does provide a wonderful example. Tolkien's Middle-earth was such a new and inventive offering to the world of fantasy literature. I'm no expert on earlier fantasies, but I've read enough on Tolkien to know that what he did was different, more than many other stories out there. Without this book, I'm sure fantasy novels would have eventually found their places onto our bookshelves and hearts, but it wouldn't have been quite the same.

It is in The Hobbit that Tolkien first examines the implications that "even the smallest person can change the course of the future." Although those immortal words are spoken by the elf queen Galadriel to Frodo, Bilbo's young cousin/nephew (depending on the book or film version), the general idea is just as applicable to Bilbo's journey. We all want to believe that we're special, that we'd be able to rise to challenges whose existence we cannot even fathom. Bilbo does just that in The Hobbit. If Bilbo, middle-aged, part of a race that discourages thinking outside of the box, and timid, can find his worth, then surely that's possible for all of us.

There are some stories that remain with us long after the book is closed, that continue to resonate deep within us and future generations. I am not sure if all classics really deserve that status. By that, I mean I am not sure whether all the books we list as classics are truly stories that future generations will continue to read and enjoy. But I believe that The Hobbit will remain a classic, an emblem of fantasy literature that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.

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