We’re so often caught up in the magic of a book’s content that, a lot of the time, we don’t even consider the story’s context, or more specifically, why the writer decided to write it in the first place.
Granted, there may not be a motive beyond a desire to express a unique idea, but for some books, there is indeed a deeper, more nuanced backstory, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is one such book.
A synthesis of many different elements of his life, The Hobbit was Tolkien’s way of achieving multiple goals at once and celebrating the things he valued most.
What Inspired Tolkien To Write The Hobbit?
While the appeal of The Hobbit is somewhat universal, the building blocks of the story are all very personal to Tolkien, but two, in particular, stand out as the major defining aspects of the core story architecture.
An English Mythology
Thanks to his nanny from the West Fjords, Tolkien was raised on Icelandic sagas. He devoured the classic Norse mythologies from a young age, marveling at the clashes between men and gods.
The grand concepts of the Prose and Poetry Edda compiled by Snorri Sturluson enraptured him, and perhaps unbeknownst to the young boy, were planting seeds of inspiration that would grow into the mighty creations he is celebrated for today.
However, it was actually discontent that would germinate these seeds, discontent surrounding the fact that England had no equivalent to these wonderful Scandinavian tales.
Sure, there were the Medieval English epics such as Beowulf, and he loved them. But never had his beloved homeland ever produced a magical history so elaborate, vivid, and awe-inspiring as the Norse mythology he adored.
There was no other thing for it! He concluded that he must compose the English mythology himself. And believe it or not, this goal formed the foundation of what would become The Hobbit.
In fact, it formed the very foundation of his life, as he would go on to study Classics at university, followed by English language and English literature. And later on in his life, he became a philologist, which is to say he analyzed the history of language through literature.
He studied multiple languages during his academic life, including Icelandic, Welsh, German, and Celtic, taking inspiration from each one as well as their respective mythologies in order to one day construct his own.
A Story For His Children
The idea of a mythology for England was always at the back of Tolkien’s mind, but the vehicle for such a literary invention came from a rather surprising place.
Tolkien had three sons, John, Michael, and Christopher, and he loved nothing more than telling them bedtime stories of his own design.
He would fabricate characters, details, settings, and weave them together into little tales on the spot, his children reporting later in life that their father’s musings were far more enjoyable than any published books they had.
It was in this fashion that Bilbo Baggins was coaxed up into existence, along with Thorin Oakenshield. Tolkien’s children adored them both, listening to their father intently each night, perhaps too intently…
Every now and again, small details would change about the characters simply because the original ideas had slipped his mind, but Tolkien’s children would remember and interrupt their father to question the discrepancies.
Over time, this encouraged Tolkien to rely less on oral storytelling and more on the written word, for If he wrote his tales down, he wouldn’t forget the details that became so important to his continuity-craving children.
This marked the true beginnings of The Hobbit as an actual story, and it provided a platform for Tolkien to develop and present his ideas of an English mythology.
Did Tolkien Write The Hobbit For His Children?
Tolkien started writing The Hobbit for his children, but that’s not to say that it was ever meant to be seen as a children’s story.
Perhaps in the very beginning, but as it grew in scale and evolved in tone, it became a story for people in general rather than just young people, although he enjoyed the fact it entertained his little ones before bedtime.
Part of the reason that The Hobbit is so enjoyable to children is that Tolkien was greatly influenced by the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, which themselves were not initially intended for a younger audience.
It was only on the third edition of their famous compilation that they re-marketed it to families with the intention of the stories being read aloud to youngsters. By design, Tolkien’s work has the same ageless audience.
When asked in a 1967 interview if he wrote The Hobbit for his children, he admitted that they had inspired the story, and that without them, he would never have had a reason to dream it all up, but that it’s not a child’s story.
He remarked that “Anything that in any way marked out The Hobbit as for children instead of just for people, they [his children] disliked, instinctively. I did too, now that I think about it.”
Tolkien had great respect for children and felt they were a criminally ignored fraction of the population, so he would not demean his own with cloying and quaint stories that underestimated their imagination and fullness of intellect.
Thus, The Hobbit was born.
Oftentimes a writer isn’t present in their work at all. Stylistically, there may be clues as to who they are, but the stories themselves might be completely opaque, blocking the reader from gleaning too much about the author. But this isn’t the case with Tolkien in the slightest.
Despite falling into the high fantasy genre, his work is brimming with and grounded by his heart and soul, and The Hobbit in particular seems to have been inextricably interwoven with his life, both as a scholar and father.
What started out as a creative means of entertaining his children before bed became the perfect vehicle for his ultimate literary goal, that of creating a mythology akin to Iceland that England could call its own.