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Mark Atherton: There And Back Again: J.R.R. Tolkien And The Origins Of The Hobbit

When Peter Jackson directed the Lord Of The Rings movies, he didn’t just bring off a successful film adaptation of what had been widely regarded as an unadaptable book. He also rescued Tolkien’s masterpiece from its stealth reputation as a twee thing, best savored by hippies and nerdy virgins. Jackson respected the material, but he was also ruthless about trimming back elements that wouldn’t translate well to the vision he had in his mind, and that might not have been that hot to begin with—au revoir, Tom Bombadil!—and reshaping what was left into a coherent whole. The result was a new work that clearly honored what Jackson saw as the best of Tolkien’s LOTR, even as it also clearly honored what he loved about Ray Harryhausen.

Jackson’s movie helped persuade people who’d already made up their minds about The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings that it might be worth their time to check out the books. Mark Atherton’s There And Back Again: J.R.R. Tolkien And The Origins Of The Hobbit, a drily academic study of the biographical, literary, and philological influences that shaped The Hobbit, won’t draw in anybody but confirmed Tolkien fanatics. Part of the fun of this kind of critical study is the search for hidden meanings, political metaphors, and coded messages from the Masonic brotherhood. That sort of thing is off-limits for a dedicated Tolkien scholar. Although plenty of people shot off their mouths about the books’ “obvious” parallels to contemporary history, Tolkien himself always insisted that, in his work, an elf was just an elf, and the general feeling among adepts is that the only decent thing is to take him at his word. One BBC documentary includes a hilarious clip of a TV interviewer informing Tolkien that the ring was a brilliant, striking metaphor for the atomic bomb. Cut to the author, whose only response was to look as if he were trying very hard not to throw up.


Tolkien the university professor and philologist sometimes said he went to the trouble of inventing Middle Earth just so he could have the fun of inventing the language patterns appropriate for that world and its creatures. That might be true, but he turned out to be enough of a storyteller that the use of language in The Hobbit and LOTR serves the narrative and helps lend color to the characters without being an ostentatious distraction; they would never have achieved popular success otherwise. Atherton writes that “philology is about the ‘growing neighborliness of linguistic and literary studies’; Tolkien felt strongly about this—it was the goal and purpose of his work. As an author or writer, then, he felt that the language literally forms and informs the writing of the text, whether that text is a merely a set-phrase or formula, a rhyme or riddle, a poem or song, or a whole story or novel.”

This may just be a high-altitude way or saying what’s true of any good writer: The value of what they have to say is largely dependent on how they say it. That’s as true of Atherton as it is of anyone else: Sections with headings such as “Sound symbolism and onomatopoeia” and “Formulaic phrases in Tolkien’s fiction” are exactly as exciting as they sound. To be fair, addicts of serious academic language-scholarship may find that Atherton’s notes on the influence of regional dialect and possible derivations of the term “ent” jump off the page like red-hot fireworks displays. But his literary detective work is no great shakes: He dedicates several pages to exploring the possibility that Tolkien was greatly influenced by Sir Gawain And The Green Knight and Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale, but Tolkien gave him a leg up by writing a translation of the former and a paper on the latter. Atherton also argues that Tolkien was partly inspired by the work of William Morris, just like Tolkien always said he was. But he doesn’t have anything very interesting to say on the subject. Those who haven’t picked up a copy of News From Nowhere or The Story Of The Glittering Plain recently might at least have enjoyed learning enough about Morris to understand how his imagination might have fired Tolkien’s, and why he’s now the far less famous author.

Atherton does drop one mini-bombshell when he suggests that the term “hobbit” was partly inspired by the name of the title character of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt. Thinking about Tolkien and his work in relation to Lewis’ cozy satire of Middle American complacency points to the fact that there was something Babbitty—in a nice way—about Tolkien himself, and that he was probably the best model he had at hand for Bilbo Baggins. Both were contented sorts who were all about the comforts of home, but unlike the bachelor Bilbo, Tolkien got whatever taste he had for “adventure” out of his system early, in World War I. After that, as a family man and university fixture, he was happy to do his adventuring at his writing desk. The most interesting pages here are about the shift in tone that occurs in The Hobbit, as what began as a children’s story turns darker and more intense, and how Tolkien later revised parts of The Hobbit to accommodate the even darker tone of The Lord Of The Rings. For all the myth and literature that went into forming Tolkien’s imagination, he was his own best influence, and the story that comes through in reading the books—including the story of how they got written—is more thrilling than anything any academic is likely to impose on his work.

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