Tolkien Redefines Fantasy Literature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the publication of The Hobbit, the first of his successful and imaginative books that would later include the trilogy The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien established a new benchmark for the fantasy genre of literature: fully realized imaginary worlds, epic in nature, including relevant moral themes, and appealing to adults as well as children.

Summary of Event

J. R. R. Tolkien was educated at Oxford, where he earned a degree in English language and literature in 1915. He served in France during World War I, married, and had four children from 1917 to 1929. He was a respected scholar and professor of Anglo-Saxon language and literature at Leeds University and, beginning in 1925, at Oxford. [kw]Tolkien Redefines Fantasy Literature (Sept., 1937) [kw]Fantasy Literature, Tolkien Redefines (Sept., 1937) [kw]Literature, Tolkien Redefines Fantasy (Sept., 1937) Hobbit, The (Tolkien) Literature;fantasy [g]England;Sept., 1937: Tolkien Redefines Fantasy Literature[09560] [c]Literature;Sept., 1937: Tolkien Redefines Fantasy Literature[09560] Tolkien, J. R. R. Lewis, C. S.

Tolkien had a deep love for language and mythology, and he learned Old English, Old Norse, and Finnish so that he could read the myths he loved in their original languages. In addition, he invented languages from childhood through adulthood and then invented worlds and civilizations to go with those languages. After World War I, he began to write about a complex fantasy world in a series of stories that later became The Silmarillion (published in 1977); Silmarillion, The (Tolkien) these stories lay the groundwork for The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1955). At the same time, Tolkien lived the life of an English academic, teaching, writing poetry, and publishing scholarly works.

The Hobbit grew out of a family mythology that Tolkien created while telling stories to his children. He began to invent a complex English mythology, using English landscapes, elves, dwarves, wizards, and dragons. Among the characters he created were those known as hobbits, small furry creatures who love order and the comforts of home. Tolkien based the hobbits on English peasant and middle-class types.

C. S. Lewis, who later published his own works of fantasy fiction, including The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), played an extremely important role in the development of Tolkien’s fantasy world. Tolkien and Lewis were close friends and colleagues at Oxford for many years, and both men were members of the Inklings, a group of writers at Oxford who critiqued each other’s unpublished works. Tolkien began writing The Hobbit in 1930, and by 1933 he had much of the book completed. Tolkien and Lewis were both interested in fantasy worlds, which at the time were considered only suitable for children’s books, and they encouraged each other’s work. As a result, Lewis was the first person to read The Hobbit, which at the time was still in manuscript form.

J. R. R. Tolkien.

(Courtesy, Houghton Mifflin Company)

The hero of the novel is Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who lives in a fairy-tale country called the Shire (based on the landscape of the English countryside). Content with the simple pleasures of home, Baggins is a reluctant hero who is recruited by the wizard Gandolf to help a company of dwarves recover their treasure from the dragon Smaug. Together they undergo a journey to the territory laid waste by Smaug: They travel through mountains and forest, brave the dangers of trolls and goblins, enjoy the hospitality of elves, and share in the company of giants and heroes. Through a series of episodic adventures, Bilbo acquires a ring that can make him invisible, and he grows in confidence and competence as he moves through a world of epic danger, heroism, war, and complex cultures in which new civilizations and languages are introduced. His cleverness in wordplay and language wins battles of wits that help Baggins overcome obstacles, especially as he attempts to obtain the precious ring from a subterranean creature named Gollum.

In the final third of the book, the threads of the tale come together: Once Bilbo has helped the dwarves reach their treasure, Bilbo takes a moral stand against materialism, greed, and war and tries to reach a compromise between the dwarves on one side and the elves and men on the other. The climax of the story comes when the dragon is finally killed and the dwarves, elves, and men unite against a common enemy, the goblins. The treasure is divided fairly, and Bilbo returns to the Shire with a comfortable amount of gold, a reputation for adventure, and a treasure in memories. Bilbo’s growth and development is a major theme of the story: Within himself he finds the wit, strength, and courage to help his friends and himself and proves himself to be a resourceful and down-to-earth hero.

By the time Tolkien showed the manuscript to C. S. Lewis in 1933, The Hobbit was mostly complete. It remained rough and incomplete until 1936, when Tolkien showed it to a former student and friend of the family who had a job at the London publishing firm Allen & Unwin. The publisher asked Tolkien to complete the book and submit it for publication. With this incentive, he finalized the manuscript and publisher Stanley Unwin gave it to his ten-year-old son to read. The Hobbit was published in September of 1937, and it was an immediate success: Critics pronounced it genial, attractive, and fresh. The initial printing sold out before Christmas, and a second printing was rushed through the presses. Unwin immediately asked for a sequel and for more stories about hobbits. Tolkien soon began work on The Lord of the Rings, although that trilogy was not published until 1955. The Hobbit stands as an independent work and as an introduction to the more mature work of the trilogy.

Although The Hobbit originated as a story for his children, Tolkien did not conceive of the written work as a children’s book. The clarity and simplicity of the style, which appealed to young readers, was necessary to make the complex, imaginary world understandable and clear, and it helped the book to be enjoyed at several different levels by children and adults. The Hobbit’s fully realized imaginary worlds, its exploration of nature of heroism, it moral themes and their relation to contemporary politics and events, its epic scope, and its detailed descriptions (including maps) of imaginary people and places became the characteristics of a new genre of fantasy for adults.


The Hobbit is considered a transitional work in Tolkien’s career and in literary history. In the context of Tolkien’s writing, the development of The Hobbit formed a crucial link between the stories Tolkien told to his children and the rich, mature narrative of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Hobbit also connected the genre of British children’s literature and a new fantasy genre meant to appeal to adults’ imaginations. Together, Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were largely responsible for the creation of an adult readership for fantasy literature. Their careful construction of alternative universes that combined quest tales and exploration of the nature of heroism with the appeal of mythology, wordplay, and a variety of linguistic styles gave the genre a life beyond the confines of children’s literature. Hobbit, The (Tolkien) Literature;fantasy

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carpenter, Humphrey. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. The authorized biography of Tolkien, originally published in the 1980’s. Carpenter also edited a published a collection of Tolkien’s letters and a book on the Inklings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Koster, Katie, ed. Readings on J. R. R. Tolkien. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven, 2000. Collection of critical articles including a comprehensive section on aspects of The Hobbit, such as its roots in British children’s novels, adult themes, and the nature of heroism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heims, Neil. J. R. R. Tolkien. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Engaging literary biography drawing on the work of previous Tolkien scholars. Accessible portrait of the man and his ideas that strives to illuminate his works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Manlove, Colin. The Fantasy Literature of England. New York: Palgrave, 1999. Places Tolkien’s work in the context of the history and conventions of the fantasy genre in England.
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    xlink:type="simple">O’Neill, Timothy R. The Individuated Hobbit: Jung, Tolkien, and the Archetypes of Middle-Earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979. Demonstrates the connection between Carl Jung’s theories of the struggle for self-realization and Tolkien’s mythology and characters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosebury, Brian. Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon. New York: Palgrave, 2003. Clear, lucid criticism and analysis of Tolkien’s work and his place in twentieth century literature and culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-Earth: How J. R. R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. A respected Tolkien scholar discusses the sources and creation of Tolkien’s complex world.

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