Hobbit’s critics forget how fairytales feed our humanity
by Andrew Moody
HOBBITS, notes Tolkien at the start of their eponymous story, are largely forgotten, easily missed and have little or no magic about them.
Or not. In the 75 years since he penned those words, The Hobbit has sold more than 100 million copies. In its opening weekend, Peter Jackson’s first installment of the movie version broke records around the world. Clearly there is something a little magical about Hobbits after all.
The interesting question, however, is what that magic is. Why should an English boffin’s fairytale of elves, wizards and dragons continue to command such devotion? What craving does it satisfy?
To its literary critics, The Hobbit‘s success is simply a sign of widespread immaturity. The story, with its faux mediaeval cadences and reactionary archetypes, is mere escapism – intellectual comfort-food for the politically disengaged.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, modernists and progressives muttered in protest as this ”juvenile trash” (to quote Edmund Wilson) waxed in popularity and repeatedly won popular votes for most important book and author. A prominent expatriate Australian lamented that Tolkien’s ascendancy was a nightmare come true, and heralded a general flight from reality.
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Less dismissive evaluations have tended to focus on broader social contexts. Despair in the wake of the world wars and grief over modernity’s failures are frequently offered as explanations for both the book and its reception. From this angle, Tolkien’s works are seen as both a turning away from contemporary evils and as romantic elegy to a (real or imagined) lost world where humans lived in proximity to nature, objects were made by hand, and battles, if necessary, could be fought with honour.
The two assessments, of course, are not mutually exclusive – the second seeks to explain while the first merely judges.
And whether that judgment is fair will depend on the deeper question of whether the romantic sensibility speaks the truth about the human condition or simply avoids it.
In any case, the social-historical perspective is insufficient. If the appeal of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were simply a matter of hankering for old times, then surely any historical drama would serve. Why this story in particular? And what part do the supernatural and fantastical elements play in it?
Without doubt, these are questions to which many true answers might be given…
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