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The Hobbit > The Hobbit: an Anti-fantasy Novel (SPOILERS)

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message 1: by P. Aaron (new)

P. Aaron Potter (PAaronPotter) | 585 comments I've enjoyed revisiting The Hobbit, and this reread has confirmed me in an opinion I came to teahing the text to an undergraduate class on romance traditions a few years ago:

The Hobbit hates fantasy.

The essential conceit of the fantasy novel is the three-part quest structure developed in the medieval romances: a hero arises from straightforward circumstances, journeys outwards to confront a threat, and returns to the place of origin changed by his or her experiences.

However, where most quest heroes of the romance tradition willingly seek out adventure or riches or evil to fight, poor Bilbo is shanghaied into his journey. At least up until his fight with the spiders, Bilbo doesn't want to be on this adventure, as he informs his 'hosts' again and again.

One popular reading of this story is that Bilbo does eventually come to relish his new status and comrades, but I don't think his behavior during the Battle of Five Armies supports that interpretation. Thorin and the dwarves seek their quest rewards (gold and such) in the manner of good, individualist quest heroes, but Bilbo favors cutting the humans of lake town, and even the Mirkwood elves, in on the loot. His aims are always communitarian: the opposite of the rugged loner archetype which dominates the fantasy genre.

And what is the result of this friction? Bloody war, and it's narratologically significant that the ones who come off the worst for it are those like Thorin who most desperately clung to that dream of glory which drives most quest stries. Thorin's final speech to Bilbo - which I can never read without choking up - is the moral of the tale: stop seeking glory and gold, value friends, home, hearth, and safety instead. To hell with quests, and fantasies of dragon's plunder. Have a nice cup of tea.

It's not too difficult to see this as a commentary on the horrific destruction wrought in England by the glorious myths of 'noble' warfare which were shattered by WW1. Whether you choose to read it biographically or not, I think the conclusion is inescapable.

tldr: The Hobbit is a fantasy story that despises the glorious lies which fuel fantasy stories.


message 2: by David Sven (new)

David Sven (Gorro) | 1582 comments P. Aaron wrote: "The Hobbit is a fantasy story that despises the glorious lies which fuel fantasy stories. "

The irony being that it has been the inspiration for many of those very stories. Perhaps it says something that The Hobbit was successful without having to rely on said glorious lies.


message 3: by P. Aaron (new)

P. Aaron Potter (PAaronPotter) | 585 comments Darren wrote: "The Hobbit is an adventure story..."

I don't think it is. I think it's an anti-adventure story.

Compare to a very typical quest narrative, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark. As Indy and company complete each episodic step of their quest, they are upbeat, from Sallah and Indy's smug dance at outsmarting their French rival to Marion's declaration that she wants in on the fun at the end of the bar fight scene. The counter to this is at the ending, in which we see the Ark locked away in a vast warehouse, never to be seen again...we're with Indy when he says he wants to explore its wonders some more, despite the fact that so far its value seems to be solely that it melts the faces off anyone who looks at it.

That's a pretty strong pro-adventure story, and typical of the quest narrative structure. There's nothing a knight arrant wants so much after completing a quest as to go right out on another one. Think of Tennyson's Ulysses, who though old and grey, wants to set out on one more grand wandering adventure, unable to content himself with home and hearth.

The Hobbit? Completely backwards. Every episode, from the trolls to the goblin caves to the spiders to the escape from Mirkwood to the fight with Smaug is an only barely mitigated disaster, and our protagonist knows it. Throughout, he just wants to go home, and his complaints are the rational complaints of anyone who can see that this sword-fighting questing nonsense mostly means a lot of crummy nights shivering under inadequate blankets on hard ground and wondering where your next bacon sandwich is coming from. And at the end of the book, all the drama is happily, blissfully, left behind, so Bilbo can finally rest. There's no sense of "gee, let's go right out on another quest." Just the opposite.

TLDR: After a lifetime of questing, Cohen the Barbarian says what is best in life: "Hot water, good dentishtry and shoft lavatory paper"


message 4: by Louise (last edited Dec 17, 2012 08:19AM) (new)

Louise (louiseh87) | 352 comments Bilbo kind of has to be forced to go along as part of the First World War parallel, when many people were conscripted. He wanted to stay at home, out of the war. It's the fictional version of Dulce Et Decorum Est. Sort of.

However, I think part of it is the influence of English mythologies like King Arthur and Robin Hood (which are early fantasy really). Neither of them really chose to become a hero. Robin Hood was forced to become an outlaw due to circumstances and King Arthur grew up without knowing he was king, and then he pulled the sword out of the stone and just had to be.

How many fantasy stories actually have the hero going out to seek glory anyway? Most of the pre-21st century stories I've read involve an unwitting hero being thrown into glory through circumstances (C. S. Lewis for example)


message 5: by Ansar (new)

Ansar (Aradesh) | 5 comments There seem to be two main types of fantasy nowadays. We used to have a lot of hero with light shining out of every orifice who has been chosen to do something great from humble beginnings tropes. Now we have the anti-hero thing going on where everybody is ambivalent and ambiguous, throw in a bucket of blood and some nudity every other chapter etc.

I think what The Hobbit reflects is Tolkiens own experiences. Before World War 1 started the consensus was that Britain and it's allies were going to roll over Germany, indeed we weren't exactly averse to fighting them and we did our part to make sure WW1 took place. Europeans had been fighting each other for millenia, seemingly nobody understood what a modern war would look like.

When World War 1 took place it was horrifically brutal and those soldiers that fought in it had no idea what to expect, they had been bought up on tales of swords and chivalry, they didn't expect to live out their days in trenches with meager supplies and disease running rampant, they were thrust into hell on Earth.

A lot of the legends like the Arthurian tales were written hundreds of years after the time period they were referencing and they left out inconvenient details. The Hobbit was written by a man that had seen war firsthand, there was inevitably going to be a streak of Tolkien running through his works. If you read The Hobbit you come across all these details like when his stomach is rumbling and he can't see where or when his next meal will come. He spends most of the book being frightened and he complains about practical things like sleeping on the cold hard ground or being afraid of going too far from his allies in fear of his life. Bilbo belongs in a fantasy novel about as much as me or you.

His companions are looking for glory but he is just looking to go home yet he can't help but be fascinated by certain things either and part of him loves the camaraderie he has with these new companions but every time he is faced with the harsh realities of his journey he yearns for nothing but to go home.

Fantasy is full of going to foreign lands and "taking their loot", it's a reflection of European history however The Hobbit nearly seems to say it isn't worth the effort because the reality of conquest is very different. At the time of this novel Britain as an empire was weakening and World War 1 bought it to it's knees. I think Tolkien was a man of his time like most authors and what was happening in his life and in Britain consciously and subconsciously made it's way into his works.


message 6: by MarkB (new)

MarkB (Mark-B) | 69 comments I'm not so sure that the upbeat, go-for-it hero adventure has ever been the default expectation to the extent that The Hobbit specifically plays against it. For every hero who's longing for destiny to sweep him away, there is another who has to be dragged kicking and screaming.

Look at Homer's The Odyssey. It's one of the oldest classic mythological adventure tales, and its central character yearns for nothing more than to return home to his family.


message 7: by P. Aaron (new)

P. Aaron Potter (PAaronPotter) | 585 comments Markb wrote: "I'm not so sure that the upbeat, go-for-it hero adventure has ever been the default expectation to the extent that The Hobbit specifically plays against it...."

I think if you go back to the medieval Romances of Marie de France, Morte d' Artur, or even Beowulf - all primary source with which Tolkien, a medievalist, would have been intimiately familiar - I think there's more than enough there to qualify as the foundation of the genre. The heroes of 'Lanval' or 'Tristan' are knightly paragons who specifically salley forth to seek out evil. I think you might be reading the tradition of heroic fantasy from the jaded side we're on these days.

[Cue Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero"]

There are a few examples of anti-hero in the pre-Tolkien era - notably Gilgamesh - but not much in the Western tradition. And the Odyssey may not be a good example to support your point...yes, Ulysses wants to go home, but he was only out there because he'd volunteered for the job of questing in the first place. And every time he overcomes one of his little challenges, he's smug as hell about it. Just the kind of thing Bilbo wouldn't do.


message 8: by Mapleson (new)

Mapleson | 94 comments Another example of the 'I just want to go home' fantasy adventure is The Wizard of Oz. Generally speaking, the only characters that don't reflect fondly on the comforts of home either have lost everything or never had much to begin with.

I would also say 'the rugged loner' archetype, while popular far from dominates the genre. Frankenstein's monster or possibly Byron's Childe Harold are the only true loner I can think of. All other supposed 'loners' that I can think of actually have at least one or two close friends, if not a whole faction, supporting them. Bilbo often ventures off on his own side adventures, but there is always support waiting in the wings.


message 9: by David (new)

David | 17 comments Seems to me that, in order to back up your claim that the Hobbit (as in the book, not the character) "hates fantasy", you need to take a very particular definition of what a fantasy story is--specifically, a story which revolves around a glory-seeking hero on a quest. Since Bilbo does not want glory, then yes, of course the book doesn't meet that definition. But I think you need to back up your thesis by establishing that that is a valid and appropriate definition for fantasy stories.

Yes, Beowulf revolves around a glory-seeking hero, as do most of the old heroic tales (the Homeric legends, the Viking sagas, etc.) But not all of them do. As has been pointed out, Arthur had no dreams of being king until he had the kingship thrust upon him by divine intervention, and while many of the post-sword tales revolve around the glorious deeds of Arthur and/or his knights, the fall of Camelot--one of the most well-known Arthurian tales--does not. Similarly, Robin Hood does not seek to win glory for himself; he's trying to help the people and free King Richard.

And I'm not sure about the smugness angle--Bilbo was pretty damn smug when he caught up with the dwarves after the Misty Mountains, even going so far as to sneak past Balin for no good reason other than to bolster his reputation.


message 10: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (SeanOHara) | 2209 comments P. Aaron wrote: "The essential conceit of the fantasy novel is the three-part quest structure developed in the medieval romances: a hero arises from straightforward circumstances, journeys outwards to confront a threat, and returns to the place of origin changed by his or her experiences. "

That's overly reductionist. Fantasy owes as much to epics, fairy tales, eddas and sagas which don't follow this supposed pattern. Aeneas only journeys outward to escape the danger; Siegfried is murdered by a threat at home halfway through the Nibelungenlied and the rest of the book is about his wife's revenge; and Snow White and Sleeping Beauty never really go anywhere at all. Even in romances, Thorin-like characters who journey home to reclaim a lost kingdom are as common as those who travel outwards seeking adventure.

And too, the fantasy genre was well established by the time Tolkien began writing, and novels like Vathek, The White People, The Gods of Pegana, and the Conan stories are at least as far removed from your pattern as The Hobbit is.

P. Aaron wrote: "The heroes of 'Lanval' or 'Tristan' are knightly paragons who specifically salley forth to seek out evil. I think you might be reading the tradition of heroic fantasy from the jaded side we're on these days.

However Sir Gawain only takes up the Green Knight's challenge because no one else in the court will, and he ends his quest as a moral failure. And the Alliterative Morte Arthur is a tale of the king's hubris in trying to conquer the world leading to his neglect of his kingdom and Mordred's rebellion. Nor in the Nibelungenlied is there any quest at all, unless you count Siegfried helping Gunther woo Brynhild.

There are a few examples of anti-hero in the pre-Tolkien era - notably Gilgamesh - but not much in the Western tradition. And the Odyssey may not be a good example to support your point...yes, Ulysses wants to go home, but he was only out there because he'd volunteered for the job of questing in the first place.

No he didn't. Odysseus feigned madness to avoid the Trojan War, and only went because Palamedes tricked him into revealing the truth. Likewise Achilles' disguised himself as a woman to get out of the war but gave himself away by taking too keen an interest in Odysseus' sword.


message 11: by Preston (new)

Preston Ray (PMRay) | 6 comments I don't read it that way. Bilbo is both a Took and a Baggins. He is a better being by having the mix of the desire for adventure and the love of comfort and community than he would be as one or the other.


message 12: by P. Aaron (new)

P. Aaron Potter (PAaronPotter) | 585 comments Huh. Of all the parts of my post, I didn't think that the standard tropes of the fantasy genre would be the questionable part.

As to Odysseus in particular, you'll have to excuse my reliance on a high-school reading of the Iliad in translation as my primary source. In that text, Odysseus is hardly reluctant in his heroics, urging Agamemnon not to give up their fight, for instance, and participating freqently and voluntarily in various duels. Similarly, in my translation of Gawain, he's not reluctant at all: he leaps forward at the chance to take on the Green Knight. Any hesitation, the original poet notes, is because the knights are too "courteous" to believe the Knight's claims.

Relative to this debate, however, the only important consideration is what Tolkien would have thought of the Greek heroic archetypes, and happily we have some basis for that.

In his writing on Fairy Tales, Tolkien specifically singles out the Greek "mythic" and "epic" elements as the most essential of the genre:
The Olympians were personifications of the sun, of dawn, of night, and so on, and all the stories told about them were originally myths (allegories would have been a better word) of the greater elemental changes and processes of nature. Epic, heroic legend, saga, then localized these stories in real places and humanized them by attributing them to ancestral heroes, mightier than men and yet already men.

Tolkien goes on to specifically note that such super-heroic archetypes bore him silly. Abstractions and allegories are, he notes, unapproachable: "Personality can only be derived from a person."

As for the three-part structure, I'm relying on a number of critical books read in graduate school which post-date Tolkien (Louise Sylvester, Laura Mulvey) but they all rely on Freytang's triangle, which dates back to the late 1800s as the standard structural trope for quest narratives. I feel pretty confident in asserting Tolkien would have accepted it as the basis for generic structure.


message 13: by Scott (new)

Scott Allen | 25 comments The Reluctant Hero (And Bilbo is this, not an antihero) is a common enough archetype in fantasy/adventure/quest stories to have its own name, Aaron.

I agree that Bilbo is a Reluctant Hero and not someone "shanghaied" into the adventure. His Tookish side does spur him onward a little. Else why do we get the lengthy discussion of what being a Took means at the beginning of the novel?


message 14: by Matthew (last edited Dec 21, 2012 07:40AM) (new)

Matthew (masupert) | 200 comments Isn't this a quintessential "Hero Journey" here? I suppose that may be different than some high Fantasy, but you have a reluctant protagonist who is being led my a mentor on a journey. The mentor has to leave at some point and the hero has to prove their worth and then return to "normal life".

The only major difference here is that Bilbo's strength is not his sword fighting ability, but his wits. Event after event in the book occurs where Biblo proves his intelligence to overcome the obstacle at hand.


message 15: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (SeanOHara) | 2209 comments P. Aaron wrote: "Similarly, in my translation of Gawain, he's not reluctant at all: he leaps forward at the chance to take on the Green Knight. Any hesitation, the original poet notes, is because the knights are too "courteous" to believe the Knight's claims."

No. The courteous line is at the end of Stanza XI, after the Green Knight has burst into the hall and demanded to speak to the King, and it's actually rather sarcastic -- no one there wants to speak to the Green Knight, so they decide to let Arthur identify himself out of "courtesy." The Green Knight doesn't explain the beheading game until two stanzas later, and the court reacts by being even more quiet than before. The Green Knight then mocks them for being a lot of cowards, and it is Arthur who leaps from the bench to take up the challenge, not out of thirst for adventure but because his pride's been wounded. Only then does Gawain step forward so that the King doesn't have to do it.

The whole poem is mocking chivalric notions, but that doesn't make it an anti-fantasy any more than The Hobbit is.


message 16: by Aaron (new)

Aaron Yeager | 11 comments I think it is significant to point out that while many fantasy authors have not experienced anything that we would consider actually adventurous, Tolkien, as a war veteran, actually had experienced many such things.


message 17: by Dennis (new)

Dennis Calero | 8 comments Thanks for this topic and your thoughts. I question first whether Bilbo is actually forced to adventure. very much in keeping with the tradition of the reluctant hero, Bilbo at first denies the call to adventure, but Tolkien is very clear that Bilbo, of his own volition, finally decides to go. BTW, just as Luke Skywalker did. And Bilbo is a different Hobbit at the end. His objection to Thorin's war is not out of any lack of heroism or absence of change: just the opposite in fact. Bilbo is, at the end, a true hero. And being a true hero, Tolkien is again making a very specific point...a true hero is not for needless war and conflict.


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Books mentioned in this topic

The Light Fantastic (other topics)
Vathek (other topics)
The White People (other topics)
The Gods of Pegana (other topics)
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (other topics)