The Literary work of J.R.R. Tolkien


The literary work of J.R.R. Tolkien is diverse and many-sided, like a diamond sparkling in the light. Among different stories, tales, novels the master of fantasy also created poems, wordings of Old English legends, treatises and works on philology. Love for bygone days, innovation and originality unite all Tolkien’s works. Of course, some books were more noticeable and popular than the others (see books by Tolkien). Some of them were published posthumously. Undoubtedly, the most famous ones have always been “The Hobbit”, “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion”.

“The Hobbit” or the Very Beginning

green dragonIn his letter to W.H. Auden J.R.R. Tolkien narrates his first steps in the field of literature. We learn that at the age of seven Tolkien wrote his first story. It was about a dragon. He remembered nothing about it except a philological fact. Tolkien’s main reviewer was his mother who said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say “a green great dragon”, but had to say “a great green dragon”. It made him puzzled. Later he would often recall that remark.

In that very letter to Auden the writer admits that he literally became “addicted” to the north – to its nature, its culture and its languages. Studying at King Edward’s Grammar School (see Chronology), he spent a lot of time mastering Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek and Gothic. Studying various languages, Tolkien became fascinated by the cultural wealth of northern people. Also his studies at Exeter College (see Chronology) helped to broaden Tolkien’s horizon and outlook. Tolkien confessed that Spanish and Welsh gave him great esthetic pleasure. He even tried to invent his own New Germanic, but soon gave up. Not because of lack of enthusiasm and curiosity, but due to his finding a manual on Finnish, which absorbed all his attention.

A great desire to rewrite and improve a book of old Finnish ballads the “Kalevala”, according to Tolkien, inspired him to create a history of Middle-earth. (The “Kalevala” is a collection of songs, poems, stories and magical charms which were passed down by folk singers until a student of languages wrote them down in the 1830’s – 40’s. “Kalevala” means “Kaleva’s District”. Kaleva was said to be the first settler in Finland, and its first hero.)Thus, he gradually began to write “The Book of Lost Tales”, which was published posthumously in 1977 under the title of “The Silmarillion” (its editor was his son, Christopher Tolkien). However, it is “The Hobbit” that brought fame and glory to Tolkien.

“The Hobbit” demanded a lot of Tolkien’s time and effort. In the above-mentioned letter Tolkien recalls that “The Hobbit” began with one line. He was marking exam papers – a task that bored him. Naturally his attention wandered. While daydreaming for a moment, he wrote a sentence on a blank page in a student’s exam book. The line would become the opening of his novel: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. But why did he choose the word “hobbit”? There is much speculation on this. The simplest answer is that the word “hobbit” is a blending of two words – of a Latin word “homo” (which means “a person”) and an English word “rabbit”. Some people believe that the word “hobbit” is just a translation by Tolkien from the language Westron (Common Speech), which hobbits used. Their name for themselves is actually “kuduk”.

According to Tolkien, hobbits had nothing to do with rabbits. He said their size and shape were an effort to please his children. Besides that mysterious phrase and a map belonging to a dwarf, named Thror, Tolkien could not come up with anything else. He adored to tell fairy tales to children, and they, in some way, helped him with the book. “The Hobbit” was mainly intended for young readers. For it doesn’t have any profound or thought-provoking ideas, which are abundant in “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion”. But, nevertheless, there are some valuable thoughts there too.

“The Hobbit: or There and Back” is written in a genre of travels (a popular literary genre of Old Orthodox Church). But the main hero isn’t a saint, performing his feats of arms in the name of God, but a small hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, who belongs to a noble family. He will have to overcome a lot of obstacles, to go “There” as an indecisive and timid rabbit and come “Back” as a famous and respected hero. Height and age do not play a crucial role, but his/her contribution in the fight against Evil is all that counts. This idea can be traced in “The Hobbit” as well as in “The Lord of the Rings”.

More than once Tolkien stated that his characters as well as the plot came to the pages of his books as if by themselves. Bilbo Baggins has only 10 minutes to get ready for the journey and has absolutely no idea of what awaits him in the future. Gandalf, a kind and wise wizard, who can be found in every story about Middle-earth, gives strength and encourages Bilbo. The fate of Bilbo’s companions – 13 dwarves who went to fight back the dragon’s gold – remains uncertain too. The motif of the motherland enslaved by the enemy is one of the main in “The Hobbit”. It should be noted that the book was published in 1937 when the shadow of the Nazi colossus was hanging over Europe.

“The Hobbit” as well as the other works of Tolkien is rich in the folklore traditions of the past. Along with hobbits – characters created by Tolkien – there are vile goblins, silly trolls, brave dwarves, nice elves and other characters from European folk-tales. However, their images have not been understood identically in different epochs. Thus, William Shakespeare speaks about elves as tiny beings with wings. But Tolkien as well as Spencer imagines them as beings according to the original meaning of the word. Therefore, in Tolkien’s understanding, elves are beautiful and splendid forestry beings, although, their characters are not very well worked out in “The Hobbit” compared to “The Lord of the Rings”.

In “The Hobbit” the idea of the journey doesn’t come out of the blue. The dwarves are lured by the gold kept in the Lonely Mountain, which was grabbed once by a vile dragon, Smaug. Thirst for wealth and hoarding has always been in their blood. Wealth gives dwarves a sense of greatness and importance, it makes them believe that they are above other folks inhabiting Middle-earth. However, it turned out to be an apple of discord. If it were not for goblins, the armies, wrangling for the dwarves’ gold, would have smashed each other.

Cupidity is punished in “The Hobbit”. Thorin Oakenshield, a dwarf who became the King under the Mountain, couldn’t but die in the fight with goblins. The main culprit of the discord pays off for his sins with his blood. When Bilbo steals a diamond of the Arkenstone, Thorin’s so desired gem, he could have been given practically anything for it – like gold or silver to build a lake-town of Esgaroth. However, the hobbit gives the gem back to the Esgaroths just for the peace to be in Middle-earth. Probably, because of this Bilbo remains alive.

Bilbo Baggins plays a crucial role in “The Hobbit”. If it were not for him, the One Ring – the plot will be set around it in “The Lord of the Rings” – would have remained in the Misty Mountains.

Sometimes Tolkien cannot even explain what a being appears on the pages of his books – like Gollum, for example. He simply exists, and that’s it. But in no way we reproach Tolkien for that because each character has its own role in the tale. Each character is a link in the chain of the plot, which first goes “There” and then comes “Back”.

In Tolkien’s tales there is a Law of Counterbalance. A silly and strong dragon is opposed to a clever and weak hobbit, an evil and mysterious Necromancer – to a kind and open Gandalf. It reminds one of the opposition of Good against Evil.

Could there be a bad ending? Definitely, not. And not because the literary genre of fairy tales demands a happy ending. But because the author loves hobbits and their way of life. In his letter to Deborah Webster, Tolkien compares himself with these creatures, whose habits are similar to those of the author. He writes: “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands…”. Hobbits are opposed to any changes, they prefer serenity. Hobbits live peacefully, they do not disturb others. Tolkien couldn’t break such an idyll, closely associated with unity and nature.

It is obvious that Tolkien loves naturalism. Animals play a great role in all his books. Thus, a blackbird tells an archer, Bard, about a hole in a dragon’s shell, that helps to defeat the beast. Clever ravens become Thorin’s spies. Mighty Beorn, a human-being able to take a form of a huge bear, determines the outcome of the Battle of five Armies.

Is there a moral in this fairy-tale? Of course, it is there, but it should be read between the lines. The main idea of “The Hobbit” is that people should get united against any Enemy like goblins, the Necromancer or other representatives of Evil. We should win not only over the Enemy but also over ourselves, like Bilbo does. It is the unity that can subdue even the most unconquerable Enemy.

“The Hobbit” is written in an easy language, it is not overloaded with proper or other names which could have made it difficult to read the book. Probably, it is the thrilling plot that made the book so popular. The readers demanded “more stories on Hobbits”. And Tolkien showed the editor his chronicles of Middle-earth, which he wrote for his own pleasure, never hoping for them to be published. Later, these chronicles became the basis of “The Silmarillion”.

“The Silmarillion”: the Story Revives!

The Silmarillion is the core of J.R.R. Tolkien’s imaginative writing, a work which origins stretch back to a time long before “The Hobbit”. Tolkien considered “The Silmarillion” his most important work, and, though it was published last and posthumously, this great collection of tales and legends clearly sets the stage for all his other writings. The story of the creation of the world and of the First Age, this is the ancient drama to which the characters in “The Lord of the Rings” look back, and in whose events some of them, such as Elrond and Galadriel, took part. The book gives an especially moving and deep history of the elves and puts the reader in awe of their power, majesty and bravery, though it also shows that even they are susceptible to greed and envy.

“The Silmarillion” is a book of many tales put together. It has no overall narration as in “The Lord of the Rings”. Instead the condensed stories of Tolkien’s universe reveal new perspectives and understandings on all of his works.

“The Silmarillion” consists of five works, of which the Quenta Silmarillion is the central tale.

These are:

Ainulindale, the tale of the Music of the Ainur and the creation of Arda.

Valaquenta, the tale of the Valar, in which the nature of each of the Powers is described.

Quenta Silmarillion, the longest tale, which gives an account of the history of Arda from its beginnings until the end of the First Age.

Akallabeth, the tale of the Second Age, which concentrates on the history of Numenor until its Downfall.

Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, which spans the late Second Age and the Third, telling of the forging of the Rings of Power and their history up to the War of the Ring.

As to geography in “The Silmarillion”, it is described much more detailed than in other Tokien’s works. Middle-earth represents a small part of the world called Arda. Tolkien had always been attracted to the land, fighting against war, where Evil was nested or great deeds took place.

Like other great works of Tolkien “The Silmarillion” is dedicated to the struggle against Dark forces. The reader learns about the story of a mighty Ainur, called Melkor. He stood up against the will of the One and rose against Eru and his fellowers. This reminds of a story from the Bible of a fallen angel who later became the Devil.

Tolkien has his own individual view on the creation of the world. “The Silmarillion” tells the tale of the music of Ainur – the images of the tunes materialized. And Arda created. If in other mythologies there is God, who creates world from the clay or any other substance, then in “The Silmarillion” there is a choir, directed by the One. However, the world didn’t turn out to be as planned by Eru, because of Melkor’s intrigues.

Tolkien’s literary works cannot exist without an artifact – all the main events are set around it. In “The Hobbit” it is treasures of the Lonely Mountain, in “The Lord of the Rings” – the Ring of Power, in “The Silmarillion” – three semi-precious stones, which held the light of Trees of Valar inside. The stones caused many troubles, for they were cursed by Feanor and his descendents. The maker of the stones summoned all the forces of Arda, vowed vengeance upon everyone who would hide or take the Silmarils. Thus, the stones turned out to be the apple of discord between the elves and Melkor. The Dark Lord became obsessed with greed and stole the semi-precious stones. Three Silmarils, embroidered on his iron crown, became the symbol of Melkor’s power and might.

“The Silmarillion” also tells a story of a true and passionate love between Beren and Luthien, a valiant warrior and a fair elven princess. Their love is extremely significant and sets a good example for all those who are in love. Their relationship was unthought-of for the First Age. Thingol, Luthien’s father, in return for his blessing to such a wedding, asked Beren to bring him a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown (Morgoth is the second name of Melkor). Great love and ingenuity helped to overcome Dark forces.

Beren did what Thingol asked him to do, although he was left without his right fist and got fatal wounds from Carcharoth, a werevolf. Then, Luthien scarified her immortality for the sake of her beloved. They got married and lived happily ever afterwards on the isle of Tol Galen in Middle-earth. Tolkien liked to compare himself with Beren, and his wife, Edith, with splendid Luthien. For Tolkien it was an example of true love and happiness, which sometimes worth the sacrifice.

“The Silmarillion” also tells us a story of Sauron, Morgoth’s “right hand”, and describes his foul deeds.

“The Silmarillion” is an important link in the chain of chronicles about Middle-earth. It can be compared with a fine gold frame, which perfectly well adds such priceless canvases as “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”