Day 283 - The road goes ever on
75 years of The Hobbit is a remarkable milestone for a book to reach, especially one with what was a most unlikely chance of success, let alone such impressive longevity. A childrens book, with no child characters at all, in which major characters die, written by an obscure Oxford professor of an even more obscure subject? Be honest, if such a list of “assets” was presented to you today, would you predict success for such a book? Yet succeed “The Hobbit” did, in quite incredible ways.
The success of The Hobbit is no mere matter of math, however. The numbers only tell a story to those who would value hoarded gold above cheer. To understand the success and value of The Hobbit you only need to look at the place it holds in hearts, in society, in culture. No book becomes this loved without it holding significant merit. No book becomes so much a part of public consciousness without it being a defining work and it is The Hobbit - and its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, which has entirely defined the genre of “fantasy” and still bestrides it like a colossus today.
Some more negative souls would see this being more a matter of time than anything else, that The Hobbit is only so defining, so loved, so well known because it has been around for 75 years….and yet in cultural terms, even in pop culture terms, how long is 75 years? In order to fully understand the impact of The Hobbit it is essential to look at what has preceded and was contemporary to it in modern culture and what has it managed to supercede without then being superceded itself.
September 21, 1937 and The Hobbit is published, into a world in which there was already DC Comics (March 1937), Conan the Barbarian (December 1932), a world in which The Wizard of Oz had been around for 37 years, a world in which King Kong had appeared on silver screens 4 years before, a world in which an incredibly popular animated film about a group of dwarves was only 3 months away. It was an age of radio and cinema - how on earth could a little English childrens book break through into popular culture against that?
I didn’t read The Hobbit until after I was older than the age group it was intended for, having read it after I read The Lord of the Rings around 14 or 15, so I can’t really comment on its appeal to young children. What I can comment on, however, is its appeal to older children (who of course never want to be seen as children!) and adults. Its immediate appeal and accessibility has not diminished, rather it has grown with the passing years. A seemingly simple adventure narrative to a child, the story also has layers of depth that are only uncovered with age and experience and knowledge, as its place in the wider narrative of Middle-earth becomes clear.
Perhaps then its enduring success and cultural appeal becomes clearer. A book that was enjoyed by children, maybe read to them by adults who enjoyed its different layers, layers that are later enjoyed by those same children when they become adults and introduce the book to their own kids? Or perhaps its something even simpler - that its simply a bloody good story! I have more copies of The Hobbit than any other book, from my uncle’s early 1960’s copy to the digital enhanced edition, which probably says more about the book than this whole post.
And what of the place of The Hobbit in popular culture? The Wizard of Oz had 13 sequels about its fantasy world, but arguably were it not for the 1939 film it would be utterly obscure. Its sequels certainly languish un-read and unappreciated. Conan, despite having a rich “historical” base created for it by author Robert E Howard that at times rivals that of Middle-earth, languishes in comic books or unsuccessful movies, a character still most associated with Arnie. DC Comics and the comic books that followed it endure as a largely speciality interest, undergoing constant reinvention and “reboots”, the height of their popularity long faded. As for that other story about dwarves….despite it being the making of the now corporate behemoth that owns it, despite it being critically acclaimed as a work of animation genius, it is now largely ignored by Disney, not currently available on release to buy. Perhaps, in a few months time, it will finally give up its title as the best known film about dwarves and the success of The Hobbit will be complete. Who would have thought that a little hobbit could do all that?
The Hobbit should be rightly celebrated as it reaches its 75th anniversary. Without it, without the immeasurable contribution of The Professor to the worlds of fantasy, literature, imagination, inspiration and all parts of the perilous realm, the world would be a very different place indeed.
Thank you, Professor Tolkien.
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