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The Hobbit

J.R.R. Tolkien

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The Hobbit | Context


The Hobbit is set in Middle-earth and is a fantasy greatly influenced by author J.R.R. Tolkien's love of Old English and the history and culture of the early English, Anglo-Saxons, and other groups that inhabited the rural area in which he grew up.

Elements from Norse mythology and ancient English traditions and culture can also be found in Tolkien's tales. The names of the dwarves, some names of places, and the Raven's name, Roäc, are all found in Old Norse sagas. Many elements, such as named swords and encounters with Smaug, mirror details found in Beowulf, a story Tolkien admired.

Tolkien's fascination with languages, including those of Finnish, Welsh, and east Germanic descent, also served a pivotal role in forming The Hobbit and his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Indeed, he constructed several languages for Middle-earth—Elvish, Dwarvish, Entish, and Black Speech— by combining his favorite parts of real languages. As Tolkien once wrote, "The invention of languages is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse."

Tolkien was particularly taken with a 19th-century epic poem composed of Finnish mythology and folklore called The Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot. The centerpiece of the epic is a magical artifact called the Sampo, which bestows good fortune and supernatural powers upon its possessor. Tolkien was so influenced by the story that he began writing his own manuscript based on one of the characters—Kullervo, an orphan who seeks vengeance on his uncle for killing his father. (Shakespeare also drew inspiration from the story of Kullervo when writing Hamlet.)

Of his manuscript Tolkien said, "The germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages was the tragic tale of the hapless Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala."

Though Tolkien never finished his story, it became "the structure of Tolkien's invented world" and inspired elements seen throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy: powerful magical objects, orphans on quests fulfilling their destinies, and a seemingly pessimistic outlook that pervades key characters. And like Kullervo—who meets a fateful end by thrusting himself onto a sword—Tolkien uses characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a critique of those who lust for wealth and vengeance.

Given The Hobbit's adult themes, it may surprise some readers that Tolkien wrote the book as a children's story for his sons. However, Tolkien also imparts the importance of decency and loyalty—and how, in the end, good always trumps evil.

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