Tolkien the modernist? The origins of The Hobbit

by Anahita Hoose:

On Friday of Second Week, Trinity 2013, Taruithorn were privileged to hear Dr Mark Atherton give a talk with the provocative title ‘Tolkien the modernist? The origins of The Hobbit‘. Mark, an English tutor at Regents Park College, has written a book on this subject, There and Back Again: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Origins of the Hobbit, which sounds like a fascinating study. After speaker and audience had enjoyed an excellent dinner in the Royal Blenheim, we repaired to Christ Church, where Mark began his talk by outlining the main factors in Tolkien’s life that are important for understanding The Hobbit. These include the fact that he was a mediaevalist, his fatherhood of four children, and his experience of fighting in the First World War.
A possible, easily-overlooked source of influence is the modernist movement in literature, which was in full swing during Tolkien’s youth. While some of his acquaintances were enthusiastic about the changes taking place, some of his closest friends were opposed to them. The T.C.B.S., a club to which Tolkien belonged when at school in Birmingham, rejected elements of modernity such as mass production, but, as Mark pointed out, modernity and modernism are not quite the same thing. Some modernists might have sympathised with the feelings behind Tolkien’s statement in The Hobbit that ‘some of the machines that have since troubled the world’ may have been invented by goblins. For example, D.H. Lawrence disapproved of mechanisation.

Surprisingly, Tolkien stated that his creation of the word ‘hobbit’ might have been inspired by Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 novel Babbitt, which belonged to a realist tradition objected to by the T.C.B.S. Mark suggested that some of Tolkien’s public statements about this kind of literature might have been exaggerated and intended to provoke. The novel concerns Babbitt’s flight from his humdrum, middle-class life, to which he ultimately returns after having an extramarital affair and a period of being a left-wing radical. There may be a significant connection to the story of Bilbo, the first fifty years of whose life is described in terms reminiscent of a comfortable, late Victorian or Edwardian existence.

Mark showed us some literary passages that provided striking evidence that modernist writers were often preoccupied with the same issues that interested Tolkien. E.M. Forster, who was on the edge of the Bloomsbury Group, asked in Howard’s End (1910) ‘Why has England not a great mythology?’ Tolkien began his life’s work in an attempt to provide her with one. Even if he was not directly influenced by Forster, both must have been responding to the Zeitgeist.

In November 1915, D.H. Lawrence wrote in a letter of his sense of the pathos of England’s greatness ending, ‘the past, the great past, crumbling down, breaking down, not under the force of the coming buds, but under the weight of many exhausted, lovely yellow leaves, that drift over the lawn and over the pond, like the soldiers, passing away, into winter and the darkness of winter’. It is interesting to compare this with Tolkien’s poem Kortirion Among the Trees, written at almost exactly the same time, where we find the lines: ‘And then the wide-umbraged elm begins to fail; / Her mourning multitudes of leaves go pale / Seeing afar the icy shears / Of Winter, and his blue-tipped spears / Marching unconquerable upon the sun / of bright All-Hallows. Then their hour is done, / And wanly born on wings of amber pale / They beat the wide airs of the fading vale / And fly like birds across the misty meres.’ Kortirion is a city in what was to become Tol Eressëa, but the poem should not be seen as an escapist fantasy, as at this time Tolkien saw the isle of the elves as a mythical version of England and associated Kortirion with Warwick. He and Lawrence were arguably responding to a shared anxiety about the future of England in very similar terms.

Tolkien stayed in Oxford after the beginning of the war to complete his degree, while his old schoolfriends went off to fight. This forced him into the company of people he might not otherwise have socialised with, such as T.W. Earp, then a fellow Exeter student, later an art critic. Earp and Tolkien both contributed to the anthology Oxford Poetry 1915, as did the modernist writer Aldous Huxley. Earp’s contributions, The Crowd and Departure, expressed a typically modernist desire to say new things in new ways, rather than falling into cliché. Mark associated this with Tolkien’s pleasure in discovering a new world in the Finnish epic the Kalevala; he wrote in an essay on reading this that ‘it is more likely to be the almost indefinable sense of newness and strangeness that will either perturb you or delight you’.

Another subject of interest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was primitivism, the study of animism, which sees life and divinity everywhere in nature. Such an idea may underly the portrayal of the stone-giants in The Hobbit, who seem to represent elemental forces. It was also fashionable for visual artists to draw inspiration from ‘primitive’ art, producing stylised, symbolic work that did not attempt to be realistic. Tolkien’s own paintings and drawings went through a period of instantiating just such qualities. Mark Atherton pointed out that in The Book of Lost Tales, the first version of the stories that became The Silmarillion, Tinwelint, the first incarnation of Thingol, rules over an unrefined, rustic tribe of elves. The elves of Mirkwood were similarly portrayed in the first draft of The Hobbit, where they use flint arrows like prehistoric humans.
Many modernist authors were, like Tolkien, deeply interested in mythology. For example, the lines ‘The hanged, the offerant: / himself to himself / on the tree’, from David Jones’ In Parenthesis (1937), recall the description of the Norse god Odin in the Elder Edda, which had a significant influence on Tolkien, and Ezra Pound’s poetry also explores strange mythologies. Both Pound and Tolkien wrote poetry in complex metres. The talk was followed by lively discussion of whether Tolkien could in any sense be seen as a modernist writer, despite his distrust of modernity; it was agreed that he could hardly help being affected by the time in which he wrote, however much he might prefer to emphasise his mediaeval sources.

One thought on “Tolkien the modernist? The origins of The Hobbit

  1. Thanks for this write-up – very interesting! I was disappointed I couldn’t make the talk; based on this I’ll definitely be checking out his book!

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