J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, first published in 1937, celebrated its 75th birthday (if you will), in September of 2012—a clear testament to its immense staying power. The Hobbit might seem antiquated or simplistic to a modern reader picking it up for the first time, but it hasn’t lost any of its magic. It remains the definitive fantasy novel.
The classic story
Even people who don’t read fantasy recognize the story of The Hobbit: Bilbo Baggins, a simple hobbit living in the Shire, is coerced by the wizard Gandalf into joining a group of thirteen dwarfs as they journey to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their home and their treasure from the dragon Smaug. We don’t see many stories like this in fantasy these days. The Hobbit is a simple, straightforward adventure; a peaceful character stepping out of his comfort zone and leaving his home to go on a grand, dangerous quest. This formula was so effective that it was copied time and time again in the subsequent decades of fantasy literature to the point that it became a cliché. I believe this is one reason why so much of today’s fantasy is filled with intricate political machinations and gritty, realistic warfare: we exhausted The Hobbit’s formula, and had to turn to something new to keep things fresh. Even still, The Hobbit has retained its charm; whereas so many stories became stale because they were derived from The Hobbit, The Hobbit’s originating nature imbues it with an untouchable magic.
The roots of an entire genre
While fantasy certainly existed before The Hobbit, the books that qualified as such were few and far between. Ask fans of the genre to name a pre-Hobbit fantasy book, and very few would be able to do so. I think it’s absolutely fair to say that all of modern fantasy exists as a result of The Hobbit. Tolkien only wrote The Lord of the Rings because of the success of The Hobbit—people loved it, and the publishers wanted more. Tolkien obliged, and his works have gone on to influence much of today’s top-tier fantasy. Terry Brooks has stated numerous times that his hit fantasy novel The Sword of Shannara, first published in 1977 and the start of a series that now numbers over twenty books (and is still growing), was a direct response to Tolkien’s work, an influence that is quite clear upon reading his novels. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series contains obvious Tolkien influences, and George R.R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire, has spoken of Tolkien’s immense impact on his work. These authors are only the tip of the iceberg—Tolkien has become the staple of fantasy literature, and it all comes back to The Hobbit. That’s where it all began, and its influence cannot be understated.
It has a dragon!
Let’s be honest, is it even possible to have a great fantasy novel without a dragon? Well, okay, it is—but dragons always make things better! Even after the better part of a century, Smaug remains one of the most iconic dragons in all of literature. Inspired by the dragon from “Beowulf,” he displays all the classic tropes: he hoards treasure in the heart of a mountain, and his wrath is incurred when an item from his trove is stolen. Modern fantasy authors will often create some sort of new twist to make their dragons interesting, and classic dragons like Smaug have become all but extinct. However, I’ve always thought there’s something unbelievably epic about old-school dragons, which Smaug embodies perfectly—a vicious, fire-breathing monster who’s covered in impenetrable scales and tries to burn down a town on a whim. Seriously, that’s just awesome.
A book for everyone
There are a number of reasons why The Hobbit is an excellent fantasy novel, but what makes it the fantasy novel? It’s for everyone. While Tolkien’s follow-up, The Lord of the Rings, is a darker story intended more for adults, The Hobbit is traditionally considered a children’s book. Although it’s certainly very accessible for children (I read it five or six times before I was eight years old), it can be enjoyed by anyone of any age. I most recently read it a year ago, and while it didn’t engage me quite as much as it did when I was younger, I still enjoyed it immensely. I’ve seen plenty of non-fantasy readers pick it up and love it. While much of modern fantasy has become incredibly dark and violent with stories that are meant to be appreciated only by older readers, The Hobbit remains a relic of another age of fantasy—an age where anyone could pick up a book and enjoy it from beginning to end.
The definitive fantasy novel
The Hobbit isn’t an intricate story filled with political scheming or gritty warfare, it’s a straight-up adventure story—it’s clean, classic fantasy. Its formula of taking a peaceful character and sending him on a dangerous quest has been copied time and time again in fantasy literature, but The Hobbit remains the originator and definitive work written in such a style. Is it old-fashioned? Absolutely. Does is seem simplistic when put side-by-side with more modern works? Sure. Regardless, The Hobbit hasn’t lost any of its magic or its all-ages appeal. There is no doubt in my mind that it will continue to be read and enjoyed by millions of people for years to come, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is the definitive fantasy novel. The Hobbit is a story for the ages.
This article is part of our search for “The Great Fantasy Novel.” For more information on this project or to nominate your own favorite fantasy novel, please take a look at the introduction article. Do you agree or disagree with this nomination? Let us know in the comments below!