For more than half a century readers have journeyed alongside Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, and his nephew Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.
Bilbo Baggins is a reasonably typical hobbit: fond of sleeping, eating, drinking, parties and presents. However, it is his destiny to travel to the dwarflands in the east, to help slay the dragon Smaug. His quest takes him through enchanted forests, spiders’ lairs, and under the Misty Mountains, where he comes across the vile Gollum, and tricks him out of his ‘Precious’ – a ring that makes its bearer invisible, and wields a terrible power of its own.
‘One of the best children’s stories of the century’
W. H. AUDEN
Since the dawn of time, storytelling and the fantastic have gone hand in hand. All cultures have their myths – tales of gods and giants, monsters and marvels. An increasing interest in the roots of culture, together with a recognition of the importance of myth and archetype in understanding the human condition, led to a reflorescence of myth-based literature in the 20th century.
J.R.R. Tolkien, the reclusive, pipe-smoking Oxford don, was in the vanguard, and so great was his achievement that his name became virtually synonymous with the literature of fantasy.
The strength of Tolkien’s work is in its fidelity to its roots, which lie in the legends of the Nordic world. Tolkien believed that the roots of myth and the roots of language are one and indivisible, and he demonstrated this belief by creating an entirely new language (Elvish) with its own grammar, its own beautiful script and its own mythology. it was a rarefied and highly personal world, yet it proved a fertile soil from which his great fantasy novels were to grow.
First of these, and for many the finest, was the tale of Bilbo Baggins, the sedentary hobbit who is persuaded by the benign wizard Gandalf into joining a treasure hunt. Bilbo survives a series of chilling adventures to become the unlikeliest of heroes in his confrontation with the dragon Smaug. These adventures are drawn from mythic roots – the river of forgetfulness, the trolls turned to stone by the touch of daylight, the ring of invisibility, the monster – and their mythic power is channelled through magnificent storytelling.