The Hobbit Historical Context

‘The Hobbit,’ or ‘There and Back Again’ was published in September of 1937. It was received with rave reviews and was nominated for several awards, including the Carnegie Medal.

It’s a classic of the genre and has a large following among young and adult readers. 

The Hobbit Historical Context

Publication History

The Hobbit sold out immediately after publication and was later reprinted with illustrations. It wasn’t until the end of World War II and paper rationing, that the novel was printed in great numbers and spread around the world. It has been published several more times since and has been translated into over sixty languages. 

After the novel’s initial success, the publisher asked Tolkien if he could provide a sequel. Rather than writing more about the world of the Hobbits like the publisher wanted, he provided them with the manuscript for The Silmarillion, an entirely different work of fiction. 

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Personal Context 

J.R.R. Tolkien never considered his novels, like The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy to be his most important contributions to the literary world. His main focus lay in the realm of linguistics and his study of Old English, Welsh, Scandinavian, and Anglo-Saxon poetry and mythology. He used his knowledge of these languages to create dozens of his own, most of which are found in his novels. It was these languages that inspired him to create a mythology around them. In the early 1930s, Tolkien began to create the stories out of which The Hobbit would eventually emerge.

Some scholars have chosen to connect personal events from Tolkien’s life to a few of the plot points found in the novel. For example, his time serving in World War I, his relationship with his wife, Edith, and even moments from his childhood. Some of the most interesting facts about J.R.R. Tolkien’s life may have also inspired his writing.

Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian Influence on The Hobbit

The Hobbit also famously includes elements of Anglo-Saxon, Icelandic, and Norse mythology. The names of dwarves, places, names of swords, and elements of language are some of the many instances in his work that readers might notice references to these mythologies.

Other sources that Tolkien pulled from in order to create the world of Middle-earth and the plot of The Hobbit include the Völsunga saga and the Prose and Poetic Edda. The Prose Edda, also known as the Younger Edda or Snorri’s Edda, is a collection of Old Norse stories dating back to the early 13th century.

It’s been suggested, and many scholars believe, the work was written by historian and scholar Snorri Sturluson. Today, it’s considered to be the main source of Norse mythology. It is connected to the Poetic Edda, a collection of poems that survive from the same time period. 

The Prose Edda has four sections. They are the Prologue, Gylfanginning, Skáldskaparmál, and Háttatal. The first outlines information about the Norse gods, the second provides questions and answers about Norse mythology, the third includes lists of kennings, and the fourth discusses the composition of poetry. It is believed that the book functioned as a textbook for scholars of the period, and those who came after. 

Stories that readers might be familiar with from Norse mythology include that of Odin, the all-father, who was said to wander the earth among humankind, and that of the dragon Fafnir, slain by Sigurd. The latter is thought to have been the inspiration for Smaug. Scholars also believe that Tolkien was inspired by Odin to write the character of Gandalf. (Interestingly, the name “Gandalf” also appears in the Prose Edda as the name of a dwarf.)

Other connections include that between “Middle-earth” and “Midgard,” the latter being the name for Earth in Norse mythology, and the runic system of the time which was used as inspiration for Tolkien’s runes in The Hobbit and later in The Lord of the Rings. 

In regard to Anglo-Saxon literature, readers can look towards stories such as Beowulf in which a hero has to defeat an awakened monster, not dissimilar to the role Smaug plays in The Hobbit. Tolkien’s creation of languages for the various races in Middle-earth was also influenced by Old and Middle English, and its Germanic roots.

Another poem that was quite influential on The Hobbit was The Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot, an epic Finnish poem compiled in the 19th century that describes the creation of the earth. He spoke about the poem while describing a particular piece of writing. He 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.” 

Literary Context 

While J.R.R Tolkien was certainly influenced by Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon stories and even the works of the Brothers Grimm, he was also inspired by writers of his own time. These included: 

  • Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne (1862) 
  • The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (1872)
  • The Black Douglas by Samuel Rutherford Crockett (1899)
  • The Roots of the Mountains by William Morris (1889)
  • The Story of Sigurd and the Volsung and the Fall of Niblungs by William Morris (1876)
About Emma Baldwin
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues on Book Analysis.

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