The biblio-philes: The enduring relevance of ‘The Hobbit’

A hobbit house with a round red door is surrounded with foliage and flowers.
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

This column contains minor spoilers for “The Hobbit.”

Tolkien is a familiar name to most. Many of us have had some contact with J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, either through his literature or its various adaptations. Even those who have not have still often heard of whimsical, curious creatures like hobbits, elves and orcs — all concepts whose mainstream designs have been majorly influenced by Tolkien’s work.

For a long time, the fantasy community, inspired in part by Tolkien, was often relegated to a more niche space. With the pandemic, however, came the revival of escapist media like books and aesthetics. Movements like “cottage core” and “dark academia” are dedicated to helping their participants frame a sometimes non-idyllic existence through a more idyllic lens.

With this desire to escape an ailing reality, the fantasy community has now found a more mainstream audience post-pandemic with the rising popularity of community-based activities like Dungeons and Dragons, Live Action Role Playing and renaissance faires and festivals across the world.

Alongside this resurgence, more people are coming into contact with Tolkien’s Middle-earth, which, almost a century after being written, has retained a loyal audience of readers who celebrate Bilbo Baggins’ eleventy-one birthday and swear by second breakfast. The fervor for this series has even spawned a sub-aesthetic also known as “hobbitcore,” which focuses itself mainly on the pursuit of “peace and quiet and a good tilled earth,” which Tolkien cites as the main objective of his dearly beloved hobbits.

Due to the steady appreciation of the Tolkien world, Amazon recently released the TV show “Rings of Power,” one of many Tolkien retellings that have been produced over the last couple of years. New episodes of the series are still being released weekly on Amazon Prime, but it has already received a spectrum of reviews. One big point of contention is that this is the first Tolkien retelling to feature people of color as elves. It is in the wake of this controversy and discussion over the themes and intentions of Tolkien’s Middle-earth that I decided to give the series a go.

As a fantasy lover myself, I have always been quite aware of the influence that Tolkien has had on the lore of elves and dwarves, forever in the periphery of the traditional fantasy understanding. So with an open mind, I began at the very beginning — “The Hobbit.”

Interspecies interactions have always been a huge part of Tolkien’s universe, from wood elves to dwarves to goblins. The varied relationships between each group are something that is deeply discussed. Throughout “The Hobbit,” we see Bilbo fight against goblins and wargs but also find friendship with Eagles and shapeshifters.

It is this representation of a fantasy world, complete with creatures of all different backgrounds and lore, that adds to the richness of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. To the dwarves, the goblins are unforgivable enemies who have cost them centuries of pain and loss, but, as one might imagine, the goblins have a different view on this themselves, and Tolkien allows a peek into their humanity when they lose their king and quickly become vengeful in response.

One of the overall quests of the book is to defeat the singular dragon, Smaug. However, his death instead heralds an interspecies war, bringing up questions about conflict and racial relations that are altogether not fully answerable — the kind of questions that haunt us today.

There is also the issue of the othered creatures that our characters come across as. One such character is Gollum, who is equal parts pitiable as he is despicable. Despite being framed as an antagonist to Bilbo’s journey, we are left empathizing with poor Gollum, who has been fated to live a life in the dark with only memories of the long-forgotten sun and dead family members to keep him warm.

Gollum, while presented as a monster in search of carnage and food, is truly in search of a community. And it is this loneliness that makes him relatable — a bumbling creature who’s lost his ability to socialize and speak to others despite desperately wanting to. Does that sound familiar?

While “The Hobbit” functions as a hero’s journey and a tale of adventure and friendship, it is also a tale of dark topics, including the cruel treatment of those we do not understand and the intricacies of a history laden with pain and war — topics that plague not just the fantasy world but also our own.

It is through media like Tolkien’s that we find accessible ways of approaching subject matter that can often be difficult to confront, and it is what makes adaptations of Tolkien’s work so personal and important to keep retelling. Shows like “Rings of Power” need to be adapted for today’s audience to reflect the struggles that we ourselves wrestle with: questions involving race, colonization and the acceptance of those different from us.

In the end, as Bilbo returns to his hobbit hole with little treasure and a tattered reputation but a new host of friends and stories, Tolkien impresses upon us that he is perfectly content. He leaves us to ponder what Bilbo muses as he says a final goodbye to a new friend: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

Tomi Oyedeji-Olaniyan CM ’23 is a dual neuroscience and literature major. If you need her, say her name in the mirror three times, and legend says she will appear to give you the perfect book recommendation.

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