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Sunday Read: Harvard Professor on the Lasting Appeal of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Norse Myths that Inspired It

The HobbitWhile Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit is showing in South African cinemas, we bring you this interview with Harvard professor Stephen Mitchell, an expert on Scandinavian folklore, in which he discusses the influence of Norse mythology on Tolkien’s work. Like Tolkien, Mitchell is fascinated by the older literature and languages of Northern Europe.

Mitchell talks about the origins of the word “hobbit”, saying that there is “heated debate” surrounding it and that he could “probably start bar fights over this”.

The professor also gives his theory as to the lasting appeal of The Hobbit, first published in 1937.

GAZETTE:When did you first read “The Hobbit”?

MITCHELL: It must have been about 1965 or 1966 because I was no longer in elementary school. I am sure I was in high school, and the reason I remember that is because I played hooky for a day or two until I had read through it and the “Ring” trilogy. I pretended I was sick and stayed at home. I am of the generation that experienced [Tolkien’s books] in the hippie, West Coast, counterculture world. You know these buttons that are very popular from Newbury Comics that you see hipsters wearing nowadays? Those were so popular back in the ’60s, and one of them was “Frodo lives.” All of my copies of the Tolkien books have those wild purple psychedelic covers from the ’60s. I even ran across one in the attic the other day that had been taped and re-taped. The cover had fallen off.

To Mitchell The Hobbit is like the artist’s sketch, while The Lord of the Rings is the masterpiece on the bigger canvas. However, Jon Michaud does not agree. He makes a case for The Hobbit as a “better and more satisfying read than its gargantuan successor”, listing eight points:

1. Only one hobbit.

There’s a reason Tolkien begins both novels by getting his hobbit protagonists out of the Shire. Hobbits, though possessed of many admirable traits, can be kind of a drag, especially in large numbers. One is plenty. Four is too many. After twelve hundred pages of “The Lord of the Rings,” I’d had just about enough of the hobbits’ endless pining for home and their tiresome whingeing about not having a second breakfast. Particularly grating is Sam Gamgee, the loyal, kind-hearted servant who accompanies Frodo all the way to Mt. Doom—and insists on calling him “Mr. Frodo” the entire time. Mindlessly devoted and masochistically self-denying, he is held up as the truest expression of hobbithood. No thanks. I find Bilbo, the hero of the earlier book, a far more engaging character. While he does yearn for the comforts of the Shire during his journey to the Lonely Mountain, he is no straight arrow. He’s an opportunist, willing to fudge the rules when it suits him. He outwits Gollum with a not-quite-kosher riddle. He steals the Arkenstone from Smaug’s hoard and uses it as a bargaining chip; and he hides the magic ring from his companions as long as he can. Next time I re-read “The Lord of the Rings,” I am sure to ask myself, What would Bilbo do?

Watch the trailer for The Hobbit:

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Image courtesy The Guardian


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