J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit has been in print for 75 years, sold more 100 million copies and been translated into more than 50 languages. The seminal work has everything one would desire in a fantasy — an avaricious dragon, a sagacious wizard, dwarves, elves, goblins, magic swords, a magic ring and, naturally, a hobbit. But as Tolkien fans know, there’s always more to learn about this world (especially with Peter Jackson’s new film due out in December). Fortunately, three experts on All Things Hobbit — Corey Olsen, author of Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, co-authors of The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien — will talk about the book’s lasting appeal at Miami Book Fair International on Sunday.
Olsen, an assistant professor of English at Washington College in Maryland, is the driving force behind www.tolkienprofessor.com, a website featuring a wealth of Tolkien material with relevance to the whole range of enthusiasts from the idly curious to the seriously academic. His newest venture, The Mythgard Institute, aims to be an online center of study of Tolkien’s work as well as other works of imaginative literature.
“Tolkien’s literature just has the power to speak to people now as it did then,” Olsen says. “What is to me really cool, especially as a medievalist, is that what he uses to speak to people are . . . . mythic, the mythic elements of these stories, the ways in which Tolkien is echoing these older myths and older stories. You know Tolkien went backwards in time, looking back to things like the Eddas, the Germanic sagas, the Anglo-Saxon poetry. Those are the things he derived real meaning from.
“You know, you get people who are thinking, ‘Oh, it’s just fantasy literature. It has nothing to do with the real world. It’s just escapist. It’s just denying reality.” No! It’s the best way to deal with reality, to process reality. It doesn’t take you out of touch with the world, it puts you in better touch with the world in many ways.”
In addition to their most recent collaboration, the husband and wife team of Hammond and Scull, both noted Tolkien scholars, have written several books on the subject — J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, and The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.
“He’s lasted pretty well,” Scull says. “Even before The Lord of the Rings came out The Hobbit was recognized by a lot of people as definitely a children’s classic. It’s been a little bit overwhelmed by its sequel, but it’s preserved its popularity for 75 years. There haven’t really been any dips. Well, there have, but only because there have been peaks, when there’s been films or an anniversary [of the book].”
Clearly Tolkien’s own authorial magic was as formidable as any wielded by the characters he created, with themes that resonate as strongly in contemporary readers as they did almost a century ago. Will that legacy continue?
Hammond says yes. “I believe it has enough of a universal quality to it that it will continue to be read for a long time to come, as long as people read. I think it will be one of the books that will be around for a long time.”
John Williford is a writer in Miami.