Tolkien’s the Hobbit shows what is meant by original genre fiction.

Copyright © 2012 Jerry Dunne

Derivative fiction is fiction that in content and style reads very similar to other such types of stories. Nothing about it really sticks out. An original story will have something that makes it different, even if the story easily fits into a specific genre. An original story can have the same type of character, plot, storyline, theme and setting as derivative fiction and yet still be considered an original work. For instance, elves and wizards have been used by many fantasy authors but Tolkien managed to create original stories out of this very derivative fantasy model.

To explain further what is meant by original fiction, I will use examples from Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

The Hobbit contains many of the elements of derivative or run-of-the-mill fantasy with its wizard, good and bad magic, elves, forbidding forest, dwarves, caves, trolls, goblins, a dragon, heroic fighting men, shape-shifter, enchanted talisman, a fantasy landscape and a quest.

The fact that Tolkien describes his middle-earth setting vividly is all well and good but does not in itself really endorse the idea of the book as original. Even his creation of the physical description of a hobbit is not enough to give it the label. You can describe middle-earth and the physical attributes of the hobbits as well as you like, but all these descriptions would be quickly forgotten if they were not brought to life by inner character. But to make character memorable, some at least must be richer in depth than the usual found in this genre.

What really makes this book an original work of fiction is located in the characters and in two of them in particular: Bilbo Baggins and Gollum. They are certainly what I remember most about the story since reading it as a child and I’d even go so far as to say that without these two strong characters the story would have faded from my memory completely.

Social, cultural and historical details of the hobbit clan struck me as being very believable and familiar. I recognised their society and recognised Bilbo’s character, though I’d never met them before in the shape of hobbits. Of course, Tolkien modelled their character on our own. Bilbo’s personality traits are ours. This makes him much more than a simple pawn to be used as a good or evil player on a fantasy chessboard. Tolkien made him a complex, three-dimensional creature like us.

Tolkien cleverly built Bilbo’s character as an opposite of the dangerous world beyond the Shire (the hobbits’ homeland), yet he also gave Bilbo a hidden adventurous side so that the reader can believe in him as an adventurer. Bilbo likes his house, his fireside, his slippers, his food and his comforts, but the Took side of his family has been adventurous in the past and this side struggles with the Baggins’ side of his character for control. All these domestic details about Bilbo build him as a character that doesn’t easily fit the traditional adventurer role. He’s not a warrior who’s spent all his life honing his sword and his talents for the day he’ll undergo a quest. He’s more like you and me, an ordinary creature about to be thrown into extraordinary circumstances.

Bilbo worries about the amount of washing up that his guests, the dwarves, made the night before the first day of the big adventure. Then once off on his adventure, trying to catch up with the dwarves, as they’ve already left, he wonders how he could be outside without a hat, walking stick or any money. He’d even left his pocket handkerchief behind which dispirits him. These are little but poignant details that build Bilbo’s character and contrast it against the tough and very dangerous world beyond the Shire.

Bilbo is at times quite pathetic: The poor little hobbit sat down in the hall and put his head in his hands, and wondered what had happened, and what was going to happen, and whether they would all stay to supper. Yet he is also funny: “Seems to know as much about the inside of my larders as I do myself!” thought Mr Baggins. He is idle: when smoking his pipe, “There’s no hurry, we have all the day before us!” Yet he’s often fussy about the home. He’s also spontaneous yet prudent, earnest and smart. He is fair, good-tempered, loyal and even snobby: during their first meeting, He (Bilbo) had decided that he (Gandalf) was not quite his sort, and wanted him to go away. He’s sometimes a timid little fellow. When Gandalf tells him he’s looking for someone to share in an adventure, Bilbo replies: “We are plain quiet folk and I have no use for adventures”. But he is also full of pride and stubbornness. After the dwarves feel he’s not up to the job, his pride answers them: “Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the Were-worms in the last Desert.”

Soon Bilbo will find his way in a wild and violent environment. The reader is prepared to root for him in emotional ways they wouldn’t do for lesser developed characters because they recognise in him a complex creature of many shades and moods not unlike themselves.

I will never forget the first time I read the scene set in Gollum’s lair where Bilbo and Gollum compete in guessing each other’s riddles. I’d read nothing like it before or since in children’s fiction. Although an entirely different character to Bilbo and one physically described as a small monster, Gollum is far from being an unimaginative, one-dimensional trait. His physical description gives his character a real dimension in its own right but without his dynamic inner character he would be another forgotten creature in the world of the fantasy genre. He is more than just some evil thing that wants to kill and devour Bilbo. He is also pitiful, lonely, needy, tortured, and self-centred, all summed by up the way he addresses himself, using the now immortal words, ‘my preciousss!’

Though his way of speaking is extremely creepy, it is also homsey and childish, “Praps ye sits here and chats with it a bitsy, my preciousss.” His relationship with the ring (the talisman) is truly creepy but also fascinating, ridiculous and pathetic. Unable to find the ring: Suddenly Gollum sat down and began to weep. When Gollum can’t guess what’s in Bilbo’s pocket first time, he demands to have three guesses like a petulant child. Then Gollum protests that the pocket riddle isn’t even a proper riddle: “But it wasn’t a fair question,” Gollum protests. Here this dangerous creature sounds like a whiny child. Tolkien even hints at a past where Gollum lived above ground in a normal way, so we have some history for this lonely creature, deepening his character more.

It is both fascinating and strange seeing Bilbo’s moral character facing this other dark creature in a series of riddles. The scene is all the more scary, menacing and breathtaking because they are fighting each other with riddles rather than fists, claws or weapons. Riddles are fun, generally a pleasant way for people to interact with each other. But here they take on a sinister, ominous tone. The outcome of the riddle competition may well determine whether Bilbo is killed and eaten. But the poignancy of the scene always relies on the depth and contrast of the characters.

Both Bilbo and Gollum are stuck in a traditional fantasy tale, yet neither come across as traditional characters. They are original because of the poignant details Tolkien uses to help build up their complex, multi-dimensional forms. We recognise ourselves in Bilbo with his domesticated outlook on life, and despite our immediate horror on first meeting Gollum, we start to see human traits in him, and so develop greater interest in him, even sympathise with him a little bit. Who is Gollum? Why is he living here? Where has he come from? What’s his relationship with the ring? Would he really kill and eat Bilbo? How did he get this way? We wouldn’t ask ourselves any of these questions if his character was only one-dimensional. As a child reading this scene, though I found him horrible I still pitied his wretched soul. Such original characters are likely to stick in our mind for a very long time.

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