- J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings ed. by Peter Hunt
This essay collection forms part of the children’s literature strand of Palgrave Macmillan’s New Casebooks series, joining volumes on J. K. Rowling, C. S. Lewis, and Roald Dahl, among others. As series editor Martin Coyle makes clear in his preface, this series was written specifically for students, university or otherwise, to introduce them to “the rich interchange between critical theory and critical practise that today underpins so much writing about literature” (vii). Thankfully, this volume does not treat Tolkien as grist to a theoretical mill or boil him down to a study guide but rather engages with his works in a serious, subtle, and refreshingly readable manner. The contributors tend to wear their theory lightly, pay attention to a wide range of existing Tolkien scholarship, and handle definitions of children’s literature very carefully, frequently questioning the unthinking application of such a label to either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Where technical vocabulary is used, it is clearly defined. All but two essays address both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and several dip into Tolkien’s shorter works.
Peter Hunt sets the tone for the collection in his introduction that notes Tolkien’s popularity and cultural influence before exploring the applicability of the label “children’s literature” to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in terms of audience, “story-shape,” and protagonists (3–7). Hunt makes an important distinction between “childlike” and “childish,” applying it to the hobbits who are “not (exactly) children” (6). He stresses the need for Tolkien critics to accept the child audience as an “almost infinitely-varied group of individuals,” noting that a generalised “adult reader” is rarely posited by critics (8–9). Hunt also makes the case, acknowledging Tom Shippey’s precedent (10), that disreputable literature such as fantasy and children’s literature has the potential to challenge familiar critical models. These literatures provide new models for studying stylistic and narratival techniques, such as worldbuilding, which have not been adequately addressed. [End Page 241]
Hunt’s claim that the essays are “interlocked” (13) is borne out by the presence of a number of recurring themes. Having been flagged in the introduction, the issue of audience is addressed by Keith O’Sullivan in “The Hobbit, the Tale, Children’s Literature and the Critics” (16–31). O’Sullivan carefully explores the categorization of The Hobbit, claiming that while the publication of The Lord of the Rings caused Tolkien to question its status, it had always occupied a “precarious liminal space between fictions thought appropriate either for children or for adults” (16). He notes the features that associate The Hobbit with children’s literature—simple narrative structure, didacticism, linguistic playfulness—but counters that these same features exist in “adult” literature such as Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach or Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist (17–21). O’Sullivan instead locates the text’s implied child readership in the manner in which readers are “guided through a sign-posted narrative” (19), giving examples such as the narrator’s assertion in chapter VIII that the fate of Bilbo and the dwarves “belongs to the next chapter” (H 221) and the expurgation of material thought unsuitable for child readers such as the horrors of the Battle of Five Armies (20).
Zoë Jacques in “There and Back Again: The Gendered Journey of Tolkien’s Hobbits” (88–105) also addresses the implied audience while examining Tolkien’s exploration of gender (carefully distinguished from sex). Jacques warns that a “focus on what happens to the male characters ignores what they experience, and what the child reader experiences alongside them” (101). She claims that by following the hobbits’ journeys and encounters with a variety of gendered behaviours, the reader (possibly a child undergoing the same process of becoming “gendered”) may explore gendered development...