From Tolkien to today: How hobbits shaped modern fantasy

“In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”

With these words J.R.R. Tolkien ushered in a new era of fantasy literature, one that has delighted readers and audiences alike with tales of fire-breathing dragons, fair-haired elves, brutish orcs, and unexpected heroes. The great success of “the Hobbit” was later surpassed by “The Lord of the Rings,” which became the second best-selling novel of all time. Yet when Tolkien began his tale of a Hobbit and his unexpected journey, he wasn’t trying to change the world of literature. He was just trying to write a story for his kids.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in South Africa to English parents in 1892. His father died when he was only 3 years old and he was raised by his mother, Mabel Tolkien, in the English countryside. This was where his love of nature and of language was born. He and his friends would create made-up languages, and this so-called “secret vice” would continue on to adult life.

After returning from the trenches of World War I, Tolkien settled into family life and a professorship, spending his days talking about Beowulf and the value of myths. Around this time, he wrote “The Hobbit” for his four children, and it might never have become the sensation it did if an employee at a London publishing house hadn’t gotten a hold of it. “The Hobbit” was published in 1937 and became a hit among children and adults alike, and he was asked to write a sequel. Tolkien would spend the next 10 years crafting his masterpiece, the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which is now recognized as the birth of modern fantasy.

So what was it about Tolkien’s stories that made them so different and so influential? For one, Tolkien built an entire world for his characters to inhabit, full of gods and songs and legends summoned from pure imagination. Before him, most tales that featured fantastic elements were set in the real world, or featured some sort of magical explanation for a trip to another world, like in “Peter Pan” and “Alice in Wonderland.” Instead, Tolkien showed the world that something truly fantastic could be made real with enough work and imagination.

The success of Tolkien’s work showed the publishing world that “fantasy” was a genre that could sell. Role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons lifted the elves, orcs, dwarves, and hobbits straight from his work, and modern computer games like “World of Warcraft,” which boasts more than 7 million players, feature these creatures as well. Also, the epic struggle between good and evil over the fate of the world has become a common theme in bestselling books like “The Wheel of Time,” “Harry Potter,” and in blockbuster movies as well.

Tolkien’s influence over pop culture came full circle with the “Lord of the Rings” films by Peter Jackson, and now the “Hobbit” series, the first of which grossed a billion dollars alone. Time will tell if the sequel, “The Desolation of Smaug” will live up to those numbers, but history has shown that hobbits are not to be underestimated.

From a story for his kids to one of the most influential and profitable books of the modern era, Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” has gone on quite an unexpected journey indeed. Those looking to continue that journey can see “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” in theaters starting Friday.