The Dissertation of Smaug: Talkin' Tolkien with Dr. Andrew Reeves

Author: Alexandria Brooks
Posted: Tuesday, September 6, 2022 12:00 AM
Categories: Faculty/Staff | School of Arts and Letters | Students | Pressroom

Cochran, GA

Dr. Andrew Reeves

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or barricaded yourself in your hobbit-hole), there’s a good chance you’ve heard the name “Tolkien”—or at least viewed The Lord of the Rings films. But did you know that the movie franchise (and upcoming TV series) all started with Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel, The Hobbit? Take a deep dive into Middle-Earth with Dr. Andrew Reeves, associate professor of history at MGA, as he explains the origins of and inspirations behind The Hobbit and Tolkien’s influence on culture as we celebrate the novel’s 85th anniversary.

What inspired The Hobbit novel?

There are a few different answers here. In the first place, Tolkien had been writing a whole body of stories and myths that he called his legendarium since he’d been recovering in a field hospital in World War I. These were stories of the elves and their doomed war against the Dark Lord. He had a whole set of heroes, narrative poems, and more besides. And he scribbled away at these stories every chance that he could get.

In the early 1930's, Tolkien, by then an Oxford professor, was grading exams. And these weren’t even his own classes’ exams. These were of school certification exams – think something like modern AP tests – that he was grading to make a little extra money. And he came across a blank answer sheet and spontaneously scribbled, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

He started wondering what a hobbit was. So, he started describing hobbits in general and in particular the hobbit Bilbo Baggins. And then he started telling a story, and he would tell episodes of this story to his son, Christopher, in the evenings as he wrote them. Originally it had nothing to do with his legendarium, but he gradually found himself using names from his other stories and eventually realized that this story of a hobbit was set in the world of his larger legendarium.

This legendarium and his stories drew on his love of medieval languages and literature, particularly that of Northern Europe. His dwarves’ names come from the Old Norse Voluspá. In Norse myth, dwarves lived under the ground and were known as master craftsmen – but they were often scary, creatures that you wouldn’t want to encounter. Tolkien made them honorable.

And you’ve got the elves as well. In Northern Europe, elves (or fairies, depending on the language) were those creatures existing just out of the corner of your eye – but they could also be very much in the form of beautiful humans luxuriantly clad. Even then, though, they would often “slip” in and out of reality and perception. And that’s how we encounter the wood elves of Mirkwood. First, a hunting horn heard far off. Then, they encounter a white deer, which in European legend represented the otherworldly. And finally when they come across elven feasts in clearings in the forest, well, that’s pure European folklore. The peasant comes across elves feasting and celebrating in a woodland clearing by night and it feels strange and mysterious; they could vanish at any moment. Same with the way that when Thorin and company stumble across the woodelves’ feast, they vanish.

The image of a forest like Mirkwood comes from the days when a vast primeval forest covered most of Northern Europe, remembered in the legends of its people.

What themes are present in the story that are especially relevant today?

One characteristic of modern life is that we often feel powerless in the face of larger forces around us, like the economy or the pandemic. But what does The Hobbit show? A “very small fellow in a wide world” nevertheless rising to the occasion and making a great difference in the affairs of the great.

And when we talk of larger forces, I figure we should note that Tolkien’s Christianity saturates all of his works. Now, he’s not a C.S. Lewis or Frank Peretti hitting you over the head with it, but it’s everywhere in the same way that the atmosphere is everywhere around us. The notion of divine providence in particular is there in wrapping up The Hobbit. Gandalf tells Bilbo, “Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?”

How have these themes evolved over time since publication?

The world has become much more secular since Tolkien’s day, but even so, his themes on the nature of good and evil are still inspiring to secular readers. He wrote in the shadow of an approaching World War II, and in today’s world, it seems that disaster lurks around every corner for our society, and so I’d say that in the end, as the world in which his themes find purchase has evolved, they’re still pretty relevant.

What cultural influences shaped The Hobbit and vice versa?

Tolkien was a voracious reader of literature both medieval and modern – although he was not very fond of Shakespeare – and you can see all sorts of influences, and in particular William Morris (1834-96), a British fantasy writer who himself drew on various medieval sources and who paid particular attention to descriptions of landscapes. You can see Morris at work in the names of the town of Dale, a town by which name appeared in Morris’s Roots of the Mountain, and indeed, the phrase “roots of the mountain” appears twice in The Hobbit.

Tolkien was particularly inspired by a sense of “northernness” that was suggested in a landscape of great mountains, pine trees, and waterfalls. He felt it in illustrations such as the image of a Norse mead all that appeared in E.V. Gordon’s An Introduction to Old Norse (1927). Let’s note, by the way, that he hated the white supremacist ideology often associated with images of things having to do with Northern Europe and its past. For example, he disliked the word Nordic because of its association “with racialist theories,” and he was personally contemptuous of a German publisher seeking to translate The Hobbit in the late 30's enquiring if his ancestry was properly “Aryan.”

Tolkien drew inspiration anywhere he could get it: the battle with the wargs comes from an episode of S.R. Crockett’s The Black Douglas (1899), a historical fantasy novel set in medieval Scotland. He took the name Moria from Soria Moria Castle, a Norwegian fairy tale. He’d also draw influence from something like a Swiss postcard with the emblem of a figure who inspired the look of Gandalf.

Tolkien’s great inspiration was what he called “fairy stories,” which he was keen to emphasize were not for children, but had only been relegated to children’s literature when they went out of style in the same way that a piece of furniture no longer in use goes into the nursery. We see folkloric inspiration everywhere in The Hobbit: a magic ring, trolls, dragons, mysterious forest-dwelling elves, and goblins.

But that brings us to Tolkien’s influence on the culture. By the time of Tolkien’s writing, elves (or fairies) had gradually “dwindled,” becoming small, slightly silly creatures like Tinkerbell or Santa’s elves. But for Tolkien, they were something high, ancient, and noble – and Tolkien, through his fiction and its influence on subsequent media (Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, etc., etc.) succeeded in turning the cultural understanding of elves back into something more dignified and ancient. He took goblins of fairy tales – harmful, but often slightly small and comic – into orcs, dreaded armies of evil.

Indeed, the fantasy literature of today would be unrecognizable without Tolkien. The dwarves, the elves, the orcs, and above all the map in front of the book all bear his indelible imprint.

How do the novels compare to the film (and soon-to-be TV) adaptations?

My opinions of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy are unprintable in an official university publication.

What drew you to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (LOTR)?

Oh man, where to start? When I was a small child… maybe, I don't know… first or second grade? I got a storybook with an SP vinyl record that adapted the Rankin-Bass Hobbit cartoon. I went and got the LP version from the Brazoria County Library, and then, when I was in third grade, I went and actually got the book and read it in one sitting. From there, I was just absolutely hooked.

I wanted to know more about what had inspired Tolkien, so, I read books about Tolkien, particularly Shippey’s Road to Middle-Earth and The Annotated Hobbit, the latter of which our Cochran Campus library has a copy of (or will have a copy of, once I’ve returned the copy I checked out to help with my responses to this interview). That made me want to be a “medievalist,” since Tolkien had been a medievalist (I had no idea what a medievalist actually was). And that eventually led me to getting a Ph.D. in medieval studies and being a history professor. So, I credit (or blame) Tolkien for setting my life along the trajectory it took.

I still periodically re-read Tolkien, and over the last few years have started reading Tolkien with some friends in what I guess you’d call a de facto book club. Two of them are my colleagues here at MGA: Kirby Swenson and Sharon Mozley-Standridge, both biology professors.

I’d close by noting that if your reading of Tolkien begins and ends with The Hobbit and LOTR, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The Silmarillion gives us the stories of the deep past of Middle-Earth. It is… dense – it’s no surprise that all of my friends whose training is in programming love it – but absolutely rewards the patient reader. And that can lead you to Children of Húrin, the tragic tale of a great hero of Middle-Earth’s ancient past. There are other works of his that are very much a delight, like Smith of Wooton Major and Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Any Tolkien you can find and read is a reward.


Dr. Andrew Reeves is a history professor here at Middle Georgia State University. He earned his Ph.D. in medieval studies from the University of Toronto in 2009. In addition to World Civilizations courses, he teaches upper-level history courses on ancient, medieval and early modern Europe. He researches and writes on religious life in medieval England, and for those looking for a non-narcotic sleeping aid, his book, Religious Education in Thirteenth-Century England: the Creed and Articles of Faith is available from the MGA library. When not teaching or writing, he serves as faculty advisor to the student Tabletop Gaming Club, and he owns entirely too many Warhammer 40,000 minis.