How Tolkien’s classic took inspiration from a Nobel Prize winning novelist.
J.R.R. Tolkien often regarded his moments of creative inspiration as epiphanies that came to him unexpectedly during moments of concentration, when his mind was elsewhere, engaged in the intricacies of philological scholarship or carrying out his duties as a university teacher. The making of The Hobbit is no exception.
According to how Tolkien remembered it, he was marking secondary school examination papers some time in 1930 in order to earn extra money to supplement his university income – although he held the prestigious professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University he nevertheless had four children to bring up and educate. The marking was not his favourite task, and to help keep his sanity, as he saw it, he had a habit of doodling on the examination scripts, which of course was quite possible to do, since the scripts were never returned to the candidates themselves. In a moment of distraction or boredom, then, he wrote the following much-quoted sentence on a spare page of examination paper:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
In The Hobbit, Tolkien re-imagines England as a western land on the edge of a large and unexplored continent. On his journey through the Misty Mountains, Bilbo Baggins, the home-loving protagonist, harks back to his little England on many occasions, and it becomes the measure or perspective by which he judges all the events that happen to him on his quest through the wild. In many ways The Hobbit is a reworking of the classic pattern of intrepid traveller moving from his comfortable home and discovering the wide world beyond his door.
At first sight then, it might appear rather surprising that J.R.R. Tolkien admitted a possible influence on The Hobbit from the contemporary American novelist Sinclair Lewis’s similarly leporine-sounding Babbitt (1922). Of Lewis’ novel Tolkien said: ‘Babbitt has the same bourgeois smugness that hobbits do. His world is the same limited place.’
Coincidentally, as also happened later with the word hobbit, the word babbitt – a narrow-minded, self-satisfied individual –soon entered popular language after publication (both words are still listed in the Concise Oxford Dictionary). As literary historian James M. Hutchisson has shown, the word babbitt was used widely and creatively: Sinclair Lewis himself wrote in August 1921 of how he was ‘Babbitting away furiously’; the British sociologist C.E.M. Joad published a study of American society in 1926 entitled The Babbitt Warren; and the American writer H.L. Mencken popularised the term ‘Babbittry’. Tolkien himself echoed this in his use of the word ‘hobbitry’ when discussing critically, in his letters, whether the sections of Lord of the Rings focussing on hobbits and the Shire (a region of Middle Earth) were unduly long and distracting from the main narrative of the War of the Ring.
Any surprise one might feel at Tolkien’s interest in Babbitt is legitimate, for the plot of the story was surely alien to his concerns. George F. Babbitt is a businessman living in the medium-sized American city of Zenith, where, as the ironically worded first sentence declares, ‘The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist: austere towers of steel and cement and limestone’. Nothing could seem more different to Tolkien’s opening description:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
The surprise I think lies in the nature of the novel Babbitt, the epitome of the American ‘great realist novel’, intended as a satire on the conventionality of Midwestern urban society. The realist technique based on close sociological research is heavily laid on, with numerous personal and social details such as waking, washing and dressing in the opening sequence of the story. This is the kind of literature one might expect a former member of the TCBS – Tolkien’s rather purist literary set from his school days in Birmingham – to dislike and avoid. The TCBS, or ‘Tea Club, Barrovian Society’, was a kind of literary club, a circle of like-minded school friends, who met through the committee of the school library and organised illicit tea-parties inside the school library and at the tea shop in Barrow’s stores (hence the name Barrovian Society), where they read and discussed their literary work together. In some ways the TCBS prefigures the much more famous Inklings literary circle of which Tolkien was a key member while he was a professor of English philology at Oxford University.
Two folk-tale elements in Sinclair Lewis’s novel are used ironically in the initial setting of the scene, and they perhaps caught Tolkien’s attention. First, there is the mention of ‘giants’ in the description of the factory whistles heard across the city:
The whistles rolled out in greeting a chorus cheerful as the April dawn; the song of labor in a city built – it seemed – for giants.
The protagonist – who is pointedly called ‘unromantic’ – is an anti-hero, and Sinclair Lewis is at pains to emphasise that there is ‘nothing of the giant in the aspect of the man who was beginning to awaken on the sleeping porch of a Dutch Colonial house in […] Floral Heights’. This novel is evidently a satire, a far cry from the preoccupation with the Anglo-Saxon eald enta geweorc (the ancient work of giants) in Tolkien’s writing. Second, there is the mention of a ‘fairy child’, but only in the context of a recurrent dream that comes to Babbitt every morning as he wakens to the rattle and bang of the morning milk-truck and the slam of the basement door:
He seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic; and altogether unromantic appeared this sleeping-porch, which looked on one sizable elm, two respectable grass-plots, a cement driveway, and a corrugated iron garage. Yet Babbitt was again dreaming of the fairy child, a dream more romantic than scarlet pagodas by a silver sea.
For years the fairy child had come to him. Where others saw but Georgie Babbitt, she discerned gallant youth. She waited for him, in the darkness beyond mysterious groves. When at last he could slip away from the crowded house he darted to her. His wife, his clamouring friends, sought to follow, but he escaped, the girl fleet beside him, and they crouched together on a shadowy hillside. She was so slim, so white, so eager!
There is of course very little that is reminiscent of Tolkien here, except perhaps the notion of escape, repeated a number of times on this page and the next, for essentially escape is the theme of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, a conventional man’s failed attempt to escape the trammels of his confined existence, relinquishing unthinking attachments to rigid values – the escape leads him from domesticity to an affair and from safe conservatism to a brief flirtation with radical socialism.
For Tolkien – as he terms it in his contemporary On Fairy-stories lecture – escape is one of the features of the fairy-story alongside recovery and consolation. And by escape he seems to mean a kind of protest against the mechanical and mechanistic straitjacket that modern society has imposed on itself in the name of progress. Here then is an instance of thematic affinities between Tolkien and a modern realist writer, despite the fact that their whole method and outlook are so very different. But even on the question of style some points of contact do exist, for both Tolkien and Sinclair Lewis are clearly comic writers. The following ironic passage on Bilbo Baggins’s conventionality brings this out well; if Baggins were changed to Babbitt and‘The Hill’ to ‘Floral Heights’ the extract would fit quite well into Sinclair Lewis’s novel:
The Bagginses have lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.
In a very different social world, Babbitt also has his adventure, and the novel tells of his journey there and back again. By the end of the novel, Babbitt has at least acquired greater self-awareness. He is unexpectedly liberal towards his son’s elopement, in what a break of freedom he himself is incapable of achieving. Babbitt may remain externally conventional, but internally he’s changed, and the sense of being larger and wiser after many experiences surely lies behind Bilbo’s loss of ‘reputation’ in the community after his return from abroad.
In essence, Hobbiton is Zenith and Bilbo is Babbitt in a world with magic and wonder. ■