My grandmother turned 80 this year; the same age as The Hobbit—the book written by J.R.R. Tolkien, not the hairy-footed, pint-sized, complainer who is front and center in the story-telling. And yes, I’m talking about the fictional character, not my grandmother… Wait, this is starting to sound more and more like a conversation with my grandmother. I’m going to need a cup of tea.
A few weeks ago, I found myself melting into a pool of comfort as I listened to my husband read The Hobbit to our 11-year-old son. When EG Dad stopped just as Bilbo caught sight of the trolls, both spawnling and I whined: “No!! Just one more page?”
I was so caught up in the magic of both story and telling, I found myself aching for more… and yes, I have read the book many times before.
Our pleas were denied and a forlorn spawnling was tucked into bed, having to wait until tomorrow for the next installment. I, on the other hand, was left to my own thoughts on the couch—a dangerous place, I must say, both physically and metaphorically. For some reason, Bilbo had felt even more familiar tonight. Have I really read the book that many times before? And then I realized: tonight, Bilbo Baggins sounded almost exactly like my grandmother. I started to wonder, is my grandmother a ‘Hobbit’? Or is she an excellent example of a period in time, fantastically captured within Tolkien’s fairy tale?
If It Looks Like a Hobbit and Talks Like a Hobbit…
My grandmother is 5 foot tall (on a ‘tall day’) and full of adventure, despite her claims of never wanting adventure. She considers food to be the foundation of all household harmony, greeting you with a cup of tea upon your arrival. She is also a stickler for time and etiquette; I have been on the receiving end of THAT lecture a few too many times. My grandmother is a little on the plump side but can sneak up on you with the swiftness of a ninja… It’s freaky.
I cannot attest to her feet. Like any good Hobbit offspring, I’m staying in her good books for the inheritance. Though, in true Hobbit style, she’s going to outlive us all.
The thing is, each time I read The Hobbit, I picture Hobbits as being warm in their appearance. They may not openly offer you a hug but they sure look like the type of person you would feel warm simply by standing next to them. My grandmother (and many I have met of her generation) is like that. She is always available for a hug but very proper in her appearance as well.
Is this something typical of her generation? Is it something Tolkien purposely included in his character portrayals? He once admitted openly it would be naïve for him to not have been influenced by his time and experience, especially by that of World War I and afterward. Perhaps my grandmother’s hobbit-like characteristics are more a consequence of social nurture rather than her personal nature.
The Time of Hobbits – 21 September 1937 (First Publication of The Hobbit)
It all started one day in the early 1930s when Tolkien was marking school papers and he came across a blank page. From the briefest spark of inspiration (or procrastination, knowing what marking papers can be like) Tolkien suddenly wrote down these fateful words:
Around the same time, my great-grandparents were merrily living their lives on a small island in the Mediterranean: Malta. In many ways, Malta is a lot like The Shire; it is peaceful and productive with people who are happy to just go about their business every day. The only way it differed from The Shire was in visual appearance—Malta is one big dry rock (with a smaller rock off to the side called Gozo), very unlike the green grass and lush fields of The Shire.
In the same way, The Hobbit is set in the “peace before the storm” of Lord of the Rings, my grandmother was born into a time of uneasy peace. Neither Grandma nor Malta were a big part of WWI, however, there was a nagging feeling of something brewing. Something was on the way. Many hobbits/Maltese had no desire to upset the peace. And yet when faced with the battle, both Bilbo and my grandmother’s family stood strong and tall. Considering all Tolkien learned about people and society during war times, I feel he portrayed Hobbits as the greater good in mankind—not Man or elf or dwarf.
Interestingly enough, Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, and its sequel Lord of the Rings with World War I still deep in his soul. Tolkien was a veteran of WWI, medically relieved of active duty in 1916. Many of his school friends died in WWI. Like much of Europe, Tolkien tried his best to recover—both physically and creatively, although he fully accepted his works were at least influenced by his military experience, along with his academic interests.
Bilbo’s adventure has always been seen as the greatest excuse to look beyond the peaceful life. The Hobbit is first and foremost children’s literature; it was always meant to be a children’s fairy tale. It is The Example of how to escape the norm, and survive. The embodiment of “Be careful what you wish for… You just might get it”. Grandma says that. All the time.
Children’s Fairy Tale or Dotty Old Grandmother?
Despite the influence from his military past, Tolkien tried to maintain some innocence in The Hobbit. It was part of a greater world bouncing around in his head but the story itself was always just that: a story. There is no denying the greater commentary and military referencing in Lord of the Rings; it’s simply not meant to be an overriding influence on the character of The Hobbit… Or at least, not yet.
My grandmother is much the same. If you ask my grandmother about “Her Story”, she will talk about her life after marrying my grandfather. I can honestly recall three times in my entire life when she has willingly spoken about her childhood. I always thought this was her way of coping with World War II. Unlike the First War, the Second World War had a much greater impact on Malta and its people. My great-grandparents did not like to talk about it, and my grandmother rarely even acknowledged it beyond her father’s military service creating the opportunity for his family to move to Australia.
When I compare the two, I see both book and grandmother as having one great purpose: to share their story in a way to inspire others, and not to draw great attention to itself. In the same way, as The Hobbit is one great introduction to Lord of the Rings, Grandma views herself as the introduction to the great things she sees for her children and grandchildren (and great grandchildren). It has only been recent when my grandmother opened up and talked to me about her experiences in Malta during WWII. Well, to be honest, she talked to my eldest child and shared stories of what it was like for her as a child in war-time.
Looking back, I see her like a hobbit: afraid her storytelling might awaken some sense of adventure, to travel to lands unknown and take risks she can’t protect us from. I suddenly understand why she didn’t share these stories with me when I was younger; it was not just her own trauma she was reliving. She was afraid any excitement or adventure might be misconstrued as enjoyment when really she was simply a child noting the massive difference from her pre-war mundane life. My grandmother knew what was happening but she did not understand the bigger picture of what was going on. In essence, she faced her own Smaug in the bomb shelters in Malta but she never understood the greater battles being fought in Europe. At least not until the end of that chapter.
The Hobbit is an adventurous tale, with dragons and gold and battles. However, at its heart is a simple hobbit who will simply return home. He is not the same hobbit as when he left but even in the final pages, with all the bravery and experience he has gained, Bilbo will still hold true to his Hobbit-self. He will still choose the life less ordinary, the path without bloodshed. As Thorin notes, Bilbo will still value food and cheer and song above hoarded gold.
On the September 21, I am going to call my grandmother and ask her about her gardens. I may even try to sneak in some questions about whether she had a garden as a child in Malta. And she will tell me whichever story feels most comfortable to her at the time. One that reflects her character and allows her to look strong and insightful; exactly as I see her anyway.
That same day, I intend to take up The Hobbit and revisit an old friend. I’m going to read the book with the excitement deserving of a children’s fairy tale, and the patience and respect deserving of a wise old woman who needs to impart her wisdom. I’m going to allow the story to wrap me in its warm safe hug, and tell me one last story of adventure… and the journey home again.