The Hobbit

Peter Jackson’s eagerly anticipated new film ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ opens in the UK today, so  we thought a special blog post about ‘The Hobbit’ would be an ideal way to mark the festive season. So put up your feet and help yourselves to second breakfast while we take you on a journey through JISC MediaHub.

J.R.R. Tolkien has entranced millions with his magical tales of Middle-earth. ‘The Hobbit’, originally written for the entertainment of his son Christopher, was published in 1937.  Professor Tolkien drew upon his vast knowledge of Norse and Old English to conjure a heroic world, where men live alongside dwarves, elves, goblins and other mythical beings. The Channel 4 clip below discusses the Anglo-Saxons and shows how their society and culture was far more sophisticated than we originally thought. It’s interesting to see how Tolkien incorporated elements from Anglo-Saxon life into his Middle-earth fable.

Sutton-Hoo Helmet
[Anglo-SaxonSettlement: New Evidence: Channel 4 News 01-09-1989]

When the tale begins, Bilbo Baggins, the reluctant and unlikely hero,  is living peaceably in the rural idyll of the Shire.

An romanticised view of English rural life was the model for the Shire. A similarly idealised representation can be seen in this propaganda film on the role of the countryside in war efforts.
[Spring Offensive: Royal Mail Film Classics 1939]


Before long his comfortable existence is rudely disturbed by the arrival of the wizard, Gandalf who, together with a band of dwarves, whisks him away on a quest for long-forgotten gold. The dwarves use an ancient map containing runes to guide them to the Lonely Mountain where their treasure is being held. It was thought the Norse sometimes used runes for the purposes of magic and divination. Below is an image of a huge runestone from Jelling  in Denmark which contains both pagan and Christian symbols.

Pagan Runes on a Jelling Stone
[Lost Centuries 7 : The Fury of the Northmen:segment 5: Anglia Television Library]

One of the high points of Bilbo’s unexpected journey is a visit to the secret valley of Rivendell , where he and his fellow adventurers rest at Elrond’s Last Homely House. This beautiful refuge is set in a deep ravine with steep hills on either side.

As beautiful as Rivendell? [Sonlerto in the Bavona Valley, Switzerland
Getty (still images)]

After they make their reluctant farewells to Elrond, Gandalf leads Bilbo and the dwarves across the forbidding Misty Mountains. It’s possible this dangerous mountain range was inspired by a summer holiday Tolkien spent in the Alps when he was 19. Take a look at some footage of the high Alpine peaks below to get into the ‘Misty Mountain mood’.

The Alps or the towering peaks of the Misty Mountains?
[Aerial over French Alps:Getty (moving images)]

In a dark cave, under the mountains,  Bilbo finds a golden ring and has his famous encounter with the creature, Gollum: events which are to have unforeseen consequences for the future fate of Middle-earth itself. Maybe it looked a little like the cave below?

This underground cave was a refuge for those escaping pirates and slave-hunters in the XVII century
[La Cueva de los Verdes – 2: GovEd Communications: Francesco Troina]

Great eagles play a key role in the story, rescuing the party from ravening wolves and appearing at the end of the final battle. Tolkien met his fellow ‘inklings’ at the ‘Eagle and Child’ pub in Oxford – could this legend have prompted him to imagine how eagles could carry Bilbo’s party away from danger? Click on the eagle below to watch this magnificent bird in flight.

A Magnificent Hovering Eagle
[Bald eagle hovering and landing on rock: Getty (moving images)]

Beorn the ‘skin-changer’ is one of the most mysterious characters in ‘The Hobbit’; a man who can take on the shape of a bear. Shape-shifters can be found throughout Norse mythology.  Bilbo and the dwarves are given shelter in Beorn’s  great hall which, as Tolkien’s own illustrations suggest, could have been based on a Viking longhouse. To find out more about this and viking culture in general take a look at “Lost Centuries -7: The fury of the Northmen”.

Beorn’s Hall? [A reconstructed viking longhouse at Trelleborg, Denmark: Lost Centuries 7: Segment 4: Anglia Television Library]

Bilbo’s confidence starts to grow as he saves the dwarves from being eaten by giant spiders in black Mirkwood forest. After more adventures they all arrive at the Lonely Mountain and start to plan how to get the treasure back.

A great spider from Mirkwood?
[Garden Spider: Wellcome Images 2009]

No great tale is complete without a monster to overcome and it is through Bilbo’s cleverness that the dragon, Smaug  meets his downfall, leading to the reclamation of the dwarves’ vast treasure hoard.

Smaug? – or another mighty dragon?
[The dragon bridge-3:GovEd Communications: Francesco Troina]

Tolkien was an expert on the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘Beowulf’ and drew upon it as one of his most valued sources.  He used elements from the poem within ‘The Hobbit’ and was very fond of performing it whilst teaching Old English to his students at Pembroke College, Oxford. The story of Beowulf includes a magical sword, a treasure hoard and a dragon. To hear more about this you can watch segment 3 from “The Lost Centuries – 5: A Golden Age” which contains some extracts from ‘Beowulf’.

The tale of how Beowulf defeated Grendel would have been told in Anglo-Saxon halls such as this.
[Lost Centuries – 5: A Golden Age: Segment 3: Anglia Television Library]

And so Bilbo’s great quest was concluded although there were many unexpected outcomes to face before he returned safely to Bag End.

In the words of JRR Tolkien:

There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after

A brief glimpse of Tolkien being interviewed about the Oxford Poetry Chair
[Oxford Poetry Chair: ITV News 25-05-1973]

May all your adventures come to a safe end – and don’t forget to let us know if you find your own hobbit-related material on JISC MediaHub!

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