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I'm rapidly approaching the conclusion of The Return of the King, and next on my list is The Hobbit. This is my first time reading Tolkien, and I have been putting it off for 24 years. I'm a little concerned about moving on to The Hobbit, which was written for children, more or less, after spending so much time in the more adult-oriented world of LotR.

Am I going to be disappointed by the relative lightness of The Hobbit, as compared to LotR? Does the tone, or mood, of The Hobbit differ significantly from the fairly dark tone/mood of LotR? If there is a substantial difference, am I correct in assuming that The Hobbit is lighter, less serious, and more family-friendly? I really don't want this to be a comedown.


Note: I don't think that this question is opinion based- I believe Tolkien wrote about the challenges of linking the two stories together, in light of the fact that The Hobbit was a children's story whereas LotR definitely is not. I am just wondering if the difference is as noticeable as he seemed to believe, and exactly what the difference is. If the question is closed, however, I will understand. I had reservations about asking it in the first place.

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    @Taladris - I opened the bounty because of a now-deleted comment from Richard. Immediately after I posted this question, he commented: "Yes. +100 rep please". I decided to run with it and offered a +100 bounty. It's a joke (although I will actually award the bounty). – Wad Cheber May 28 '15 at 1:22
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    Thank you. I mostly wanted to know about the practice on this site. I have no problem with people being generous :) – Taladris May 28 '15 at 2:09
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    @WadCheber ...although it looks as though Richard is going to miss out on that 100 rep he suggested. Well, he's got enough rep already! :-) – Rand al'Thor May 28 '15 at 23:24
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    @randal'thor - There's no such thing as too much rep. – Valorum May 29 '15 at 19:29
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    @Richard I hope you're not going to start a vendetta against me for breaking Rule #1! – Rand al'Thor May 30 '15 at 10:42
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+100

Words of Tolkien himself (source):

My work did not 'evolve' into a serious work. It started like that. The so-called 'children's story' was a fragment, torn out of an already existing mythology. In so far as it was dressed up as 'for children,' in style or manner, I regret it. So do the children.

And the same source states that he started out as a "writer of children's books".

Dramatic changes in his writing style had occurred by the time he came to write Lord of the Rings - to the extent that he would have like to overhaul The Hobbit and rewrite it in the same style as Lord of the Rings.

Carpenter's biography, as quoted here, tells us:

[Tolkien] found The Hobbit to be "very poor" (according to Humphrey Carpenter's biography). There are glimpses of Tolkien's dissatisfaction with The Hobbit in some of his letters. He felt he was too condescending to children in the early part of the book, and he would have preferred to rewrite it completely, had there been time to do so.

Having not got Carpenter's biography to hand, I can't provide a first-hand quote, but maybe someone who has could provide it...

Excellent summary of The Hobbit here, which tells us:

The Hobbit was originally a story Tolkien told to his children. [...] It is described as a fantasy novel, a story of heroic quest, and a children's story.

The narrator and the tone of the narration are sometimes comic, and sometimes condescending to the reader. This condescension was not unusual in books for children in the early 20th century.

Basically, the answer is yes.

Every serious Tolkien fan would agree.

Relevant: this SFF.SE question and its answers.

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    Fantastic answer! +1. Thanks for taking the time to respond, and for laying out such a well thought out answer. – Wad Cheber May 23 '15 at 23:27
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    "So do the children". I wonder if Tolkien understood that he'd led many beginning-level readers astray, in their quest to read more stories like The Hobbit, or if he thought young readers disliked the first book in a saga not requiring appendices and a thesaurus to read. – Slacklord the Terrible May 26 '15 at 23:03
  • I just started reading it. I'm a little annoyed by the Elves and Dwarves being buffoons, and the tone is a bit childish, but it isn't as bad as I feared. – Wad Cheber Jun 2 '15 at 18:24
  • You may read Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and HoME in the meantime when the Hobbit feels too immature :-D. – Edheldil Jun 4 '15 at 7:59
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    Holy crap that's awesome. – Wad Cheber Jun 26 '15 at 21:42
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Tolkien spoke to this in his letter #33 to his publishers at Allen and Unwin, noting that the tone of LotR is substantially darker and "older" than that of the Hobbit:

In the last two or three days, after the benefit of idleness and open air, and the sanctioned neglect of duty, I have begun again on the sequel to the ‘Hobbit’ – The Lord of the Ring. It is now flowing along, and getting quite out of hand. It has reached about Chapter VII and progresses towards quite unforeseen goals. I must say I think it is a good deal better in places and some ways than the predecessor; but that does not say that I think it either more suitable or more adapted for its audience. For one thing it is, like my own children (who have the immediate serial rights), rather ‘older’. I can only say that Mr Lewis (my stout backer of the Times and T.L.S.) professes himself more than pleased.

In Letter #34, he professed that he felt that LotR would be "terrifying" to younger children who might have enjoyed the earlier Hobbit book:

When I spoke, in an earlier letter to Mr Furth, of this sequel getting ‘out of hand’, I did not mean it to be complimentary to the process. I really meant it was running its course, and forgetting ‘children’, and was becoming more terrifying than the Hobbit. It may prove quite unsuitable. It is more ‘adult’ – but my own children who criticize it as it appears are now older.

and in his letter #131 he spoke to the major change of style:

The generally different tone and style of The Hobbit is due, in point of genesis, to it being taken by me as a matter from the great cycle susceptible of treatment as a ‘fairy-story’, for children. Some of the details of tone and treatment are, I now think, even on that basis, mistaken. But I should not wish to change much. For in effect this is a study of simple ordinary man, neither artistic nor noble and heroic (but not without the undeveloped seeds of these things) against a high setting – and in fact (as a critic has perceived) the tone and style change with the Hobbit’s development, passing from fairy-tale to the noble and high and relapsing with the return.

and in his letter #163 to W.H. Auden he criticises some of the writings in the hobbit as being both juvenile (in style) and juvenilia:

I went on after return; but when I attempted to get any of this stuff published I was not successful. The Hobbit was originally quite unconnected, though it inevitably got drawn in to the circumference of the greater construction; and in the event modified it. It was unhappily really meant, as far as I was conscious, as a ‘children’s story’, and as I had not learned sense then, and my children were not quite old enough to correct me, it has some of the sillinesses of manner caught unthinkingly from the kind of stuff I had had served to me, as Chaucer may catch a minstrel tag. I deeply regret them. So do intelligent children.

and if you want a more detailed (and wildly harsh) critique of his own works, you can't really do better than his Letter #215 to Allen and Unwin (refusing to attend a symposium on "writing for children":

When I published The Hobbit – hurriedly and without due consideration – I was still influenced by the convention that ‘fairy-stories’ are naturally directed to children (with or without the silly added waggery ‘from seven to seventy’). And I had children of my own. But the desire to address children, as such, had nothing to do with the story as such in itself or the urge to write it. But it had some unfortunate effects on the mode of expression and narrative method, which if I had not been rushed, I should have corrected. Intelligent children of good taste (of which there seem quite a number) have always, I am glad to say, singled out the points in manner where the address is to children as blemishes... The relation between The Hobbit and its sequel is I think this. The Hobbit is a first essay or introduction (consideration will admit I think that it is a very just point at which to begin the narration of the subsequent events) to a complex narrative which had been brewing in my mind for years. It was overtly addressed to children for two reasons: I had at that time children of my own and was accustomed to making up (ephemeral) stories for them; I had been brought up to believe that there was a real and special connexion between children and fairy-stories. Or rather to believe that this was a received opinion of my world and of publishers. I doubted it, since it did not accord with my personal experience of my own taste, nor with my observation of children (notably my own). But the convention was strong. I think that The Hobbit can be seen to begin in what might be called a more ‘whimsy’ mode, and in places even more facetious, and move steadily to a more serious or significant, and more consistent and historical. . . . . But I regret much of it all the same. . . . .

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The tone is different. LOTR is an epic fantasy. The heros suffer, and have moments of self doubt. While not as dark as The Children of Húrin in either its fragmentory form, its not quite a fluffy modern fairytale either. Good triumphs, but there's a heavy cost and much suffering. Its a story of a world through the eyes of a few characters.

The Hobbit on the other hand, is more of a adventure story. It focuses on a relatively small core cast of characters, the story is somewhat more focused on small events relatively speaking, and its significantly more lighthearted. I don't consider it as deep or well written as the main trilogy, but its not a bad book

Will you like it? It depends. It fills in a bit of backstory. Its readable (tho I read it once, and might read it again. Eventually). It does add to my enjoyment of the trilogy proper.

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Yes, the tone is quite a bit different as you already seem to suspect. But, whether you'll be disappointed is entirely up to you. To me, it's still a good story and a fun read despite the more light hearted tone.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

  • +1. So I'm not going to feel like I am reading a book intended for little kids? – Wad Cheber May 23 '15 at 22:42
  • For what it is worth, I don't think the warning about wanting long answers was really necessary, and the answer definitely shouldn't be removed. Alarion answered my question quite succinctly, and addressed each part of it: "Is it significantly different?" He says it is. "How is it different?" He says it is more lighthearted. "Will I be disappointed?" He says that depends (it is worth noting that he is the only person who addressed this final part of the question). I don't have a problem with his answer, nor should anyone else. – Wad Cheber May 24 '15 at 4:52
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    @WadCheber, there are some phrases really addressed to children, so you will certainly notice. However,they are brief, only a few and quite scattered (mainly at the beginning, when describing characters). IMHO you will be able to enjoy the adventure without problems. – Ángel May 24 '15 at 20:59
  • I just started reading The Hobbit. 12 pages in, and it isn't as good as LotR, but I am enjoying it well enough. A bit cutesy, but I expected as much. – Wad Cheber Jun 2 '15 at 2:10
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Well, I am reading The Hobbit now, and it is almost as I had feared. Noticeable differences:

  • Everything is sillier.
  • The races are less interesting and respectable, especially the Dwarves (less brave, more prone to stupid songs about cracked flatware), the Elves (less intelligent and serious), and the Orcs (less frightening - they sing, ffs).
  • Gandalf is kind of a jerk.
  • The songs are childish and stupid.
  • Everyone - good, bad, or in between - is a buffoon, to a greater or lesser extent.
  • As of where I am now, the tone is less serious and more flippant, and the narrative is written in an almost conversational tone.

Sadly, I am indeed a bit disappointed. Oh well.

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    You should've read the Hobbit first! :-) But what do you mean by Gandalf being "kind of a jerk"? Also, remember that the 'Orcs' in the Hobbit are only goblins: smaller and less frightening even in-universe than almost all the orcs in LotR. – Rand al'Thor Jun 3 '15 at 21:51
  • He is grumpy most of the time, he exploits an invitation to tea and uses it an an excuse to call Bilbo a thief and throw a dwarf party in his house, etc. – Wad Cheber Jun 3 '15 at 21:53
  • @randal'thor - Tolkien Gateway says that "Orc" and "Goblin" are synonymous. It also says Orcs are roughly 3 1/2 to 4 feet tall, which they would have to be in order to ride wolves. – Wad Cheber Jun 3 '15 at 21:54
  • Re. orcs and goblins, see this question. I always thought an orc was basically a big goblin, but apparently it's more complicated than that! – Rand al'Thor Jun 3 '15 at 21:58
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    Looking back upon it now, has your opinion mellowed, I wonder? – Oliphaunt Apr 11 '16 at 10:19
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I read some analysis regarding the difference between "The Hobbit" written in 1937, and "The Lord of the Rings" written in stages from 1937 - 1949. The main thrust was that "The Hobbit" was written prior to the atrocities of Nazi Germany, while "The Lord of the Rings" was written during and after. The negative experiences that Tolkien and the British people experienced in WWII, were reflected in Tolkien's later writing of "The Lord of the Rings". "The Lord of the Rings" is definitely darker in tone, with the enemies displaying true evil. In the "The Hobbit" the enemies seemed to be targeted to childrens' sensibilities.

  • +1 - thanks for answering. Interesting info as well. – Wad Cheber May 28 '15 at 1:24
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    However, Tolkien himself says that this is wrong, in the Foreword to the 2nd edition of LOTR. "...to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead." Certainly all I've read of those times bears this out, as do the casualty figures. British WWI casualties were more than double those of WWII: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_casualties_of_war – jamesqf Jun 26 '15 at 22:20

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