The Bones in the Soup: The Anglo-Saxon Flavour of Tolkien’s The Hobbit
By Thijs Porck
Lembas Extra (2012)
Introduction: “In Dasent’s words I would say: We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.” By citing these words in his article On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien discouraged scholars to study the sources and material bones) out of which a particular story (the soup) originated. A too rigid focus on the origin of stories, Tolkien argued, could lead to the devaluation of literary masterpieces, such as the Old English epic Beowulf, as mere combinations of older folklore motives. Remarkably, despite Tolkien’s discouragement, the bulk of scholarship on his Middle-earth has focused on the ox’s bones rather than the soup.
In mapping out the various sources of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, however, scholars have shown that this endeavour need not diminish a work’s value. Rather these studies have provided a better understanding of Tolkien’s methods of composition and have often uncovered nuances or details that would otherwise have been left unnoticed. A case in point is Shippey’s excellent book The Road to Middle-earth, which provides sources and analogues for Tolkien’s stories in order “to provide material for a more thorough and appreciative reading of Tolkien”. Other publications do not focus on Tolkien’s methodology in adapting his sources per se, but, instead, seek to highlight the relevance and inspiring nature of the source material itself. By studying how, for example, Old English and Old Norse material influenced Tolkien’s fantasy books and their subsequent movie adaptations, these publications show that the academic study of these medieval languages is still relevant in a modern age.
The present paper aims to contribute to these source studies by focusing on the Old English sources of The Hobbit, which have not received as much attention as those in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. After describing the relationship between Tolkien and Old English, the Anglo-Saxon material will be discussed that either directly influenced The Hobbit or attests to the fact that The Hobbit was written by an author who was familiar with the culture and writings of the early medieval inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England. By reading The Hobbit from an Anglo-Saxonist point of view, we not only learn more about what inspired Tolkien to compose his narrative, we can also highlight the enduring value of studying his original sources.