I’ve been reading through The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien in preparation for my upcoming Writing with Hobbits class (see below). In one letter to his publisher, Tolken remarks,
I am personally immensely amused by hobbits as such, and can contemplate them eating and making their rather fatuous jokes indefinitely.
Tolkien’s delight in hobbits and hobbit culture is obvious in The Hobbit, and even more so in The Lord of the Rings. Nevertheless, Tolkien understood that no matter how enamored he was personally by the hobbits, their homely charms alone couldn’t carry a story that had broad appeal. His friend C.S. Lewis told him, “Hobbits are only amusing in unhobbitlike situations.”
I’m not sure I can fully agree that hobbits are only amusing in unhobbitlike situations. Bilbo’s birthday party at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring is both highly hobbitty and highly amusing. Still, in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the story depends on getting hobbits into most unhobbitlike situations. If Bilbo were all Baggins and no Took—that is to say, if he were a proper hobbit—he would have stayed in the Shire and there would have been no story. On the other hand, if Bilbo had been all Took and no Baggins, the story wouldn’t have been The Hobbit. The story requires that Bilbo be in unhobbitlike situations, but it also requires that he remain a hobbit.
It has been said that there are only two kinds of story:
- A Person Takes a Trip, and
- A Stranger Comes to Town.
That’s an oversimplification, but the larger point is that stories happen when people find themselves in unfamiliar situations and their usual strategies for navigating the world stop working. So as long as we’re oversimplifying, I’ll oversimplify further, from two kinds of story to one: A Hobbit Gets Into an Unhobbitlike Situation. Or, rather, A _____ Gets Into an Un_____like Situation.
If you’ve taken a literature class or a fiction-writing class, you may have seen some version of Freytag’s Pyramid:
That initial equilibrium—the flat line on the left—represents hobbits in a hobbitlike situation. Through exposition, the storyteller establishes the norm for the main character(s). This exposition may be interesting and engaging (it had better be, or the reader will stop reading!), but it’s not yet a story.
The story starts when an inciting event disrupts the old equilibrium and throws our hobbit(s) into an unhobbitlike situation. Twelve strange dwarves and a wizard come to town. A hobbit takes a trip.
That word “situation” is worth pausing over. A situation is not a plot, but it makes a plot possible. Also, a situation may be independent of character, but it creates the conditions in which character can begin to drive plot.
A fender-bender is a situation. A fender-bender can happen to anybody, regardless of his or her character or personality. But when the drivers get out of their cars after the fender-bender, the plot can go a thousand different ways, depending on the personalities of the drivers involved. (A friend of mine once t-boned a hearse at the head of a funeral procession. About a dozen mourners and one funeral director boiled out of their vehicles, each with his or her own way of processing grief and surprise. That, dear reader, is what you call a situation.)
I mentioned above that a situation need not depend on character. Some situations, of course, do depend on character; I don’t mean to suggest that an inciting event is always a matter of happenstance. A fender-bender might be the result of road rage. A wizard might send a dozen dwarves to your door because he already knows what kind of hobbit you are. But whether the inciting event is happenstance or character-driven, it’s important that the action after the inciting event be shaped by the personality and will of the characters involved. However unhobbitlike the situation, Bilbo is still Bilbo. That is to say, you can take the hobbit out of the Shire, but you can’t take the Shire out of the hobbit.