The Hobbit: A Most Unusual Children’s Book

the hobbit


Conventional wisdom in publishing today suggests that the protagonist of a children’s book should be roughly around the same age as the intended reader.  Protagonists of middle-grade books, meant for ages 8-12, will likely be 8-12 themselves, while protagonists of YA books are almost invariably teenagers.  So it is that making a character thirteen can be enough to move a book from the middle-grade shelf to the YA shelf, even if nothing else about the book changes.  Considering that a difference in only one year can be enough for booksellers to promote a book to a different audience, it is incredibly strange that J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, arguably one of the most popular children’s books, centers on the adventures of, not a child, but a 50-year-old Hobbit.

Or perhaps this is not so strange, after all.  The history of popular children’s books includes Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Robinson Crusoe–all stories about grown-ups.  In addition, children have also enjoyed books like Little Women or L. M. Montgomery’s Anne series, where the protagonists age from children to adults.  When we consider the types of books children actually read, it becomes clear that they do not need to be the same age as the protagonist in order to enjoy the story.  Other factors, such as romance, adventure, or sympathetic characters also come into play.

In writing The Hobbit for children, J. R. R. Tolkien did not need to make Bilbo eleven or twelve both because Bilbo’s adventures are grand enough to inspire imaginations of all ages and because Bilbo’s feelings about those adventures are so relatable.  In other words, Tolkien relies upon his story and his characterization to create appeal and sympathy, rather than relying upon superficial similarities of age.  When Bilbo is whisked from his comfortable home out into the wide world, he becomes, in a sense, Everyman.  He dreams of doing grand deeds and seeing marvelous sights, but his more-or-less ordinary background has seemingly not prepared him to do so.  He does not know how to wield a sword, he is not accustomed to living on the road, and he has really no idea what to do with a dragon should he ever meet one.  Most readers can probably relate to Bilbo’s feelings of inadequacy and his confusion at some point during the story, along with his longing for something more than day-to-day life.

Today, Tolkien’s choice of protagonist would be considered a bold move, perhaps even an insurmountable obstacle to publication–and yet, the history of children’s books seems to support Tolkien’s feeling that a hero’s adventures can be accessible to everyone, regardless of age.  (Tolkien was, in fact, drawing upon the myths and legends that inspired him in his own youth–stories of the Norse gods, of Anglo-Saxon warriors, of medieval knights.  Of grown-ups.)  However, his example is worth considering.  How might the face of children’s publishing change if it were opened up to heroes of all ages?

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22 thoughts on “The Hobbit: A Most Unusual Children’s Book

  1. louloureads says:

    I remember that when I was a child, some of of the children’s books I liked had teachers as protagonists (like the Mr Majeika stories), which meant that they were still set in schools but weren’t directly about children. Some of the Michael Morpurgo books didn’t even have child characters, really. And some classics like Black Beauty have animals as the main point of view character. I think children have better imaginations and empathy than we sometimes give them credit for.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think children often like reading about characters who are older than they are. Older characters can have different types of adventures. And sometimes you can imagine what your life might look like when you’re that age. Maybe you’ll go on adventures or become a teacher–or whatever!

      And very true about Black Beauty, etc.! We don’t need to be horses in order to empathize with a horse character. Interestingly, children’s picture books in particular tend to have a lot of animal characters because creators imagine all types of children will relate to a pig or a bunny. But, if children can relate to Peppa Pig, surely they can also relate to all types of characters, even ones who might have glasses while they don’t, and so on. I do think we shouldn’t overuse animal characters in picture books to the extent that children aren’t seeing all types of different people represented. My understanding is that it’s very important for children to see that, especially at a young age.

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  2. Meg says:

    Interesting! I first read The Hobbit when I was 14, and to me it was adorable. So while the character was older, I think the writing style definitely makes it a children’s book!

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  3. PerfectlyTolerable says:

    I love this! I never really thought about it before but you are right! Its more about the writing level and the content level than it is about the characters age! And I loved Robin Hood as a child ❤

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  4. Grace says:

    That’s a good point! I’ve never thought about it before, but you’re right. Although most children’s books have characters that are children, I agree that writing style more than character age determines a book’s level.
    I’m a new book blogger and your blogger resources have been so helpful in getting started! Thank you!
    -Grace

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  5. Anne Marie Gazzolo says:

    I love this book for many of the reasons you give and for all it can teach us. I love the narrator too, which Tolkien regretted later, but I think is part of the great charm of the book. The illustrated version with Jemima Catlin’s art adds to the delight. In fact, I love this hobbit and his heir so much, I just published a book on their adventures, Chosen: The Journeys of Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire, available at your favorite online bookstore. Hobbits rule!

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I don’t think the narrator is a problem, but my understanding is that Tolkien did take out a good many of the narrator asides. So maybe I wouldn’t have liked it before he revised? Who knows!

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  6. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Bilbo being in his 50s is such an interesting observation, because it’s something I never cared about as a child (or as an adult 😉 ) And it’s so amazing that it is still so relatable despite the type (and not just the age) of the character- cos it’s a far cry from a typical hero anyway. Really interesting post!

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    • Krysta says:

      I don’t think I cared about anyone’s age when I was reading growing up. It baffles me that there are such hard lines between MG and YA these days. Who cares if a character is sixteen if a MG reader might still enjoy the book? Sometimes I think adults don’t give children enough credit for being sympathetic or imaginative if they think they can only relate to people of the same age. It’s the adventures I’m concerned about!

      Liked by 1 person

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