The Hobbit: How A Bored Professor Created A Fantasy Classic

By | February 6, 2019

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British writer John Ronald Reul Tolkien (1892-1973), sitting in his study at Merton College, Oxford, where he is a Fellow. Source: (Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)

JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and his adventurous tale of Bilbo Baggins set a new standard for the fantasy fiction genre and created a book and movie empire that spans eight decades. In addition to penning a best-selling book with The Hobbit, Tolkien developed an entire fantasy world, with its own geography, customs, and language. The details, descriptions, and connections Tolkien established for his Hobbit world are complex and sophisticated, so it may surprise people to learn that he developed this fantasy world as a way to escape the boring, mind-numbing drudgery of grading his students’ essays. Yes, The Hobbit sprang from the active imagination of a bored professor who should have been working at the time. 

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Tolkien was no Stranger to Boring Work

After serving in the British military during World War I, Tolkien, who had studied the English language in college prior to the war, took a job working for the Oxford English Dictionary. His job was to research and write about the origins and etymology of English words that were of Germanic origin and began with the letter W. That title must have been hard to print on a business card! Shortly after, Tolkien left this job and worked as a professor at the University of Leeds. He later taught at Oxford and then Pembroke College. It was at Pembroke College that the boredom of reading his students’ mediocre work finally got the better of him and, instead of grading papers, he let his mind wander.