From The Hobbit to Harry Potter, From Fairy Tale to Epic

Of Other Worlds by CS LewisIn his Cinderella Story essay, “On Stories”—an essay that was passed over when it was first published but now known by anyone who thinks about Fantasy literature—C.S. Lewis defends Fantasy literature by placing it on a higher shelf of literatures. He contrasts good Fantasy lit—including what he called “Romances” and what we now call adventure books, as well as Science Fiction—to dimestore paperback bestsellers that provide only an adventure, with no depth of character or no connection to a greater world. The Three Musketeers, Lewis argues, has no atmosphere. There is no difference between London and Paris, just the breathless pace of the action.

There is probably a place for such books: the direct flight from New York to Beijing comes to mind. But few of us think them good books on the deepest level, and we are often disappointed if we ever try to reread them. My Steve Berry and Dan Brown books have lots of sand in the pages, but I will never, ever read them again.

What makes Fantasy stories different? They are, after all, on the surface far more connected to adventure stories than character-driven literary fiction.

Fionavar Tapestry Guy Gavriel KayFirst, we read good Fantasy stories over and over again. Dan Brown goes to the charity bin, but you’ll have to pry Ursula K. LeGuin or Guy Gavriel Kay out of my cold, dead hands. Indeed, it is my grandchildren, not my son, who will get these books as an inheritance if I live past middle age. One of the foundational arguments of C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism is that we can tell a good book by its worn and dog-eared pages.

Second, Fantasy and SciFi succeed in creating credible incredulity—amazing “secondary worlds” (Tolkien), “other worlds” (Lewis) so vast and expansive and consistent that they give us the authentic experience of living there, in that place, in that time. Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Gene Wolfe’s future earth each create for us the plausible implausibility of an impossible world we can inhabit. Even Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Lewis’ Narnia, far less consistent or expansive, spirit us away into other realms. The books themselves are the Woods Between the Worlds, the threshold between Main Street and Fairyland.

earthsea by ursula k le guin map

Besides the speculative world-building of a supreme master, Lewis makes a clever comment about what Tolkien did with The Hobbit. It is a Fairy Tale, a there-and-back-again story with all of the things we would expect in Fairy Tales, including country cottages, forest journeys, dwarfs, elves, and a hint of magic. It is also Fairy Tale in the way that Tolkien himself best appreciated:

“It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”).

The normalness, the home-ness of Fairy Tales are essential to the atmosphere of the story itself.

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienBut any intelligent reader will see that The Hobbit travels away from home—not just in the adventure of the story, but in the very tang of the imaginative air. Lewis describes it this way:

The Hobbit escapes the danger of degenerating into mere plot and excitement by a very curious shift of tone. As the humour and homeliness of the early chapters, the sheer ‘Hobbitry’, dies away we pass insensibly into the world of epic” (“On Stories”).

As soon as Lewis says it aloud, we see the trajectory. Tolkien moves The Hobbit from Fairy Tale to Epic. Though the narrative arc is not quite so direct, in beginning the Lord of the Rings in Hobbiton, the Middle Earth legend that we read the most has the same movement, from Fairy Tale to Epic. Here is Lewis again:

“First, we must clearly understand that though The Fellowship [of the Rings] in one way continues its author’s fairy tale, The Hobbit, it is in no sense an overgrown ‘juvenile’. The truth is the other way round. The Hobbit was merely a fragment torn from the author’s huge myth and adapted for children; inevitably losing something by the adaptation. The Fellowship gives us at last the lineaments of that myth ‘in their true dimensions like themselves’ (Review of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings).

Other books like The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarilion add other dimensions—chronicles, legend, and myth—but we witness the move from Fairy Tale to Epic clearly through Tolkien’s Fantasies.

This photo released by Heritage Auction Galleries of Dallas shows A 1997 softcover edition of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone, that sold for a record $19,120 in a rare books auction conducted online by Heritage Auction Galleries, March 6 and 7, 2009.  The anonymous winning bidder is from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and is described by the auction house as "a collector of vintage comic books whose wife is a huge fan of the Harry Potter series."  (AP Phoyo/Heritage Auction Galleries)

It strikes me that J.K. Rowling has done something similar in Harry Potter. Think first about Harry’s “home” with the Dursleys on Privet Drive: it isn’t very homey, and certainly not very hobbitish. But, remember Tolkien’s vision of the Fairy Tale: “tree and grass; house and fire.” The Dursley’s middle class suburb is the exact parallel of the woodcutter’s forest cottage. And before we really get to know these miserable muggles, we have a large, tawny owl, a cat reading a map, excitable people in cloaks, shooting stars … and this:

“Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice. This man’s name was Albus Dumbledore” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone).

As we go through the first book, it is very much in the Fairy Tale pattern. It is a there-and-back-again adventure with a small fellowship of faithful friends risking life and limb to resist the evil wizard. Rowling’s genius is being able to combine the School Story and the Orphan Tale with Faërie, but she follows this Fairy Tale pattern throughout the series.

Harry Potter series USBut note what Rowling does in the entire heptalogy. As Harry and his friends age there is a “curious shift of tone,” to use Lewis’ words. There is a significant lengthening of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but some of that is the Quidditch World Cup section, a divergence from the pattern that sets Hogwarts on a global stage. But as the books lengthen, and the children age, we move not just into darker themes and more deadly challenges. We also move into the world of Epic. Like The Hobbit, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ends in an epic war with mythic undertones, creating a permanent turning point in the history of that world.

Even the names of Harry Potter change in sound. The early chapters of Philosopher’s Stone are filled with euphonic and classic names: Potter, Petunia, Dudley Dursley, Hermione, the Weasleys, Dumbledore, Hagrid and Hogwarts—as well as plain, sensible names like Ron and Harry. Notice how the names harden, from Draco, Crabbe, and Goyle to Peter Pettigrew, Bellatrix Lestrange, and Bogarts. Not all the names are stone-hard. Some are slippery, like Salazar Slytherin, Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy, Cornelius Fudge, Dolores Umbridge, and, of course, Severus Snape. Look at the transformation of the one character from the classic euphony to the stone-hard category: Tom Marvolo Riddle, as he falls into power, becomes Lord Voldemort.

It is cleverly done, and we find ourselves in the arena of Epic begging for the Potterish names, just as we often long for the Hobbitry in the Lord of the Rings. If you have read The Two Towers aloud to children, you know that they drift in the midst of chase and battle, but perk up as the hobbit storylines converge with the heroes. As poor Pippin protests in the great halls of men, “we have no songs fit for great halls and evil times,” so the reader feels the loss of Hobbitish and Potterish times in the move to Epic. Indeed, there are times when the imaginative reader is certain we will lose the Pippins and the Potters in the great evil that comes before the eucatastrophe.

JRR Tolkien The HobbitIn another review—Lewis never tired of promoting Tolkien’s work—Lewis tried to elevate the status of The Hobbit—still a pretty obscure children’s book at this time.

“For it must be understood that [The Hobbit] is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. “Alice” is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown-ups; “The Hobbit,” on the other hand, will be funniest to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but “The Hobbit” may well prove a classic” (Review in Times Literary Supplement).

I think I can say, without exaggeration, that you can insert Harry Potter for either “Alice” or “The Hobbit” in this prophetic epigraph—not only to Tolkien’s work, but to the best of Fantasy in the last 100 years. Middle graders throughout the world are always anxious to read Harry Potter, but it is in the tenth or twentieth reading that I find it at its best.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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76 Responses to From The Hobbit to Harry Potter, From Fairy Tale to Epic

  1. M. Joelle says:

    Wonderful post! I tend to think of Hogwarts as the “home” in Harry Potter, the Shire worth defending, but I suppose that doesn’t have the contrast required.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks! I had fun writing it and am jonesing to read HP again.
      If you think of the circle of “there and back again,” it works for the Dursleys, until it all falls apart in the last book. I wonder if the Weasleys becomes the new home. And look how Hobbit-like it is! it is a faerie-land rather than middle earth–garden gnome and the like–but it has that magical, simple, homey feel, doesn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • M. Joelle says:

        I love the idea of The Barrow as the home – but I think that Hogwarts fits the “there and back again” model though. We have a lot of work to establish the home, but then the biggest adventure requires Harry, et al leave Hogwarts and then return to defend it. I just think we get to enjoy the journey of finding home first, and then we’re eased into the process of leaving and defending it as the story grows and deepens.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, great. I think I would like to sketch the narrative structures of Harry Potter using Northrup Frye’s analysis. Has anyone done that?
          btw, I think “Community” best shows the Northrup Frye model, how they start at the table in the study room, leave it in disintegration, rise to conflict, and reintegrate at the table.


          • M. Joelle says:

            I’ve not actually ever looked closely at Northrup Frye’s analysis. Have you done any posts on the topic? I’d love to read your take!


            • I haven’t, but I should. You can imagine a little clock of 60 minutes, and the table in community as the 0/60 (or top of the hour). You can sketch each of the shows like that (at least in the 1st 3 seasons).
              I should do this up, but I’m afraid of getting lost in Frye and not returning. I may get there this year.

              Liked by 1 person

    • What a wonderful post! I agree with every single word and delight in all that you say. I think that the great writers speak truth in its most profound sense & give me a sense of a path to life (and life in all its fullness) without ever being preachy about it. I think that is where Philip Pullman falls short for me in the Dark Materials trilogy. He begins with wonderful invention although how he manages to turn the kindly chaplains of Oxford colleges into calculating murderers is beyond me! I wonder who he has met over the years? But the third book in the trilogy feels very preachy to me and I end up not caring very much about the causes he espouses. He is most true when he tells a love story or creates a good character (he has many of those and they are memorable) or takes us on an adventure.
      On the question of home in Harry Potter (a truly wonderful tale!) I think that for Harry it will be the Weasleys who will remain his anchor after the adventure is over. Maybe that is why he should marry Ginny and not Hermione. My own cottage is a bit like The Burrows and people like the Malfoys would sneer at it. The Weasleys are not perfect and that is a comfort to me but there is a goodness in them that I would instinctively trust if I were to meet them.

      Liked by 2 people

      • M. Joelle says:

        I think Pullman’s story is less a romance, and more an anti-romance (and a great one at that ). The point of that series is, I think, quite different from the fantasy series Brenton listed – it’s more about the dissolution of home, the upending of the fantasy. Valuable in its own right, but different.

        On Harry Potter, I think can be persuaded that The Barrow is “the home” center. I’d love to have a Barrow of my own some day. I try to make my apartment as Barrow-like as I can!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I guess I must confess that it is the romantic elements in Pullman that attract me & he does write it very well. Disenchantment simply does not attract me.


          • M. Joelle says:

            I tend to prefer my disenchantment to come from non-fiction sources, so as genius as Pullman is, I confess that his series is not one I re-read over and over again. I have trouble with Game of Thrones for the same reason. I’d rather spend that energy learning history or studying up on current conflicts, and then turn to literature for happy endings.

            Liked by 2 people

          • I am a bit fan of Pullman’s His Dark Materials, but I think it is a failed project in two ways. I think Lyra’s coming of age is lame. Not that sex isn’t a fair coming-of-age device. It is inauthentic in the third book, where a romp in the woods and then eternal separation falls short for the reader.
            And that’s the second way: Pullman bends the series to the theology. He is greater than pop Christian fiction, but it has the same effect.
            I think Lyra is one of my favourite young adults in literature. You can’t imagine a better anti-Lucy that was still a person. And the indefinable dust is elegant. But it doesn’t quite get to classic for me.
            Granted, Narnia is flawed in other ways.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I agree with you entirely on all of this. I have more or less thought in the same way ever since I read the trilogy; firstly about Lyra’s so called coming of age (and why is an assassin sent to stop it?) and then about the bending of the story to theology (and rather poor theology at that). Pullman is prepared to get angry at Lewis for the same reason in Narnia. I agree with you about Lyra, though. In fact his character drawing is his great strength for me. I must read your response to Michelle Joelle’s point about the anti-romance.

              Liked by 1 person

      • All good cottages are like the Barrows, though hopefully with more stable architecture!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. jubilare says:

    “My Steve Berry and Dan Brown books have lots of sand in the pages, but I will never, ever read them again.” Hah! What a great sentence.

    You know, when I first tried to read the Harry Potter books, I set them down at the end of Goblet of Fire, never intending to read them again or finish the series. I was not expecting the change of tone, and it took me off-guard and traumatized me a bit. It wasn’t until years later and after much prompting from a good friend, that I tried again and made it through the whole series. The shift you are talking about can be very jarring when it isn’t expected, but it is a mighty thing, too. I can imagine that the ending of The Hobbit might have garnered the same reaction from some first-time readers. How much more so anyone going to LotR expecting a story solely for children.

    Gah, you are making me want to read things over and over again! At least let me finish re-reading the Narnia series for the first time since childhood. Then I can re-read these as well and add more to my first-time reads. So much… and I have to fit in writing and a paying job, too. 😛 At least housework (and some mindless tasks at work-work) allow for audio-books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hinted at the disorientation of the move from Fairytale to Epic in the Hobbitry of LOTR. It is in Goblet of Fire too, a sudden shift. My wife dropped out too, but she is now reading HP to our son.
      I am rereading Narnia now, and enjoying in more than ever! I am reading chronologically, so I’m on “The Silver Chair” right now. I am listening this time, which I enjoy. I am reading concurrently with Spenser’s Faerie Queene–a good combination, but challenging for me.
      I don’t feel the tug back to Pullman, but I am really feeling drawn to Harry Potter (if you can’t tell!).

      Liked by 1 person

      • jubilare says:

        Oh, I want to read the Faerie Queene, too. I’ve wanted to ever since my brother talked to me about it a couple of years ago. I can well believe it would make a good companion to Narnia, and also, perhaps, to Phantastes, which I want to read again, too.


        • I did not enjoy Phantastes, but may try to read it next time in bed instead of in a chair. Context changes everything!
          I am posting in a couple of weeks “On Reading the Faerie Queene for the First Time.”

          Liked by 1 person

          • jubilare says:

            What I enjoyed in Phantastes were the various atmospheres/images/places. The feel of them. But I do not feel like I understood the story itself. Thus why I need to read it at least one more time.

            Liked by 1 person

            • See, maybe my problem was trying to understand Phantastes!

              Liked by 1 person

              • jubilare says:

                It’s quite possible. When I was trying hardest to understand it was when I enjoyed it the least. It’s when I gave into the images that I found magic.

                Liked by 2 people

              • jubilare says:

                Listening to a Librivox recording of Phantastes, today, I came across this in chapter 4 and thought of you. 😉

                “And then I discovered a thing I could not account for. But it is no use trying to account for things in Faerie Land, and one who travels there soon learns to forget the very idea of doing so and takes everything as it comes. Like a child who, being in a chronic condition of wonder, is surprised at nothing.” ^_^

                Liked by 1 person

              • Is that when he is in the woods on the boundary of fairyland? Is he still in the cottage or moving in?
                What a great parallel to what we were talking about.

                Liked by 1 person

              • jubilare says:

                It’s his first night in the woods, when he is watching beetles capture glow-worms and before he first encounters the tree-ogre.


              • Ah, of course. And I was in my mind conflating Lillith and Phantastes. Phantastes I enjoyed much, but was not blown away. Lillith I struggled with more, knowing it was about something, but not sure what!

                Liked by 1 person

              • jubilare says:

                That makes a lot of sense, because Lillith is far more allegorical, I think. I felt like I understood parts of it (and parts resonated with me very deeply) but it is more something to be wrestled with than Phantastes.

                Liked by 1 person

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  8. earthoak says:

    Glad to have come across your blog via Stephencwinter’s tweet. This is a great article – I love reading about the power and importance of secondary worlds. Tolkien was a master at it.


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