Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are children’s novels which share a number of key similarities. Both are ‘quest’ narratives, whose main protagonists (Bilbo and Alice) begin their journeys in tranquil pastoral idylls: Bilbo in his quiet home at Bag End, and Alice reading with her sister by a riverbank. Both main characters are portrayed as inquisitive, honest, unfailing, polite, trustworthy and innocent – qualities which distinguish them in key ways from other characters they encounter on their journeys. In other words, both protagonists embody similar cultural attributes that are placed in juxtaposition to the peoples and environments they meet on their journeys. Therefore, a key aspect of both texts is the didacticism of this clash between the cultural tropes embodied in each protagonist and the differing natural environments they encounter. My main argument is that the protagonists’ similarities are rooted in similar idealized (archetypal) constructions of ‘Englishness’ and that both novels comment upon these cultural attributes by contrasting them with radically different natural worlds operating under quite different logics. This ‘Englishness’ is not to be understood in an essentialized sense, rather it can be read as reflecting both authors’ attempts at critically commenting upon what is being lost – and at what cost – as England transitions from a largely pre-industrial, pre-imperial past, to a radically different future.
The commentary which emerges from this reading of both texts is that they are essentially Romantic in their ideals and thereby hostile to these radical socio-economic transformations occurring throughout nineteenth and early twentieth century England – a nation wracked by war and imperial expansion, and the social dislocations and environmental devastations of industrialization, and urbanization. The Romantic movement in English literature began in the late eighteenth century and was inspired by the same revolutionary thought which brought down the ancient regime of Bourbon France, in 1789. The movement is multifaceted, but can be rather crudely reduced to a few basic concepts and ideals. First, the Romantics asserted the importance of perception as an active creative act, shaping the worlds we inhabit (Clubbe and Ernest, 1983: 2). This conception of perceiving the world as an active form of creative agency also had an ethical component, namely a belief in the redemptive capacity of a humanity tainted by sin and the power of literature to aid in that redemption (Clubbe and Ernest, 1983: 7). Another aspect of Romanticism is its pastoral quality – essentially embodied in a veneration of nature in juxtaposition to the perceived corruption of urban life. The ethical component of the creative/perceptive act is to be found in simple communion with nature – like Wordsworth at Tinturn Abbey (Clubbe and Ernest, 1983: 36). More importantly, English Romanticism played a vital role in shaping the evolution of English culture in the nineteenth century as it embraced a conception of the creative act ideally suited to critically commenting on the social inequities and corruptions of the period (Johnson, 2008: 50-51).
While it might seem incredulous to argue that two children’s books have such lofty aims as to embody Romantic ideals, such literature has a long history of important social commentary and should not be dismissed a priori (Brockman, 1982: 4). The Romantic ideal as expressed above is arguably evident in both The Hobbit and Alice in Wonderland. Both novels begin in tranquil idylls in which both protagonists exist in some measure of communion. The world of Bilbo is set “long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green…” (Tolkien, 4). The world Carroll describes is hot and sleepy, with Alice and her older sister lounging by a creek and with boredom being Alice’s only overriding concern (2005: 1). These are essentially pastoral settings – quiet and green, and perhaps somewhat boring for both protagonists interested in adventure. Moreover, both locales reflect lifeways which are in the process of being lost; Tolkien’s work in particular draws heavily upon the English distant past in its construction of Bilbo, his ‘Englishness’ and the nature of his journey (Kuusela, 2014: 27).
What is also immediately apparent is the cultural constructions at work in both texts; Alice is fastidiously polite and insatiably curious, qualities echoed in the construction of Bilbo. Both characters exist in ‘static’ environments – locales where hierarchy and order prevail, the natural world is uncorrupted by human (and Hobbit) agency, and nothing much ever changes through time. The onset of both their journeys, therefore, echoes the onset of modernity in that both characters perceptions of reality are challenged by the new natural environments they encounter – where their beliefs in self and other were once solid, they now become revealed as frighteningly contingent. There are other possible ways of perceiving the world, and a key challenge of the narrative for both protagonists is how they negotiate their personal senses of propriety and decency in relation to peoples and places hostile to those beliefs. The particular constructions of Bilbo and Alice can therefore be read as embodying specific idealized archetypal conceptions of Englishness.
Reflecting the Romantic aspects of both novels, these constructions of Englishness are pastoral in nature and are confounded and challenged by the agency manifested by both characters in relation to their new environments. Daniel Bivona argues that Alice’s journey is a ‘game’ constructed by Carroll to illustrate what might happen when a representative of English culture is placed in an unfamiliar, foreign land (144). This reading is apt, given that Alice’s precise English, politeness and knowledge is of little use to her in her travels – indeed it actively works against her. For example, Alice’s experiences in Wonderland overturn her understandings of logic, reason and social propriety. Alice finds herself incapable of remembering basic facts ‘correctly’ and her attempts to impose her ‘will’ in this new world are completely futile (Carroll, 19). Moreover, Alice’s fastidious politeness and eagerness to share her opinions – reflecting a rather haughty sense of privilege echoing the British imperial mindset – to the various denizens of Wonderland invariably lead to her own confusion, frustration and isolation (Carroll, 41). When Alice expresses her wish that she had taken her cat Dinah with her on her journey so that she can retrieve the Mouse, she explains to the various animals that her cat is wonderful and would “eat a little bird as soon as look at it!” (Carroll, 39). Alice is oblivious to the possibility that her immediate audience may find her opinions frightening (given that many of them are birds). This further indicates the degree to which Alice’s cultural beliefs are ill-suited to this new foreign environment. Similarly, Biblo’s honesty and bravery are instrumental in leading Thorin Oakenshield’s band of dwarves to Smaug’s layer and the seizure of his treasure (Tolkien, 242), but are of little use in preventing the arrogance and acquisitiveness of the dwarves, elves and orcs leading to the battle of the five armies (Tolkien, 321). Thus despite his best intentions, Bilbo’s journey in different lands only validates his preconceptions of the good life he enjoyed in the Shire – life without weapons, intrigue, fortresses, dragons and the violence that comes with insatiable greed and lust for power and wealth. Bilbo explains as he watches the horror of the climactic battle unfold that “… it is enough to make one weep, after all one has gone through … I have always understood that defeat may be glorious … I wish I was well out of it” (Tolkien, 327). The lesson it seems is that the values of these new peoples lead only to destruction, power-lust and violence; Bilbo – and his pastoral Englishness are both morally superior but practically powerless in this new natural context.
While both novels are separated by almost a century, they were both written during the British imperial era in which that nation was the most urbanized and industrialized in the world. In Carroll’s time, Britain had just finished the brutal Crimean War against Tsarist Russia and had barely maintained its control over its Indian possession in the 1857 Sepoy mutiny (a mutiny caused by the British army obliviously insisting that Muslim troops grease their muskets with pork fat). Moreover, Tolkien’s Hobbit was published during the Great Depression as the political situation in Europe and Asia inched ever closer to another total war. While both novels can be read as reactionary in defending what is being lost culturally and environmentally for England by its commitment to industry and empire, they both also indicate in subtle ways that there are unforeseen dangers in coveting change for its own sake (to alleviate boredom) or as a means to enhance one’s wealth and power, regardless of the consequences.
This essay has argued that J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland each have narratives centered upon protagonists embodying a similar pastoral archetype of ‘Englishness’. It has also argued that both texts are essentially Romantic in their ideals and thereby hostile to these radical socio-economic transformations occurring throughout nineteenth and early twentieth century England – a nation wracked by war and imperial expansion, and the social dislocations and environmental devastations of industrialization, and urbanization. The journeys of Alice and Bilbo function as cautionary tales against the consequences of imperialism an industrialization. In this sense, the relationship between culture and nature in both novels is one which privileges a pre-industrial, parochial mindset in which the particular conceptions of archetypical ‘Englishness’ – honesty, generosity, politeness and closeness to an unspoilt landscape, reflect a more ethical way of living. Furthermore, both novels indicate the limitations of this ‘Englishness’ when placed in differing environments – indicating that the preferred relation between culture and nature can be lost through particular forms of human agency. This last point further emphasizes the Romantic aspects of both novels as the vicarious experience of perceiving the world through Bilbo’s and Alice’s experiences offers readers a chance at redemption, validating the ideal of creative perception as the highest form of ethical agency.
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