Since the publication of The Hobbit in 1937, critical readers have argued over whether the book is a fantasy, a fairy tale, a fable, a romance, an epic, or a novel. Classifying the book is one way of explaining its strengths and weaknesses and understanding the immense appeal it has held for many decades. The Hobbit seems to be about much more than its surface narrative, but Tolkien was adamant that it was not an allegory and said he much preferred history, whether real or invented, to allegory. The book is not a novel in the tradition of the great realistic novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; it is much closer to the idea of a romance, a genre that accommodates the improbable and even the supernatural. It is probably most accurate to call it a fantasy and to think of it as an invented history that includes the inexplicable.
In many ways, the book is simplistic, and yet in others, it reflects the complexity of human experience. Its simplicity is reflected in the essentially rural nature of the setting. Except for Lake-town and the ruins of Dale, there are no cities and no real industry. Even in the days when the dwarves thrived in Dale, their business was craft rather than industry in its modern, technological sense. The story takes place long ago, in an unspecified time, although the year is marked by the months of the Julian calendar and Yule-tide is observed. Bilbo smokes a pipe and serves coffee and tea, as well as English treats like seedcake, scones, and mince pies, and yet he is a hobbit who lives in a hole in the ground, is a traveling companion to dwarves, and meets Goblins, elves, and a dragon on a journey over a landscape that is not recognizably English at all.
Although Bilbo is given a genealogy that accounts for the conflicts in his character and there are references to his deceased parents, there is no sexuality in The Hobbit. In fact, there are no female hobbits in The Hobbit. Romantic love does not exist, although friendship, affection, and respect are important values enacted among the male characters. In this sense, the story very much resembles traditional adventure stories for boys, like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and is markedly different from traditional English novels that ended in happy marriages — even novels that were also the stories of questing boys, like Charles Dickens's Great Expectations and David Copperfield.
There is magical power in The Hobbit, but not much divine power. Readers have commented on the fact that Tolkien presents in this book and in The Lord of the Rings trilogy a very complete, unified vision of the world, but there is no sense of a Judeo-Christian God — or any god — presiding over it. No religious worship is depicted, and while that may not necessarily seem odd, keep in mind that Tolkien's Catholicism was extremely important to him. In addition, the quest theme that forms the basis for The Hobbit traditionally has at least a spiritual component. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, The Hobbit depicts a coherent moral system in which good and evil are synonymous with easily understood human virtues and sins, characters exercise free will, and good triumphing triumphs, in the end.
Tolkien wrote The Hobbit in an effort to integrate two literary interests, a mythology of England and stories for his children. His academic expertise in ancient literatures and languages familiarized him thoroughly with the old northern myths and epics, including Beowulf and Icelandic sagas. He began writing a mythology of England in the 1920s; he was discouraged from publishing it and, although he continued to work on it throughout his life, it was not until after his death that The Silmarillion was published (1977), edited by his son. The stories he began telling his young children for simple entertainment were naturally elaborated with time and overlaid with details and patterns from the old literature he knew so well. These are the stories that were refined and published as The Hobbit, and it is thus not surprising that they resonate with hints and echoes of material beyond Tolkien's conscious control.
The interest in languages that Tolkien demonstrated all his life is evident in The Hobbit, as well. The book begins with an explanation of runes, the ancient northern system of writing. In addition, the names of places and characters, while entirely invented, sound like authentic ancient northern dialects. Tolkien invented languages from the time he was a student and even wrote poems in some; his invented languages have a coherent grammar and a linguistic structure that renders them quite believable. His linguistic facility is on display in The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which he uses invented languages much more extensively.
Tolkien is often given credit for reviving and popularizing the fantasy genre. His old friend at Oxford, C. S. Lewis, was probably influenced by him in the writing of his science fiction novels and his fantasy series for children, The Chronicles of Narnia.