It began in the summer of 1930. Professor J. R. R. Tolkien was grading exams in Oxford when he came across a blank paper on his desk.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” he wrote without any idea as to what a hobbit was.
“I think today’s culture is looking for a sense of genuine hope,” says Dr. Christopher Mitchell, director of Wheaton’s Marion E. Wade Center. And Tolkien created just that through the epic adventure of Bilbo Baggins. Dr. Mitchell believes the success of the story is due to the universal things that Tolkien addresses: “The notion of quest; the concept of goodness that was portrayed, which wasn’t wooden but real; the characters; and the creation of an original fantasy character—a hobbit—that caught the imagination of people.
“There is a depth to it, a sense of reality—what Tolkien called ‘sub-creation,’ which means creating this alternate reality that is believable when you are in the story. Once it’s not credible, the spell is broken, and you are outside as an observer.”
Dr. Mitchell explains that Tolkien used this world to create a space in which the truths of Christianity are played out so that the reader can experience those truths within the story. The hope was that by putting them in unfamiliar embodiments, that it would recover and awaken spiritual realities within them.
“It’s harder to portray goodness either in a book or on film in a compelling way,” Dr. Mitchell says, “and Tolkien did it.”
Which is why, after 75 years, The Hobbit continues to inspire and captivate audiences. Each year thousands of guests visit the Wade Center, where they are able to see Tolkien’s desk, fountain pen, original manuscripts and letters, and other personal artifacts, as well as collections on six other British authors: C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, G. K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Charles Williams.
Wade Center archivist Laura Schmidt explains, “Tolkien is important as one of the featured authors at the Wade Center because our authors are all in conversation with one another. They all discuss a lot of similar topics and important things to think about, especially in the modern world. Tolkien’s strength in the conversation really comes from understanding story and how it impacts the human heart and the human spirit.”
The Marion E. Wade Center is home to more than 18,000 books, 24,000 letters, and 1,500 manuscripts. Visitors from around the world come to enjoy the collections and study the seven authors at the Wade Center.