Thursday, September 9, 2021

THERE AND BACK AGAIN (1932) by C.H. Dodd: Any Influence on THE HOBBIT?

It must have been around five years ago that Tom Shippey asked me if I knew anything about There and Back Again (1932) by C.H. Dodd, as a potential influence on The Hobbit.  I think he had been asked the question himself at some conference, and thought I might know. But I didn't.
Well, it turns out that the book itself is quite rare, and it took years for me to find a copy to read.  And the results are interesting. 
The book is a collection of ten tales by Dodd, with a short preface, along with illustrations by his wife, P.M. Dodd, and one illustration, discussed below, by his stepson, John Terry.  In the one-page Preface (signed from Manchester, October 1932) Dodd notes the inspiration for two of the tales (an anonymous writer of the ninth century for one, a writer in Punch for the second). He continues:  "The rest of the tales are, to the best of my belief, original, except in so far as they are founded on folk-tale motives which were common property long before my time."  And so they are.  And the title of the book comes from a similar folkloric source, given on the title page: 
How many miles to Babylon?
   "Three score and ten."
Can I get there by candlelight?
   "There and back again." 
The author Charles Harold Dodd (1884-1973) was a prolific theologian and probably the most influential British New Testament scholar of his time. (His younger brother, A.H. Dodd, 1891-1975, was a well-known historian.) He was educated at University College, Oxford, from 1902 through 1906  and had a demyship at Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1907 to 1911, for research on early Christian epigraphy. After he was ordained in 1912 he spent three years as a minister in Warwick. He returned to Oxford in 1915 as the Yates Lecturer (later Professor) in New Testament Greek and Exegesis at Mansfield College. In 1930 he left Oxford to accept the Rylands Chair of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, and in 1935 became the Norris Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, a position which he held until his retirement in 1949.

There and Back Again was Dodd's only work of fiction.  The stories are mixed in kind, a few have affinities with folk tales or fairy tales, but most have an underlying and sometimes subtle message. In "The Conqueror" an Assyrian king believes a prophecy that the greatest man in Nineveh will die that night, thereby he anticipates his own death.  But when the beloved slave Obed dies instead, the king renounces the crown and determines to become more like Obed. "The Three Ways" is an allegory of three brothers who each attempt to reach a house on a mountaintop. In "The Wrestler" the story of Jacob is told, who wrestled all night with an invisible adversary only to have a surprise at dawn. 

But are there any Tolkien connections or correlations here?  In recounting Dodd's life above I noted his Oxford connections, so it's possible that he and Tolkien may have been acquainted, but there is no evidence of such acquaintance. And per the stories themselves, there are a few Tolkienian resonances. In "The Royal Visit" an Old Man is called a "gaffer"---but that usage is somewhat common.  In "The Wrestler" the invisible adversary with which Jacob wrestles wants to be released before dawn, for "at dawn, as everyone knows, all ghost and goblins must get them to their lairs" (p. 51)--a slight similarity with the Trolls turning to stone at dawn in The Hobbit

Those are the only real Tolkienian resonances, and since the book itself was published in December 1932, after the vast bulk of The Hobbit had been written, it seems unlikely to have had any influence on Tolkien even if he had known the book.  However, the single illustration by Dodd's stepson (p. 59) is by far the most Tolkienian thing in the book, the single-peaked mountain with a door in the side, rivers with s-curves and trees and dwellings nearby all give a hint of the Lonely Mountain and its environs. Yet even such a striking visual resonance is rendered suspect as an influence primarily because of the chronology. The details in The Hobbit must all have been worked out by Tolkien before he could ever have seen this book.