I recently spoke with my brother about the structure of The Hobbit and why it’s different from contemporary fantasy. It’s a funny question because it is a massive understatement to say that Tolkien inspired a much of contemporary fantasy. Arguably neo-Tolkienism is a sub-genre in and of itself. A good point of comparison is Eragon, not because its good or particularly classic, but because it is entirely composed of genre tropes and has little to no substance of its own.
One of the most noticeable trends could be called organization of writing. Contemporary fantasy is obviously planned out, with beginning, middle, end, character development, build-up, climax, and so forth. Tolkien, however, famously just started writing and probably didn’t have an end in mind until midway through The Fellowship of the Ring. The world is created as the characters go along so individual encounters don’t have to participate in the overall plot. Tom Bombadil has nothing to do with the rest of the Lord of the Rings plot line. Much of The Hobbit consists of random encounters with trolls, spiders, and goblins (oh my). It also tends to drag on without much happening. In contrast, Eragon has a very clearly defined plot and all encounters have to do with that plot. Often encounters are stilted towards the eventual ending and may not make much sense in the situation. Rather than naturally flowing conversation, characters tend to vomit information relevant to the plot. Character development becomes incoherent. The character Eragon was written to be largely ignorant of the real world so people could explain things (for the reader) all the time. But without a coherent development, he remains flat and kind of pathetic. At one point the the dragons have to pull some Deus Ex Machina bullshit and artificially improve him.
My brother pointed out that The Hobbit was harking back to an older style of story telling. While the modern novel is married to the plot, old stories were often told as a series of encounters, like a TV show or a shaggy dog story. He compared it to Don Quixote which also came from a older style of story telling. Don Quixote is sometimes referred to as the first novel because it created many of the modern features of a novel, but it retains much of the older style. Modern readers often find it difficult to finish because “it goes on forever and nothing happens.” The Hobbit draws on older material in other ways as well. It is the only one of Tolkien’s books that feels like it takes place in the same world as European faerie tales. The dwarves are the dwarves of legend, the elves sometimes actually act like traditional elves, and there’s a dragon sitting on a pile of gold.There are trolls turning into stone in daylight and river spirits. Its important to remember that it was Tolkien who came up with the races of elves, dwarves, men, and orcs that seem such a fundamental part of contemporary fantasy.