The Hobbit – Some Thoughts on the 75th Anniversary

On 21 September 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit” was published by George Allen and Unwin. It has remained in print ever since, and in December the first film of a “Hobbit” trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson will be released.

Is the publication of the Hobbit an historical anniversary? Richard Cavendish, writing in History Today, thinks so. He observes:

“When The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was published by George Allen & Unwin in

The Hobbit Dust Jacket – First Edition

London, with a dust jacket based on the author’s own design, it received glowing reviews. The Times admired ‘a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology’ and the book appealed to adults as well as children. It sold very well and has remained in print ever since. The publishers naturally wanted more and The Hobbit proved to be the forerunner of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s epic story of a titanic struggle between good and evil, published in three volumes in 1954-55, which has sold more than 150 million copies and is an acknowledged classic.”

Publishing The Hobbit

How “The Hobbit” came to be  published is fairly well known. Tolkien had shown the completed typescript of the book to one of his former pupils, Elaine Griffiths, who became a family friend. On Tolkien’s recommendation, Griffiths was engaged by George Allen & Unwin to revise a translation of Beowulf. One day, in 1936, Susan Dagnall, a member of Allen & Unwin’s staff came to Oxford to talk with Griffiths about her project. From her she learned of the existence of an unfinished children’s story written by Professor Tolkien. On Griffiths suggestion, Dagnall visited Tolkien at his home in Northmoor Rd., Oxford and asked to borrow the manuscript. She was given it and took it back to London. She read it and decided it was worthy of consideration, although she stopped just after the death of Smaug. However, she returned it to Tolkien and suggested that he finish the work so that it might be considered for publication the following year.

The manuscript, entitled The Hobbit or There and Back Again was completed in October 1936 and

Ruskin House – former home of George Allen & Unwin – Museum St London

sent to Allen & Unwin’s offices in Museum St (the sign is still there although the publishing house has been long gone). But was it completed before this?

The firm’s chairman, Sir Stanley Unwin, believed that the best judge of children’s books were children themselves and handed The Hobbit to his 10 year old son Rayner (who in later years became Tolkien’s publishing mentor and friend). Rayner wrote the following report:

“Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who lived in his hobbit-hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his dwarves perswaded him to go. He had a very exiting time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they got to the lonely mountain; Smaug the dragon who gawreds it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home – rich! This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9”[1]

Rayner was paid a shilling for the report and the book was accepted for publication. However, it was decided, contrary to Rayner’s recommendation, that the book did in fact require illustrations and Tolkien submitted some of his own drawings and eight of his blacvk and white illustrations were accepted. He had also prepared maps which were used as end-papers, meaning that Tolkien’s plan for “invisible lettering” on Thror’s map could not be realised.

The page proofs were sent to Tolkien in February 1937 and characteristic of his writing became immediately apparent – revisions! He decided that there should be substantial changes for he had let the manuscript go without checking it with his usual thoroughness and he was unhappy about a number of passages in the story. He found inconsistencies in the topography, details which only the most painstaking reader would notice.[2] He was uncomfortable with some passages where he considered the style to be patronising and in a few days had covered the proofs with many alterations.

The book was published on 21 September 1937. Tolkien was nervous about the Oxford reaction. He was holding a Leverhulme Research Fellowship and wondered how he would convince people that the book was not the fruits of research for 1936 – 7. He need not have worried. Oxford paid the book almost no attention.

But that was not the case elsewhere. The book received an accolade in the Times and his fellow Inkling and friend C.S. Lewis, reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement, was responsible for getting the notice in the senior publication. The first edition sold out by Christmas.[3] In the United States it was awarded the New York Herald Tribune prize for the best juvenile book of the season. Stanley Unwin wrote to Tolkien, advising that the public would want to hear more about hobbits. But that was not to be – until 29 July 1954 when The Fellowship of the Ring was published.

But when did the journey of writing The Hobbit begin? The evidence is often unclear and at times contradictory, as to the manner in which and the time at which the book was started.

When and How it Began

Tolkien himself was unable to remember the precise origins of the book. In one account he said: ‘I am not sure but I think the Unexpected Party (the first chapter) was hastily written before 1935 but certainly after 1930 when I moved to 20 Northmoor Road.’ Elsewhere he wrote: ‘On a blank leaf I scrawled “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it, for a long time, and for some years I got no further than the production of Thror’s Map. But it became The Hobbit in the early nineteen-thirties.’[4]

Other evidence for the commencement of the book confirms at least the basic circumstances:

 “Two … English boys … asked Mr. Tolkien how he happened to write The Hobbit. He replied that he was in the midst of correcting 286 examination papers one day when he suddenly turned over one of the papers and wrote: ‘At the edge of his hole stood the Hobbit.’ As he later tried to think just who and what this Hobbit was, his amazing story developed.”[5]

 “The actual beginning- though it’s not really the beginning, but the actual flashpoint I remember very clearly. I can still see the comer of my house in 20 Northmoor Road where it happened. I had an enormous pile of exam papers there. Marking school examinations in the summertime is very laborious and unfortunately also boring. And I remember picking up a paper and actually finding – I nearly gave an extra mark for it; an extra five marks, actually – there was one page of this particular paper that was left blank. Glorious! Nothing to read. So I scribbled on it, I can’t think why, In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”[6]

 “It all began when I was reading exam papers to earn a bit of extra money. That was agony. One of the tragedies of the underpaid professor is that he has to do menial jobs. He is expected to maintain a certain position and to send his children to good schools. Well, one day I came to a blank page in an exam book and I scribbled on it. ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’. I knew no more about the creatures <sic> than that, and it was years before his story grew. I don’t know where the word came from. You can’t catch your mind out. It might have been associated with Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. 2 Certainly not rabbit, as some people think. Babbitt has the same bourgeois smugness that hobbits do. His world is the same limited place.”[7]

What followed was a form of story development as Tolkien told the story to his children. This in itself has given rise to contradictory evidence about the dating of the commencement of the idea. Although Tolkien places it after the move to Northmoor Rd, family recollections place it earlier.

Michael Tolkien, the author’s second son stated in his unpublished memoirs that he:

“clearly recalled his father standing with his back to the fire in his study at 22 Northmoor Road and saying that he was going to start telling his sons ‘a long story about a small being with furry feet, and asked us what he should be called – then, answering himself, said “I think we’ll call him a ‘Hobbit’.”‘ (quoted in Christopher Tolkien’s Foreword, p. vi). Father John Tolkien, the eldest son (1917-2003), was equally definite that the story began before the move from 22 to number 20 Northmoor Road: ‘The first beginnings of the Hobbit were at 22 Northmoor Road; in my father’s study, the room to the left of the front door as one looks at the house. I remember clearly the wood block floor, mats etc …. [T]here were no family readings for us all in 20 Northmoor Road, where we moved early in 1930. I was 12+ & I think could read for myself! The room with its many bookshelves was not conducive to that son of thing. As far as I remember the readings were always in the study … The Hobbit started with a couple or so chapters, to which if we were lucky a couple or more would be added at the next Christmas … I went to boarding school in September 1931 and so although very close to the family, all sorts of stories may have been told which I cannot date. ‘  Carpenter, writing in 1976, notes that Michael and John Tolkien ‘are not certain that what they were listening to at that time was necessarily a written story: they believe that it may well have been a number of impromptu tales which were later absorbed into The Hobbit proper’ (Carpenter, p. 177). In support of his claim for an earlier origin of the book, in his guest-of-honor speech to the Tolkien Society’s Annual Dinner in May 1977 Michael described the stories he and his brothers and sister had written in imitation of The Hobbit.  Michael recounts that these stories were populated by characters like Philpot Huggins, Ollum the giant frog, blokes (hobbits), smellers (wolves), the dwarves Roary, Borey, Gorey, Biffer, Trasher, Gasher, Beater, Bomber, Lammer, Throw-in (the chief dwarf), and young Blow-in and Go-in; Alben Bolger the troll, joshers, snargs, and the wizards Kimpu, Mandegar, and Scandalf the Beanpiper. Michael Tolkien dated his own contributions to this family apocrypha to 1929, when he was nine years old (Michael Tolkien, May 1977 speech; see also Christopher Tolkien, Foreword, p. vi), and thus argued that The Hobbit must have been begun by that date.

 While it is quite likely that many elements incorporated into The Hobbit came from family lore predating the book … and The Hobbit was undoubtedly influenced by the other stories Tolkien read his children in the ‘Winter Reads’ (which, despite Fr. John’s comment, continued to at least 1936 and probably beyond), Michael’s own account provides evidence that the stories he describes could not have preceded the actual writing of the book; too many of the names are parodies of forms that only emerged at a later stage, well into the composition of the manuscript. For example, Scandalf the wizard and Throw-in the head dwarf are clearly modelled on Gandalf and Thorin – but for the first two-thirds of the story the wizard was named Bladorthin and for more than half of it the chief dwarf is named Gandalf, not Thorin; these two characters seem not to have received their now-familiar names until around 1932. Furthermore, Tolkien himself is quite clear on the point that he made up the name ‘hobbit’ spontaneously at the moment of writing it down – that is, that the word itself emerged in a written text.

 The most specific proof may be found in a commentary Tolkien wrote on the text for the dust-jacket for The Hobbit and sent to his publisher accompanying a letter dated 31st August 1937, in which he remarked ‘My eldest boy was thirteen when he heard the serial. It did not appeal to the younger ones who had to grow up to it successively’ ( cf. Letters p. 21). Since John Tolkien was born on 16th November 1917, the events Tolkien is recalling here could not have taken place before the end of 1930; furthermore, Tolkien notes that ‘the younger ones’ (Michael was born 22nd October 1920 and Christopher 21st November 1924 and were thus respectively about nine and five in the summer of 1930, while Priscilla was still an infant, having been born in 1929) showed little interest at the time. Michael’s account not only contains inconsistencies but directly contradicts both the evidence of the manuscript and the accounts set down by his father, both at the time of the book’s publication and many years later. Given these facts, we should feel fully justified in accepting the word of the author recorded closer to the event over the childhood memories of a member of the original audience set down some 45 to 50 years after the fact.”[8]

 Thus we can safely say that composition commenced no earlier than summer of 1930 and there is other evidence to support this in the form of letters and memoranda set down by Stanley Unwin, C.S. Lewis, Christopher Tolkien and Tolkien himself. Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves as follows:

 “Since term began I have had a delightful time reading a children’s story which Tolkien has just written. I have told of him before: the one man absolutely fitted, if fate had allowed, to be a third in our friendship in the old days, for he also grew up on W. Morris and George Macdonald. Reading his fairy tale has been uncanny – it is so exactly like what we wd. both have longed to write (or read) in 1916: so that one feels he is not making it up but merely describing the same world into which all three of us have the entry. Whether it is really good (I think it is until the end) is of course another question: still more, whether it will succeed with modern children.”[9]

 It may therefore be concluded that the manuscript was probably finished between the end of 1932 and the beginning og 1933 and that it was given to Lewis for comment. It is clear that Lewis had a complete story, for he makes reference to the final chapters.

The “Father Christmas Letters” for 1932 and 1933 incorporate aspects of “The Hobbit” world with the introduction of goblins and details such as characters becoming lost in goblin-caves, being rescued by an ancient and magical bear, and finding themselves besieged by hordes of goblins

Christopher Tolkien made reference to “The Hobbit” in one of his letter to Father Christmas where he states:

“He {JRRT] wrote it ages ago, and read it to John, Michael, and me in our winter ‘reads’ after tea in the evening; but the ending chapters were rather roughly done, and not typed out at all; he finished it about a year ago.”[10]

 The problem with inconsistencies arises mainly as a result of later recollections. Rateliff is critical of Carpenter’s conclusions about the dating of “The Hobbit” as well as its state as completed or uncompleted. Rateliff, after a very careful analysis of the evidence, concludes as follows:

“The external evidence of the date of the move and the weight of the contemporary documentary evidence (especially Lewis’s letter to Arthur Greeves and the 1932 Father Christmas letter) between them establish a consistent body of evidence which agrees with all the facts of Tolkien’s other recollections. Accordingly, we may state with some confidence that the story was indeed begun in the summer of 1930 and completed in January 1933.”[11]

 This analysis is essentially confirmed by Scull and Hammond.[12]

The Bigger Picture

What readers of The Hobbit did not appreciate was that there was a deeper “back story” to the Hobbit and the world in which it was set. Tolkien’s publishers were unaware of it, when Stanley Unwin requested more hobbit stories, although Lewis and The Inklings were aware of Tolkien’s development of the Mythology for England. In his excellent edition of the manuscript of The Hobbit John Rateliff presents us not only with the way in which the story was created and developed through changes, recasting and emendations but he also places the story into the Middle-earth context. For example, one of the versions, referred to as the Bladorthin typescript, makes reference to the mines of Moria drawing us into the wandering of the dwarves from the end of the First Age when the cities of Nogord and Belegost in the Blue Mountains were ruined at the breaking of Thangorodrim. Belegost and Nogrod are indicated “off-map” in a drawing of a map completed by Tolkien in the mid to late 1920’s.[13]

The origins of the Necromancer – Sauron in The Lord of the Rings – goes back to the end of The Book of Lost Tales period where he is known as Tu, a pupil of Melko, who escaped from Valinor after the destruction of the Two Trees and set up a wizard kingship in the middle lands. Yet although Tu learned much black magic from Melkop he was not evil. A second character appears known as Fukil, Fankil or Fangli who was a servant of Melko and who corrupted the newly awakened humans. Neither of these characters appear after Lost Tales but a synthesised character named Thu – also known as Gorthu or Sauron – appears in The Lay of Leithian –  an  continues to play a major part in the mythology thereafter.

This information leads us to answer the suggestion that Peter Jackson is squeezing the 255 pages of The Hobbit until the pips squeak by making a movie trilogy of the book. There clearly is a back story – not only in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings but also in Tolkien’s deeper mythology. It seems to me that The Hobbit may be a little more than a cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s book, but a tale with a deeper background hinted at in the manuscripts but which may now be made a little clearer.


[1] The text of the report is taken (complete with spelling errors) from Humphrey Carpenter J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1977)  180 – 181

[2] Although he may not have realised it he was anticipating a large and critical fan audience that developed especially after the publication of The Lord of the Rings.

[3] The value of the first edition, first impression with a slip case is in the vicinity of $11,000

[4] Carpenter above n. 1 p. 177. Tolkien was marking examination papers and the lines were written on a blank page od a script. The source for Tolkien’s comment is in a letter to W.H. Auden – see Humphrey Carpenter(ed) The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (George Allen & Unwin, London 1981) p.215

[5] Ruth Harshaw, ‘When Carnival of Books Went to Europe’, ALA Bulletin, February 1957, p. 120 in John D. Rateliff The History of the Hobbit: Part One – Mr. Baggins (Harper Collins London 2007) p. xii

[6] Tolkien in Oxford, BBC Television, 1968. Ibid. Rateliff

[7] The Man Who Understands Hobbits’, Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, early 1967; Daily Telegraph Magazine, 22nd March 1968, pages 31-32. Ibid. Rateliff  p.xiii

[8] Ibid Rateliff p. xiv – xv (footnotes omitted)

[9] Letter of 4th February 1933 from C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves; They Stand Together: The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves,ed. Walter Hooper [1979], p. 449 – see Rateliff ibid. p.xv

[10] Ibid Rateliff p. xvii

[11] Ibid. p. xx

[12] Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: The Readers Guide (Harper Collins, London 2006) under the entry “The Hobbit” p. 384 et seq.

[13] See Christopher Tolkien (ed) The Shaping of Middle-earth (George Allen & Unwin, London 1986) plate between pp 220 – 221

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