The Hobbit: Preamble

A short primer before diving into the book itself.

I’m about to embark on a critical (but fun) reading of The Hobbit. To do that there is a bit of background I want to get out of the way, in the form of an introduction, or primer. That way I won’t feel the need to keep covering the same ground or making the same references over and over when I get into the meat of the thing.

It’s very probable you know of The Hobbit, it’s a tent pole in fantasy and children’s literature. It became the precursor to The Lord of the Rings and has somewhat lived in its shadow, but it retains an enduring charm as an accessible entry point to the works of Tolkien. It is the book I always recommend as the first one to read if anyone is interested. If you are totally new to the book you might be staggered to find that it’s quite short; certainly nowhere near long enough to spin three feature films from it. HA!

This year I completed my collection of ‘The History of Middle-Earth’ books. They are huge and dense and give an unprecedented look into the writing process behind the world Tolkien created. There are drafts and manuscripts, fragments and scraps that when assembled really gives a unique insight. Sometimes that’s too much. That level will be too forensic for what I have in mind for my read-throughs. Though it did interest me to find that in those three volumes The Hobbit is not included. I hadn’t realised it before so I looked into why.

Turns out Christopher Tolkien, (who compiled and edited the HoM-E books) never considered The Hobbit to have it’s beginnings in that Legendarium. A similar book was made by John Rateliff (which I managed to snag as well) and that goes into the evolution of the original manuscripts which show how the story developed.

All to say, for now, I’m more interested in what I find on the pages that were published than how they got to that state.

It surprised me to find that Christopher Tolkien didn’t consider The Hobbit’s origins to be in Middle-Earth, and thus not include its development with the other twelve volumes of his study. Especially considering how The Hobbit in its final form had a significant impact upon the wider Legendarium in retrospect.

Originally, The Hobbit was conceived as an entertaining tale for Tolkien’s children. He would write stories for what the family called ‘Winter reads’, where they would gather in front of the fire and the Father would read aloud something he had penned for his children. There is debate between experts and indeed the Tolkien children, when the story of a Hobbit going on an adventure was first begun. I assume that this root of the story is ample reason for Christopher Tolkien to discount it in his study, as it certainly didn’t fit with his work on the First Age which was well on the go by then.

Work is thought to have begun on the story in the late 1920’s and the author himself claims that there were two gaps at least a year long that broke its development. It might be of encouragement to other aspiring writers that Tolkien was a sporadic writer, producing his fiction in fits and starts when his other responsibilities and commitments allowed.

Of course there is the famous tale about the very beginning of the book, when Tolkien was bored marking exam papers when he came across a blank sheet and idly scrawled ‘ In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.’ He claimed not to know what ‘a Hobbit’ was at that point. But that was the author’s style. He saw himself as a literary archeologist. Uncovering the story in his mind, as though a higher power was revealing it to him to report. Not making fiction, but recounting an unknown history.

The typescript was completed in 1932 after much delay and periods of intense and furious writing; it is supposed large parts of it were written in mere months. In a circuitous route of readers and friends it eventually came to the attention of the Publisher Allen & Unwin. It took another four years for the publisher to receive a manuscript ready to print. It would take a further year for the book to be published, which it was on 21 September 1937 with an initial print run of 1,500 copies.

An interesting theme that I plan to expand upon as I read the book is its tone and intended audience. The huge difference between the Hobbit and other works from Middle-Earth is that it is aimed squarely at children with a voice and presentation to appeal as such. At one point Tolkien did attempt to revise the book in a more adult tone, but abandoned the idea.

It was widely received well, critically, and sold very well demanding a quick second printing by late ’37, early ’38.

Tolkien was known for ‘tinkering’. He wished to make improvements to each edition that was to be made. He seemed to understand the cost implications of resetting the text, so when he changed something, his replacement was the same length so as not to upset the text as it was. This is a crazy thing to think about in this day and age where changes are all too easy.

A special mention should be made of Chapter Five. Riddles in the Dark. While Tolkien was working on The Lord of the Rings in 1947, he ret-conned this chapter to better fit the story he was making. Mostly it was about the influence and relationship Gollum had with the ring. They are vital but quite subtle shifts. It also exemplifies the shift in tone from a children’s story towards something darker and deeper.

The Hobbit lives on through adaptation in many guises, but the original text is immutable. It has only ever been changed by the original author to suit his own various purposes. From a modern point-of-view it is difficult not to allow the mind to wander to other interpretations and comment on differences and choices that were made. 

While reading I’ll do my very best to keep my comments within the text. Only referencing outside sources when absolutely necessary. Most references I envisage will be links to works in the wider Legendarium and how The Hobbit forced it’s way into the larger work, for it is a small book in a much wider world!

I hope you’ll follow along with me. I won’t be putting a strict schedule on it as I’ll be reading and writing for enjoyment. Feel free to read along and make comments and discuss the book as we progress.