Home / Writing / John D. Rateliff, ‘The Hobbit’

John D. Rateliff, ‘The Hobbit’

John D. Rateliff traces the evolution of the book from Tolkien’s invention of the word ‘hobbit’ to the book’s eventual publication, and its continuing success.

An unexpected story (1930)

The first spark of the story came in the summer of 1930, when the author was already thirty-eight years old. In the middle of grading a huge stack of more than two hundred student essays he jotted down on a blank sheet the words in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Having imagined the word hobbit on the spot, he asked himself what sort of a creature a hobbit might be, and soon (either that summer or over the following Christmas break) started a story about a stay-at-home little person (obviously owing something to the hobs and brownies of traditional folklore) who unexpectedly is asked to leave the safety of his daily routine and go off on an adventure.

This first phase of the story consisted only of the first chapter, but within that short space Tolkien introduced hobbits as a people, Bilbo himself, and the wizard, the dwarves, and the quest – even though Gandalf is called Bladorthin (and Gandalf is the name used for the dwarf in chief!) and Smaug is still named Pryftan.

There the story stopped, one of many promising beginnings Tolkien made and abandoned throughout his life. But most unusually he returned to this one about a year later, either in the summer or winter of 1931. As a busy lecturer, tutor, and administrator he rarely had time for creative writing during term time, so most of his work on The Hobbit went on in spurts during the vacations over the next two years.

‘I can remember sitting one summer with a pile of dreary exam papers in a chair near the front window of my study in 20 Northmoor Road. I came across a blessed blank page and scrawled on it (without conscious reflection or effort of invention) In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit.’
MS. Tolkien 21, fol. 130

The second and third phases of The Hobbit (1932-33)

The most sustained period, the second phase, began when he picked up where he had left off, adding Smaug’s attack and the destruction of the Kingdom under the Mountain and also the wizard’s account of how he got the map. He first extended the story to the scene in Beorn’s hall, after which he paused to sketch out some plot-notes. Resuming (probably during spring 1932), he got his heroes through Mirkwood and as far as their capture by the wood-elves, after which he created more plot-notes outlining for the first time the rest of the story to the end. Finally, he pushed on (summer 1932) all the way to the scene on Ravenhill following Smaug’s death.

At this point Tolkien broke off to reconsider some complications that had arisen, such as the unexpected addition of another legitimate claimant to Smaug’s treasure in the person of Bard the dragon-slayer, whose arrival in the story had not been foreseen in the plot-notes.

Deciding to have Thorin succumb to the dragon-sickness and Bilbo estranged from his travelling companions, Tolkien embarked on the Third Phase. He made a typescript of the story so far, then at great speed turned out the final chapters (December 1932–January 1933), bringing the story to its bittersweet eucatastrophe (a term coined by the author indicating a sudden and positive turn of events: the opposite of a catastrophe!) followed by the quiet denouement of Bilbo’s return home: ‘…and back again’.

‘Death of Smaug’

The ‘soup’ of the tale: a book for children based on philology

All the elements that fed the author’s imagination came together in The Hobbit: his scholarship, his stories for his children, his legendarium, and his linguistic invention. It marked his coming of age as a writer, developed his characteristic narrative voice and created a literary model somewhere between a classic English children’s novel such as The Wind in the Willows (by Kenneth Grahame, 1908) and a pseudo-medieval romance such as The Well at the World’s End (by William Morris, 1896).

J.R.R. Tolkien’s invented languages, the ‘Secret Vice’ which absorbed so much of his creative energy throughout his life and inspired so much of his work, play a subtle but significant role in The Hobbit, where many of the proper names Bilbo encounters after leaving Bag-End are Sindarin Elvish (or Noldorin, as it was called at the time): Elrond, Gondolin, Orcrist, Glamdring, Galion, Esgaroth, Girion, Bladorthin, Gundabad, etc. (the chief exception being Beorn, which is Old English). Their juxtaposition alongside the Old Norse names of Bilbo’s companions creates a feeling of a prehistory, a lost world where forgotten cultures lived on – in short, Middle-earth. Thus, Tolkien’s expertise as a scholar of Old English and Old Icelandic drew the dwarves’ names from the Dvergatal or ‘dwarf-tally’ found in both the Elder Edda and later Prose Edda.

Tolkien drew just as heavily on his long-established tradition of writing and telling stories to his children. This had started as early as 1920, when his eldest son was only three, with his Letters from Father Christmas, (see the Painting section) and extended through Roverandom (circa 1925), the ‘Bimble Bay’ poems like ‘The Dragon’s Visit’ (circa 1928), Farmer Giles of Ham (late 1920s), and later Mr. Bliss (circa 1932). Through these and others that were never written down, Tolkien learned how to tell an entertaining story that drew from his own love of dragons, wizards, and adventures; and yet was crafted to appeal to a specific audience: in this case, his own young children.

‘Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it – so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge’. 

Letter n°19, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

‘Even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge’: a story drawn into Tolkien’s mythology

By the time of The Hobbit, his ‘mythology’ included a mélange of prose tales, lyric poetry, narrative verse, maps, annals, and a mass of linguistic material. At one point, J.R.R. Tolkien stated that the one work upon which he ‘consciously based’ The Hobbit was the ‘Silmarillion’, his history of the Elves. The Hobbit bears him out: almost all the friends and foes Bilbo meets in his long journey appeared first in the ‘Silmarillion’: wizards and dwarves and elves and goblins and wargs and eagles and giant spiders and of course the dragon. The Hobbit makes reference to places, characters, and events within the legendarium such as Mirkwood (Taur-na-Fuin), Elrond, the Fall of Gondolin, and the quarrel between Thingol and the dwarves. The manuscript even includes a mention of Beren and Lúthien defeating the Necromancer, an event described in the Lay of Leithian.

Finally, the publication

Although the story was complete by January 1933, Tolkien seems to have made no effort to find a publisher. Over the next three and a half years he read it to his own children, and also loaned the manuscript out to friends, including the Mother Superior of a local convent, the young daughters of a friend, and his former pupil Elaine Griffiths. It was she who in the summer of 1936 suggested to the publisher’s representative Susan Dagnall, that she should ask Professor Tolkien to let her borrow his ‘frightfully good’ work called The Hobbit. Dagnall did so and thought the book worth publishing; accordingly Tolkien was soon hard at work revising the typescript and typing up a replacement for the first draft manuscript of the final chapters for a formal submission to George Allen & Unwin in October 1936. Stanley Unwin thereupon hired his ten-year-old son Rayner to read and report on it from a child’s perspective.

Rayner Unwin’s enthusiasm decided the matter: ‘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’. Tolkien was soon drawing and redrawing maps, creating first black and white and then colour illustrations, painting the picture for the dust jacket, and carefully revising the text one final time.

The Hobbit was published on September 21st, 1937 and was an immediate success. It sold thousands of copies in the first six months and received, among other distinctions, a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for the best ‘juvenile’ story of the season. This unexpected success has endured since then, up to and beyond the 75th anniversary of its publication, in 2012. The Hobbit has been translated into sixty languages, even more than The Lord of the Rings.