J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again was released to the British public on September 21, 1937, making 2012 the 75th anniversary of its original publication. Three-quarters of a century have now passed since the world was introduced to Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, Gollum, and Smaug, not to mention hobbits, dwarves (as opposed, Tolkien himself noted, to the correct plural dwarfs), orcs, and the vast, engulfing grandeur of the world of Arda.
Celebrations of the milestone have included translations into Latin (Mark Walker’sIlle Hobbitus aut illuc atque rursus retrorsum) and Irish (Nicholas Williams’s An Hobad nó Anonn agus ar Ais Arís), the Tolkien Society’s monumental Return of the Ring conference at Loughborough University, and, of course the imminent release of Peter Jackson’s film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
The word hobbit has become entrenched in our cultural lexicon, not to mention the Oxford English Dictionary—parochial but otherwise kind-hearted rural populations (such as those of the early-20th-century West Midland counties which inspired The Shire) are now compared to this fictional little people rather than vice versa. Still read, still celebrated, still loved, The Hobbit is the gold standard of a children’s literature phenomenon; not until most of us are long gone will we be able to tell if any of our contemporary bestsellers had the staying power… and The Hobbit will likely still be read then, too.
That so much was eventually coaxed from so humble a seed as The Hobbit is entirely suitable to hobbits, of course, though not at all to Tolkien’s grand design. Those who have braved the much less decorative realms of Tolkien scholarship will object that the legendarium, as it is now known, began not at all in 1937, but rather in 1914 when, after a long vacation tour in England, the 22-year-old Tolkien wrote his poem “The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star” (the light of whom would, in some form and 40 years later, illuminate the phial Galadriel gives to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring). Though The Hobbit came to presage all, many of the novel’s material and characters, including the dragon, elves, and dwarves, had their origins long before.
Of all the races of Arda, in fact, hobbits are the most homespun and least ambitious, emerging almost as a postscript in the Third Age when they fled westward from Mirkwood when Sauron (provisionally referred to in The Hobbit only as “the Necromancer”) installed himself there. Among tales of immortals good and evil, and wars to shiver whole continents, The Hobbit is almost childishly tangential. The second edition in 1951 was even slightly revised in order to streamline it better into the forthcoming Lord of the Rings.
Humphrey Carpenter’s biography illuminates the rather accidental primacy hobbits came to enjoy not only in Tolkien’s published works, but also—as a result—in his secondary world. At about this time three-quarters of a century ago, The Hobbithad nearly sold out its first edition, and publisher Stanley Unwin (of the original publishing house Allen & Unwin) had already been pressing Tolkien for a sequel for two months. Unwin realized early-on that his press had found a prodigy—perhaps just after his own ten-year-old son had endorsed the manuscript, and certainly after C.S. Lewis’s glowing review appeared in The Times—and within a couple of weeks of The Hobbit’s release was clamouring for more.
Tolkien gave him manuscripts of some of his other work, including his poem “The Gest of Beren and Lúthien” and what he had to that point of The Silmarillion. None, however, contained hobbits. “What we badly need,” Unwin wrote Tolkien on December 15, “is another book with which to follow up our success with The Hobbit and alas! neither of these manuscripts (the poem and The Silmarillion itself) quite fits the bill.” Tolkien, for his part, and even in the face of literary celebrity, was chiefly concerned with the cherished book of mythology on which he had been labouring for at least two decades.
“My chief joy,” he wrote back to Unwin, “comes from learning that The Silmarillion has not been rejected with scorn. I have suffered a sense of fear and bereavement, quite ridiculous, since I let this private and beloved nonsense out; and I think if it had seemed to you to be nonsense I should have felt really crushed.” As for something to follow that silly book of mine you’ve published, Tolkien essentially breezed, I’ll see what I can cook up. Two days later, he wrote back: “I have written the first chapter of a new story about Hobbits – ‘A long expected party’.” The Lord of the Rings had begun, and it, along with hobbits, would eventually provide the channels through which Tolkien’s breathtaking and near-bottomless mythopoeia would flood into our world.
For most people, though, Tolkien and Middle-earth begin with The Hobbit. Aside from having been published first, it is more accessible—less daunting even—than his other fantasy works, in particular The Lord of the Rings and especially The Silmarillion. Many Tolkien fans do not read the latter, and, due in large part to Peter Jackson’s films, some may not necessarily have read the former, either. The Hobbit, however, was and remains a children’s story—conceived for Tolkien’s own, in fact—though Tolkien himself would stress that fairy-stories such as The Hobbitare best exemplified by an appeal to all ages, and not by any patronizing narrative devices or tactics.
The Hobbit, for its part, was born atop an essay paper Tolkien was marking once. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” he wrote. When and why? he could not quite remember—legend has it he was bored—and from that spontaneous and possibly rebellious outburst of creativity, cultivated by Tolkien’s own passion for story and nourished by his love for his children, the world would eventually be afforded its portal into one of the most complex and enthralling worlds in literary imagination.
Between 1954 and 1955, The Lord of the Rings would emerge to consolidate Tolkien’s reputation as an imaginative genius. Alas, its appendices—often omitted in translations—would provide the only glimpses into the cosmogonic, historical, and linguistic chasms of Middle-earth that Tolkien himself would live to see published. He died in 1973, and it was not until 1977 that The Silmarillion—edited and published posthumously by his son and literary executor Christopher—would provide the long awaited narrative roots and branches to which The Hobbit andThe Lord of the Rings are as uppermost leaves. Additional reams of Middle-earth lore, both scholarly and popular, have continued to arrive, the last—The Children of Húrin—appearing in 2007. Even so, material remains unpublished, most especially vocabularies and compositions in Tolkien’s own invented languages.
When The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey comes to theatres, it will in fact be the second time. Rankin/Bass, the now-defunct production studio that gave us Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (as well as the regrettable Return of the King animated feature in 1979), adapted the book to an animated film in 1977. For its quirks, including a toad-like Gollum and felinoid Smaug, the film is endearing—unlike the failed cinematographical gamble of Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 adaptation of The Lord of the Rings—and is forgivable in its narrative liberties and omissions, certainly more so than Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Hollywood, we must recall, and whether outsourced to New Zealand or elsewhere, is a flirt instead of a soulmate; no audiovisual adaptation, certainly not one scripted by nonwriters, can capture the essence of a philologist’s words. And so, let us—as readers—celebrate The Hobbit and its place in world literature. Let us enjoy the film as fireworks, distinct from the secret fire that inspired Tolkien to create another world not to detract from, but to beautify, our own.
To another 75 years!