The History of the Hobbit: Part I

Published for the first time in 1937, JRR Tolkien’s fantasy classic, The Hobbit, has sold millions of copies and continues to be popular to this day. Until now, however, it has not been subjected to the kind of rigorous scholarship that produced the 12 volume History of Middle-earth series. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, and the loosely classifiable “Silmarillion” legend material, the actual manuscripts of The Hobbit, and the textual history of its production, have never been published or examined thoroughly. Before you go on with this post, you might like to read the funny and entertaining review my friend Henry posted on this blog, earlier in 2010, of The Hobbit itself. In past posts I’ve alluded to us both reading The Lord of the Rings and posting on it; unfortunately that project didn’t quite get off the ground. Not to worry; I hope to post more reviews in the future.

Back to The History of the Hobbit. Everything changed in 2007, when scholar John D. Rateliff finally published, after many years of research at the Marquette University library (where many of Tolkien’s papers are stored), The History of the Hobbit. I was lucky enough to score a copy (in two volumes, accompanied by a beautiful hardback edition of the most up to date Hobbit) for Christmas, and I’m only about 70 pages in. Already, Rateliff has proven to me that the project was a fruitful one: accompanying the transcript of the actual manuscript are mini-essays that go into further depth; so far, on topics as diverse as “the voice of the narrator”, “the name Bilbo”, or ruminations on the early conceptions of the character who would later come to be called “Gandalf” (In the early drafts of the Hobbit, the wizard whom Bilbo meets is called “Bladorthin”).

Two points in particular have struck me, more so than the initial strangeness of the unfamiliar names: one, the fairy-tale nature of the story in the early drafts is far more marked than even in the published version. For example, until the 3rd edition of 1966, Hobbits were stilled compared to “Lilliputians” in stature, and the wizard Bladorthin is far more mysterious than Gandalf. The second surprise is that the early drafts of The Hobbit actually don’t differ that much from the version we have now, at least in terms of the first few chapters. Names, characters, dialogue and scenes are switched around, but many of the phrases remain, and many of the comic turns.

Once I’ve finished both volumes, I will post a fuller review, but for now I urge you to go out and peruse these charming volumes; they are not only interesting because they document the creative history of an author, they are interesting because they locate his much loved first novel in a broad historical and cultural context. Most importantly, the book seeks to liberate The Hobbit from its unfortunate position as the little brother of The Lord of the Rings: an altogether unfair status for such a different kind of novel. So far, Rateliff succeeds.