In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit
Many years after Tolkien had to undertake the drudgery of marking endless School Certificate papers at Northmoor Road, he recalled that one of the pupils had left a page blank. He picked up his pen, and wrote on that empty page:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”.
While he yet had no idea at that time to what heights that simple sentence would take him, eventually he decided that he must find out was a hobbit was, what a hobbit did, and what adventures this hobbit was to have.
He then created a character which, to Tolkien, summed up all that he loved about his West Midlands heritage – Bilbo Baggins, Hobbit of the Shire. Some clear connections can immediately be seen between Tolkien and Bilbo – whether he meant them or not. Bilbo was of conservative stock, liked plain food, wore conservative clothes – though with a bright waistcoat peeking out from under a staid jacket – and he had an adventurous streak coming down from his mother’s side. Belladonna Took, his mother, was a strong woman, and was a daughter of the Old Took, who had a personality showing resemblance to Tolkien’s grandfather, John Suffield.
Tolkien later admitted a distinct resemblance:
“I am in fact a hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees and unmechanised farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.”
There were also links between Tolkien’s childhood places and the hobbit’s dwelling place. Bag End was the name of Jane Suffield’s farm, while the Shire bore a distinct resemblance to Worcestershire. Hobbiton – especially the mill and river – seemed remarkably like Sarehole.
But the hobbits were not seen by their creator as just having personal parallels:
“The Hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects the generally small reach of their imagination – not the small reach of their courage or latent power.”
As Tolkien had seen at the Somme, strength in adversity does not come with size. Instead, in battle situations, a small imagination coupled with great courage often led to survival.
The beginnings of the legend
Tolkien later said that he could not remember exactly when he started “The Hobbit”, but at one point he did say that the first chapter was hastily written at some point between 1930 and 1935. He also seemed to remember that John was 13 when he first heard of the story, which would make its origin to be in 1930. The first typescript in existence, which lacked only the final chapters, was shown to CS Lewis in late 1932. However, John and Michael clearly remember elements of the story being told to them a long while before 1930, so it seems as if a number of smaller stories were amalgamated in some way to form the book we know as “The Hobbit”.
It seems as though Tolkien wrote the basis of the story in a relatively quick time, and with little hesitation. The original manuscript had consecutively numbered pages throughout, and it was all in the same paper, handwriting style and ink. However, as usual, names remained flexible to the end. The dragon started out life as Pryftan, but was changed to Smaug as a philological joke – as ‘smugan’ in Germanic means ‘to squeeze through a hole’. Gandalf was originally Bladorthin, while Thorin Oakenshield – originally named Gandalf – was not given his final name until nearly the final draft. The name Gandalf, like all the original dwarf names, was taken from the Elder Edda, and meant ‘sorcerer–elf’ in Icelandic.
Tolkien had not originally meant “The Hobbit” to be intertwined with “The Silmarillion”, but elements of his larger mythology began to creep in. There was soon a mention of the Necromancer, and the dwarves were very similar. It soon became clear to the author that Bilbo’s journey took him across a small corner of the physical and mythological landscape of his larger work. Despite being drawn into the wider story, Tolkien kept “The Hobbit” light in tone, suitable for children.
But the story ground to a halt at the death of Smaug. An early version had Bilbo killing Smaug, before Tolkien gave the dragon a more heroic death by arrow. After that, the narrative faltered. Tolkien made up an impromptu ending for his children, but the remaining chapters for the publisher were originally only roughly sketched out at the best. One of the few people to be shown the typescript of the book was Elaine Griffiths, an ex-pupil and then friend of the family. She suggested that one of her friends, Susan Dagnall, who was a member of staff at Allen & Unwin, read the manuscript, and Susan decided that it was certainly worthy of consideration.
She then wrote to Tolkien asking if he could finish the book in time for publication in the next year, and for once, he got down to it. Michael, who had cut his right hand badly on a school window, was at home and helped his father type, using his left hand only. The manuscript was finished by the first week in October, 1936. It was sent to Allen & Unwin bearing the title “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again”.
At Allen & Unwin’s, the chairman gave the manuscript to his ten year old son, Rayner Unwin, to read. The boy earned a shilling for the job, and when he gave the book a glowing review, it was accepted for publication. The company also accepted eight of Tolkien’s black and white illustrations.
Tolkien was blissfully unaware of the difficulties and length of the publishing process; and its intricacies, conspiracies, and sometimes even incompetencies, amazed him till the end of his days. When the Hobbit manuscript arrived back at Northmoor Road, he decided to make a number of heavy revisions to it, for he had let it go without his normal thorough scrutiny. But, with typical consideration for the printers, he made all his revisions exactly the same size in typescript as his original copy.
“The Hobbit” was published on the 21st September 1937, to the slight worry of Tolkien, the holder of a prestigious Leverhulme Research Fellowship at the time. He was worried that people would consider the novel his major research effort, and that he was not paying enough time or attention to his philology. However, the novel had glowing reviews from the Times and from CS Lewis in the Times Literary Supplement, and the first edition had sold out by that Christmas. A reprint was hurried ordered, and the second edition had four of Tolkien’s colour illustrations included. The first American edition was published in early 1938, to good reviews from most critics, and the book was awarded the New York Herald and Tribune’s prize for the best juvenile book of the season.
Stanley Unwin realised that, far from being the eccentric imaginings of an English academic, “The Hobbit” was going to become a world-wide sensation, beloved by young and old alike.
Tolkien’s success was noted in the Pembroke College Record of 1937-8:
“During the past year Professor J. R. R. Tolkien published a work, not indeed academic in its nature, but one which perhaps only an academic man could have written. We refer to that remarkable children’s tale, The Hobbit. But it is one of those children’s tales which can be read with profit and amusement even by the most mature.”