09 21 hobbitIt was on this day in 1939 that The Hobbit was published. If you’re reading this, I probably don’t need to go into much detail about the story.

Bilbo’s story is that of a quest and in some ways it is also a coming of age story. He is a down to earth sort of fellow who is persuaded to leave his home and go on an adventure. Whilst the dwarves remain essentially the same all through the book.,they want to get back their lost treasure and are not interested in the trouble that might cause for anyone else, Bilbo changes and grows. At the beginning he is comfortable in his little world and not interested in other peoples’ problems. But by the end he has discovered a different side to his nature. He has become a brave, clever and thoughtful hobbit.

Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford. He knew a great deal about languages and the way they developed over time. In 1917 he began apply that knowledge to develop his own language. Elvish. It is really the depth of his knowledge of languages and myths that allowed him to create the massive and believable world of Middle Earth. He had a lifelong passion for Norse Mythology and the names of the dwarves and Gandalf himself are all derived from old Norse names.

The Anglo-Saxon story of Beowulf was an important source for The Hobbit. In the 1920s Tolkien began to work on a translation of Beowulf and although he finished it in 1926 it was not published until 2014. He did deliver a very well received lecture on the poem though. He may have been the first critic to see it as a work of literature rather that a historical source. Previously people had ignored all the magical elements of the story and looked at it only as a source of information about the way the Anglo-Saxons lived. Tolkien realised that the magic was important because it tells us a lot about the way people understood the world around them. Many of the elements in The Hobbit are lifted straight from Beowulf. A named sword with magical powers that is covered with runes is a very Anglo-Saxon thing. Tolkien’s dragon, Smaug, is an intelligent animal, not at all like the one we find in legends like St George and the Dragon where the creature is little more that an allegory. Like the unnamed dragon in the Beowulf legend, Smaug in robbed of a precious cup, and when he finds out about it goes on a furiously destructive rampage and is killed.

During the First World War, Tolkien was a Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He served in France for a time and was present at the Somme. It is possible to see The Hobbit also as a reflection of his war experiences. A hero torn from his rural home and forced to take part in a war far away. Tolkien’s descriptions of a desolate world burned by a dragon or destroyed by war would have been something that he had no difficulty in calling to mind.

Tolkien also illustrated his story and designed the book jacket for the first edition. He was very particular about the design of the book, particularly the maps in the back and front. The first print run of only 1,500 copies was sold out by December. It was so popular that his publishers immediately asked for a sequel. He showed them a draft of another book he had been working on, The Silmarillion, but they didn’t really get what it was about and weren’t interested. They wanted more Hobbits. That is when he began to work on The Lord of the Rings.

As he began to think about extending the story he found that he needed to make changes to the original book to make it fit with his new ideas. In the first edition Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum is very different. He willingly bets his ring on the outcome of their riddle contest and when Bilbo wins the two part on good terms. Gollum’s curse: “Thief! Thief, Thief, Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!” does not appear until the 1951 revised edition. He explains away this change by saying that in the original version Bilbo, while under the influence of the Ring had told him a lie, but now he had the truth of it.


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