Happy birthday to The Hobbit

I discovered the other day that it’s 81 years this month since The Hobbit was published. I’d missed the anniversary.

Check out the battering. Is my copy of ‘The Hobbit’ much-loved, or what?

The Hobbit is just about my favourite book of all time. The other, naturally, is its sequel. I first read it around 1973, inspired by the Pauline Baynes map of Middle Earth – a wondrous place, it seemed, which set my imagination roaming. The Hobbit didn’t disappoint. I still have the copy I was given that year by my aunt – the Allen & Unwin edition with Tolkien’s own sketch of the death of Smaug on the cover. It’s, shall we say, very well worn.

The book has never lost its charm; Tolkien wrote it as a story for his children, but it speaks to adults and children alike. Looking back on it now, I can see it has a certain ‘period’ feel to it, but that doesn’t reduce the appeal any more than similar ‘period’ feel does for J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The Hobbit is, in short, an absolute and timeless classic.

How did Tolkien do it? In my collection of Tolkienaria I’ve also got the two-volume edition of The Hobbit‘s first drafts, assembled by John Rateliff. It’s intriguing that the analysis and drafts are far longer than the final book itself; but they shed light on Tolkien’s creative processes. These were iterative. Curiously, he also tried re-writing it, much later, to better fit it to The Lord Of The Rings, a tale that had ‘grown in the telling’ and which had some fundamental inconsistencies with the original 1937 Hobbit. Some – but not all – were fixed in the second edition. But then Tolkien sat back and tried to re-cast the whole more in the mould of The Lord of The Rings, including some of the geography on the way to Elrond’s house. He abandoned the effort, and I can see why; the chapters don’t quite gel.

I haven’t mentioned the movies – and won’t. They are, I think, best forgotten.

Have you read The Hobbit. What did you think of it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018


13 thoughts on “Happy birthday to The Hobbit

  1. I re-read it a few weeks ago, when I was recovering from some sort of ailment and wanted something familiar to occupy my brain. It’s a story that’s worn very well (better than many paperback editions, including mine). It occurred to me this time around that the narrator identifies with his readers in The Hobbit, but in LOTR and The Silmarillion he speaks from within the fictional world. This difference gives The Hobbit a much lighter tone, more in keeping with a book for children.

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  2. I’m not certain when I read it, but I know it wasn’t long before I read LOTR, which I read over the summer of 1975. Both combined were my true introduction to the fantasy genre and epic tales and altered the course of my life. Even as short as The Hobbit is in comparison to LOTR, it’s still a big story (though not worthy of three movies, but I digress…).

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    1. The Hobbit is such a wonderful story – very much the hero journey with all its mythic dimensions (which, I suppose, makes it exactly the same as the original Star Wars, and there’s nothing wrong with that…) I had much the same experience of Tolkien at about the same time – I was inspired to read the books by the Pauline Baynes map, and then by the map in the Hobbit book itself. They really pulled me into a life-long interest in the realms of faerie and the imagination.

      Yes, let’s not digress into those movies! Peter Jackson can make much better films – but I have to admit, thanks to his movie empire it’s possible to have everyday experiences around Wellington that are available nowhere else in the world. For instance, I was driving north out of the city a while back, past a road sign reading ‘Rivendell’, and a few minutes later spotted three truck-and-low-rider trailer units coming towards me, each carrying a First World War Mk VI rhomboid tank on the back. Jackson had some driveable examples made and they’d apparently been taken north to film a commercial.

      Rivendell is a real place about 30 km north of Wellington, the sets are long since gone but it’s got a parking area, picnic tables and is on the ‘Lord of the Rings’ tourist route. I’m prepared to bet the late Professor T would never have expected his world of imagination to be stamped across a small nation in the South Pacific like this…

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      1. Coming from from someone in a different hemisphere, I loved that Jackson placed the movies where he did. Middle Earth will forever and always be New Zealand to me now. I’ve always thought it was a brilliant decision. Similarly, I’m impressed that he has, in so many ways. given back to his home. I adored the LOTR movies. The Hobbit … there were many issues, but to me where he lost his way was at the beginning when he made the decision to turn it into an epic instead of the intimate tale of a hobbit entering the bigger world that Tolkien wrote. He’d have been better off with a small budget film. Someone should edit it down to just the Bilbo scenes. That’d help—a little.

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        1. I think something happened along the way to the production – as I understood it the original idea was a double movie directed by Guillermo del Toro, the Hobbit itself and a kind of ‘intermediate/prequel’ film covering the gap between that and the opening of LOTR. Don’t know for sure: either way, the issue of making those films was politicised here to an absurd degree and became very heated – everything from the government stepping in to cut a deal with the parent studio and stop them taking it offshore, to altercations with the actors’ union. The resulting movies, to me, played out more like a ‘fan fantasy wish fulfilment completist re-make’ of The Hobbit, not the rather charming original story itself. Sigh… This aside, Jackson’s contribution here on many levels has been fantastic – he’s also been behind an amazing aviation museum, a stunning WW1 exhibition (which is about to close) and a few other things. Not to mention the movie empire – we’ve even ended up with James Cameron essentially living here some of the time, he bought farmland just outside the Wellington district and I gather is about to make the ‘Avatar’ sequels.

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  3. Hi Matthew,
    I dropped in from Susie’s blog party. I have not read the book. But I am gonna get it from the library tomorrow. I am fascinated by the fact that Tolkien wrote it as a story for his children.
    Every time I walk my son back from school, I tell him a story. Only in the end, when we reach home do I reveal that I made up the story myself. We have a hearty laugh about it and he says mom, you should write down the stories. I have myself forgotten some of those stories. 🙂

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    1. Hi – thanks for dropping by. I gather Tolkien did much the same style of story-telling for his kids – ultimately leading to The Hobbit, among other things (there are also The Father Christmas Letters). Hope you enjoy the read!

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