OXFORD, England (WHTM) — “…there lived a hobbit.” So begins an unassuming “children’s book” which would spawn a media juggernaut including (but not limited to) books, movies, tv shows, radio plays, board games, computer games, toys, jewelry, memorabilia, and a whole lot of “imitated, but not surpassed.” September 21, 1937 marks the publication date in Britain of “The Hobbit.”
The author of “The Hobbit,” John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), was a professor of languages at Oxford University. And, as a professor, one of his duties was to give and grade exams. As he told the story, “One of the candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it, which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner, and I wrote on it: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ Names always generate a story in my mind: eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like.”
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“Eventually” evolved into the story of Bilbo Baggins, who ends up going on an adventure with 13 dwarves and a wizard, and along the way finds a magic ring which makes him invisible. The finished novel, with illustrations by the author, was published by Allen and Unwin in Britain in 1937, and in the United States by Houghton Mifflin in 1938. Reviews were good, sales were decent, and J.R.R. Tolkien was asked to write “another hobbit.”
This he did, but it took a while — years, in fact. As Tolkien put it later, “This tale grew in the telling.” For you see, Tolkien was a most accomplished and inventive linguist. He knew at least fifteen languages, and probably more, and even invented languages of his own. He also created histories for the peoples who spoke them. These all came together into one of the first, one of the most elaborate, and one of the flat-out best examples of “world building” in literature — Middle Earth. And a lot of it found its way into the “new hobbit,” or as it’s better known, “The Lord of the Rings,” which was published in the early 1950s.
In the course of writing LOTR, Tolkien felt it necessary to revise “The Hobbit,” in particular Chapter Five, “Riddles in the Dark.” The chapter describes Bilbo’s meeting with a strange creature named Gollum, who lives deep underground. They get into a riddle guessing game with some high stakes. If Bilbo wins, Gollum will give him a present, a magic ring. If Bilbo loses…Gollum eats him. Bilbo wins, but Gollum can’t find the ring (because Bilbo has it in his pocket), so Gollum shows him the way out instead, and they part on reasonably good terms.
But when Tolkien decided to make the magic ring the link between “The Hobbit” and Lord of the Rings, he changed how the riddle game chapter progressed. In the revised version, Bilbo just barely escapes Gollum’s wrath when he figures out Bilbo has the ring, and Gollum is left screaming “Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!” This anger drives much of what transpires in LOTR.
Tolkien kept revising both “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” in the years that followed. He also kept adding to and reshaping the whole background story of Middle-Earth. None of that was published in his lifetime, but he wrote and rewrote so much that following his death more than 20 books of his writings have come out. (Many of them were edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien.)
In the meantime “The Hobbit” remains in print, and is still a fun and satisfying read — even if you don’t know a thing about the rest of the Tolkien Middle Earth saga. Imitated, but not surpassed…
To see a side-by-side comparison of the early and later version of “Riddles in the Dark,” click here.