The History of the Hobbit: A Review
By Mike Foster
It includes a complete edition of the original version of The Hobbit, from the first fragment of the earliest lost draft through an abandoned 1960 revision wherein Tolkien attempted to attune The Hobbit’s style, geography, and chronology to its sequel, The Lord of the Rings. Enriched with Tolkien’s own illustrations and maps, this tome testifies that the author’s fine-tuned fanciful fiction was achieved only through careful craftsmanship.
John Rateliff’s lively, lucid commentary sparkles with wisdom and wit, alluding to everything from prehistoric lake villages in Glastonbury to Scrooge McDuck. His masterful command of both Tolkien text and Tolkien scholarship makes this essential reading for every reader who ever enjoyed the adventures of the hobbit, the dwarves, and the wizard.
As Rateliff writes in his introduction:
- “Since the published story is so familiar, it has taken on an air of inevitability, and it may come as something of a shock to see how differently Tolkien first conceived of some elements, and how differently they were sometimes expressed.”
For instance, Bilbo was to be the slayer of the dragon Smaug; the sudden appearance of Bard, who can be seen as a prototype of Aragorn, gave the story a human hero. Rateliff observes that “the projected scheme of Bilbo stabbing the dragon ‘as it sleeps, exhausted after battle,’ while very much in keeping Jack the Giant-Killer’s ruthless practicality, has the drawback of creating sympathy in the reader’s mind for the villain of the story.
The eventual solution Tolkien ultimately arrived at, while much more complex and unexpected, smites down this mass-murderer in the midst of his villainy, which is far more satisfactory from the point of view of the story’s moral code.”
Conversely, the original Gollum never intends to kill Bilbo, but rather after losing the riddle game, he apologetically escorts the hobbit out of the maze of goblin tunnels. Many scenes were added, and many others were extirpated.
Characters who perished in the published version do not die in the earliest account. The wizard Gandalf was originally named Bladorthin; the chief dwarf Thorin was first known as Gandalf; Beorn was Medwed.
Rateliff has meticulously mined the riches found in the 1,586 pages of The Hobbit material in the Marquette University Tolkien manuscript collection. That tremendous trove was purchased for a pittance in 1957 before the Middle-earth boom began.
William Ready, Marquette’s newly appointed director of libraries, negotiated with Tolkien through London bookseller Bertram Rota. A deal was concluded, and thus a priceless cache of holograph drafts, typescripts, plot notes, scribbled additions, sketches, and corrected galley proofs of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Farmer Giles of Ham, and Mr. Bliss was acquired for 1,500 English pounds, then worth about $4,900.
When Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son and literary heir, embarked on the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series, he discovered more manuscripts that should have been included in the parcel purchased, so between 1987 and 1998, another 4,000 pages, mostly of The Lord of the Rings, were bequeathed to Marquette.
Like two other classics of English fantasy, Peter Pan and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Hobbit was a tale that was told before it was finally written down. Beginning in late 1930, Tolkien narrated the story of Bilbo Baggins to his young sons, John, Michael, and Christopher.
As Christopher, then 13, wrote in his letter to Father Christmas in 1937, just after the book’s publication, they heard it “in our winter ‘reads’ after tea; but the ending chapters were rather roughly done, and not typed out at all; he finished it about a year ago.”
“This is a book to be read aloud to an attentive audience,” Rateliff states. “Scenes are deliberately described in such a way as to help a listener visualize them.” He points out that the rich detail, the word-play, and the comic elements “liven up the narrative.”
As anyone who has ever read aloud to children, especially one’s own, knows, youngsters do not feign interest. Both delight and boredom are obvious. Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis, who read and critiqued the tale in January, 1933, would have been a comparatively easy audience.
Mr. Baggins begins with a first-chapter fragment whereon Tolkien had scribbled “Only page preserved of the first scrawled copy of The Hobbit.” Here the dragon Smaug is called Pryftan, but otherwise, much of this early draft is verbatim with the published text. Deleted, however, are references to the real world, such as China and the Gobi desert, and likewise names from the author’s unpublished “Silmarillion” mythology, such as Fingolfin. Elrond of Rivendell is originally described as being “kind as Christmas,” not summer.
Enumerating all the gems of lore in this book would be rather like doing a complete inventory of the treasure-pile Smaug sleeps on in the Lonely Mountain. Each chapter here concludes with a section of textual notes on the preceding narrative followed by passages of cogent commentary.
For instance, notes appended to the “Gollum” chapter discuss Gollum himself, riddles, the Ring, and invisible monsters. Early drafts of poems, previously unpublished maps, little-known illustrations, and four sets of plot plans testify to the author’s perfectionism. Tolkien’s 1947 revision published in 1951, which changed the story to harmonize it with the yet-unpublished The Lord of the Rings, the cursory 1966 revision to assert the American copyright, and an undertaken but unfinished extensive rewriting of the story begun in 1960 are all here.
Rateliff interweaves not only works by other authors but also Tolkien’s own, including not only The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion but also his letters, interviews, and the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earthedited by his son.
References include a boggling variety of works, including the Kalevala, the Mabinogion, Chaucer, Malory, Spenser, the brothers Grimm, Macaulay, Wodehouse, Dunsany, Swift, Lofting, Grahame, Shakespeare, Lovecraft, Morris, MacDonald, and Carroll, to name but eighteen of the literary sources. Moreover, Tolkien scholars tend to be generous with their insights, and this work is augmented by both published and private contributions from that community.
Rateliff began studying the Marquette Tolkien manuscripts in 1981, when he moved from Arkansas to Wisconsin. When he came to Milwaukee only a few scholars, including Richard West, this reviewer, and Taum Santoski, had perused the manuscripts.
Santoski and Rateliff worked together on what would become this book from 1987 to 1989. After Santoski died in 1991, Rateliff inherited the task and, after sixteen years of research and writing, completed the project. It was well worth the time spent on it.
The eclectic erudition of the notes and the commentary make this book indispensable to those who admire Tolkien and want a better understanding and appreciation of his efforts to perfect this story.
The great joy is the tale itself. Here is the adventure of Bilbo Baggins witnessed as it grew from seed to sprout to sapling to full and final splendor. Every reader who loves the familiar version will delight in The History of the Hobbit’s exegesis. With fluent expression and revelatory insight that deepens and broadens our appreciation of The Hobbit, John Rateliff has enhanced the magnificence of Middle-earth.