Interview with John Rateliff
The publication, in 2007, of The History of The Hobbit by John Rateliff marked one of the most significant contributions to JRR Tolkien scholarshipsince Christopher Tolkien’s The History of Middle-earth.
The History of The Hobbit examines the early drafts and writing of The Hobbit, with further commentary and annotation by Rateliff. The books are currently available in hardcover.
John Rateliff is a well-known fantasy scholar who has published many scholarly articles on JRR Tolkien, Lord Dunsany, dragons, and much more.
Hi John. Tell us a little bit about the The History of The Hobbit. How did the project begin? Did you undertake research on your own or were you commissioned for the project?
I was already investigating the origins of The Hobbit, and its links to the mythology, as far back as the mid-80s, as part of a general study of Tolkien’s manuscripts I began in the fall of 1981, when I arrived at Marquette to begin work on my doctorate. I did a presentation on the topic at the 1987 Hobbit Workshop in London and again at that year’s Mythcon in Milwaukee where, among other things, I pointed out how strongly the Wilderland Map in The Hobbit resembles a reversed copy of the Beleriand map in The Silmarillion (as an example of how, consciously or not, Tolkien constantly reused creative material).
At about that same time (1986–87), Christopher Tolkien was beginning his work on that section of The History of Middle-earth series dealing with The Lord of the Rings manuscripts and had to make the decision whether or not to include The Hobbit. He ultimately decided not to, mainly I think because he accepted Carpenter’s account in Tolkien: A Biography that The Hobbitmanuscript differed little from the published version and, more importantly, had little or no connection with the legendarium when it was written. Taum and I made the case that The Hobbit manuscript was indeed worth publishing, so he allowed us to go ahead with the project. Of course none of us at the time knew the form it would ultimately take, or how long it would be before it was finished.
I understand that outside of Taum Santoski’s early contributions, this was essentially a one-man project. Did you consult much with other noted Tolkien scholars and scholarly works?
I noted multiple references, throughout the text, to Douglas A. Anderson’s indispensable The Annotated Hobbit. What other texts were important?
Yes, I availed myself of other’s expertise time and time again throughout the project — Doug’s unparalleled knowledge of The Hobbit’s publication history, Wayne Hammond’s bibliographical expertise, Christina Scull’s biographical research, David Salo’s mastery of Tolkien’s invented languages, Arden Smith’s knowledge of Tolkien’s invented scripts, Verlyn Flieger’s insights into real-world mythologies, &c.; &c.; I’ve tried to acknowledge specific debts in the notes, but I owe a lot to those who read and critiqued various sections, answered questions, corrected mistakes, and just generally acted as sounding boards.
Doug, Taum, and I actually talked at the beginning of the project to see if we could make it a three-way collaboration, but his work on what became The Annotated Hobbit was already underway and differed so much from what we wanted to do that they were clearly distinct, though complementary, projects. Personally, I view his (excellent) book and mine as bookends: Doug covers everything that happened to The Hobbit from the time of its first publication, and I tell the story of everything that led up to that moment.
One thing that really stood out in your scholarship was a deep knowledge of Tolkien’s sources, both mythological and pre-Tolkienian fantasy (William Morris, Dunsany, etc…). Is this the primary field of your expertise?
Aside from being a Tolkienist my primary focus is the history of fantasy literature. My dissertation, for example, is on Lord Dunsany, the most influential fantasy writer of the first half of the twentieth century, just as Tolkien was of the second half. My original dissertation proposal, which was not approved by the committee, was a study of the emergence of fantasy as a modern literary genre, focusing particularly on the roles played by Morris, MacDonald, Yeats, Dunsany, and Tolkien. And of course you can’t understand invented mythologies without knowing the real thing, particularly those that most influenced the writers inventing those latter-day fantasy mythologies (in Tolkien’s case, Norse/Old English and Celtic, but also to a lesser degree Finnish, Roman, Egyptian, Christian apocryphal traditions, &c;).
I should probably note that aside from my work on The Hobbit I also had an online column that ran to about nineteen installments called ‘Classics of Fantasy’, in each installment of which I focused on a work that I consider a masterpiece of the genre; I’m planning to revive this series at some point to cover more works I didn’t get to in its first incarnation.
The History of The Hobbit was nearly twenty years from start to finish. There was, undoubtably, an immense volume of writings to sort through and organize. You also mention in the introduction the extreme difficulty of Tolkien’s handwriting. Did you ever despair of this project? And has it given you a greater appreciation of Christopher Tolkien’s “literary archeology” published in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle-earth?
I was determined to see it through, however long it took, as had earlier been the case with my doctorate. That said, I was indeed concerned over how long the project took as year by year passed without its being done. This was partly because I was trying to do it in my ‘spare time’ after a more-than-full-time job. It was also due to the fact that I’m a slow writer: I do a vast amount of research on each point, much of which ultimately doesn’t pan out and doesn’t wind up going into the final work. And, since I’m something of a perfectionist, each section went through multiple drafts as I tried to make it as well-written as I possibly could. All this takes time.
My admiration for Christopher’s work has grown and grown as I’ve come to appreciate more and more the vast amount of time that goes into his sorting through and organizing the manuscripts into their proper sequence, choosing which to print, transcribing the text, editing it, and adding his entertaining and erudite commentary. All this while producing in some cases five hundred or so pages of densely-packed, highly readable text on a yearly basis. Amazing man; it’s simply impossible to overstate how much we owe to him.
You make the argument (or at least raise the possibility) that Tolkien knowingly set The Hobbit in his created realm of Middle-earth right from the very beginning.
This is contrary to popular belief and Tolkien’s own stated motives. But your opinion certainly has some basis in the early drafts. There were more references to the “Silmarillion mythology” in the early drafts than appeared in the finished novel.
Do you really believe that Tolkien knowingly set the novel in Middle-earth, or was he just “borrowing” bits and pieces from his previously-created stories?
I would say that Middle-earth was a more flexible concept at that point (circa 1930) than it later became. I also think a good case can be made that Tolkien may have intended it to be one-way borrowing—that is, that he could use elements from the legendarium in Bilbo’s story without bothering about the consequences to the Quenta, for example. The Hobbit’s very publication caused its allusions to the mythology to become fixed and canonical in a way they probably had not been until that point.
But in the final analysis, the allusions are there, and the manuscript proves they were there from the very inception, not added in later. So any account of The Hobbit’s relationship to the mythology as a whole has to take that into account, not dismiss them as casual. And of course I try to point out deeper affinities between Bilbo’s world and that of the legendarium, such as the fact that the enemies Thorin & Company encounter tend to all have been minions of Morgoth and his allies in The Book of Lost Tales (the ‘children of Morgoth’). Finally, there’s Tolkien’s letter to The Observer, written about six months after The Hobbit was first published, in which he flatly stated that “My tale is not consciously based on any other book—save one, and that is unpublished: the ‘Silmarillion’, a history of the Elves, to which frequent allusion is made.” (Letters of JRR Tolkien, page 31).
Tolkien is often harried by critics for his anachronistic style. They see this as simply “bad writing”. But when we have a chance to look at early drafts and the development of a text, we see that Tolkien does exactly what he means to do stylistically. He chooses his words with care and deliberately chooses an anti-modern prose style that suits the works. Has this study given you any new insight on Tolkien the writer?
First, I’d point out that those critics are quite wrong: most of Tolkien’s prose is written in ordinary modern English without any overt anachronisms at all. In those cases where he does use anachronisms it’s very clear he has a specific reason for doing so, just as if another writer had a character speaking in dialect. A critic can object to such departures from the norm on principle, but I think that’s willfully misapplying Ezra Pound’s dictum to avoid worn-out ‘poetic’ diction (which Pound himself had the good sense to allow exceptions from in his own work, such as some of the final Cantos).
I agree with your point that publications of Tolkien’s drafts helps us appreciate just how careful and painstaking an author he was, willing to re-write a text as many times as it took to get it exactly right. As for new insights, I think I came to understand the rhythms that dominated Tolkien’s writing habits much better over the time I worked on this project. I’d begun by accepting Carpenter’s depiction of Tolkien as a methodical writer who worked away at his stories night after night, which did not match well with Carpenter’s simultaneous portrayal of him as dilatory and procrastinating, arbitrarily abandoning projects without apparent cause. Ultimately I think I’ve been able to show that instead Tolkien wrote in short, concentrated bursts, mainly over vacations between school terms, with long periods where works lay quiescent between such ‘stages’.
He was also, although I did not go into this in my book, a very busy man who habitually overcommitted to multiple projects at once,* which prevented him from completing and publishing as much as he would have had he been a more compartmentalized writer — but the intermingling and overlap of projects also stirred his creativity and gave him inspiration as a writer and insight as a scholar (cf. Letters page 105).**
*Same time he was writing The Hobbit he was also working with ‘The Lay of Leithian’, the 1930 Quenta, the Earliest Annals, possibly Farmer Giles of Ham and/or Mr. Bliss, in addition to his ongoing academic work (translating Beowulf, giving lectures, writing articles), his heavy administration duties (e.g., proposing a new syllabus for Oxford’s English School, supervising theses), his time spent with his family (he preferred to give tutorials at home so he could spend more time between students with Edith and the children), and moonlighting (grading examination papers for other universities).
Just during 1936–37, in addition to revising The Hobbit for publication and seeing it through into print (and illustrating the work, and designing the dustjacket, and drawing and re-drawing the maps), he worked on The Lost Road, his famous Beowulf essay, editions of Pearl and ‘The Seafarer’ and ‘The Wanderer’, the 1937 ‘Quenta Silmarillion’, the ‘Later Annals’, the revised and expanded Farmer Giles of Ham, and other projects.
**‘I have been getting a lot of new ideas about Prehistory lately (via Beowulf and other sources of which I may have written) and want to work them into the long shelved time-travel story I began.’ [i.e., ‘The Lost Road’; this renewed inspiration ultimately led to ‘The Notion Club Papers’]