The History of The Hobbit, edited by Tolkien scholar John D. Rateliff, explores the early drafts of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, offering for the first time a glimpse at the writing process of one of the most beloved books of the twentieth century.
So what makes this new? Hasn’t basically everything that Tolkien wrote during his lifetime already been published? Not really.
Christopher Tolkien, JRR Tolkien’s son and literary executor, has gone to great lengths to provide an exhaustive compilation of his father’s unpublished writings through The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and especially the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth.
Volumes VI through IX of The History of Middle-earth (known as The History of ‘The Lord of the Rings’) concentrated on the early drafts and writing of The Lord of the Rings, with running commentary by Christopher Tolkien.
JRR Tolkien, however, sold many of his original manuscripts (including those of The Hobbit) to Marquette University, Milwaukee, in 1957.
With all of The Hobbit manuscripts residing at Marquette, Christopher Tolkien made no attempts to compile and publish those writings.
Tolkien scholar Taum Santoski began the process, during the mid-1980’s, of organizing and collecting the early ‘Hobbit’ manuscripts. But Mr. Santoski passed away early in the process and the work passed to John D. Rateliff.
Rateliff spent the next twenty years working on the project, organizing, researching, and compiling the various handwritten manuscripts, typescripts, and maps of The Hobbit from the collection at Marquette.
The final result is a two-volume study of these early drafts, complete with detailed commentary, released in the UK in May 2007 and in the US in September 2007.
The History of The Hobbit is broken into two volumes:
Mr. Baggins covers approximately the first half of the published novel and Return to Bag-End covers the second half.
Despite the complicated history of these volumes, the text itself is surprisingly readable (far more so, I believe, than Christopher Tolkien’s History of ‘The Lord of the Rings’) mainly because of its overall organization.
The History of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is very fragmentary and disorganized. This is not a slight against Christopher Tolkien’s editorial abilities, but a reference to the complication of the early Lord of the Rings manuscripts.
The History of The Hobbit is much more linear in structure, meaning that it can be read, even in its early drafts, as a “story”. The early Lord of the Rings manuscripts often stop mid-sentence, backtrack, and create a general tangle.
In spite of later changes to the narrative, The History of The Hobbit holds together as a piece, and the editorial commentary occurs at the end of chapters, rather than breaking in amongst the text. This gives the piece an excellent flow and makes for far less difficult reading.
The editorial detail is highly detailed and fascinating. Rateliff’s knowledge of Tolkien’s other writings is impeccable, as is his research on the various references and sources for the book.
The books feature a very detailed step-by-step examination of Tolkien’s sources and the many scholarly and mythological texts that inspired parts of the storyline.
This is a readable and highly-suggested book for anyone interested in the history of The Hobbit, the creative process Tolkien used to write the story, and particularly how The Hobbit ties in with the rest of Tolkien’s “Legendarium”.
Click on either of the links below to read a more detailed review of each volume of The History of The Hobbit or an exclusive interview with the author.