In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
During the hot summer of 1930, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien penned this first line to what would later become one of the most universally loved children’s books of all time.
But The Hobbit very nearly disappeared into complete obscurity among hundreds of Tolkien’s notes, poems and other writings he was working on. If it hadn’t been for a pushy friend in C. S. Lewis, and a literary agent stumbling across the novel by chance, then the book wouldn’t have seen the light of day and Tolkien would have never become the household name he is today.
Tolkien, Lewis and another friend in Hugo Dyson, plus many other Oxford University academics, all met to form the literary group ‘The Inklings’ at The Eagle and Child pub, Oxford. It was after one night when the three friends were locked in a heated debate about myth and Christianity that ideas for The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia were first conceived.
Tolkien was wary of his own literary standing in society, having only translated the tale ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ from Latin as well as penning a couple of essays, which made him nervous and very critical of his own work. From writing that first line of The Hobbit in 1930, seven years would go by until the novel’s publication. Tolkien was infamous at writing in short stints, with years spanning between them. He regularly went hot and cold on the book and originally intended for it to be a bedtime story for his children.
Lewis read manuscripts of the book every so often, but Tolkien would always react badly to criticism of the book, making him lose confidence in the whole project. Luckily, Lewis was a persistent fellow who regularly pushed Tolkien to keep writing.
Tolkien had written the entire book in under three years but only kept it for his children. He didn’t even consider taking it to a publisher until a former student of Tolkien’s, Elaine Griffiths, came across it and twisted his arm into submitting it to the publishing house Allen & Unwin.
The book was a tremendous success in its first year of publication. There were reservations at first, though, as Tolkien’s intentions for it to be a children’s story was met with much scepticism. His agent, Stanley Unwin, gave it to his ten year-old son Rayner to read and asked for a short review. Rayner wrote:
“Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who lived in his hobbit-hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his dwarves perswaded him to go. He had a very exciting time fighting goblins and wargs, at last they got to the lonley mountain: Smaug, the dragon who gawreds it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home – rich! This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.”
This gave all the encouragement Unwin needed to go ahead and publish the book. Today the book remains a children’s favourite due to its emotional depth and acknowledgement of the absurdity of Bilbo’s quest, which lends the book a humorous element.
The characters are so rich, too. In the ‘Riddles in the Dark’ chapter, where we meet Gollum for the first time, the reader can’t help but feel a sense of attachment to such a wretched creature, even though he wants to eat our hero if he beats him in a battle of wit. Gandalf is the fatherly figure to the entire franchise, not just The Hobbit, whose wise wizardry and guardianship of the adventurers is our way into the mystique of Middle Earth.
The book celebrated its 75th anniversary this year, and with the first installment of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster The Hobbit trilogy released this week, Tolkien’s work is set to be an indispensable part of childhood for many years to come.