Some Very Brief Background on What Led to Bilbo The Hobbit

by Josh Hanagarne on September 2, 2011

Tolkien biography

Carpenter's biography of Tolkien. I never think he looks comfortable when he's sitting in these pictures.

Okay, yesterday we talked about how we all get introduced to Tolkien’s work. Today I’m going to give you a few snippets of background on Tolkien and the book that would become The Hobbit. I’ve decided that to make this series as digestible as possible, I’m going to be writing more short posts, vs fewer long ones that try to be comprehensive.

I’m going to quoting frequently in this series from Humphrey Carpenters’s J.R.R. Tolkien, a Biography.

Starting now. Tolkien himself had this to say about hobbits:

I am in fact a hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plan food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats; I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); havea a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome; I go to bed late and get up late (when possible).  I do not travel much. (179-180)

Other than being really short and having hairy feet, that paragraph sums up Hobbits as well as anything else I’ve read. Tolkien also states on the same page that Hobbits are simply “Rustic English folk.” We’ll be getting into his ideas about creating a mythology specifically for England later on; the theme comes up over and over.

The word Hobbit

I’ve found a couple of different version of this story.

On a blank leaf I scrawled “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” I did not and do now know why. (Carter, 181)

In Carter’s account, it’s not told exactly what Tolkien was doing when this happened. Most other sources I’ve read refer to him correcting academic papers or creating school certificates when he suddenly found a blank page in the middle of the stack. And onto that page went the line. And out of that line came…well, you know. Lots.

When we really start talking about the mythology, we’re going to see that Tolkien viewed himself not as a creator, but as a sort of archaeologist or discoverer. In all the literature I’ve read about him, he is more likely to write something and then say “I have to figure out why it is this way,” rather than “I wonder if this is how it should go?”

But not always. But now I’m already starting to get ahead of myself.

The Hobbit was begun as another amusement for Tolkien. It wasn’t a completely smooth process, however. In the next post we’re going to take a look at when the book was officially started, some of the hiccups along the way to completion and publication, and how the public received it.


 

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Pieter Collier September 2, 2011 at 10:21 am

There is a video where Tolkien describes how the Hobbit started: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2HGP9IfneY

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Pieter Collier September 2, 2011 at 10:26 am

Let me throw in some extra background info:

In a 1955 letter to W. H. Auden (see Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien), Tolkien recollects in the late 1920s, when he was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, he began The Hobbit when he was marking School Certificate papers. On the back of one of the papers, he wrote the words “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit”.

He did not go any further then that at the time, although in the following years he drew up Thror’s map, outlining the geography of the tale. The tale itself he wrote in the early 1930s, and it was eventually published because he lent it to to some people outside of the family, including C.S. Lewis, Elaine Griffiths, the Reverend Mother St. Teresa Gale (the Mother Superior at Cherwell Edge, a convent of the Order of the Holy Child Jesus), and one child, a girl of twelve or thirteen, presumably Aileen Jennings, the older sister of the poet Elizabeth Jennings, whose family was friends with the Tolkiens, who encouraged him to finish the book.

Finally it was seen by the 10-year old son of Sir Stanley Unwin, Rayner Unwin, who wrote such an enthusiastic review of the book that it was published by Allen & Unwin.

When 10-year-old Rayner Unwin produced this report for his father (and was paid a shilling for his efforts), publisher Stanley Unwin, he had no idea that the manuscript would go on to be a remarkable success. Neither did its author, J.R.R.Tolkien, Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, when, inexplicably, he jotted the famous opening sentence – ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’ – on a blank sheet while examining papers!

Yet, within a year of its publication, The Hobbit had won the New York Herald Tribune prize for children’s literature and was set to become a classic.

First published on 21st September 1937, The Hobbit is now recognized as an international bestseller!

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Josh Hanagarne September 3, 2011 at 9:36 am

Thanks Peter. Would you be interested in writing a “the least you need to know about Tolkien and Philology post?”

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Pieter Collier September 3, 2011 at 10:24 am

Oh Josh… how I wished I had time to work on that topic right now, sadly I have too much to do for work this week so will keep following for now and see what I can contribute later this month! Hope to put up a small article about Tolkien month over here at my website this weekend!

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Josh Hanagarne September 3, 2011 at 11:06 am

Sigh…as long as you hang around and clean up my errors, I suppose I can live with that.

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Pieter Collier September 4, 2011 at 3:32 pm

i’ll be around… and have just invited over some other Tolkien fans by writing about Tolkien month… it might be a good idea to throw a message to some other Tolkien websites and invite all over! The more of us the more fun!

Heather September 6, 2011 at 10:40 am

I too enjoy wearing ornamental waistcoats! And I LOVE plain food! Makes me wonder if maybe Hobbits aren’t a little bit hillbilly, too, except underground instead of o’er-top of it. You know who else was havily influenced by Tolkein’s works–Led Zeppelin. :)

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