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Writing and Publishing The Hobbit


The Hobbit was originally told to Tolkien's sons as as bedtime story. Pictured: Christopher Tolkien

Tolkien began the story of The Hobbit, “Purely for my own amusement,” according to Carter’s biography. In Michael C. Drout’s lectures on fantasy from the Modern Scholar series, he mentions that one of Tolkien’s original motivations for writing the story down might have been due to his sons.

At night, before bed, he would give tell them the story. But occasionally he would get a detail wrong–the color of one of the dwarves’ tassels, for instance–and his kids would call him on it. So, fastidious stickler that he was, he wrote things to down to get the details consistent.

It doesn’t seem to be disputed by anyone that Hobbit was begun in the early 1930s, was worked on or thought about sporadically over the next few years, and was in September of 1937.

Sequel! Sequel! Sequel!

I have spent a lot of the past year interacting closely with a literary agent and an editor, so the story about Tolkien’s publishers wanting a sequel to The Hobbit makes me laugh, because I feel like I can sort of picture their reaction.

Hobbit was so well-received that if you had benefited financially from it, like the publishing house did, the thought of a marketing push that led into a continuation of the adventures of Bilbo and Company would have had you slavering.

So picture your reaction when Tolkien acquiesces and presents you with draft material from  The Silmarillion.

You’ve just come off the feel-good quest, the dragon is slain, and it’s time to send Bilbo or some other hobbits off on another adventure, and then suddenly you’re reading this:

There was Eru, The One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar; and he first made the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music…

Where are the Hobbits? Not on page one, or two, or two hundred, and so on.

Now, I quite like The Silmarillion, and there’s nothing wrong with this paragraph above, but it could read less like The Hobbit.

Tolkien could make a strong case for calling it a sequel, prequel, both, etc, but he was invested in the creation of an entire mythology and publishers were not able to pretend that the public would be tossing dollars in the air and trampling each other to get their hands on what many have called the Elvish Bible.

All right, that’s it for today.

Tomorrow we’ll talk briefly about one crucial revision to Hobbit that came later, and discuss some of the different themes that scholars have pulled out of the book.


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  • Heather September 8, 2011, 6:42 am

    I tried to read The Silmarillion in high school, and again in college. I find that, much like other creation mythologies and books of mythology, it’s best if you see it more as a collection of mythos tales and legends than reading it straight through. Though I loved the name Giladriel, I’d never saddle a kid with that moniker, not so much because of Tolkein, but because of Katherine Paterson’s YA classic, The Great Gilly Hopkins. Gilly was named after Giladriel, but she had a less than stellar, Tolkein-esque life. For a girl with a beautiful name, she led a rather harsh and ugly existence.