Ever since I'd heard that September 16 to September 22 was Tolkien Week, I'd been wanting to do, or write up, something special. I had contemplated reading The Hobbit again. However, finding myself not in the mood for it I decided to post a little something about it instead. What I am about to write is not a summary of or my reaction to the said novel, but rather a glimpse behind the working of The Hobbit. What was the original purpose of The Hobbit and how it finally led to it's overwhelming sequel, The Lord of the Rings. All of my facts and information I draw from the letters of the author himself, J R R Tolkien. My source is The Letters of J R R Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien.
Dates and initial target audience.
Something interesting I came across almost as soon as I began researching The Hobbit…it was first published on 21 September 1937. Not something that would have struck me before except that both 21 and 22 September are considered the birth day of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins (The American Tolkien Society). As you might or might not know, Tolkien had first written this story of a hobbit to amuse his children. Having had it approved by friends, though, he dicided to publish it. Tolkien writes about his children's reaction to it when refuting that his novel was meant for the 'nursery': …is the age-implication right? I should have said 'the nursery' ended about 8 when children go forth to school. That is too young. My eldest boy was thirteen when he heard the serial. It did not appeal to the younger ones who had to grow up to it successively. (Letter #15)
When asked about the whole episode wbout the theft Tolkien admits to being greatly influenced by Beowulf and other myths and legends but…: As for the rest of the tale it is…derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story…Beowulf is among my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing, in which the episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at that point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same. (Letter #25)
A little more on hobbits and their geographic location
Readers of The Hobbit wondered if these little, furry-footed creatures were influenced by some African pigmy tribe. Another reader recalled having read a fairy story on a hobbit that was a horror. Tolkien is very clear that while there might be a homophonic accident in terms of the name, he did not derive this race from any living peoples he knew or from any other story. He says of Bilbo: He was a prosperous, well-fed young bachelor of independent means…His feet,IMF conveniently clad and shod by nature, were as elegant as his long, clever fingers. (Ibid) He also talks of the hobbits only lived in The Wild, and they were mostly unaware of their location. (I could pull out more on this from the appendices of my copy of The Lord of the Rings, unfortunately my copy is with a friend right now.)
In another letter, when asked to describe Bilbo for the purpose of illustration Tolkien says: I picture a fairly human figure, not a kind of 'fairy' rabbit as some of my British reviewers seem to fancy: fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg. A round, jovial face; ears only slightly pointed and 'elvish'; hair short and curling (brown). The feet from the ankles down, covered with brown hairy fur. Clothing: green velvet breeches; red or yellow waist-coat; brown or green jacket; gold (or brass) buttons; a dark green hood and cloak (belonging to a dwarf). [...] Actual size — only important if other objects are in picture — say about three or three feet six inches. (Ah! Really miss my copy of LotR! There are more details on height there. At this point in time, in Tolkien's letters, he is just getting this race together, in a manner of speaking.) He continues: There is in the text no mention of his acquiring boots. There should be! It has dropped out somehow or other in the various revisions — the bootings occurred at Rivendell; and he was again bootlegs after leaving Rivendell on the way home. But since leathery soles, and well-brushed furry feet are a feature of essential hobbitness, he ought really to appear unbooted, except in special illustrations of episodes. (Letter #27)
The beginning of the sequel that will come to be known as The Lord of the Rings
Tolkien had never intended to go any further than The Hobbit. It was sort of like a side project for him. His heart was really in The Silmarillion (that was published post-humously). He had created the world of Middle-earth where elves were a dominating race, and the philologist in him was already well into creating the elven and dwarvish languages. It had pleased him that he was able to incorporate a wee bit of this world into The Hobbit, but it had never occurred to him to take this story any further. He writes to his publisher: …the original Hobbit was never intended to have a sequel — Bilbo 'remained very happy to the end of his days and those were extraordinarily long': a sentence I find an almost insuperable obstacle to a satisfactory link. (Letter #31) To readers of the sequel we know how exactly Tolkien was to use those 'extraordinarily long' days to work out the next plot.
Tolkien found himself thawing to the idea of a sequel when his daughter longed to know more of the Tooks (a wealthy hobbit family from whom the foolish yet adorable Peregrine Took of The Lord of the Rings is a direct descendant and Bilbo and Frodo are strongly connected to), and a reader was eager for more details on Gandalf and the Necromancer (Sauron of the sequel).
By Letter #34 we see that Tolkien is having trouble maintaining the tone of The Hobbit in the sequel. He writes: …it was running its course, and forgetting 'children', and was becoming more terrifying than the Hobbit. It may prove quite unsuitable. It is more 'adult' — but my children who criticise it as it appears are no older. …The darkness of the present days (this was written on 13 October 1938) has had some effect on it. Tolkien is quick to state, however that it is not an 'allegory'.
Four months later Tolkien is twelve chapters into the sequel when he writes to his publisher again saying that The Lord of the Rings: is in itself a good deal better than The Hobbit, but it may not prove a very fit sequel. It is more grown up — but the audience for which The Hobbit was written has done that also. The readers young and old who clamoured for 'more about the Necromancer' are to blame, for the N. is not child's play. Tolkien assures Unwin, his publisher, in a footnote that there are more hobbits and dwarves, and Gollum makes a major appearance, not to mention that Gandalf is pretty much in the forefront.
And so begins the epic journey of Frodo and the One Ring to the fires of Mount Doom.