75th Anniversary

Happy Birthday, ‘The Hobbit’: The History of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Book

It’s the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. Corey Olsen, author of the new book Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, tells us the history of how the story of Bilbo Baggins changed even after the book was published. Plus, see Tolkien’s beautiful illustrations for The Hobbit.

Haywood Magee / Getty Images

Let me give a brief overview of the history of Tolkien’s writing of The Hobbit. I think of the story of The Hobbit as developing in three different stages, which I call the Solo Stage, the Revision Stage, and the Assimilation Stage.

The Solo Stage

The Hobbit was published in England on Sept. 21, 1937, by George Allen and Unwin Ltd. Tolkien had published a few poems previously, but The Hobbit was his first big publication. For many years, this book was the only piece of literature that anyone associated with Tolkien, and it was so popular that Tolkien’s publishers pressed him to write a sequel. He began working on a second book, which was supposed to follow in The Hobbit’s footsteps, and he and his friends called it “The New Hobbit” for a while. The writing of the second book did not at all go according to the plan of either Tolkien or Allen and Unwin, however. What started as another short hobbit adventure story for children grew, eventually, into The Lord of the Rings.

I call this stage the Solo Stage because for years after its publication, what was printed in The Hobbit was all that readers knew about Middle-earth. I do not mean to suggest that it was the only story Tolkien was thinking about. The mythological stories of the ancient history of Middle-earth—the stories later developed, collected, and published as The Silmarillion—already existed in more than one draft, and it is fairly clear that Tolkien was connecting Bilbo’s story to that world when he was writing The Hobbit. But there were only a small handful of people who knew this; it would be decades before any more of the story of Middle-earth would be revealed. For the most part, what we can read between the covers of The Hobbit was all there was.

The Revision Stage

The Lord of the Rings may have begun as a sequel to The Hobbit, but before long it took Tolkien in quite a different direction. The new story did begin with a few story seeds harvested from The Hobbit, but they grew in surprising ways. For one thing, Tolkien found that the new book he was writing was no longer a children’s book; he was rather afraid that that alone would make it unsuitable as a sequel. More importantly, however, both the new story and the world it inhabited grew and expanded far beyond the scope of the story Tolkien had told in The Hobbit. Nowhere was this more evident than in the primary connection between The Hobbit and its sequel: Bilbo’s magic ring.

When Tolkien published The Hobbit, the ring was nothing but a magical ring of invisibility that Bilbo found on his journey. It was Gollum’s ring, but although it was Gollum’s greatest treasure, he was not originally enchanted or corrupted by it in any way. When Gollum proposes the riddle-game to Bilbo in The Hobbit, he tells Bilbo that he will give him a present—meaning the ring—if Bilbo wins. When Bilbo does win, Gollum finds himself stuck, for he only then realizes that he has lost his ring somewhere and now has no present that he can give to Bilbo. Gollum is extremely sorry, and he apologizes to Bilbo over and over again. Bilbo tells him that it is quite all right, and that Gollum can just show him the way out instead of giving him his prize. Bilbo is not entirely honest with Gollum here, for he has already guessed that the ring he found in the dark in the tunnel and which he has just lately rediscovered in his pocket is the very present that Gollum meant to give him, and thus he knows full well that he is getting a double reward. Bilbo is rather in a pinch, however, so it is hard to blame him too much. Gollum shows Bilbo to the exit, where Bilbo waves a cheerful goodbye to him, and the two go their separate ways. Throughout the rest of his adventure, Bilbo makes use of the magical ring, and it turns out to be just as useful as Gollum had told him it would be.

If that story sounds nothing like The Hobbit that you know, there’s a reason for that. The summary I just gave is of the story as it appeared in the first edition of The Hobbit in 1937; it is the original story of Bilbo, Gollum, and the ring. As Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings, however, he put Bilbo’s ring at the center of the story, deciding that it should turn out to be the Ring of Power, which the Dark Lord had lost. This choice, however, created a major inconsistency with Tolkien’s treatment of the ring in the first edition of The Hobbit, which was still in circulation. Bilbo’s use of the ring during the rest of the book could be made to fit the new conception of the Ring perfectly well, but the original version of the Gollum story and his cheerful willingness to give away the Ring was now utterly incompatible with the later story. In 1951, Allen and Unwin published a revised second edition of The Hobbit, into which Tolkien slipped a significantly altered version of the Gollum chapter. This later version is now the one that everyone reads, and the original version of the story has been mostly forgotten.

Keep in mind, however, that during what I am calling the Revision Stage The Lord of the Rings was still not published. When the revised edition of The Hobbit with its new “Baggins! We hates it forever!” version of Gollum was published in 1951, it was still the only story of Middle-earth available to the public. The revisions might have given some very attentive readers a hint about the direction in which Tolkien’s new, larger story was headed (if they had known he was still working on one, 10 years after The Hobbit’s publication), but they would still not have known much. The story people could read between the covers of The Hobbit had changed a little, but it was still all they had. The idea that Bilbo’s ring has evil powers which work to corrupt him is an idea that is outside the story of The Hobbit, even after it was revised.

The Assimilation Stage

The first volume of The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, was finally published in 1954, nearly 17 years after The Hobbit had first been received so gratefully by reading audiences around the world. Now, at last, readers were able to immerse themselves in the much longer story that had succeeded the short children’s book, and in the far more detailed world that Tolkien had developed during the long process of writing The Lord of the Rings. I call this stage the Assimilation Stage because in it Tolkien brings the story of The Hobbit, retroactively, to fit within the newer story that he had been writing and devising.

Tolkien had already revised The Hobbit to change the one element in it that could not be reconciled at all to the later story, and he now, through his new story, expanded on and developed many of the points from the original Hobbit. Gandalf had been in the dungeons of the Necromancer (when he met Thrain and got the key and map) because he was confirming that the Necromancer was really Sauron, taking shape in the world again after his defeat at the end of the Second Age. That also explained, of course, the move that the White Council made against Sauron to drive him from Mirkwood. The Wood-elves of Mirkwood received a more detailed history and even a few names, and the history of the Lonely Mountain—its settlement and its fall and re-establishment—was given its place in the larger story of Durin’s folk and the history of the mines of Moria, called by the dwarves Khazad-dûm.

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All of this wider story, not to mention the great story of the Ring of Power itself, was revealed in The Lord of the Rings and its long appendices. A long section of Appendix A, cut from the original publication, was later published in Unfinished Tales under the title “The Quest of Erebor.” That story had the fictional frame of a conversation between Gandalf and the remaining companions in Minas Tirith after the War of the Ring, and it gave Gandalf’s side of the whole Hobbit story, starting before his initial meeting with Thorin and describing what led up to the Unexpected Party at Bag-End.

So thorough was Tolkien’s assimilation of his earlier work that even the revision of The Hobbit itself was incorporated into the story. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf and Frodo talk about the fact that Bilbo’s book (published as The Hobbit) contained a false account of the story of his finding of the Ring. Gandalf explains that the Ring had already begun to take hold of Bilbo, and when he told the story in his book, he made up the part about being given the Ring by Gollum in order to bolster his personal claim to it. The “true” story, the revised version, was only discovered later, but copies of the original could still be found in circulation.

Excerpted from Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit by Corey Olsen. Copyright © 2012 by Corey Olsen. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.