The History of the Hobbit – John Rateliff

The History of the Hobbit by John D. Rateliff, J.R.R. Tolkien
Also by this author: The Battle of Maldon: Together with the Homecoming of Beorhtnoth
Published by William Morrow on May 16, 2023
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction, Tolkien
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In one volume for the first time, this revised and updated examination of how J.R.R. Tolkien came to write his original masterpiece The Hobbit includes his complete unpublished draft version of the story, together with notes and illustrations by Tolkien himself.

The Hobbit was first published on September 21,1937. Like its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, it is a story that "grew in the telling," and many characters and plot threads in the published text are quite different from the story J.R.R. Tolkien first wrote to read aloud to his young sons as one of their "fireside reads."

Together in one volume, The History of the Hobbit presents the complete text of the unpublished manuscript of The Hobbit, accompanied by John Rateliff’s lively and informative account of how the book came to be written and published. Recording the numerous changes made to the story both before and after publication, he examines—chapter by chapter—why those changes were made and how they reflect Tolkien’s ever-growing concept of Middle-earth.

As well as reproducing the original version of one of the world’s most popular novels—both on its own merits and as the foundation for The Lord of the Rings—this book includes many little-known illustrations and draft maps for The Hobbit by Tolkien himself. Also featured are extensive commentaries on the dates of composition, how Tolkien’s professional and early mythological writings influenced the story, the imaginary geography he created, and how Tolkien came to revise the book years after publication to accommodate events in The Lord of the Rings.

Endorsed by Christopher Tolkien as a companion to his essential 12-volume The History of Middle-earth, this thoughtful and exhaustive examination of one of the most treasured stories in English literature offers fascinating new insights for those who have grown up with this enchanting tale, and will delight any who are about to enter Bilbo’s round door for the first time.

The History of the Hobbit is a massive work. At nearly one thousand pages and almost three inches thick, John Rateliff’s work of literary archaeology stands alone—literally and figuratively. Originally published in 2007 as a two-volume work, The History of the Hobbit traces Tolkien’s journey from the first sentence of The Hobbit scrawled on a bit of paper through all the various name, plot, and stylistic changes that developed both pre- and post-publication. In 2011, those two volumes were revised, expanded, and updated into a one-volume edition, which has now been given a new cover and reprinted in 2023.

The first thing I should comment on in Rateliff’s methodology. Following Christopher Tolkien’s example in The History of Middle Earth, Rateliff errs on the side of leaving too much in. Speaking of Christopher Tolkien, The History of the Hobbit comes vetted by the man himself, who saw it a worthy companion to his own extensive attempts to chronicle JRR Tolkien’s work. Each chapter begins with a headnote by Rateliff, followed by a piece of The Hobbit, then a tailnote by Rateliff. After this comes text notes discussing difficult readings, various changes made between manuscript, typescript, and published versions; Rateliff’s commentary on the topics arising out of the chapter; and then concluding with notes on that commentary. If it sounds like a lot, it’s because it is.

Rateliff writes in the introduction that he attempted to keep his commentary typographically distinct from Tolkien’s work. This is accomplished in The History of the Hobbit by using smaller text for the commentary and larger text for story proper. While this does a bit of the work, I think more could have been done to delineate the structure and create better narrative flow between The Hobbit and its commentary.  Some of the notes would have been integrated better as footnotes. Others could have been inserted into the commentary rather than as endnotes which aren’t truly endnotes. This is not Rateliff’s fault and I’m sure that much of what would have made the book more easily readable would also have expanded its size.

The bulk of The History of the Hobbit is dedicated to the pre-publication Hobbit. Rateliff divides the book Five Phases: The First Phase is divided into “The Pryftan Fragment,” so named because Pryftan is the original name Tolkien gave Smaug the dragon, and “The Bladorthin Typescript,” so named because Bladorthin is original name of Gandalf. (The name Gandalf originally being for Thorin.) These sections set up the history of the book—when Tolkien began to write and what his original idea looked like.

Phase Two begins a different and later manuscript but continues its way through the first draft narrative. This phase is the longest, taking the reader from about Bilbo’s encounter with the trolls all the way to the siege of the mountain. Here, Rateliff gets into a bit of a stride and the book’s pacing and readability quickens. The commentary sections are structured as essays, so my advice would actually be to utilize this book as a reference tool rather than reading it alongside the first draft—or any published version of The Hobbit. That, to me, seems simpler and allows for both Rateliff’s work and Tolkien’s first draft to not lose focus to the other.

Phase Three takes readers from King Bard through to the end of the story. This text began with the creation of the First Typescript, where Tolkien returned to the beginning and reworked and polished everything he’d written previously. Interestingly, The History of the Hobbit is able to refute the popular notion that Tolkien stopped work on The Hobbit for a period of years and nearly gave it up. This notion, first printed in Humphrey Carpenter’s seminal biography of Tolkien, is the common one repeated over and over again, but Rateliff’s examination of Tolkien’s drafts shows that this isn’t really the case. Phase Three finishes off the story proper, incorporates all changes to the names and characters we know today, and serves as the basis for the first edition.

Because The History of the Hobbit is a work of literary archaeology and not literary history, Rateliff does not spend time on the publication of the first edition in 1937. I wish he had, if only to serve as a transition to Phases Four and Five. Instead, we skip publication and move into Phase Four—the 1947 second edition that substantially updated the work to better align with The Lord of the Rings. The differences between the first and second editions are intriguing. In the first edition, Gollum willingly gives Bilbo the ring (which was not already in its pocketses) and leads him out of the mountain. With The Lord of the Rings, Gollum’s role changes significantly and so must the story. Those interested in reading this first edition can either find one on eBay—if you’re willing to part with around $20,000—or there is a more recent facsimile first edition that will do the job as well. The second edition is the basis for today’s modern editions and Rateliff takes readers through the journey of altering what was already a classic in preparation for The Lord of the Rings. This section focuses on Tolkien’s own writing on the changes, as well as documenting what changes were made along with why. Hilariously, Rateliff shares an unpublished letter from Tolkien to a friend’s daughter saying “As for ‘the Hobbit’. There are a fair number of errors in it; and though I keep on sending corrections in to Allen & Unwin they don’t seem to get put right.”

The final phase of the book moves back from publication to speculation. Having substantially revised the book once after publication, and famously never being content to move on from his work (like most famous writers, it seems), in 1960 Tolkien began to work on another revision. This work was intended to rework The Hobbit into the larger Lord of the Rings story by making it align in tone, chronology, and style. Ultimately, Tolkien never completed this—a good thing in my reckoning, as the nature of the story as a children’s tale contains for me most of its allure. The History of The Hobbit documents some of these changes, a few of which did make into the 1966 third edition of the book. The final 150 pages of the book are appendices and index. The appendices include an attempt to derive the etymology of the word ‘hobbit,’ one of Tolkien’s letters to The Observer, a listing of the names of the dwarves, and other miscellanea.

Once again, The History of the Hobbit is a lot. It’s best chewed in small chunks over a period of time. I myself did a long and deep dive, reading a facsimile first edition, listening to the Andy Serkis audiobook version, and reading through The History of the Hobbit very closely. It’s not something I would do for just any book! My primary criticism is not in the book’s content, but its presentation. Rather than a reprint of the 2011 one-volume edition, I would rather have seen a division into two (or even three) volumes. This book is for the Tolkien collector and for those who interested in how great authors develop their work. Much of what Tolkien left for us in the form of scraps of writing, multiple typescripts, and so on simply doesn’t get left in the digital age. The History of the Hobbit shows readers the time, effort, and genius behind Tolkien’s most-celebrated work. Rateliff has accomplished the impossible, and while it’s not perfect—much like the book whose history it recounts, it’s a master-work.