On This Day

the hobbit, the hobbit tolkien, hobbit cover

On This Day: J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” Published

September 21, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Sept. 21, 1937, Tolkien’s novel first hit booksellers’ shelves, eventually becoming one of the most popular literary works of all time.

A Fantasy Phenomenon Is Born

J.R.R. Tolkien, an English professor at the University of Leeds, was grading test papers during the summer of 1928 when he scribbled the words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” on a student’s blank answer sheet.

“His effort to discover just what hobbits were and what they were like led him to write one of the most beloved books ever written, The Hobbit, an introduction to the world of Middle-earth,” says the Houghton Mifflin Company.

Tolkien worked on “The Hobbit” on and off through the early 1930s, sharing the manuscript with friends, including author C.S. Lewis. A friend of a student convinced the George Allen & Unwin publishing house to look at the book. Sir Stanley Unwin, the company chairman, gave the manuscript to his 10-year-old son to review in 1936.

“Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who lived in his hobbit-hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his dwarves persuaded him to go,” wrote young Raynor Unwin. “He had a very exciting time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they got to the lonely mountain: Smaug, the dragon who guards it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home—rich! This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations. It is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.”

The review convinced Stanley Unwin to publish the book. The first copies of “The Hobbit,” subtitled “There and Back Again,” appeared in English bookstores on Sept. 21, 1937. With its illustrations and maps drawn by Tolkien, the book gained immediate popularity.

By Christmas the publisher had sold out of its first printing of 1,500 copies. The book crossed the pond in 1938 and the American version sold 3,000 copies in the first two months.

Learning About Middle-Earth

In “The Hobbit,” Tolkien developed the intricate and fascinating world of Middle-earth, complete with its own species, rules of nature, languages and legends. The book’s main character, Bilbo Baggins, is a diminutive, hairy-footed homebody who is persuaded by a wizard named Gandalf to embark on a quest to kill a dragon in its mountain lair.

After the first book’s popularity, Tolkien’s publishers demanded more. They were forced to wait until 1954 and 1955, but their patience paid off. The popularity of the three-volume epic “The Lord of the Rings” far outpaced that of “The Hobbit.” After gaining wide appeal in the 1960s, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is ranked among the most-read literary works of the 20th century.

Adaptations of “The Hobbit”

Along with special editions, annotations and dictionaries, “The Hobbit” has been the subject of plays and many other multimedia adventures. In 1968, the BBC brought it to radio in an eight-part series.

An animated television movie debuted in 1977, although it is rather unpopular with Middle-Earth purists, due to deviations from the original plot. “The Hobbit” has also inspired various video games.

Peter Jackson, director of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, is currently shooting a two-part film adaptation of “The Hobbit” intended to be released in 2012 and 2013. The films will star Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines