The Hobbit is a fantasy novel written by J.R.R. Tolkien originally as a children's story in the tradition of the fairy tale. It was first published on September 21, 1937, and is now seen as a prelude to Tolkien's more monumental work The Lord of the Rings (published in 1954 and 1955.)
The story, subtitled "There and Back Again", follows the adventures of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins as he travels across the lands of Middle-earth with a band of Dwarves and a wizard named Gandalf on a quest to restore a dwarven kingdom and a great treasure stolen by the dragon, Smaug.
Tolkien recollects in a 1955 letter to W. H. Auden (Letters, no. 163) that, in the late 1920s, when he was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, The Hobbit began when he was marking School Certificate papers, on the back of one of which he wrote the words "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit". He did not go any further than that at the time, although in the following years he drew up Thror's map, outlining the geography of the tale. The tale itself he wrote in the early 1930s, and it was eventually published because he lent it to the Reverend Mother of Cherwell Edge when she was sick with the flu; while the Reverend Mother was in possession of the manuscript, it was seen by the 10-year old son of Sir Stanley Unwin, Rayner Unwin, who wrote such an enthusiastic review of the book that it was published by Allen and Unwin.
Tolkien introduced or mentioned characters and places that figured prominently in his legendarium, specifically Elrond and Gondolin, along with elements from Germanic legend. But the decision that the events of The Hobbit could belong to the same universe as The Silmarillion was made only after successful publication, when the publisher asked for a sequel. Accordingly, The Hobbit serves both as an introduction to Middle-Earth and as a link between earlier and later events described in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, respectively.
It has been suggested that The Hobbit can be read as a Bildungsroman in which Bilbo matures from an initially insular, superficial, and rather ineffectual person to one who is versatile, brave, self-sufficient, and relied-upon by others when they are in need of assistance. Some have compared his development to the theories of Joseph Campbell on myth and, in particular, the journey of the epic hero. However, Tolkien himself probably did not intend the book to be read in this way. In the foreword to The Lord of the Rings he writes, "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence." He further claimed that The Lord of the Rings is "neither allegorical nor topical", and it seems safe to assume that The Hobbit was written with the same caveats. The judgement of Bilbo as "superficial" and "ineffectual" seems harsh since he was, according to Tolkien, rather typical of hobbits in general.
Although a fairytale, the novel is both complex and sophisticated: it contains many names and words derived from Norse mythology, and central plot elements from the Beowulf epic, it makes use of Anglo-Saxon runes, information on calendars and moon phases, and detailed geographical descriptions that fit well with the accompanying maps. Near the end, the tale takes on epic proportions.
Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, is smoking in his porchway one day when Gandalf the Wizard visits him. After a lengthy discussion, during which Bilbo uses the phrase "Good Morning" several times, in several different ways, Bilbo, finding himself flustered, invites Gandalf to tea, and goes back inside his hobbit hole with a final "Good Morning". Gandalf scratches a secret mark on Bilbo's front door, which translated means 'Burglar wants a good job, plenty of excitement and reasonable reward'. Thirteen Dwarves (Thorin Oakenshield, Oin, Gloin, Dwalin, Balin, Bifur, Kili, Fili, Bofur, Dori, Bombur, Nori, and Ori) show up and begin excitedly discussing their planned treasure hunt while the hapless Bilbo provides the obligatory hospitality. After the dwarves clean up their mess, a map is produced and Gandalf arranges for Bilbo to get the burglary job—as well as to break the unlucky number 13. The company's quest: kill Smaug, the dragon who seized the Lonely Mountain (Erebor) from the Dwarves' forefathers, and, using a secret door into the mountain, recapture it, dividing the riches within its halls.
The next morning, after oversleeping and nearly missing the start of the journey, Bilbo goes off with the Dwarves. They are nearly eaten by three trolls, but Gandalf tricks the trolls into staying up all night whereupon they are turned into stone by the first light of dawn. (The stone trolls appear later in The Lord of the Rings.) In the troll's cave they find some swords. Bilbo acquires Sting, which glows blue in the presence of goblins (another name for Orcs).
The party travels to Rivendell where they enjoy the hospitality of the Elves, then proceed eastwards towards the Misty Mountains. There they are ambushed by goblins (Orcs), and carried under the mountain. They run away, and during the escape Bilbo loses the Dwarves. Alone in the dark after running away from the goblins, Bilbo finds a ring on the floor of a cave passage and puts it into his pocket.
Continuing down, he finds himself at the shore of an underground lake. Gollum quietly paddles up in his boat, and the two enact the Riddle Game, under the condition that if Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out, but if he loses, Gollum will eat Bilbo. After several riddles, which each manages to answer, Bilbo, whilst fiddling in his pocket unable to think of a riddle, asks himself aloud "What have I got in my pocket?" Gollum thinks this is supposed to be the next riddle, and as it doesn't comply with the rules of the riddle game, demands three guesses; in the end he fails to guess the answer. Bilbo demands his reward, but Gollum refuses and paddles off in his boat to an island in the lake, upon which he lives. After searching around for a while asking aloud "where is it? wheres my precious!?" to which Bilbo replies, "I don't know and I don't care, I just want to get out of here", Gollum becomes suspicious, gets in his boat, and starts paddling back across the lake towards Bilbo. Gollum is unable to find the one weapon he could use to betray and kill Bilbo, a magic ring that makes its wearer invisible; driven by rage, Gollum starts to realize the real answer to Bilbo's previous question "What have I got in my pocket?". Bilbo realises his life is in mortal danger and makes his escape down the maze of pitch black tunnels, and Gollum gives chase. Bilbo trips, and finds the ring on his finger. Realising he has no chance to escape his pursuer, he stays where he is and prepares to meet his fate, but Gollum runs right over him. Bilbo realises the ring makes him invisible. He manages to escape past Gollum, who has gone to guard the only exit, and finds his way to the surface where he rejoins the Dwarves.
Descending from the Misty Mountains, they survive an encounter with Wargs (wild wolf creatures) by climbing trees. Eagles rescue them. Then they meet Beorn, a man who can transform into a bear. They depart, having rested for several days. Gandalf leaves soon on an errand. The party traverses the great forest Mirkwood, eventually running out of supplies. Gandalf had warned them not to leave the path, but they saw fire and heard singing, so, hopeless, they leave the path to beg food from Wood-elves, only to get lost. They are captured by giant spiders, but Bilbo rescues the Dwarves by becoming invisible and killing many spiders with Sting. Elves then capture the Dwarves and imprison them, but Bilbo manages to sneak into the Elvenking's palace unnoticed using the ring; he then helps the Dwarves escape in barrels floated down the river.
After staying for a short period of time at Laketown, the treasure-seekers proceed to the Lonely Mountain. Finding themselves unable to locate the secret door, the company sit down disconsolate on a cliff. Hearing a thrush knocking on a stone, Bilbo looks up just in time to see the last rays of the Sun of Durin's Day, shining on the cliff wall, to magically reveal the secret door (as was foretold by moon letters upon a map that the company was in possession of). Bilbo is sent down to encounter Smaug. The dragon, realising the Company received help from the people of Laketown, sets out to destroy it. However, the thrush that had been knocking on the stone, was no ordinary bird but of an ancient race with whom the men of the lake could communicate, and it had heard Bilbo's report to the dwarves, that Smaug had a bare patch on his belly that could be used to slaughter him, if only you could get close enough. It conveyed this message to one Bard the Bowman, who seeing the bare patch in the belly of Smaug, despatched the dragon with a single arrow, thus allowing the party of Dwarves to take possession of the treasure.
The citizens of Laketown arrive to make historical claims and demand compensation for the help they had rendered, as well as reparations for the damage Smaug inflicted during his attack. They're joined by the Elves, who also demand a share based on historical claims. The Dwarves refuse all negotiations and in turn summon kin from the north to strengthen their position. Seeing no other way to avert a war, Bilbo uses the ring to steal the prized Arkenstone from the Dwarves, which he uses to broker peace.
Just as a grudging truce is agreed to, the three armies at the Lonely Mountain (Elves, Men and Dwarves) are attacked by Goblins and Wargs from the Misty Mountains. A bitter battle ensues, named the Battle of Five Armies. Though suffering heavy losses, Elves, Men and Dwarves prevail. The treasure is apportioned. Bilbo refuses most of the riches, realising he has no way to bring them back home; he nevertheless takes enough with him to make himself a wealthy hobbit and live happily thereafter, unaware of the dangerous nature of his ring.
In the first edition, Gollum willingly bets his magic ring on the outcome of the riddle game. During the writing of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien saw the need to revise this passage, in order to reflect the concept of the One Ring and its powerful hold on Gollum. Tolkien tried many different passages in the chapter that would become chapter 2 of the Lord of the Rings, "The Shadow of the Past". Eventually Tolkien decided a rewrite of The Hobbit was in order, and he sent a sample chapter of this rewrite ("Riddles in the Dark") to his publishers. Initially he heard nothing further, but when he was sent galley proofs of a new edition he learned to his surprise the new chapter had been incorporated as the result of a misunderstanding.
Tolkien explained the two different versions in the introduction of The Lord of the Rings, as well as inside "The Shadow of the Past", as a "lie" that Bilbo made up, probably because of the One Ring's influence on him, and which he originally wrote down in his book. Inside The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo finally confesses the real story at the Council of Elrond, although Gandalf had deduced the truth earlier. As Tolkien presented himself as the translator of the supposedly historic Red Book of Westmarch, where Bilbo and Frodo's stories were recorded, he further explained the two differing stories in The Hobbit by stating he had originally used Bilbo's original story, but later retranslated the work with the "true story" recorded by Frodo.
This first edition also mentions "gnomes", an earlier word Tolkien used to refer to the second kindred of the High Elves — the Ñoldor (or "Deep Elves"). Tolkien thought that "gnome", being derived from the Greek gnosis (knowledge), was a good name for the Ñoldor he created to be the wisest of the other Elves. But with its English connotations of a small, secretive, and unattractive creature (see garden gnome) Tolkien removed it from later editions. He made other minor changes in order to conform the narrative to events in The Lord of the Rings and in the ideas he was developing for the Quenta Silmarillion.
However this still doesn't fit perfectly: even revised, The Hobbit is so much different in tone that it sometimes seems to belong in another universe from other Middle-earth works. Examples include the following:
- Anachronisms: Bilbo has a clock. Many artists like John Howe prefer to omit it from their paintings. Bilbo also is mentioned to have matches for his pipe. In the world of Lord of the Rings matches had not yet been invented and all use flints.
- The Trolls have English first and last names, like fairy-tale characters.
- Lighthearted use of "magic": when Bilbo tries to steal a purse from the Trolls, the purse shouts.
- Elves appear either as silly mischiefs (Rivendell) or hostile (Mirkwood).
- Orcs are still called Goblins, and are more like bogeymen than man-eating humanoid warriors.
- Gandalf mentions Radagast as his cousin. (Then again, both Gandalf and Radagast are angelic Maiar spirits, and thus in a sense are "related", both being children of the thought of God.)
- The extensive mentioning (and brief appearance) of Giants. Giants were never developed in Tolkien's other works, but since they should exist and possibly take a grand part in the past and upcoming Wars, they are never mentioned again. Even if Giants are seen as a kind of large Trolls, they are hard to justify, as trolls are described as either incredibly stupid or incredibly evil: quite unlike the Stone Giants of The Hobbit.
- The comical allusion to Vita Sackville-West, who had been involved in a sensational court case over an English estate in the decade before The Hobbit was written.
Some of the tone differences can be explained by accepting Bilbo as the author of the work: Bilbo wrote the story of his journeys to recount them to the children of Hobbiton and therefore changed the story somewhat. Apparent major differences such as the different perception of the Ring can also be explained by Bilbo's lacking knowledge of these matters.
Similarities to Beowulf
During his time as a professor at the University of Oxford Tolkien studied Anglo-Saxon. One of the Anglo-Saxon pieces of literature he studied is the epic poem Beowulf, about which he wrote essays such as The Monsters and the Critics. Interesting parallels can be found between The Hobbit and Beowulf.
The plots of the two stories are very similar. In both of them a party of 13 sets out to seek satisfaction for a crime committed by a dragon. Both parties contain a thief, which in The Hobbit is Bilbo, who steals a cup from the sleeping dragon's hoard by using a secret passage. Both dragons then awake from their deep slumber and cause terror and destruction. Both dragons are well protected by their armour, a natural one in Beowulf and one made of gold and diamonds in The Hobbit, but finally they are killed.
But not only the plots share similarities, both main characters, Bilbo and Beowulf, share characteristics. Both heroes defy their enemies with their supernatural power, which in Bilbo's case is the ring and in Beowulf's case is his supernatural strength. While Beowulf has the help of God, Bilbo often prevails because of his sheer luck. Both are of noble ancestry and both get separated from their group, Bilbo in the mountains, Beowulf when he is captured by Grendel's mother.
Additionally some elements of Anglo-Saxon culture can be found. In both books a king, which in Anglo-Saxon sometimes is called ring or gold giver, awards his warriors with treasures and war gear. In Anglo-Saxon culture poems are important, as they contain the people's history and they are sung by scops. Two of these songs are found in Beowulf and more in The Hobbit. Tolkien's dwarves particularly mirror Anglo-Saxon society, both in their warrior nature and in their desire for jewelry and war gear. The dwarven writing system, or Cirth, also has clear influences from Anglo-Saxon runic alphabets such as Futhark.
Adaptations and influences
The Hobbit has been adapted for other media. BBC Radio 4 broadcast The Hobbit radio drama, adapted by Michael Kilgarriff, in eight parts (4 hours) from September to November 1968, which starred Anthony Jackson as narrator, Paul Daneman as Bilbo and Heron Carvic as Gandalf.
Middle-earth has been featured in songs notably by Enya and the Brobdingnagian Bards. Led Zeppelin's songs "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Ramble On" both contain references to Tolkien's mystical world. For The Hobbit itself, "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins", performed by Leonard Nimoy as part of his 1968 Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy album, is the most pertinent because it recounts the book's storyline in its two minutes. The ballad's music video became a minor Internet meme in the early 2000s when The Lord of the Rings movies were released.
An animated version of the story debuted as a television movie in the United States in 1977. In March 2005, Peter Jackson, director of highly successful film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, has stated he wishes to film The Hobbit in four years' time (if the rights can be secured by then).
Several computer and video games, both official and unofficial, have been based on the story. One of the first was The Hobbit, a computer game developed in 1982 by Beam Software and published by Melbourne House for most computers available at the time, from the more popular computers such as the ZX Spectrum, and the Commodore 64, through to such esoteric computers as the Dragon 32 and Oric computers. By arrangement with publishers, a copy of the novel was included with each game sold.
Vivendi Universal Games published The Hobbit in 2003 for Windows PCs, PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube. It is a hack and slash game produced as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings video games, but also as a softer version of those two games: less brutal, fewer enemies but with an important platform aspect, the game was designed for smaller children. A similar version of this game was also published for the Game Boy Advance.
George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. of London published the first edition of The Hobbit in September 1937. It was illustrated with many black-and-white drawings by Tolkien himself. The original printing numbered a mere 1,500 copies and sold out by December due to enthusiastic reviews. Houghton Mifflin of Boston and New York prepared an American edition to be released early in 1938 in which four of the illustrations would be colour plates. Allen & Unwin decided to incorporate the colour illustrations into their second printing, released at the end of 1937. Despite the book's popularity, wartime conditions forced the London publisher to print small runs of the remaining two printings of the first edition.
As remarked above, Tolkien substantially revised The Hobbit's text describing Bilbo's dealings with Gollum in order to blend the story better into what The Lord of the Rings had become. This revision became the second edition, published in 1951 in both UK and American editions. Slight corrections to the text have appeared in the third (1966) and fourth editions (1978).
New English-language editions of The Hobbit spring up often, despite the book's age, with at least fifty editions having been published to date. Each comes from a different publisher or bears distinctive cover art, internal art, or substantial changes in format. The text of each generally adheres to the Allen & Unwin edition extant at the time it is published.
The remarkable and enduring popularity of The Hobbit expresses itself in the collectors' market. The first printing of the first English language edition rarely sells for under $10,000 US dollars in any whole condition, and clean copies in original dust jackets signed by the author are routinely advertised for over $100,000. Online auction site eBay tends to define the market value for those who collect The Hobbit.
The Hobbit has been translated into many languages. Known languages, with the first date of publishing, are:
- The Hobbit Chapters
- The Quest of Erebor
- English-language editions of The Hobbit
- Early American editions of The Hobbit