Eighty Years of The Hobbit

Harry Potter may have turned twenty this last June, but The Hobbit turned eighty. September 22nd marked the eightieth anniversary of the publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. 2017 also marks one hundred years of Middle-Earth—both reasons to celebrate the author who forever changed the face of literary fantasy.
Tolkien was a philologist and medieval scholar who taught at Oxford from 1925-1959. As a young man, newly married to Edith Bratt, and on his way to establishing a family and academic career, Tolkien began writing his myths of Middle-Earth. He fought in the Great War as one of the Lancashire Fusiliers, lost most of his closest friends, and returned to England an altered man.
By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, Professor Tolkien sat marking student papers:
“It all began when I was reading exam papers to earn a bit of extra money. That was agony. One of the tragedies of the underpaid professor is that he has to do menial jobs. He is expected to maintain a certain position and to send his children to good schools. Well, one day I came to a blank page in an exam book and I scribbled on it. ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
This is one of those literary moments that has become part of the myth around Tolkien and Middle-Earth. See Tolkien’s 1968 interview in the Telegraph here.
The Hobbit began as a children’s tale—a fairy story to amuse his children. Tolkien had already established Middle-Earth, beginning the tale of Beren and Luthien as early as 1917. But Bilbo and his adventures with Thorin and Company didn’t have a place in that world at first. Not until Tolkien’s publisher, Allen and Unwin, began requesting a Hobbit sequel did Tolkien try continuing the story of hobbits. Another eighteen years would pass before The Lord of the Rings gave the world a closer peek inside Tolkien’s mythology. And by the way, the word hobbit entered the language because of Tolkien.
I first read The Hobbit at the age of eleven. I had recently lost my sight in a car accident, but by some curious chance, this book came my way. I was in the hospital, and it filled a void in my life I didn’t know I had. And the book continues to be part of my life to this day. I teach it every year to my children’s literature students, and my inaugural blog post from 2014 was about this book.
You may not be a Tolkien fan. You may have read and hated both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Even if you never intend to read these books, acknowledge to yourself the achievement they represent—the scribblings of an Oxford professor who loved languages and altered the way people read and wrote fantasy.
It’s impossible to do justice to Tolkien and his achievement in a single blog post, but here’s a point on which to close for now. C. S. Lewis, Tolkien’s friend and colleague at Oxford, had this to say about The Hobbit in his 1937 review that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement:
“For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”

From The Blog Archive: A Life-Long Adventure

Almost three years ago, I decided to set up a blog that focused on children’s and young adult books. Here is my inaugural post from 2014. The adventure continues.

As a kid, I was never much of a reader. I looked at my dad’s newspapers, the covers of my mom’s novels, and I flipped through the pictures in the National Geographic. In grade five, we had a series in our class that was supposed to help with reading comprehension. I was put in the orange readers, halfway between the books for dummies and those for the average kids in the class.
The summer after grade five I was blinded in a car accident. I spent four months in hospital because of a badly broken leg. My world had changed. Apart from trying to adjust to being blind after eleven years of running, biking, and rough-housing, the unspeakable boredom of the hospital bed nearly drove me crazy.
One day two women from the school board came to visit me. They brought me an oversized, open-reel tape recorder and some recorded books. One of those books was J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
The world of The Hobbit was the world as I had never imagined it. I had thought elves to be diminutive shoemakers, while dwarfs were funny little characters with funnier names, who helped runaway princesses.
In Tolkien’s world, the dwarves–not dwarfs–still had funny names, but they went on quests to steal back dragon-guarded treasure, while elves were tall, beautiful, otherworldly, and threatening. And what was a hobbit?
After the traction came off my leg, they put me in a body cast: three months flat on my back, and I was finally able to get up. One night after the nurses had done their rounds, I maneuvered myself out of bed, and hobbled and cruched my way down the hall to the schoolroom, the room for all the kids who were too damaged or messed up to go into the regular hospital classroom. In that room, at the root of a mountain, the strangest creature I had ever met waited for me; for me and a little hobbit, who was lost, in the dark, and all alone.
Meeting Bilbo, Gollum, and Smaug introduced me to a world of books that became my lifeline and my world. It took the place of the life I had lost, and it gave the visual center of my brain something to do. I imagined myself into every book I read, sometimes scaring myself into nights of wakefulness, as I did with H. G. Wells The Time Machine and later Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I have been on that road ever since, and it all began at a round, green door with a pipe-smoking hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, and an unexpected adventure to lands faraway.

A Visit to Hobbiton



The green fields, intense blue sky, and forty odd hobbit-holes scattered over the landscape is enough to make you think you’ve arrived in Middle-Earth. Tolkien might have even approved. But as I walked past gardens and little round doors, I had to remind myself this place is Peter Jackson’s vision of a world conceived by one of the twentieth century’s most imaginative minds.
When the first of the Lord of the Rings films came out in 2001, I was excited but oddly apprehensive. As a Tolkien fan, I wasn’t worried that Peter Jackson was going to destroy the story for me; I was anticipating the release of the film, like millions of others. But mixed with my anticipation was the feeling this book, that for me had always been a private experience, was suddenly going to be there as a film, for anyone to talk about and critique. It was irrational, I know, but it bothered me at the time.
I got over it. The Fellowship was certainly my favourite of the Lord of the Rings films, but I watched and enjoyed them all. The Hobbit films were different. I felt more jaded—why did Peter Jackson need to stretch the story into three films? It struck me as more a commercial than an artistic decision.
While I wasn’t the only one disappointed with The Hobbit films, I’d rather have them than not. And with all of the films now out, it seemed appropriate that I managed to finally visit the film set in New Zealand over Christmas.
2015 was certainly my year for Tolkien related trips. Last August, I had the chance to visit Oxford. My daughter and I drove down from Glasgow, and we stayed at Magdalen College. We visited the Kilns, where C. S. Lewis lived and died, and we drove down North Moore Road, where Tolkien lived with his family. We wandered the college, walked Adison’s Walk, and visited The Eagle and Child, where the Inklings met weekly. Visiting Hobbiton over Christmas was fun, and I was excited to go, but it wasn’t the literary pilgrimage that Oxford was.
We had to drive down to Matamata from just outside Auckland, and we were late for our tour. The people at the I-Site in Matamata were helpful and got us onto the next bus. It’s a walking tour through the village, and I kept missing stuff our guide said because we lingered to look and talk about the hobbit-holes. It was interesting, and I kept reminding myself this was Peter Jackson’s Hobbiton—not that it wasn’t inspired. It was rustic and quaint, detailed and thoughtfully constructed.
On we went, making the walk up the hill, until we stood in front of Bilbo’s gate, hung with the sign, No Admittance Except on Party Business. There we were—in front of Bag End, Bilbo’s hobbit-hole, where the stories began. But the sign identified this as the Bag End of Lord of the Rings—years after Bilbo’s adventures that took him into the east, over the Misty Mountains, where he met Gollum and found the ring; and into Mirkwood, where he fought and killed spiders; and finally, to the Lonely Mountain, where he talked to a dragon.
Our tour guide pressed on. We walked down the hill and found ourselves in the field, with the party tree standing at one end. One addition to the Party field, which I thought very unlike Tolkien, was a Maypole, standing about half way down the field. Tolkien would, of course, been familiar with the Maypole, but he was assiduous in avoiding anything about sex in his books.
The end of the tour brought us to The Green Dragon, the inn where you can sit down, have lunch by the fire as you sip your mug of beer. We lined up outside and got a free glass of ginger beer, then went inside to look around the inn.
There’s a cat that lives in The Green Dragon. My daughter spotted it right away, sleeping near the hearth.
“That cat was here the last time I visited,” she said. “That was three years ago!”
Visiting Hobbiton was a little like watching the commentaries for the Lord of the Rings films. I’d never watched commentaries before, and I learned much about how films were made. Visiting Hobbiton was getting a peek at how Peter Jackson created the films. You can’t, for example, go inside any of the hobbit-holes—not really. One of the doors opens, and you can walk inside, but any of the inside scenes were shot in a studio in Wellington. It was fun to see, but I was strongly reminded that all of this went into creating the illusion of the films.
And there’s the difference, I think. Reading the books is not an illusion. Tolkien himself understood the difference, although he wasn’t referring to his own books when he wrote his essay “On Faerie Stories.”
Tolkien writes:
“The storymaker, as subcreator, makes a secondary world which the listener can enter– Inside what he relates is true.  It accords with the laws of that world; you, therefore, believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.  The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken.  The magic, or rather art, has failed.  You are then out in the primary world again, looking at the little abortive secondary world from outside.”
A reader’s willingness to accept a secondary world Tolkien calls secondary belief. The process of subcreation makes his books the experience they are. They are real—for as long as you are willing to accept the reality of that world. This kind of engagement doesn’t work for everyone, but it was certainly my experience as an eleven year-old kid discovering Tolkien’s world for the first time, an experience I have again and again, whenever I read the books.

A Letter to C. S. Lewis


Dear Professor Lewis:
I’m writing this letter fifty-two years after your death, November 22, 1963. You won’t get it, but I don’t care. I’m writing anyway.
I was actually born three days before you died, in a small town in southern Alberta. You won’t have heard of Claresholm, and I doubt you will have ever heard of Alberta, but I know you had an appreciation for Canada—you had a Canadian aunt on your mother’s side, Aunt Annie, wife to your maternal uncle.
I didn’t read any of your books until I was an adult. I read Professor Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings over and over again as a young person, but I didn’t even know that you were friends with Professor Tolkien until after I read Narnia and some of your other books. I was getting interested in children’s literature while doing an undergraduate degree, and I read about the Narnia books in one of my anthologies. I didn’t know anything about Narnia at the time, but the anthology contained an excerpt from The Last Battle. Not long after, I was able to get the Narnia books and read them.
You may be interested to know that I had to get the series on cassette tape. I’m totally blind, and in those days I had to read everything on cassette. I read the Narnia books many times, and I have to admit, and please don’t take offense, I felt a little let down. You have to understand that I was young, and I had the idea that I could find another world like Professor Tolkien’s. Well, I’m much older now, and I still haven’t found anything to equal Professor Tolkien’s world of Middle-Earth.
I’ve thought a great deal about the Narnia books, as well as many of your other books, and I’ve learned much from you over the years. For one, I’ve realized that you had different ideas about fantasy than your friend, Professor Tolkien. You had, for example, a greater sense of fun when it came to fantasy than he did—at least in most of the Narnia books, and maybe save for The Hobbit. I always thought Professor Tolkien must have taken great delight in writing that book. How could he not? Mr. Bilbo Baggins is such a delightful character. I thought you must have felt the same way about the Narnia books, although by the time you wrote The Last Battle, you seem to lose something of your sense of fun to an overwhelming seriousness. The end of the world is a serious thing, after all. But I could never manage to understand the joy the Pevensie children experience as they leave their old lives behind and enter the new Narnia. Perhaps I thought you were trying too hard to teach me something about Heaven.
I’ve always had many questions about the Narnia series, and I ask many of them every year in my children’s literature classes. I teach at a university here in Edmonton, and every year we talk about one of your books—usually The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Here are some of the questions we ask:
Why is Father Christmas in the book? And why did you make him say, “Battles are ugly when Women fight?”
Why don’t Mr. and Mrs. Beaver share a bed? And how could Edmund have possibly eaten so much Turkish delight at a single sitting?
These questions might seem silly to you, but my students are intensely curious, and they genuinely wonder about these smaller details.
We ask larger questions as well—one of the main questions being, do we have to read the book as a Christian text? There are always a few students in the class who read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a young person, and they were told that the book was a way to better understand Jesus.
Well, back to my purpose in writing to you. I wanted to thank you for writing the Narniabooks, not to mention your science fiction books and all of your books on Christianity. I’ve read most of them, an I’ve wrestled again and again with the things you say about God, about pain, and about literature. Reading many of these books simply raises more questions for me, but I won’t bore you with those.
I will say, however, that I absolutely loved Out of the Silent Planet. I know you loved the works of Mr. H. G. Wells, and so do I. Reading Out of the Silent Planet took me right back to reading those books as a boy, and I found great joy in reading about Dr. Elwin Ransom’s trip to Malacandra.
This, finally, brings me to my real purpose in writing. You are one of those giants who walks my own literary landscape. You stride around in that landscape, spinning stories about dwarves and talking lions and the strange people of Mars. Like Jack who encountered giants of his own, I’m afraid to get too close for fear of getting trampled. I even sometimes steal from you, taking bits from the worlds you weave and using them in my own stories.
It wasn’t until I read Surprised by Joy that I became less nervous about getting too close. I was able to get a different sense of you as a man and a writer by getting a glimpse of you as a boy. As I read your description of losing your mother, then being sent away to that terrible school in England, I felt I had more of a connection with you than I realized. I too suffered a loss at a young age. I lost my cousin in a car accident. I didn’t understand love very well at the time, but I knew I loved my cousin. I was in the same car accident, and it was there I lost my sight. It was after that—in the hospital, in fact—that I began listening to Professor Tolkien’s The Hobbit on tape.
Having said all of this, I mostly want to say thank you. Thank you for your books. Thank you for your many words—those that have inspired me, and those that have challenged me. Thank you for sharing something of yourself. And most of all, thank you for giving me worlds where I can visit—places where I can get inside, walk around, and stretch my imaginative legs. These are places where I can wonder and ask questions, and most of all, return to when the world gets too big or too scary or too hard, and I need a familiar spot to rest and sort out my life and my thoughts.
Your faithful fan,
Bill Thompson