Writing a post on John Rateliff’s encyclopedic The History of the Hobbit isn’t the problem. The problem is writing one that doesn’t turn into a 3,000 word behemoth itself. I will try very hard to keep this post to a reasonable length while dropping as many nuggets of knowledge as possible. If you want more, well, the Kindle edition was still available for $1.99 last I checked.
Rateliff’s primary focus is Tolkien’s original draft of The Hobbit. A full, heavily annotated copy is included. The text itself is footnoted, and each chapter (there were no chapter divisions in the original draft, so according to the final book) is followed by a section digging into it. Most notable perhaps are the notes on the etymology of various words Tolkien invented and comparisons with the Silmarillion as it existed at that time (quite different than what would eventually be published). Rateliff also includes Tolkien’s occasional bouts of outlining, and notes the probable split in the drafting (Tolkien tended to work in great spurts in between academic semesters).
(For a spirited defense of Tolkien against the recent scurrilous charge of “truncating his creative palette” because he was “thoroughly immersed in modernism” and because “he wanted to be taken seriously and he knew there would be consequences for not walking the line,” see this post.)
Rateliff views The History of the Hobbit as complementary to Douglas Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit (which I have not read). The Annotated Hobbit “takes as a starting point the first printing of 1937 and scrupulously records every change and correction to the text by Tolkien from that point onward, while [Rateliff looks] backwards from the moment of the first printing to tell the story of how the book was written.”
Rateliff’s book is particularly interesting for its examination of Tolkien’s source material. Many books note that, for example, Tolkien was inspired by Beowulf, but the length of Rateliff’s book and the focus on just The Hobbit allow for him to cast a far wider net. For example, Rateliff gives examples from Dunsany of “really good and legendary burglars.”
I find myself thinking a lot these days about the inherently derivative nature of fantasy. The History of the Hobbit makes that obvious. It isn’t that Tolkien directly copied someone else; it is that there were sometimes dozens of examples of a single motif that he could draw from. The idea that he drew heavily from Wagner’s Ring Cycle is a lot less convincing when you consider that his original conception of the ring was very different and that magic rings are a common motif in folklore. Even something like petrification, that he may have introduced to English fiction, was an example of Tolkien popularizing, rather than inventing, a motif. In Tolkien’s case, this was intentional. He saw great value in folklore, in the reinvention of folklore, and in “ancient belief over artificial invention.”
As I mentioned above, the ties to Beowulf are hardly unknown, but Rateliff’s analysis is robust and welcome. Even more so are his comparisons to Sigurd.
I have few points of contention, although Rateliff’s refusal to speculate on Beorn’s height and his dismissiveness toward those who have is weird coming from a guy who wrote a book analyzing and speculating on everything else in The Hobbit.
Rateliff makes a very convincing case that The Hobbit is and was always intended to be closely tied to Tolkien’s legendarium. Of course that legendarium would look very different by the time it was finally published. That created any number of problems for Tolkien, as did the elements pulled into The Lord of the Rings, but he had a knack for fixing seeming contradictions in worldbuilding with more worldbuilding, “solving a problem in the received text by addition, not contradiction or replacement.”
It is remarkable is how little Tolkien changed his original draft prior to its first publication. But there are some important differences from his first conception. Thranduil and the Mirkwood wood elves, not so heroic even in the published book, were originally worse. The biggest change, though, is that Tolkien originally planned a large battle near the Anduin on the return journey. This would have involved Beorn and the goblins, but not the dwarves. Eventually he settled on bringing Beorn and the goblins east for the Battle of Five Armies. In doing so, he avoided the problems the Scouring of the Shire would later create for The Lord of the Rings. Rather than place an important scene in an overlong denouement, he is able to incorporate it into a stronger climax.
- Rateliff dates the drafting as starting in the summer of 1930 and ending in January 1933 (there is quite a bit about why he settles on these dates even though others, including Humphrey Carpenter, offer different dates)
- Tolkien started work on a full revision of The Hobbit in 1960 to match The Lord of the Rings in both tone and canon, but abandoned it early on after feedback; the new work simply wasn’t The Hobbit (Peter Jackson would later apparently receive no such feedback)
- According to Tolkien, “Mirkwood is not an invention of mine, but . . . probably the Primitive Germanic name for the great mountainous forest regions that anciently formed a barrier to the south of the lands of Germanic expansion”
- Tolkien toyed with the idea that “the original orcs were the least of the spirits corrupted by Morgoth, just as balrogs are greater spirits”—the orcs and goblins we see would have been their lesser descendants
- John the Evangelist was Tolkien’s favorite apostle
- Dunsany used man-sized spiders in his story The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth
- Tolkiens’ elves were originally smaller than humans
- The Mirkwood chapter (one of the best, in my opinion) was the only chapter extensively rewritten prior to the book’s original publication (Tolkien cut Bilbo using a ball of spider-thread to find his way and added the enchanted stream)
- The Jewish influence on Tolkien’s dwarves both resulted in a much more positive depiction than that of the folklore from which he drew and long predated his 1965 radio interview in which he directly identified the influence
- Tolkien at one point made a note asking “what happened to the musical instruments used by the Dwarves at Bag-end?” (I’m glad I’m not the only one who wondered that)
You can find all of my Tolkien 101 posts here.