In a letter to the poet W. H. Auden, J. R. R., Tolkien describes the events that took place on a quiet summer’s day in 1930 as he was working at home in his study on a quiet, tree-lined street in residential Oxford: “All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children.
On a blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it, for a long time.”
Had Professor Tolkien not needed the money which grading secondary school exams provided, had there not been so many of them, had there not been a blank page left in one exam booklet, there might never have been the beloved story we know today.
The Hobbit was published 75 years ago on September 21, 1937. Without its publication, there certainly would never have been the public demand for a sequel which resulted in The Lord of the Rings sixteen years later in 1953. Even with the now-famous opening line written, the whole thing might have ended there, except for the author’s extraordinary interest in names and word origins. “Names always generate a story in my mind,” Tolkien later explained. “Eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like.”
Eleven days after The Hobbit came out, on October 2, 1937, readers opened The Times Literary Supplement to find a review of this remarkable new book.
“This is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery,” the reviewer explained. He also made the point that the book “will be funniest to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true.”
The reviewer was C. S. Lewis.
The Hobbit or There and Back Again tells the tale of Mr. Bilbo Baggins’s unlikely meeting with thirteen dwarves and of the even more unlikely adventure that follows as, under the occasional guidance of Gandalf the wizard, the company sets out on a perilous journey to reclaim the dwarves’ treasure from a dragon named Smaug. From the subtitle, readers know in advance that Bilbo will eventually make it back home. What they do not know is that the treasure Mr. Baggins will return with will be quite different from the one he initially sets out to obtain.
In this brief description, The Hobbit does not sound like a very religious book. But in fact, Tolkien’s Christian beliefs are a fundamental part of the story from start to finish and are certainly, in part, what was behind C. S. Lewis’s observation that the story is “so true.”
|First edition of The Hobbit|
In a later letter dated October 25, 1958, Tolkien responded to a number of questions Deborah Webster had sent him. There the author tells her, “I am a Christian” and then adds in parentheses “which can be deduced from my stories.” Tolkien’s use of the word deduced is key, making it clear that the Christian element in his stories is present but is not directly evident and must be deduced. In addition the author tells us it can be deduced from the stories themselves, not something else. While Tolkien’s letters, lectures, and other external materials can shed additional light on the Christian aspect in his fiction, if we look below the surface, we can find it in and deduce it from the actual stories.
We could say that Tolkien’s fiction is permeated with his beliefs, that the Christian element has been infused into the story.
In a real life story as fascinating as the imaginary ones they would later write, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis became friends, Tolkien became instrumental in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, and then Lewis became instrumental in Tolkien’s completing his great works. Together they formed the Inklings, the close-knit Oxford reading and writing group which met in Lewis’s college rooms and at a pub named The Eagle and Child. It was at these meetings that the early versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were first read aloud, critiqued, and made into what they are today.
In a letter written in 1965, two years after C. S. Lewis’s death, Tolkien would describe the “unpayable debt” he owed him, explaining: “He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The Lord of the Rings to a conclusion.”
Of all the things Lewis said in his review, his closing statement—one that may have seemed quite bold back in 1937—proved to be the most accurate of all. “Prediction is dangerous,” Lewis concluded, “but The Hobbit may well prove to be a classic.”
Lewis’s prediction was an understatement as The Hobbit—and its sequel, The Lord of the Rings—went on to win the hearts of readers everywhere. In a time when books often seem dated after a decade and have sales cycles of one year for the hardcover and a second for the paperback, for The Hobbit to still remain hearty, relevant, and beloved by readers after three-quarters of a century—and to have millions of people all over the world looked forward eagerly to its upcoming film adaptation—is truly an amazing accomplishment.
Please feel free to share your own comments, thoughts, feelings, and experiences as we join together in celebrating the birth of the little book that started it all.
Devin Brown is a Professor of English at Asbury University and the author of The Christian World of The Hobbit published by Abingdon Press.