Legal Stuff

The History of the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Part One: Mr. Baggins by John D. Rateliff (editor)

Cover Art by J.R.R. Tolkien

Published by Houghton Mifflin

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When JRR Tolkien published his monumental fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings, fans were so enraptured by the world he had created that they clamored for more. They wanted to see the stories behind the glimpses that were granted in the published books -- and were eagerly clamoring for Tolkien to write them, not realizing that he had in fact been working on them for most of his life, and that LOTR was in fact a side journey, in many ways a distraction that had taken his time and energy away from that life's work.

Although he returned to the tales of the First Age with renewed vigor after the publication of LOTR, encouraged by the knowledge that there was indeed a market for what he had previously feared to be hopelessly uncommercial, he soon found that the time taken away from them meant a fatal loss of momentum. Worse, he no longer felt confident of being able to present the materials in a way that would be appealing to a general audience. Always a perfectionist, prone to fussing endlessly over minutae, he died with the great work still in massive disarray.

His son Christopher Tolkien pulled together a comprehensive narrative of the First Age from those manuscripts and published it as The Silmarillion, but almost immediately had his regrets because he had succeeded only in creating an illusion of finality where none in fact existed. He became increasingly convinced that the only proper way to do the job was to show all the manuscripts in the history of their development, with scholarly commentary to help the reader understand the writing process behind them. After the tentative publication of Unfinished Tales was a sufficient success to convince his publishers that there was a market for such works, Tolkien fils set forth to produce the monumental twelve-volume History of Middle Earth, beginning with The Book of Lost Tales, volume 1. It covered not only the development of the manuscripts dealing with the First Age, but also Tolkien's two vastly different attempts to tell the story of the Fall of Numenor, as well as the development of the manuscripts of LOTR.

The result was a set of works that would actually allow people to do substantial scholarly research, sparing the original manuscripts further wear and tear from even the most careful of handling. However, there was one notable gap in the coverage, namely, The Hobbit. This lapse is particularly notable because it was the success of The Hobbit which led to the publication of LOTR. Had Tolkien never dashed off this light-hearted story into which intruded matters far deeper and older, it's very likely that he would have toiled in obscurity all his life and his manuscripts would have been piled in a box at his passing, at best to be donated to the archives at Oxford University to molder indefinitely, and at worst to be discarded as irrelevant to his serious scholarly work.

Now at last John D. Rateliff has received permission from the Tolkien Estate to rectify this omission, which he has done in the two volume History of the Hobbit. This first volume, entitled Mr. Baggins, deals with the manuscripts of the first two phases of drafting, up through the first descriptions of Lake Town. (The second volume, Return to Bag End, will deal with the remainder of the manuscripts, including two separate post-publication attempts to significantly revise the work).

Almost everybody has probably heard the story of how Tolkien started writing The Hobbit: that he was grading papers for some extra money and noticed that one of the students had left a blank page at the back of his test booklet. On it Tolkien jotted the words "In a hole there lived a hobbit." and it set him to writing the story of Bilbo Baggins.

However, like so many stories that have been repeated so many times that they become part of what everybody knows, there is no documentary evidence for it. This doesn't necessarily mean that the story is false -- it's completely possible that this particular piece of paper became lost and was not preserved with subsequent manuscripts. But it may also be yet another case of the good story driving out the dull fact.

What we do have is the Pryftan Fragment, so called because of the name given to the dragon in this stage of composition, and because it has neither beginning nor end, being instead six pages (three sheets, written front and back) from somewhere in the middle. Since there is no way to know why these particular pages survived when others did not, we have no way of knowing how far the manuscript continued before being abandoned -- or even if it was in fact the very first draft, or if others preceded it but did not survive.

As was the case with the Noldorin princes over the course of the development of the stories of the First Age, Tolkien went through several stages in the naming of the various characters of the company that Bilbo would accompany on the quest for the dragon's treasure. In the earliest versions, Gandalf was not the name of the Wizard, who was at that time named Bladorthin, but of the chief Dwarf, who would ultimately become Thorin Oakenshield. The names of the other Dwarves of the company are also somewhat in flux at this time, as can be told from a list of possible names which Tolkien jotted into the margin of the last surviving page, near the first sketch of what would ultimately become Thorin's Map in the final published book.

The second version of The Hobbit that is known to survive is the Bladorthin Typescript, so called because the Wizard continues to be named Bladorthin and because this version is typed rather than handwritten, as if it were prepared specifically to be shown to a publisher for consideration. However, it does not appear to be a surviving fragment of a completed text. Instead, it appears that only the first chapter, which is presented in this volume, was completed, perhaps as a sample or partial to determine whether there was sufficient interest in the project to justify continuing it (which demolishes the popular image of Tolkien hastily dashing the entire story onto paper in a burst of whimsical inspiration without consideration for its marketability, and only subsequently being happily surprised when the completed text is gladly received by a publisher and turns out to be a success).

The remainder of the book is devoted to the second phase of the drafting of The Hobbit. In writing it, Tolkien took up immediately upon the Bladorthin Typescript, but now writing once again by hand. He continues to use "Bladorthin" for the Wizard and "Gandalf" for the chief Dwarf, and there are some other notable differences in nomenclature (the most striking being Beorn, who is instead called Medwed, apparently intended to recall the Russian word for bear, medved). However, the basic outline of the events of the story can be recognized -- the party, the encounter with the Cockney-speaking Trolls who are turned to stone, the encounter with the Goblins in the Misty Mountains from which Bilbo flees only to encounter and have to outwit Gollum, etc.

In addition to giving us the text, Ratecliff has transcribed several sheets of notes in which Tolkien appears to have been planning out the course of the story. These notes are complicated by the fact that Tolkien appears to have used the same sheets of paper to develop several versions of the outline, resulting in the text becoming a palimpsest of cancelled versions layered one on top of another. Only by careful examination can one determine which stage of development any given idea belonged -- and whether a strikethrough represents a rejection of an idea or simply the author having completed it and marked it off his to-do list. Most of these notes are unsurprising, laying out the story much as it would be in the final draft, but there are a few surprises, particularly the idea that Bilbo would have originally stabbed Smaug in the dragon's lair, rather than simply spying upon him and discovering his weak spot to report to a human archer.

Overall, this volume is an excellent addition to published Tolkien scholarship, allowing readers who are interested in Tolkien's writing processes to view the primary sources without subjecting the irreplaceable original manuscripts to additional wear and tear. Like Christopher Tolkien's The History of Middle Earth, they are simultaneously accessible to the non-scholar, yet sufficiently thorough that serious scholars can use them as primary sources for research, needing only travel to manuscript archives for those few items that are of such peculiar or narrow interest that they were not included.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
    1. Chronology of Composition
    2. A Note on the Text
    3. The Plan of This Edition
    4. Abbreviations and Acknowledgements
  • The First Phase
    • The Pryftan Fragment
      1. The Lost Opeing
      2. Nomenclature in teh Pryftan Fragment
      3. TheGeography of the Tale & The First Map
    • The Bladorthin Typescript
      1. Baggins of Bag-End
      2. Bladorthin
      3. Dwarven Magic
      4. The Voice of the Narrator
  • The Second Phase
    • The Adventure Continues
      1. The Dwarves
      2. Moria
      3. The Necromancer
      4. The Third of March
    • Trolls
      1. The Trolls
      2. Bilbo's Contract
    • Rivendell
      1. The Last Decent House
      2. Elves in the Moonlight
      3. Elrond
      4. Durin's Day
    • Goblins
      1. Goblins
      2. The Giants
      3. Switzerland
      4. Bilbo's Dreams, and Other Matters
    • Gollum
      1. The Gollum
      2. Riddles
      3. The Ring
      4. The Invisible Monster
    • Wargs and Eagles
      1. The Wolves
      2. The Eagles
    • Medwed
      1. Bears
      2. Bothvar Bjarki
      3. Beorn's Hall
      4. The Carrock
      5. The Dolittle Theme
      6. Radagast
      7. Plot Notes A
      8. Tolkien's Plot Notes
      9. Mirkwood
        1. The Children of Ungoliant
        2. Butterflies
        3. The Theseus Theme
        4. Bilbo the Warrior
      10. "The Enchanted Stream"
      11. Mirkwood Reconsidered
      12. Plot Notes B
        1. The Story Foreseen from the Capture by Wood-elves
        2. Visiting the Mewlips
        3. Lake Town
        4. The Original Time-scheme
        5. Into the Dragon's Lair
        6. Conversations with Smaug
        7. The Gem of Girion
        8. Bilbo Kills Smaug
        9. The Poem
        10. A Battle Gathering in the West
        11. Just a Hobbit Again
      13. In the Halls of the Elvenking
        1. The Vanishing People
        2. The Three Kindreds of the Elves
        3. The King of Wood and Stone
        4. The Name "Thranduil"
        5. The Wine of Dorwinion
      14. Lake Town
        1. Lake Town
        2. "The Mayor and Corporation"
        3. Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror

Review posted May 11, 2010.

Buy The History of the Hobbit, Part 1: Mr. Baggins from