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

Part Two: Return to Bag-End by John D. Rateliff (editor)

Cover Art by J.R.R. Tolkien

Published by Houghton Mifflin

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When Christopher Tolkien published The History of Middle Earth, the twelve-volume scholarly study of his father's writings from the earliest notebooks on the Elves to the final efforts to wrestle the exuberance of youth into some kind of logic, he left one notable gap -- the composition of The Hobbit. This omission was particularly regrettable because in many ways The Hobbit was the linchpin of the entire Middle Earth phenomenon. If this light children's tale hadn't been published and reasonably successful, it's exceedingly unlikely that any of the rest would have ever come to light.

However, John D. Rateliff has now rectified that omission with his two-volume History of The Hobbit. In the first volume, Mr. Baggins, he traced the development of the earliest manuscripts through the earliest versions of the arrival in Lake Town. Although the general structure of the story can be recognized already, it is largely in outline, with less development than will ultimately be the case. Furthermore, many of the characters have different names that may be somewhat disorienting at first: for instance, the Wizard is named Bladorthin, while the name "Gandalf" is given to the chief Dwarf.

This volume picks up where the previous one left off, with the second major drafting of The Hobbit as the major characters approach the Lonely Mountain. It also picks up the page numbering from the last book -- unlike the History of Middle Earth books, in which each volume's page numbering was independent, these two volumes are numbered as if they were two parts of a single book. This may be slightly confusing at first, but it means that a person citing them does not have to indicate volume to distinguish page numbers.

In this draft, Tolkien definitely abandoned the idea that Bilbo would personally slay Smaug, and instead introduced Bard the Bowman and his magical Black Arrow. In addition, he begins to change the distribution of names toward that we see in the final book -- the Wizard's name is no longer Bladorthin, but Gandalf, and that name gives way to Thorin as the name of the chief of the Dwarven company.

However strongly Tolkien was pushing forward in this draft, however carefully he was plotting it in the various sets of plot notes which are carefully transcribed in the text, it was not sufficient to carry him through tho the end of the endeavor. As the storyline approached the climactic confrontation between all the various groups with an interest in Smaug's hoard and the shift in the balance of power that resulted from the dragon's death, Tolkien became so dissatisfied with the text that he abandoned it and went back to the beginning to revise it.

The result was a careful typescript, a polished text suitable for submission to a publishing house. There is evidence in the pagination that some chapters were substantially revised after subsequent chapters were typed, which suggests that Tolkien was constantly in a process of reconsidering all parts of the story in relation to one another. However, the necessity of producing a clear copy with minimal hand emendation means that little trace of the actual process has survived. No doubt there were various intermediate hand-written drafts, but they are not represented in the manuscript collections used by Mr. Rateliff in producing this scholarly study. The only evidence which survives are a number of what Mr. Rateliff terms "cancelled pages," rejected typescript pages that represent alternate routes by which the storyline might have developed.

Among these materials are the earliest workings of the songs that would appear in the latter half of the book, particularly the mourning-song of the Dwarves and Bilbo's song of returning. We also see the earliest developments of several characters whose role in the climax would be fleshed out more fully in the final manuscript, as well as the very first ideas of what the Dwarves believed about their fate after death. As always, there is strong evidence of an organic development of the story -- that is, Tolkien did not sit down and decide what would happen and what characters would be involved in it as he discovered what fit into various places in the story as it developed.

For most authors, the publication of a work of fiction would represent its finalization, from which no appeal would be possible. Tolkien, however, regarded even published works as remaining somewhat malleable, particularly if it were necessary to bring them into harmony with developments in subsequent works. And as the writing of The Lord of the Rings proceeded apace and it became clear he had a publishable work, the original text of The Hobbit became increasingly unsatisfactory and he decided it was time to put forth a revised edition. The best-known changes deal with the discovery of the One Ring, which originally had been intended as a rather garden-variety magic ring of the sort that show up in folklore and fairy tale, but which had become a far more terrible construct with enormous moral and ethical significance.

However, the rewriting of Bilbo's encounter with Gollum to harmonize it with LOTR was not the only change Tolkien made. He made a number of corrections to errors that had been brought to his attention in the intervening years, both typographical errors that had been introduced in the typesetting process and oversights where he had not been completely clear in the original manuscript. In addition, he prepared a prefatory note explaining the changes in the text, as well as explaining some apparent discrepancies in terms of the Secondary World's history, particularly the identity of the Thrain mentioned in the map.

Such a revision would have been plenty for most authors, but Tolkien was an inveterate perfectionist, so when the notorious Ace pirate publication of LOTR created the need for a revised edition that Ballantine could publish in America with a clear copyright, he re-examined the manuscript and found it far more unsatisfactory than he'd recalled. The result was an extensive revision, concentrating primarily upon the first chapters, which had been the most hastily written in the earliest versions. However, he also undertook a careful consideration of the itinerary and whether the travel times he had described would hold together under the sort of careful examination he had given those in LOTR.

In addition to the examination of Tolkien's various manuscripts, we have a group of Appendices which examine various sources that are often proposed as the origin of the term "hobbit" (all of which are about as distant of sources as the various books J.K. Rowling has been accused of plagiarizing for her Harry Potter books). In addition, we have the actual text of the dwarf-list from which Tolkien drew the names of his Dwarves, both in Old Norse and translated into modern English.

In total, it's an excellent conclusion to the scholarly study of the development of The Hobbit. It is simultaneously sufficiently accessible that the non-specialist reader will find it interesting, while sufficiently rigorous in its scholarly apparatus that it can be used as a serious primary source, greatly expanding the ability of people with limited research budgets to do work on the composition of Tolkien's imagined world and sparing the irreplaceable originals the wear and tear that would result from the level of interest these materials are receiving.

Table of Contents

  • The Second Phase (continued)
    • The Lonely Mountain
      1. The Desolation of the Dragon
      2. The Thrush
    • Plot Notes C
    • Conversations with Smaug
      1. Tolkien's Dragons
      2. Smaug the Magnificent
      3. "The Only Philological Remark"
    • The Death of Smaug
      1. Bard the Dragon-Slayer
      2. The Black Arrow
      3. The Death of Smaug
      4. The Name "Esgaroth"
    • Plot Notes D
    • While The Dragon's Away
      1. Dragon-sickness( "The Hoard")
      2. The ARkenstone as Silmaril
      3. A Note on Cram
    • The Siege of the Mountain
    • Plot Notes E: "Little Bird"
    • Plot Notes F
  • The Third Phase
    • "A Thief Indeed"
    • King Bard
    • Divided Loyalties
    • The Battle of Five Armies
    • And Back Again
    • The End of the Journey
      1. Dain, son of Nain
      2. Bolg of the North
      3. The Battle of Five Armies
      4. "The Halls of Waiting"
      5. Bilbo's First Poem
  • The Fourth Phase
    • The 1947 Hobbit
      1. Proposed correction of the Hobbit to simplify Sequel
      2. Errors in "The Hobbit"
      3. Other corrections
      4. Prefatory Note
      5. Thrym Thistlebeard
    • The Fortunate Misunderstanding
  • The Fifth Phase
    • The 1960 Hobbit
    • New Chapter I. A Well-Planned Party
    • New Chapter II. The Broken Bridge
    • New Chapter III. Arrival in Rivendell
    • Queries and Reminders
    • The End of the Fifth Phase
    • Timelines and Itinerary
      1. Distances and Itinerary
      2. Timetable from Rivendell to Lake Town
      3. The Timeline Revisited
      4. Waxing and Waning
      5. Phases of the Moon
      6. The Wandering Moon
  • Appendices
    • The Denham Tracts
    • Tolkien's letter to The Observer
    • The Dvergatal The Dwarf-Names
    • Tolkien's Correspondence with Arthur Ransome
  • Index

Review posted May 11, 2010.

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