by Devin Brown
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.
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.
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|
We could say that Tolkien’s fiction is permeated with his beliefs, that the Christian element has been infused into the story.
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.