Colin Duriez explains how Tolkien came to write The Hobbit
People around the planet have been waiting. The Peter Jackson film of the first part of The Hobbit, based upon the children’s classic by J.R.R. Tolkien, which has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, is imminent.
There may still be some who might ask, ‘What is a hobbit?’ But with the book’s readership so vast, and audiences of The Hobbit sequel film, The Lord of the Rings, so numerous, images of hobbits are familiar, in their colourful, rustic clothes. As Tolkien wrote, when he first introduced them to the world, hobbits ‘are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than bearded dwarves’. Hobbit identity is tied up with their home country, The Shire, from which the hero of The Hobbit, Mr. Bilbo Baggins, sets out on an adventure, in the teeth of long years of provincial respectability. Before the late 1920s, or thereabouts, however, the word ‘hobbit’ in the new familiar sense did not exist.
In the middle of marking exams
The name ‘hobbit’, in fact, had popped out of Tolkien’s head when he was a Professor of Old English at Oxford University, and was marking school exam papers for extra money to pay household bills. This was in the days before a free health service and good quality schools without fees and the Tolkien family were often short of money.
Tolkien tells us he came across an unused page and was delighted to have a little less marking. Suddenly, he scrawled across the page, he knew not why, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’ — which became the first sentence of the book. He then had to work out who ‘hobbits’ were, and that is how the stories about them really started.
The Shire near Birmingham
Later, he found that hobbits really belonged in a later age of the world he was creating, and that their home was The Shire, a rural part of Middle-earth which was very like the countryside near Birmingham in which he spent part of his childhood. In fact, he came to think of himself as a sort of hobbit. Tolkien wasn’t mad, or even overly eccentric, but rather was someone with an extraordinarily rich imagination — which is part of the reason so many people throughout the world love his stories.
In a letter he wrote of living for his early years ‘in “The Shire” in a pre-mechanical age’. He added that he was a hobbit in fact, though not in size. Just like hobbits, he relished gardens, trees, and farmlands that hadn’t been mechanised. He smoked a pipe and liked his food plain. In the grey mid-20th-century, when the popularity of his stories started to explode, he dared to wear ornamental waistcoats. Like hobbits, he was fond of mushrooms fresh from the field and liked expressing his very basic sense of humour, which some found tiresome. He also recorded that, as an adult, he went to bed late and, if he could, got up late. Like hobbits, he travelled little.
C.S. Lewis’s assessment
Before the publication of The Hobbit, 75 years ago, the only people who knew of Mr. Bilbo Baggins and his adventures burgling gold for a party of dwarves from a watchful dragon were the children of the author, J.R.R. Tolkien, his friend C.S. Lewis (who later wrote the Narnia stories, inspired by Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth), staff at his publishing house, and one or two others. The first printing in September 1937 was a mere 1,500 copies, with a reprint becoming necessary before Christmas that year. C.S. Lewis, however, recognised The Hobbit as a classic of children’s literature from the beginning.
Tolkien added a number of illustrations, and designed the original book cover. He had written down the story after telling it in episodes to his children at bedtime. In doing this, the story had evolved and taken shape. When he started to tell it, he had no idea that the characters — hobbits, dwarves, a wizard, goblins, humans and many others — would become part of the world of Middle-earth that he had been creating since recovering from one of the bloodiest episodes of the First World War, the Battle of the Somme. His most famous creation in the book was Bilbo Baggins, who was a hobbit. Bilbo develops in character and moral stature through the trials he experiences in his adventures, where he constantly wishes that he were back home in his comfortable hobbit hole.
When Tolkien started to write down the story of the hobbit, Mr. Baggins, probably in 1930, he had already completed an early version of his cycle of stories, annals, and sketches of the elvish language, which eventually made up The Silmarillion. This was about the First Age of Middle-earth, and what went on before and after this Age. He went on for the rest of the years of his life (he died in 1973) developing and modifying his accounts of his invented world (or ‘sub-creation’, as he preferred to call such worlds), but never finishing it. It was left to his son, Christopher Tolkien, to draw together a summary compilation from the material his father left. It was published as The Silmarillion in 1977. Tolkien’s portrayal of the history and stories of the earlier ages provides a background hinted at in The Hobbit, and even more explicitly referred to in its sequel, The Lord of the Rings. To give some idea of the astonishing scale of Tolkien’s invented world, the events of the latter two books are set late in the Third Age of Middle-earth, and there are no trace of hobbits in the earlier ages.
All of Tolkien’s fiction concerning Middle-earth is set in a pre-Christian world. His is an alternative elvish and human history, set in a geography that roughly resembles north-western Europe many millennia ago. He writes consciously as a Christian, with the hindsight of hope in Christ’s salvation. However, as in the biblical book of Esther, there is no mention of the name of God in either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. The reader has to go to the background of the stories, The Silmarillion, for the key to Tolkien’s theology. Here the presence of providence, and the guidance of prophecy, only hinted at in the stories which feature hobbits, is writ large. Here also are the keys to other biblical elements, such as the central importance of the humble and weak in the plans of God (who, by the way, is called Iluvatar — All-Father — in The Silmarillion).
Tolkien’s justification of God’s ways to human beings (to paraphrase John Milton’s purpose in his magnificent poem Paradise Lost) is rich and many-layered. It had a huge impact upon his friend C.S. Lewis (his arguments, upon which his construction of Middle-earth are based, helped to persuade him of the truth of Christian belief). Perhaps my favourite element in Tolkien’s rich tapestry of imaginative theology is his account of the creation of Middle-earth, which almost certainly influenced Lewis’s portrayal of divine creation in his own invented world, or ‘sub-creation’, of Narnia. In Lewis, Narnia comes to be as the creator-lion, Aslan, sings it into being. In Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, the picture of creation by music is more complex, but deeply beautiful. First God (Iluvatar) presents the idea of what is to be in music to the listening angelic powers he has made. Then he brings into physical being what was musically foreshadowed with the help of his angelic agents. However, he directly creates elves and humans. The ensuing histories and stories of the ages of Middle-earth are the outworking of his creation music.
Iluvatar’s music forms blueprints or patterns of the world (rather as Wisdom in Proverbs 8 represents the standard by which God works as he envisages the creation he is to make). These themes of the divine music express his care for those whom he creates, evident in providence and prophecy.
At the very end of The Hobbit, Gandalf says to Bilbo about prophecy and providence (and I hope this is kept in the film version): ‘Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine fellow, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!’
‘Thank goodness!’ said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar.
Colin Duriez has written a number of books on J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and the Inklings. His biography, J.R.R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend (Lion, £8.99) has just been published.