Happy Birthday, Little Hobbit!

Hobbits might be small, but The Hobbit is not. The widely read children’s fantasy book about a hobbit Bilbo Baggins on his journey to help dwarves reclaim their homeland was J.R.R. Tolkien’s first deep dive into Middle Earth. It was first published 80 years this week.

The Book that Started it All

The Hobbit is the first work of long fiction by Tolkien, best known at the time as an Oxford University linguistics professor who had also published a few dozen volumes of poetry.

The Inspiration

The Hobbit, along with The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s entire “Middle-Earth” mythology, came out of Tolkien’s concocting of a mythology and invented languages in the 1910s. He only even thought about writing a novel in the early 1930s when a line popped into his head while grading papers: “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.” That became the first line of The Hobbit.

The Road to Publishing

Still, he didn’t rush the book off to publishers or a literary agent. He let some friends and students read it. One of those students was Elaine Griffiths, who gave it to a friend named Susan Dagnall, who worked in publishing, who gave it to Stanley Unwin of the publisher Allen & Unwin. He, in turn gave it to his 10-year-old-son to see if it was any good. The kid wrote up a positive review, and so dad agreed to publish it.

First Print Run

Allen & Unwin obviously weren’t expecting a blockbuster hit that would endure for generations. The first print run was just 1,500 copies. All of them sold by Christmas.

Bestseller: 1937 – Today

The publishing industry tracks scales with a service called BookScan. It generates a list of the top 5,000 bestselling books. The Hobbit has never dropped out of the top 5,000.

Dwarrows and Hobbits

According to Tolkien, the plural of dwarf—his race of humanlike in The Hobbit—isn’t dwarves. It’s dwarrows. Tolkien coined the word “dwarf,” but he didn’t coin the word “hobbit.” It first appears in an 1895 fantasy book called Denham Tracts, by Michael Aislabeie Denham.

Boys Club?

There are no female characters whatsoever in The Hobbit. The only woman even mentioned is Belladonna Took, Bilbo Baggins’ mother. The character of Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Hobbit, was created just for the film.

The Sequel

Allen & Unwin asked Tolkien for a sequel after the initial print run sold out. That suggestion ultimately became The Lord of the Rings, first published in 1954.

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