C. S. Lewis is the 20th century’s most widely read Christian writer and J.R.R. Tolkien its most beloved mythmaker.
For three decades, they and their closest associates formed a literary club known as the Inklings, which met every week in Lewis’s Oxford rooms and in nearby pubs. They discussed literature, religion, and ideas; read aloud from works in progress; took philosophical rambles in woods and fields; gave one another companionship and criticism; and, in the process, rewrote the cultural history of modern times.
In The Fellowship—available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux—Philip and Carol Zaleski offer the first complete rendering of the Inklings’ lives and works. The result is an extraordinary account of the ideas, affections and vexations that drove the group’s most significant members. The excerpt below concerns a book that the Inklings may have heard early in their history (clear evidence is lacking either way): Tolkien’s first full-length novel, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.
On February 4, 1933, Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves:
Since term began I have had a delightful time reading a children’s story which Tolkien has just written… Reading his fairy tale has been uncanny—it is so exactly like what we wd. both have longed to write (or read) in 1916: so that one feels he is not making it up but merely describing the same world into which all three of us have the entry. Whether it is really good (I think it is until the end) is of course another question: still more, whether it will succeed with modern children.
The “children’s story” to which Lewis refers is, unmistakably, The Hobbit, Tolkien’s classic children’s fantasy and the prelude to The Lord of the Rings.
The Hobbit belonged, at the outset, to the endless stream of tales Tolkien invented to beguile his restless boys, stories like Roverandom and Mr. Bliss or the purely silly adventures of “Bill Stickers” and “Major Road Ahead.” Invented on the spot and crafted in the writing, these stories were intended at first solely for the family’s enjoyment, much like the annual Father Christmas letters. Composing for his own children proved to be a valuable exercise, a sine qua non for The Hobbit and for the high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings. It freed Tolkien to experiment with world making without worrying about what the public might think and without having, for the time being, to meet the high standards of consistency he demanded of himself where his serious mythology was concerned.
Favorite books by other authors also helped to prepare the way for The Hobbit, among them George MacDonald’s Curdie books with their mountain strongholds and perfectly realized goblins, and Edward A. Wyke-Smith’s 1927 The Marvellous Land of Snergs, whose faintly preposterous, surprisingly resilient, perpetually feasting heroes, “only slightly taller than the average table but broad in the shoulders and of great strength,” lead their young human friends on a series of perilous adventures.
No one really knows—or at least scholars cannot agree—when Tolkien first began to write down The Hobbit. The most that can be affirmed with confidence is that he commenced no later than the summer of 1930, possibly as early as the summer of 1926, and that he worked at it on and off for as long as six and a half years, in whatever hours he could carve out from lecturing, tutoring, advising, grading, agitating for the reform of the English syllabus, and other creative and scholarly work. Beyond that, though a raft of Tolkien experts have combed all the evidence, it is impossible to reconcile the varying accounts. John and Michael remembered sitting in their father’s study at 22 Northmoor Road and hearing him tell the story during long Christmas evenings beginning in 1926 or 1927, and Christopher wrote a letter to Father Christmas in December 1937, saying of The Hobbit that his father “wrote it ages ago, and read it to John, Michael, and me in our winter ‘reads’ after tea in the evening…” Tolkien believed that he first told his sons the story after they moved, in January 1930, to the large house at 20 Northmoor Road. It was there, on a summer day that year, as Tolkien later recalled, that he found himself scribbling “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” on a blank page of a School Certificate paper he was grading. That precious piece of paper has not survived. Whether or not Tolkien’s memory is reliable in this instance, his recollection illustrates his sense of being the discoverer rather than the manufacturer of his secondary world. Like Lewis, who said that Narnia came to him by way of a mental picture of a faun with an umbrella, Tolkien was convinced that genuine creative work originated somewhere beyond the individual creator’s conscious mind. At first he had no idea what a hobbit was or where it would lead him, but he was more than willing to be led. He had, as we have seen, a Romantic conception of artistic inspiration as sheerly other at its source, and he would build upon that conception, as many fantasy writers before and after him had done and would do, by casting himself as the mere editor or compiler of inherited texts and tales. Bilbo’s memoir, There and Back Again, A Hobbit’s Holiday, was the real source of The Hobbit, we are told; eventually Tolkien would extend this conceit into an increasingly complex scheme of serendipitously discovered, imperfectly compiled and edited, vast yet tantalizingly incomplete chronicles and florilegia of worlds and times and works long past.
As to the word “hobbit,” it’s not unreasonable to suppose, as Tolkien believed, that it did indeed just pop into his mind. Tolkien scholars have suggested a host of possible influences, from the rhyming but rather unlikely “Babbitt” (the bourgeois antihero of Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel by that name), “habit” (as in “creature of”), and “rabbit” (an association Tolkien disliked), to an assortment of goblins and sprites, including “hobs,” “hobthrusts,” “hobyahs,” “hobbity-hoy,” “hobgoblin,” “hobyah,” “hubbit,” and the like. In 1977, a single instance of “hobbit” was discovered, buried deep in a long list of preternatural beings native to northern England, in a two-volume collection of folklore studies published in 1895. But hobbits are not preternatural beings—they are a branch of the human family, bearing no relation, Tolkien insisted, to spirits or to “fairy rabbits.” The existence of “hobbit” on a nineteenth-century folklorist’s word list demonstrates at most that Tolkien had an unconscious fully stocked with the shapes and sounds of early Germanic nomenclature; as Tom Shippey points out, it tells us very little about Tolkien’s creative process. Tolkien “had been inside language,” as Lewis put it, and could intuit where others could only laboriously reconstruct. So it was right, when “hobbit” made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Supplement, that it should arrive naked, sans real-world etymology, as an artifact of Tolkien’s imagination.
Several scholars have labored mightily to reconstruct the stages by which Tolkien created The Hobbit. We now know that in its earliest form, which survives as a six-page handwritten fragment and a twelvepage typescript/manuscript in the Tolkien papers at Marquette University, The Hobbit is a comic children’s fairy tale centering on the adventures of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who lives in comfortable lodgings at Bag End, Hobbiton Hill (a.k.a. “the Hill”), overlooking the village of Hobbiton in the imaginary land of the Shire. Like all hobbits, Mr. Baggins is a good-natured fellow. Somewhat smaller than a dwarf, beardless, round in the middle and hairy on the feet, he favors bright clothing, good company, cozy surroundings, and frequent meals, and is thoroughly ordinary and unmagical. Mr. Baggins is well-off and respected by his neighbors except for a touch of queerness he inherited from his mother’s side of the family, the notorious Tooks, who claim fairy folk among their ancestry and exhibit a certain adventurous streak.
The Tookish element in Bilbo’s nature lies dormant until a wandering wizard (known as Gandalf in later versions), a friend of the elder Tooks and master of fireworks, invites thirteen dwarves to a tea party under Mr. Baggins’s roof. There Bilbo is persuaded, through a combination of flattery and scorn, to help the dwarves avenge the destruction by a dragon of their treasure trove and ancestral homeland under the Lonely Mountain. This leads to a series of disconnected adventures, in which he encounters Elves (notably the wise Elrond of Rivendell), trolls (who speak with Cockney accents), goblins and wolflike Wargs, a were-bear named Beorn, the wretched Gollum skulking in deep caverns, giant spiders, human beings from a mercantile town of faded splendor, and a crafty, treasure-hoarding dragon.
Tolkien borrowed the names for the dwarves from the Dvergatal (dwarf list), a section of the Old Norse Eddic poem Völuspá, which mentions Durin, Dvalin, Dain, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Nori, Thrain, Thorin, Fili, Kili, Eikinskjaldi (Oakenshield)—and Gandalf. In the earliest version of The Hobbit, Gandalf is the chief dwarf, while the wizard bears the unpleasant name of Bladorthin (drawn from Sindarin, Tolkien’s invented language for the Grey Elves). The dragon carries the vaguely Welsh name of Pryftan, revised in later versions to Smaug, from the Old English smúgan, to squeeze through a hole or “worm” one’s way in (“a low philological jest,” according to Tolkien, who extended the jest with his fanciful etymology for “hobbit,” from hol-bytla, “hole-dweller”). Bilbo Baggins is, from the very beginning, the inveterately bourgeois hobbit and reluctant burglar who by luck and ingenuity survives a series of unlookedfor adventures and, with nerves steeled by the possession of an invisibility ring, learns to live up to his burglar’s calling. Tolkien’s first plan—until he thought better of it—was to have Bilbo be the dragon-slayer, plunging his little sword into the sleeping beast’s chest, just as Sigurd does to Fáfnir, the very Smaug-like dragon of the Norse Sigurd lays. In the scuttling of this plan, the Bilbo we know fully emerges: Tookish enough to engage in a battle of wits with a loquacious dragon, humble enough to stand aside while a human king strikes the death blow; seeking, in the end, not glory or riches but general well-being and a chance to retire safely to his armchair with his fourteenth share of the profits in hand.
Tolkien’s evolving conception of Bilbo was a watershed in his approach to storytelling. The glorious, solemn, violent, single-handed exploits of ancient Germanic heroes had weighed on his mind throughout the six or seven years during which he composed and revised his tale. Like the Beowulf poet, he wished to honor that heroic past, celebrating its memory while subtly Christianizing it. But Tolkien went a step further than his predecessor. While Beowulf is the Germanic hero transposed to a Christian key, preserving the pagan glory-seeking ethos with less swagger and self-absorption than his predecessors, Bilbo initiates a new kind of a hero altogether, exalted because first humbled, yet never exalted too far above his fellows. Tolkien came to realize that hobbits had given him a way to portray heroes “more praiseworthy than the professionals,” ordinary beings whose ennoblement epitomized, as he would explain in a letter to W. H. Auden, the exaltavit humiles theme (“He lifted up the lowly,” a reference to the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise in the Gospel according to Luke). Beowulf was a figure of sacrificial nobility overshadowed by fate, Bilbo a creature of ordinary decency who would sacrifice his homely pleasures when necessary yet return to them—“there and back again”—rejoicing in the kettle on the hearth and the tobacco jar by the hand, embracing a life, though forever touched by a certain queerness, in which he could reasonably expect to remain perfectly content.
As Lewis was among the first to note, and as Tolkien himself acknowledged, the atmosphere of The Hobbit changed in midstream “from fairy-tale to the noble and high” just as Tolkien changed, in midcourse, his conception of how one ought to write for children. The earlier chapters are peppered with silly props and pratfalls, as well as chatty parenthetical asides by the narrator (“And what would you do, if an uninvited dwarf came and hung his things up in your hall without a word of explanation?”), that Tolkien regretted but never managed entirely to remove in the process of revision. Nor was he able to give the secondary world of The Hobbit the consistency that he felt a work of mythic stature ought to possess. The earliest drafts mention lands as distant as the Gobi Desert and objects as improbable as popguns, train whistles, and tomatoes; even in revision, anachronisms remain.
Yet the anachronisms are not without value. The hobbits are meant to seem parochially modern in their customs and outlook. One easily pictures Bilbo ensconced in the Bird and Baby, exchanging war stories over a pint, or reading drafts of his memoir, There and Back Again, A Hobbit’s Holiday, in the frayed comfort of Lewis’s Magdalen digs. It is an essential effect of Tolkien’s art that one should feel the strangeness of being pulled back from the familiar modern world into the archaic North, with its Mirkwood (Old Norse Myrkviðr) and Misty Mountains. It is this anachronism, this bridging of worlds—ours with the archaic past—that gives the story its power to enchant and to disturb.
Undigested elements from The Silmarillion, which are especially numerous in the earliest drafts, suggest that The Hobbit was, from the beginning, linked, though by no means integrated, with that never-ending, interlocking chain of myths. Tolkien was of two minds about how far to press and how openly to acknowledge these links. Now and then he dropped hints that The Hobbit was based on The Silmarillion, but more often he was at pains to insist that The Hobbit began as a children’s story unrelated to The Silmarillion, that as time went on it was drawn into his mythology—or, rather, invaded by it—and that it was only under the pressure of creating a sequel that he labored to bridge the gap.
He sent the manuscript around to friends and sympathetic colleagues, often with a self-deprecating note about how the book came to be written and accepted by Allen & Unwin for publication. To R. W. Chambers, professor of English at University College London, he said that the whole thing was an accident; he had written the story for his children, and an employee of his publisher happened to discover it “lying about in a nunnery” (of the Holy Child Sisters at Cherwell Edge). The first official reader’s report came from Stanley Unwin’s ten-year-old son Rayner, a precocious critic:
Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who lived in his hobbit-hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his dwarves perswaded him to go. He had a very exiting time fighting goblins and wargs at last they got to the lonley mountain; Smaug, the dragon who gawreds it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home—rich!
This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.
Surely it was not lost on Tolkien that a ten-year-old reader saw the book as suitable for five-to-nine-year-olds. Better to downplay the Silmarillion elements and characterize The Hobbit as a don’s folly, lightly tossed off, than to expose his whole mythopoeic project to misunderstanding or ridicule. If The Hobbit failed, at least it need not take The Silmarillion down with it.
The Hobbit was published in September 1937, lavishly furnished with Tolkien’s illustrations, to healthy sales and immediate (if not universal) critical acclaim. R. W. Chambers provided an ecstatically positive blurb. The novelist Richard Hughes, in a glowing review for the New Statesman and Nation, observed that Tolkien’s “wholly original story of adventure among goblins, elves, and dragons, instead of being a tour-de-force, a separate creation of his own, gives rather the impression of a well-informed glimpse into the life of a wide other-world; a world wholly real, and with a quite matter-of-fact, supernatural natural-history of its own.” Lewis, now that he had heard and read the finished work, with a more fully realized “there and back again” plot than the first version he had seen, was convinced that indeed it was really good and said so in an unsigned review in The Times Literary Supplement on October 2:
The publishers claim that “The Hobbit,” though very unlike “Alice,” resembles it in being the work of a professor at play. A more important truth is that both belong to a very small class of books which have nothing in common save that each admits us to a world of its own—a world that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it but which, once found by the right reader, becomes indispensable to him. Its place is with “Alice,” “Flatland,” “Phantastes,” “The Wind in the Willows.”
Lewis was also the author of the unsigned review in the London Times of October 8, declaring that
the truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together; a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology. On the edge of a valley one of Professor Tolkien’s characters can pause and say: “It smells like elves.” It may be years before we produce another author with such a nose for an elf. The Professor has the air of inventing nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons at first hand and describes them with that fidelity which is worth oceans of glib “originality.”
Tolkien was clearly delighted, telling Unwin that he had divined the authorship of the two anonymous reviews and that “I must respect his opinion, as I believed him to be the best living critic until he turned his attention to me.” Typically, though, he focuses attention in this highspirited letter on something his best reviewers failed to notice: that The Hobbit contains the incorrect plural for “dwarf”—Tolkien’s “private bad grammar” preferred “dwarves” to “dwarfs”—along with the puckish observation that the “real” plural is “dwarrows,” which “I rather wish I had used.”
Excerpted from The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings © Philip and Carol Zaleski, 2015