Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Happy Birthday to Bilbo and 'The Hobbit'

On September 21, 1937 a children's tale appeared. It has what is now one of the most famous opening lines in literature (possibly even more famous than Austen's opening to Pride and Prejudice 1 !) 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.'

Tolkien wrote that line one day when wearily marking School Certificate examination papers, a necessary way of raising funds for someone with a growing family and lacking "a good fortune". One of the candidates had mercifully left a page of their examination booklet blank, and Tolkien scribbled down the line. As he said later, he "did not [...] know why" (Letters, p. 215) and he did nothing about it for several years, until he drew Thror's Map2 and the map unlocked his imagination, until Bilbo stepped forth. The story was not meant to be related to Tolkien's mythology (which he began creating 20 years before The Hobbit was published and which he was still working on at the time of his death, although The Lord of the Rings had been published by then.), but as he reports in a letter to Stanley Unwin, what began "as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm's fairy-tale dwarves, [...] got drawn into the edge of it - so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge." (Letters, p. 26)

Tolkien later regretted the style of The Hobbit, with its silly Elves and rather condescending tone to children (see Letters, pp. 159, 191, 215, 218, 297-8, 310, 346), but in spite of these faults (as Tolkien saw them), it has remained a much-read and much-loved book. The fact that it is still in print, nearly 70 years after its first publication, is a clear hint of its continuing appeal. I confess I devoured it as a child, at a time when I had just been introduced to Lewis' tales of Narnia, Mary Norton's tales of The Borrowers, and Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, and fantasy was a wondrous place to wander. I have not read it as often as LotR, and when I re-read it last year for the first time in nine years, I was rather startled to discover just how silly the Elves of Rivendell were during Bilbo's first visit ! But, for all that, I enjoyed re-reading it and I know that I will return to it again, albeit less often than LotR. So I will join Bilbo in raising a glass to celebrate his birthday (though it is not until tomorrow) and the book which brought his adventures to life.

1 For those who don't know or have forgotten, Austen's line is: 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.'
2 Warning: this map will take a while to load on a slow internet connection.

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