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The History of the Hobbit. Part One: Mr. Baggins; Part Two: Return To Bag-end.

THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT. PART ONE: MR. BAGGINS; PART TWO: RETURN TO BAG-END. John D. Rateliff. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. ISBN 978-0618968473, 978-0618969197. Hardcover. 905pp. $70.00. [Also available in a boxed set with the 70th Anniversary Edition of The Hobbit, ISBN 978-0618964406. $95.00]

READERS HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR The History of The Hobbit for a very long time indeed, roughly the same length of time the first admirers of The Hobbit had to wait for its sequel. At the outset of Christopher Tolkien's textual history of The Lord of the Rings, he made the explicit statement that "[n]o account is given in this book of the history of the writing of The Hobbit up to its original publication in 1937" (Shadow 6). But such a history was needed, and the nascent project was probably already underway at the hands of Taum Santoski at Marquette University at the time Christopher Tolkien penned his introduction. Not long after Santoski's untimely death in 1991, John Rateliff assumed direction of the project, having already been involved in a less formal capacity for several years. Shortly thereafter, Wayne Hammond informed eager readers that "the history of the writing of The Hobbit is sketched by Humphrey Carpenter in J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, and will be fully told by John D. Rateliff in a forthcoming book" (Descriptive Bibliography 7). But until the summer of 2007, those readers had to be content with Carpenter's and Hammond's abbreviated accounts, though they had been clamoring for the promised book for fifteen years.

That wait is now finally over, and I am happy to report that The History of The Hobbit, in two ambitious and riveting volumes, is clearly worth the time it took Rateliff to complete his work. But the book is more than a mere textual history. To paraphrase Bilbo, Rateliff has not just one purpose, but three. First, he presents the earliest manuscript of The Hobbit, with minimal interruption but with considerable exegesis and source study. In this, as he writes in his Introduction, his book is complementary to Douglas Anderson's equally valuable Annotated Hobbit (xxx). Second, he argues the case that The Hobbit is much more closely connected to the "Silmarillion" tradition than is generally acknowledged. In effect, it seems that Rateliff's conclusions partially refute (or at least extenuate) Christopher Tolkien's claim that "The Hobbit was drawn into Middle-earth--and transformed it; but as it stood in 1937 it was not a part of it" (Shadow 7, italics original). At the same time, Rateliff wishes to counteract the all too common misperception of The Hobbit "as 'a mere prelude' to The Lord of the Rings, a lesser first act that sets up the story and prepares the reader to encounter the masterpiece that follows [...], a view [which] does not do justice to either book" (xi). Third, Rateliff elucidates the case of the 1947 revisions, the text now known to most readers, and presents for the first time Tolkien's abandoned attempt in 1960 to rewrite the entire novel to bring it into greater harmony with the mood, language, and geography of The Lord of the Rings.

In its meticulously systematic layout, the book follows the example of Christopher Tolkien's History of Middle-earth series closely, tracing the development of The Hobbit through a series of successive phases, interrupted now and then by adumbrated plot notes projecting the story forward from different vantage points (a technique Tolkien would employ again while writing The Lord of the Rings). Rateliff, with minor misgivings, elected to divide his history into chapters corresponding to those of the published novel but almost invariably absent from the manuscript (cf. "The Plan of This Edition", xxvixxix). Laudably, Rateliff keeps Tolkien's voice quite distinct from his own. To that end, he saves comments on the manuscript for the text notes following each uninterrupted chapter or plot outline, and follows these in turn with his own essays on Tolkien's sources, motifs, and themes, with their notes following last of all. While this may sound tedious described in a review, it actually makes for an extremely readable and engaging history. Readers desiring to first experience Tolkien's original manuscript without disruption may therefore do so smoothly, skipping Rateliff's essays and returning to them later if they wish. My own recommendation, however, is to read and relish every word in the order given. Rateliff's numerous insights and well-written commentaries will significantly enrich the reader's experience of Tolkien's evolving vision for The Hobbit at each ensuing point.

Tolkien's first manuscript is also full of many wonderful surprises. I will not spoil all of them, but I would like to highlight just a few. Perhaps most obviously, there is the matter of the nomenclature. Thorin Oakenshield was originally Gandalf the Dwarf; Gandalf the Wizard was originally Bladorthin, a name subsequently relegated to a single obscure reference in the novel (like Queen Beruthiel in The Lord of the Rings); Beorn the Berserker was originally Medwed the Werebear; Smaug the Magnificent was Pryftan; and Fingolfin, in the earliest fragmentary drafts, was not the High King of the Noldor, but rather the Goblin by whose dispatch Bullroarer Took earned his fame! Equally surprising are several abandoned alleyways down which the story first strayed (or threatened to stray, in plot notes). In one, Bilbo finds his way back to the lost Forest Path in Mirkwood using a ball of wound-up spider silk, like Theseus in the Minotaur's labyrinth. In another, it was originally to be Bilbo who killed Smaug, single-handedly, by stabbing him in his sleep--Carpenter revealed this nearly thirty years ago, but it is still startling. In still another lost story element, it was to be the Elves of Mirkwood, and not Thorin and the Dwarves, who succumbed to the unmitigated greed of the dragon-sickness. And neither Thorin nor his kinsmen, Fili and Kili, were to have died in the resulting struggle. Finally, there is an astonishing series of explicit references both to the real Primary World and to the burgeoning world of the "Silmarillion," including on the one hand, Shetland ponies, policemen on bicycles, the Gobi desert, China, Christmas, and even the star Sirius; and on the other, not only Gondolin, but also the Gnomes (that is, the inchoate Noldor), Tu the Fay (that is, the Necromancer, later Sauron), and even a direct reference, by name, to Beren and Tinuviel (removed prior to publication).

Rateliff has also provided a wealth of appendant material valuable for a fuller appreciation of The Hobbit. This includes more than two dozen of Tolkien's sketches and illustrations, several not previously published; the original draft of Fimbulfambi's (later, Thrain's) map of the Lonely Mountain; and most fascinating of all, a "facsimile" of the letter Thorin and Company left beneath Bilbo's mantel clock. There are also four appendices: excerpts from The Denham Tracts, often advanced as a possible source for the word "hobbit"; the original 1938 letter to The Observer, signed "HABIT" (the source of that now very hackneyed pun), as well as Tolkien's full response, with further discussion of the word "hobbit"; the Dvergatal, a part of the Voluspa (though thought to be a subsequent interpolation) from which Tolkien borrowed almost all of the Dwarves' names, presented in side-by-side Old Norse and Modern English; and finally, a fascinating series of letters between Tolkien and the writer Arthur Ransome from late 1937.

For all of these many rewards, perhaps the most interesting item--after the original manuscript itself, of course--is the so-called "1960 Hobbit," Tolkien's abortive attempt to rewrite the entire novel as a bona fide prelude to The Lord of the Rings, matching it in its tone and details. Innumerable readers of The Lord of the Rings have asked of The Hobbit, what about the Shire and Bree? What about Weathertop? What about Sauron, Dol Guldur, the Rangers, and Saruman? In 1960, Tolkien set out to address these perceived "shortcomings" in The Hobbit, reconciling it with both its sequel and the later elaboration known as "The Quest of Erebor" (published in Unfinished Tales). Though he got no further than Rivendell, the resulting three manuscript chapters and their accompanying timelines, itineraries, and phases of the moon are remarkable. But with Tolkien's planned additions to The Hobbit--the Shire, the Brandywine River, Bree and the Prancing Pony, the Rangers--came regrettable losses, mainly in its humor. The most significant cut was the apparent loss of the "golf/Golfimbul" jest. In the end, Tolkien's abandonment of the project was probably fortunate.

For all its many merits, The History of The Hobbit has some minor flaws-and what self-respecting reviewer could refrain from picking at the scabs of those occasional oversights, mistakes, or missteps? First and foremost among these, to me: apart from a short and highly selective list of frequently cited works (xxx-xxxii), there is no proper bibliography. And while it is true that the History of Middle-earth volumes Rateliff takes as his guide also have none, Rateliff's citations are too numerous and far-ranging for the omission of a bibliography. For comparison, Hammond and Scull's The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion and Scull and Hammond's J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide both include lengthy bibliographies. A second problem is easily discovered because of the first: the Index is at many points inconsistent or incomplete. Attempts to track down citations in the absence of a bibliography reveal that, while the Index contains entries for Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull both individually and as a couple, there is no entry for Tom Shippey, inter alia. Likewise, despite a twelve-page essay on Radagast (more on this in a moment), there is no entry for him in the Index. Discovering him missing under his own name, one turns hopefully to the entry "Wizards", only to encounter a frustrating "See also [...] Radagast, Saruman [...]" (905). Saruman, it transpires, is missing from the Index as well. Of course, good indexes are notoriously difficult to produce; however, it is a shame that such a voluminous and carefully researched work should deprive readers of a comprehensive index. We can only hope this will be rectified (or improved, at least) in the upcoming softcover edition.

Turning to the content of the book rather than its appendages, I would like to comment on two or three of the essays Rateliff has written to accompany each phase and chapter. These are generally illuminating, erudite, and thorough (as typified by "The Ring", 174-82)--generally, but not invariably. For example, Rateliff's examinations of "The Carrock" (261-6) and "The Name 'Esgaroth'" (561-2) both overlook the published work Mark Hooker has done on these names and places. Hooker's study of the Carrock (79-81) previously appeared in Beyond Bree in 2001 and in Palantir (in Russian) in 2002 before being reprinted in A Tolkienian Mathomium. His study of Esgaroth (15-17) was previously unpublished; however, Sandra Ballif Straubhaar called attention to both essays in her review last spring (311, 312), and it seems not unreasonable that Rateliff might have caught at least one of them. It is not a matter of the recency of A Tolkien Mathomium (as Rateliff refers to other books published in 2005 and 2006); I expect it is simply that Rateliff never read Hooker's book, and reviews of it came too late.

In other cases, it is not previously published scholarship Rateliff misses, but rather original sources. Commenting on the Ravens of the Lonely Mountain, Carc and Roac, Rateliff has relatively little to say, mainly emphasizing the sound of the names, citing Anderson's comment that they are "marvelously onomatopoeic" (Annotated Hobbit 316). Another suggested link (622-3, note 5), the Old Norse hrafn, Old English hraefn "raven", is an improvement, but there is still much to be said. Considering Tolkien's choice of Norse names in the northeast Wilderland, surely Carc derives from Old Norse krakr "crow or raven" and Roac from hrokr "rook" (a bird of the crow family). Tolkien even spells the ravens' names Kark and Roak at one point. Additionally, Carc find cognates among the Elven languages--probably under the direct influence of the Old Norse or the underlying Indo-European root (cf. Ancient Greek kopae "raven"). Among these cognates, we have Gnomish crunc "crow" (PE11 27); Qenya karon "crow" (PE12 45); and the root KARKA- "crow", later emended to KORKA- (Lost Road 362). Still later--subsequent to the publication of The Hobbit, but I provide them here for the sake of completeness--we find in the more developed Quenya quako "crow" (Jewels 395), and of course the later Sindarin forms, craban and the plural crebain "crow, crows" (PE17 37), familiar to readers of The Lord of the Rings. All of this goes unmentioned by Rateliff. Following the text notes, in his short essay on ravens, Rateliff does mention Odin's ravens, Hugin and Munin, as well as the traditions of the Volsunga Saga and the Fafnismal, but he might also have mentioned the Krakumal ("The Lay of the Raven"), contained in the same codex as the Volsunga Saga. Perhaps a greater stretch, there is even the mythological Roc (from Persian rukh), immortalized in The Arabian Nights and in Marco Polo's Travels. The point here is not to niggle but only to demonstrate that in some cases Rateliff could have dug deeper.

For one final example, I would like to comment on Rateliff's analysis of the character of Radagast (268-80). Almost without precedent in scopecoincidentally, Nick Birns published a study of roughly equal length, but plowing different ground, at about the same time--Rateliff's discussion of Gandalf's "good cousin Radagast" (233), "a sort of Godot" (269) in the novel, is thorough and interesting, but not without faults. In discussing the possible etymology of the Wizard's name, Rateliff asserts at one point that "Old Norse is not an option here" (289n36); however, I am not entirely convinced by the argument he advances. What about Old Norse raogast "to take counsel," which is, at least implicitly, highly suggestive of Radagast? Next, Rateliff offers possible readings informed by Old English, then moves on to consider a Slavic origin on the strength of Beorn's original Slavic name, Medwed ("bear", cf. Slovenian medved, Serbian medvjed, Russian Medbedb, Czech medved; from an Indo-European root medh- "honey" > English mead). In the event, Rateliff dismisses both Old English and Slavic in favor of Gothic, which he finds "the most convincing of all" (278). He presents solid evidence for a Gothic source, but what troubles me here is this: if one may dismiss Old Norse and Old English--"despite the excellent fit in sound and etymology" (277)--on the basis of the Slavic name, Medwed, then why should one not also dismiss Gothic for the same reason? Rateliff's argument could perhaps have been better formulated. Regarding the Gothic argument, which is indeed plausible, Rateliff suggests the model of "the Gothic king or war-chieftain Radagaisus (died 406 AD), whose name is rendered Rhadagast in some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources" (278). One such source Rateliff gives is an 1829 translation of Alfred's Old English Boethius. But he missed an even better piece of evidence: the actual spelling Tolkien used, Radagast, occurs in at least one other, roughly contemporary, edition of the same work (excerpted in Thorpe 138). Tolkien's spelling also occurs in Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (364-6); Rateliff cites this source, but gives the spelling of Rhadagast. Perhaps he read a different edition? The one I examined contained both spellings. And finally, Rateliff thanks David Salo for pointing out these possible Gothic antecedents, but Tom Shippey made the same observation about Radagaisus in The Road to Middle-earth (301).

Let me pause before we drown in minutiae. In recording such slight quibbles as I have, my point is not to chip away at the value and quality of Rateliff's achievement. It is only to highlight the fact that, however thorough a literary and source study of The Hobbit might be, there is always more to find. Tolkien's sources are far from exhausted, though The History of The Hobbit, together with The Annotated Hobbit, must now bookend any future study of Tolkien's novel. Rateliff's few missteps and oversights scarcely mar such an ambitious and brilliant work. In a way, they are incentives for even deeper exploration, Rateliff's book in hand. Simply put, the book is an indispensable new starting point for the study of Tolkien's timeless classic.


Birns, Nicholas. "The Enigma of Radagast: Revision, Melodrama, and Depth." Mythlore 26:1/2 (#99/100)(Fall/Winter 2007): 113-26.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Volume 3 (of 6). London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854.

Hammond, Wayne G. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography. With the assistance of Douglas A. Anderson. New Castle (DE): Oak Knoll Press, 1993.

--and Christina Scull. The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Hooker, Mark T. A Tolkienian Mathomium: A Collection of Articles on J.R.R. Tolkien and His Legendarium. Morrisville (NC): Llyfrawr, 2006.

Scull, Christina and Wayne G. Hammond. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide [two volumes]. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth. Third rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Straubhaar, Sandra Ballif. Rev. of A Tolkienian Mathomium by Mark T. Hooker. Tolkien Studies 4 (2007): 311-14.

Thorpe, Benjamin. A Grammar of the Anglo.Saxon Tongue from the Danish of Erasmus Rask. Second ed. London: Trubner & Co., 1865.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Annotated Hobbit. Annotated by Douglas A. Anderson. Rev. and expanded ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

--. "The Gnomish Lexicon." Ed. by Christopher Gilson, Patrick Wynne, Arden R. Smith, and Carl F. Hostetter. Parma Eldalamberon 11 (1995): 17-75.

--. The Lost Road and Other Writings. Ed. by Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

--. "The Qenya Lexicon." Ed. by Christopher Gilson, Carl F. Hostetter, Patrick Wynne, and Arden R. Smith. Parma Eldalamberon 12 (1998): 29-106.

--. The Return of the Shadow: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part One. Ed. by Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

--. The War of the Jewels: The Later Silmarillion, Part Two. Ed. by Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

--. "Words, Phrases, and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings." Ed. by Christopher Gilson. Parma Eldalamberon 17 (2007).
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Author:Fisher, Jason
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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