Episode 5 – J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”

The Hobbit first came to Oxford University professor J.R.R. Tolkien when he was grading papers in the early 1930s. Coming upon a blank page in an exam book, he suddenly wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Tolkien worked on The Hobbit for the next several years before submitting it for publication in 1936 as a children’s book to George Allen & Unwin, then known mainly as an academic publishing house. The publisher Stanley Unwin paid his ten-year-old son Rayner a shilling to review the manuscript, which he reported on as follows:

“Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit who lived in his Hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his Dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exiting (sic) time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they get to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards 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.”

Young Rayner Unwin’s recommendation convinced his father to publish The Hobbit in hardcover in 1937, to strong sales and critical acclaim. Stanley Unwin asked Tolkien for a sequel to The Hobbit as early as December 1937, a request that would take over 15 years to come to fruition as The Lord of the Rings. During that long process, Tolkien would revise The Hobbit for the first time to bring it into closer agreement with developments in The Lord of the Rings, especially in the depiction of Gollum and the One Ring.

Although The Hobbit had been available in the U.S. from 1938 in hardcover, it had not been published in U.S. paperback by the mid 1960s, partly because of Tolkien’s distaste for the “degenerate” paperback format. This all changed when Ace Books put out an unauthorized U.S. paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings in 1965 after finding what they perceived to be a copyright loophole. Ballantine Books rushed to put out authorized U.S. paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in 1965. Tolkien made additional revisions to both works both for his own satisfaction and to cement their U.S. copyright status, with The Hobbit’s third edition appearing in 1966.

The most common version of The Hobbit available during the Appendix N era would have been the 45th printing and onwards of the Ballantine Books revised paperback, featuring a lovely watercolor cover illustration by Tolkien himself of Bilbo’s escape from Mirkwood astride a barrel:

THHBBTRTHR1976

Gary Gygax denied that Tolkien’s works were a particular influence on the development of Dungeons & Dragons, but he certainly would have been conscious of the desire of prospective players to experience the trappings of Middle-earth. Many denizens of Middle-earth including Hobbits, Ents, Orcs, and Balrogs were present in the “Fantasy Supplement” of Chainmail (1971), Gary Gygax’s medieval miniatures wargame that was the immediate predecessor to Dungeons & Dragons.

The Tolkienian references continued in Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s original Dungeons & Dragons (1974) box set until the Tolkien estate caught wind of this. To avoid copyright and trademark violations, TSR modified or removed Tolkienian references from Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons in 1977, with Hobbits becoming Halflings, Ents becoming Treants, and Balrogs becoming Type VI Demons, etc.

In time, Dungeons & Dragons in its various versions and editions became successful enough in its own terms that any Tolkien-derived aspects drifted further and further from their inspirations and started to become largely self-referential. Gamers desiring to adventure in Middle-earth would have to turn to the Iron Crown Enterprises’ Tolkien estate-approved Middle-earth Role Playing (1984), derived from ICE’s Rolemaster system and commonly referred to as MERP. The MERP line was one of the most popular fantasy roleplaying games throughout the 1980s and 1990s, until the license was revoked by the Tolkien estate in 1999 in rather convoluted circumstances. Decipher, Inc. briefly published The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game at the time of the Peter Jackson The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, but Cubicle 7 has held the Middle-earth RPG license since 2011, producing The One Ring Roleplaying Game. Cubicle 7 also brought Middle-earth full circle back to D&D in 2016 by producing Adventures in Middle-earth, a D&D Fifth edition compatible version of The One Ring.

Reading Resources:

The Hobbit (trade paperback)

The Hobbit (Kindle ebook)

Gaming Resources:

The Adventures in Middle-earth RPG line is available here(RPGNow affiliate link)

The One Ring Roleplaying Game line is available here(RPGNow affiliate link)

Bonus Section!

Attercop is a Middle English (via Old English) term for spider or peevish or ill-natured person, from the roots atter (“poison/venom”) and cop (“head”). The D&D Ettercap was originally submitted for “The Fiend Factory” column in White Dwarf magazine before being collected in the Fiend Folio (1981). Although they’ve always been evil creatures with an affinity for spiders, they were initially depicted as humanoid and became progressively more arachnid-like throughout later editions of D&D.

 

If you are in Brooklyn and want to join the IRL book club, then come over here.

The list of books we will discuss are outlined within this link.

And finally, the in-print omnibus, anthology, and online resources are living over here.

3 thoughts on “Episode 5 – J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit””

  1. “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 person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

    Sorry, Mr. Goad, but fate, luck, and prophesy are mentioned repeatedly in The Hobbit….and even more so in The Lord of the Rings: “Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine, though I was waiting for you.”

    In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, there is a divine plan, the Music of the Ainur, described in Ainulindalë in The Silmarillion. What appears to be chance is the action of higher powers (gods and patrons in DCC terms).

    In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien changes the use of language the farther the hobbits get from the Shire, so that the strangeness of the world is felt by the reader as well as the characters. While I cannot say with any certainty, I feel that the troll’s names are common both for comedic effect and to give a note of familiarity for the reader in the first dangerous encounter Bilbo has….to help ground the reader in the stranger world beyond Bag End as they really encounter that world for the first time.

    Some other stuff: That the Necromancer is Sauron is explicit in the text of The Lord of the Rings.

    The part about dwarves’ speed relates to Dain’s people being able to reach the Lonely Mountain sooner than the Elvenking and Bard expect.

    I’ve read this book aloud to each of my children, more than once each.

    You’ll get another take on the Halfling when you get to Abraham Merritt’s Dwellers in the Mirage.

    Looking forward to At the Earth’s Core!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment! It’s fun to have people I respect leaving such thoughtful responses.

      My sense is that if Tolkien wanted us to believe that ring was placed by fate then that should have been indicated in some manner. Even if Bilbo or Gollum would have said something acknowledging the incredible unlikliness of that string of events leading to his discovery of the ring then that would have helped ease the strain on my suspension of disbelief.

      Otherwise folks like me read it and just see what looks like lazy storytelling. Same goes with Gandalf and the eagles appearing *just in time* multiple times in one story. Once, sure. But c’mon, find another device!

      And perhaps I’m only critical because I hold it to a higher standard and perhaps I shouldn’t. But I do! That’s the tricky part about opinions, they are biased and often times unfair.

      Excited to re-read LotR, A. Merritt’s take of Halflings (had no idea!), and curious about what Leigh Brackett’s tale “The Halfling” is about because that’s also on our list.

      Thanks for listening and taking the time to comment!

      Like

      1. It’s all good, my friend!

        Brackett’s “halflings” have nothing to do with DCC/D&D halflings. I was all excited when I came across “The Halfling”, too, especially because it was shortly after I had read Dwellers in the Mirage. Although Merritt calls them “little people”, in some ways they make a damn fine template for the DCC halfling.

        I am actually loving the podcast, and am excited to hear your takes on works near and dear to me, as well as works that I perhaps appreciate less than I should.

        Like

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