August 29, 2015

Tolkien on the Beginning of The Hobbit

The Hobbit is one of the most popular books ever written with 140.6 million copies sold worldwide, a total that puts it in third place on the all-time record charts under A Tale of Two Cities and The Lord of the Rings.  As many Tolkien fans already know, the classic children's novel first began when Tolkien randomly scribbled, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."  This is all common knowledge.  But, thanks to a BBC documentary from the 1960s, we have the chance to hear Tolkien tell the story of how it all started in his own words...

From Tolkien in Oxford, BBC Television, 1968.  Watch the full documentary here:


Tolkien in the 1930s
The actual beginning - though it's not really the beginning, but the actual flashpoint I remember very clearly.  I can still see the corner of my house in 20 Northmoor Road where it happened.  I had an enormous pile of exam papers there.  Marking school examinations in the summertime is very laborious and unfortunately also boring.  And I remember picking up a paper and actually finding - I nearly gave an extra mark for it; an extra five marks, actually - there was one page of this particular paper that was left blank.  Glorious!  Nothing to read.  So I scribbled on it, I can't think why, In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  I think that was eventually published in 1937.

Hearing him speak and seeing the video makes you almost feel like you're sitting right with him!  It's a rare opportunity to hear and/or see something like this from authors from this time and especially from Tolkien as he was so wary of technology and media attention.  But, when something does make its way through history it's always a treasured find! 

But when did Tolkien start The Hobbit?

Somewhat ironically, we aren't really sure when this momentous event actually took place.  (It wasn't particularly meaningful to Tolkien at the time and the story would be fully complete and published for almost a decade.)  Many prominent Tolkien scholars, members of Tolkien's own family, and even Tolkien himself have provided conflicting accounts and pieces of evidence over the years.  Personally, I believe the summer of 1930 is probably the most likely time when Tolkien famously jotted down the opening line.  In later years Tolkien's oldest two sons, John and Michael, insisted that the story of The Hobbit first began orally as part of their regular bedtime stories in the late 1920s.  However, based on other accounts and textual evidence it seems that the Tolkien could not have written the first line until 1930.  It's more likely that Tolkien's illustrious impromptu bedtime stories featured similar characters, episodes and settings that would later be incorporated to the later written Hobbit.  This would make sense of the conflicting reports and also reinforce the idea that The Hobbit, more than any of Tolkien's works, draws most from and reflects the entire spectrum of his creative ambitions up to that point.         
Tolkien with his children circa 1936.  From left to right: Priscilla, Michael, John,
J.R.R. Tolkien, and Christopher

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