John D. Rateliff, The History of the Hobbit

Image of the slipcase and books of John D. Rateliff's History of the HobbitJohn D. Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit is a handsome three-volume slip-cased set of hard covers. The first two volumes are the actual History of the Hobbit, in the form of Part One: Mr Baggins, and Part Two: Return to Bag-End. The third volume in the set is Tolkien’s published version of The Hobbit, with a new-to-American publishing 2007 preface from Christopher Tolkien and a text based on the 1995 edition incorporating Tolkien’s corrections and his original illustrations, some in color. The cover is the original cover based on Tolkien’s art as Tolkien intended it, (a red sun and dragon) and the end-papers feature Tolkien’s version of Thorin’s map.

In History, Rateliff documents Tolkien’s first completed draft of The Hobbit, based on Tolkien’s much-revised mss. in the Special Collections and University Archives of Marquette University. It is, as Rateliff notes an attempt “to capture the first form in which the story flowed from his pen, with all the hesitations over wording and constant recasting of sentences that entailed” (ix). This is no small undertaking, given Tolkien’s habit of recursive revision, the natural decay of acidic paper over the course of decades, and the difficulties of Tolkien’s handwriting.

Rateliff not only manages to construct a reasonable chronology and edition, enough of an accomplishment on their own, but he also extensively comments on the various emendations and changes in a detailed and scholarly fashion, while remaining engaging and interesting. He divides the general process of creation, composition and revision into five “phases,” based on Tolkien’s recursive process of writing, revising, making a typescript or fair copy, and revising again. Rateliff proceeds, chapter by chapter, offering Tolkien’s text and noting the various changes and differences. Most striking were the character evolutions of Bilbo and Gollum, each of which are thoroughly delineated by Rateliff as he draws attention to Tolkien’s changes and choices.

It is first, fascinating to see a story evolve, to see the process of creation and composition from the very different story in the first fragment to the published and much-loved version. Some interesting differences include the wizard Bladorthin and the king of the dwarves Gandalf (a name borrowed from the Old Norse Völusp&agrav;). More importantly, Rateliff draws attention to the way Tolkien’s revisions effectively shaped the story and the mythology. In particular, Rateliff’s thoughtful notes on some of the cruxes (Beorn, fairies/elves, the spiders, the eagles, nomenclature, and itineraries and timelines) are especially illuminating. Rateliff includes a number of useful external documents, like Tolkien’s plot notes, and does a thorough job of examining and citing relevant scholarship. Rateliff also includes several interesting Appendices, among them a list of dwarf names comparing the two Old Norse sources, and some otherwise unpublished or difficult to find letters.

For those seriously interested in The Hobbit or Tolkien’s creation process, Rateliff’s notes and commentary are invaluable, though some may prefer the single-volume 2011 edition instead (Harper Collins). Those attempting to make sense of the recent Hobbit films may find some of the sources illuminated here, particularly regarding the role of the Necromancer. For those more interested in the actual ur-version of The Hobbit, they may find Rateliff’s A Brief History of The Hobbit (Harper Collins 2015) more to their liking.

John D. Rateliff has a website and he also blogs.

(Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

About the author

She plays o' the viol-de-gamboys, speaks three or four languages word for word without book, hath all the good gifts of nature, knows a hawk from a handsaw, and can see a church by daylight. The rest is subject to fancy.