Bilbo Baggins just wants to live his quiet, peaceful life in the Shire. And he's doing a mighty fine job of it until the great wizard, Bladorthin, shows up at his door with a gaggle of dwarves. Their leader, Gandalf, tells of the vicious dragon, Pryftan, who overtook their home. Bilbo joins up with them for a grand adventure. Ultimately he saves the day and along the way happens to discover a magical ring.
That is how the story originally took shape.
With THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT, author John D. Rateliff pieces together fragments of history in order to present THE HOBBIT as it was originally drafted by J.R.R. Tolkien. With access to the documents at Marquette University, the project was originally undertaken by Taum Santoski, who passed away following a battle with cancer at an all-too-young age. The torch was then passed to Rateliff with the full blessing of Christopher Tolkien.
Some of Tolkien's original papers have been lost to time. Seventy years is quite a period to have anything stashed away. The opening page, featuring the handwritten line "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit," is one of those long-lost pages, but for the most part, a rather complete version of the initial draft of this book can be pieced together. In essence, THE HOBBIT is a phenomenal read for a number of reasons.
On one level, it gives readers the first look at the origins of legend. This is how Tolkien originally viewed his mythical Middle-earth before it grew into THE LORD OF THE RINGS. These characters bore different names, endured different hardships and took on other roles. Gollum, in the original vision, held to his end of the riddle game and, after losing, shows Bilbo the way out of the mountain. The guardsman Bard, who slays Smaug in the final version, is barely introduced before he is killed.
And this opens up to aspect number two.
As Tolkien begins to make his second pass through the draft, notating and correcting as he goes (in pen over the top of original pencil writings), names begin to change, the story arc and scenes start morphing and readers get to see and understand why those alterations were made. This is a wonderful view for writers to see the mindset of a second draft but also a way for any ordinary reader to understand why things evolved and changed. And in some instances, it gives a greater weight to the final version.
Thirdly, THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT is, as the title says, a history. Not just a mere presenting of the manuscript in its rough form, Rateliff has documented the timeframe of the work, giving us the most precise record as to when it was first conceived and when it was completed. His insights into the reasoning behind changes are culled from Tolkien's own notes and letters, and much of what was once believed is corrected. This historical perspective illuminates the book rather than bury it.
The story of THE HOBBIT evolved because the world around Tolkien evolved, not to mention that the author himself underwent changes over the years this work was in creation. Rateliff does an outstanding job of presenting the original draft and its subsequent transformation, including his own discoveries and commentaries along the way. At no point does this ever become a chore to read.
Equal parts fantasy fiction and biographical fact, THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT is a true gem of a set. For the first time, the timeline of the creation of this premiere novel is ironed out and separated from myth.
Finally, Tolkien's original vision is presented for the world to see, and the extent of the expansive growth of Middle-earth and its characters is opened up to inspection. Rateliff pulls together loose and seemingly disparate threads and weaves them into a profound tapestry and companion that THE HOBBIT, now in its 70th year, richly deserved.
--- Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard