Book Review: The History of The Hobbit
Exhaustive and exhausting: That is my take on John D. Rateliff’s The History of ‘The Hobbit’ – his scholarly examination of how J.R.R. Tolkien came to write the story of Bilbo Baggins.
Much like Christopher Tolkien’s monumental 12-volume History of Middle-Earth [HoME], this two-volume work explores the origins of the story, the various phases of composition, and the changes made in subsequent editions. In other words, if you want to know every last detail that Tolkien wrote, crossed out, revised, and considered when writing The Hobbit, then this is your book.
Rateliff breaks the process down into five phases. The first phase introduces Bilbo, the wizard, the dwarves, and the dragon. But don’t expect the familiar names you are used to. The wizard is named Bladorthin, the leader of the Dwarves is Gandalf, and the dragon is Pryftan.
The second phase (the longest section of Rateliff’s book) carries the story from Hobbiton to the Lonely Mountain. Here, Rateliff provides the actual first draft of the story, along with copious footnotes that offer alternate wording and deletions. The endnotes of each chapter examine the historical context of elves, dwarves, dragons, magic rings, and riddles.
The third phase has Tolkien reconsidering the ending, from Smaug's death to the Battle of the Five Armies. The fourth phase includes revisions to the 2nd edition of the book so that the story of Gollum and the Ring matches what is told in The Lord of the Rings. Phase Five is an aborted attempt to rewrite The Hobbit so that stylistically it is more in line with The Lord of the Rings. Thankfully, Tolkien gave up on this, because he was essentially buffing out all the charming aspects of Bilbo’s story and leaving a somewhat dour retelling in its place.
Having read 7 of the 12 volumes of HoME, I’m used to Tolkien’s working things out as he writes. He often tries different character names to see what fits. In the first draft of The Hobbit, he called the wizard Bladorthin and the leader of the dwarves Gandalf. I confess it took some getting used to seeing Gandalf’s name applied to any other character than the wizard. About three-quarters of the way through this first phase of composition, he finally decided to make the switch, and Bladorthin became Gandalf, and Gandalf became Thorin Oakenshield. It was almost like listening to someone play a familiar piece of music who keeps getting the notes wrong. Once the characters became Gandalf and Thorin respectively, the story seems in tune.
The funny thing is that, for all Tolkien’s meticulous efforts to get things right, he did make mistakes. Rateliff’s book details, ad nauseum, the effort to rectify a naming error. Thorin’s father and grandfather are Thror and Thrain. On the map to the Lonely Mountain, Thrain is the father and Thror the grandfather, while in the text, it’s the other way around (or maybe Thrain is the grandfather and Thror the father. I confess I can no longer keep it straight). Rather than fixing the runes on the map, Tolkien twisted the issue into a veritable Gordian’s knot to make both the text in the novel and the writing on the map both be correct. After all that rigmarole, I no longer cared which was right; it just didn't matter anymore.
"Pick a name already! Thrain's the father and Thror's the grandfather! Just do it!"
That is where Rateliff’s efforts are exhausting. The naming mistake crops up repeatedly throughout his book – both in footnotes and endnotes. If it could have been addressed once then left alone, I would have been a much more grateful reader.
There are similar examples throughout the course of Rateliff’s work. He does conduct exhaustive research into the origins of the Dwarves’ names, their literary precursors, and the references to Beowulf and other Germanic legends. He ties The Hobbit to earlier children’s works as well as Tolkien’s own legendarium of Middle-Earth. It’s a tremendous amount of research, and I’m certain this book is a boon to all Tolkien scholars. But I confess I got burned out. About two-thirds of the way through the book, I started skimming -- something I never do -- because the minutiae of information was no longer going in.
Typically, I am not exhausted by lengthy books. And I do appreciate the care that Rateliff gives to his scholarship. Maybe if I had read each of the two-volumes separately, spacing them out as I am doing with HoME, I would not have been so fatigued.
Exhaustive research? Most definitely. Exhausting read? Yep.