At semester’s end, professors and teachers everywhere face one of their least favorite tasks: grading exams. Seriously, it’s hardly ever fun for anyone. J. R. R. Tolkien was no exception. In fact, one day, he got so bored that on a page that a student had left blank, he wrote what surely seemed like an inconsequential and fairly silly line: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
Little could he know then that he’d just written what was to become one of the best-loved first lines in all of literature.
Like a number of his other books, including Letters from Father Christmas, Roverandom, and Mr. Bliss, The Hobbit started out as a story Tolkien wrote purely for the enjoyment of his children. But at the encouragement of C. S. Lewis, Tolkien revised it enough to pursue publication, and it was accepted by Allen & Unwin at the recommendation of the editor’s ten-year-old son, Rayner Unwin, who grew up to become Tolkien’s chief publisher. In announcing the book’s publication in 1937, Allen & Unwin hailed it as “the children’s book of the year,” and C. S. Lewis’ first review states, “Prediction is dangerous; but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.” Yet apparently, almost no one was quite prepared for how successful The Hobbit would be or what would follow when readers clamored for a sequel—least of all Tolkien himself.
For make no mistake, The Hobbit is a children’s book, in which everyman protagonist Bilbo Baggins goes off on an adventure to help a band of dwarves reclaim their home from a dragon. But it’s also much more than that. Just the encounter with Smaug draws heavily on the medieval literature Tolkien loved and taught, especially the last third of Beowulf. Lewis argues, “It must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery.… [It] will be funniest to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true.” And with Bilbo’s meeting with Elrond and later discovery of the magic ring in Gollum’s cave, the tale is swept into the far larger legendarium of Middle-earth and of Arda that Tolkien had been slowly constructing since his time on the front lines of World War I. That connection changes not only the tenor of this book but also the course of the stories that would become The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. While it’s easy to make jokes about Peter Jackson’s decision to adapt The Hobbit into three movies, it makes sense once you look at LOTR’s Appendices and discover just how much was going on away from the Lonely Mountain while Bilbo and Thorin’s company were dodging goblins and learning not to laugh at live dragons.
All the same, as much as I enjoy Jackson’s movies and made sure to take plenty of Kleenex for [NO SPOILERS!] when I saw The Battle of the Five Armies opening weekend, nothing will ever beat the simple joy of sitting down with book in hand to read one more time:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole, with nothing to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Thank you, Professor, for giving us that comfort to come home to, wherever the Road may lead us.