Top 100 Children's Novels #14: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
#14 The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
I know this isn’t exactly a children’s book, but I first read it when I was nine, and I loved it so much I read it and the LOTR trilogy over and over until I was “grounded” from checking them out anymore. – Anna Ruhs
Probably my favorite book kid or adult, reading it has remained a pleasure throughout the years – and there are quite a few years for me. – Pam Coughlan
I remember reading this book on the way to elementary school and having to stop right when Bilbo was in the tunnel leading to the dragon’s lair. That was excruciating! – Sondra Eklund
Undoubtedly the upcoming movie has helped grease the memories of my readers, but I’m sure it would be just as high on this list, cinematic adaptation or no.
The synopsis from Amazon reads, “‘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 in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.’ The hobbit-hole in question belongs to one Bilbo Baggins, an upstanding member of a ‘little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded dwarves.’ He is, like most of his kind, well off, well fed, and best pleased when sitting by his own fire with a pipe, a glass of good beer, and a meal to look forward to. Certainly this particular hobbit is the last person one would expect to see set off on a hazardous journey; indeed, when Gandalf the Grey stops by one morning, ‘looking for someone to share in an adventure,’ Baggins fervently wishes the wizard elsewhere. No such luck, however; soon 13 fortune-seeking dwarves have arrived on the hobbit’s doorstep in search of a burglar, and before he can even grab his hat or an umbrella, Bilbo Baggins is swept out his door and into a dangerous adventure. The dwarves’ goal is to return to their ancestral home in the Lonely Mountains and reclaim a stolen fortune from the dragon Smaug. Along the way, they and their reluctant companion meet giant spiders, hostile elves, ravening wolves–and, most perilous of all, a subterranean creature named Gollum from whom Bilbo wins a magical ring in a riddling contest.”
In Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children I discovered a veritable treasure trove of information about this book. And while I’d love to just lift the whole passage hook line and sinker, I will endeavor to hit only the highlights.
Where did the book come from? Well, like many fine books on this list, Mr. Tolkien had a tendency to tell his kids stories about Bilbo. He’d already written about Middle-earth in The Silmarillion so it wasn’t hard to continue in that world. Once a publisher showed interest, Tolkien was asked to illustrate the book himself, so he did, creating two maps and the runes. “Tolkien had even hoped that some of the lettering on the map would be printed using ‘invisible ink.’ However, the publishers found this idea too expensive, and, eventually, the map – with all the letters completely visible – appeared a the front endpaper.”
The craziest thing is that Tolkien went back and changed The Hobbit years later when he was finishing the Lord of the Rings trilogy that would follow. Chapter Five or “Riddles in the Dark” (the Gollum chapter) got a few changes. Good luck finding the earlier edition then!
Now part of the reason that Allen & Unwin decided to publish the book in the first place was because Mr. Unwin gave the manuscript to his son Rayner Unwin to read. In a 1987 edition of Reading Time in the article “The Hobbit 50th Anniversary”, the younger Unwin recalls this experience. “On 30 October 1936 I had just supplemented my pocket money by reading and reporting on the manuscript of a book called The Hobbit. My father believed that children were the best judges of children’s books and one shilling was his standard fee. I liked this particular book, and although my report was not a model of perceptiveness (I conceded, with the superiority of a 10 year old, that the book ’should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9′) it was good enough to ensure publication, and the reader’s fee was probably the best investment my father ever made.”
- Wish you could live in a hobbit house of your very own? Well now you can. No fooling.
- Failing that, just make one out of Legos.
It’s fun to read reviews from when the book was first published, particularly because of how they view Gollum. He is referred to as a “lake monster” one moment and an “absurdly comic monster” the next. Little did they know.
It seems a bit unfair that the Times (London) review of this book was written by C.S. Lewis. It’s not as if he and Tolkien weren’t buds, after all. Though anonymous at the time, it has later been attributed to him. So Lewis then said of the book, “The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology. On the edge of a valley one of Professor Tolkien’s characters can pause and say: ‘It smells like elves.’ It may be years before we produce another author with such a nose for an elf. The Professor has the air of inventing nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons at first hand and describes them with that fidelity which is worth oceans of glib ‘originality’ . . . For 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. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown-ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, 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 in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.” Well predicted, Mr. C. Sadly, Tolkien did not share a similar appreciation for Lewis’s Narnia books . . . but that is a tale best reserved for another day.
Said The New Statesman and Nation, “Professor Tolkien is saturated in Nordic mythology: so saturated that he does not rehash this mythology and serve it up at second-hand, rather he contributes to it at first hand: and thus his wholly original story of adventure among goblins, elves and dragons, instead of being a tour-de-force, a separate creation of his own, gives rather the impression of a well-informed glimpse into the life of a wide other-world; a world wholly real, and with a quite matter-of-fact, supernatural natural-history of its own. It is a triumph that the genus Hobbit, which he himself has invented, rings just as real as the time-hallowed genera of Goblin, Troll, and Elf.”
The Junior Bookshelf said of it at the time, “The Hobbit is a strange book. It has in it the makings of a very good story, or perhaps a book of short stories for children, but it is marred, in my opinion, by some reflection of the author’s attitude to the world. A sort of ‘Aunt Sally’ spirit replaces the benevolence which is notable in the most loved books for children. Instead of natural obstacles in the path of achievement, the journey of the Hobbit and his companions is interrupted by obstructions which somehow give the effect of deliberately intentional setbacks and not of natural developments . . . While making these criticisms, I must also say that there is a strong sense of reality in the writing and real distinction, and that those people who like it, will like it very much indeed. They will enjoy the involved plot and the rather frightening scenes and the ogre-ish atmosphere of much of the story.”
The New York Times said, “Boys and girls from 8 years on have already given The Hobbit an enthusiastic welcome, but this is a book with no age limits. All those, young or old, who love a fine adventurous tale, beautifully told, will take The Hobbit to their hearts.
Looking at one of the covers, I never really realized the extent to which Artemis Fowl stole the idea of mysterious runes/words along the edges of paper in a book.
The foreign covers are of particular interest as well:
Still not enough? Then check out this post on the many faces of Bilbo Baggins.
There will be a new filmed version of The Hobbit out in theaters very soon.
And now I rise and lay claim to the already existing cinematic version of The Hobbit. Damnable thing, but I loved this movie as a kid. Rankin-Bass and all and still I can sing you some of the songs. Their Gollum was GREAT. No question. Just the right level of creepy. And the voices? John Huston as Gandalf and Hans Conried (I have a Hans Conried fetish, so this is a plus for me). And yeah, the Wood Elves were bizarre and the plot shortened, but I still love that friggin’ movie. I’m not going to watch it again anytime soon, but as a kid I used love it so. It’s just so . . . so . . . so 70s!
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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