Who cannot be charmed by Bilbo Baggins and his gaggle of dwarf companions? In fact, I have met a few who said that they did not care for the story. But after some questioning, I inevitably discover that in fact, they have not read it. I have read the story through numerous times, and I make the bold claim that it is one of the most charming tales every conjured up by a mere mortal.
But dare we ask where did this charming story from? Tolkein might have frowned at the question. He wrote
We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us. and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.
The soup, of course, is the story itself. The bones – the sources that the author used to give shape to that story. Fair enough. But dare we ask about the process? How did the story emerge from Tolkein’s imagination? Tolken has told this story many times
One hot summer day he was sitting at his desk, correcting students’ examination papers … on English literature. He told an interviewer, “One of the candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it, which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner, and I wrote on it ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ Names always generate a story in my mind: eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like.” Elsewhere he added, “Later on, some months later, I thought that was too good to leave just on the back of an examination (paper) … I wrote the first chapter first — then I forgot about it, then I wrote another part. I myself can still see the gaps. …”
You can see Tolkien’s genius in this short recapitulation. He did a small thing. Considered it, and allowed his imagination to buld on it. He himself got pulled into the thing. And what emerges is an amazing tapestry of customs, languages, traditions, ambitions and the rest.
One of the more beautiful editions of The Hobbit was produced by The Folio Society. Illustrations are by Eric Fraser. Here is an example
I just ordered this for my library and can’t wait until it arrives! BTW, the above quotes come from “The Annotated Hobbit” with an introduction and notes by Douglas A. Anderson. It is a lovely book, full of illustrations from various translations of the great book.