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21 September 2009

On this day in history: The Hobbit first published, 1937

Some time in the early 1930s, the Oxford professor J. R. R. Tolkien was marking School Certificate papers when he found a blank sheet of paper. Suddenly inspired, he wrote the words: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." and returned to marking the papers. Over the next two years, Professor Tolkien drew on his love of mythology and his background as an scholar of Anglo-Saxon to write the story of a hobbit called Bilbo Baggins, who reluctantly joined Gandalf the wizard and a group of dwarves on their quest to find the treasure of the dragon Smaug.

Tolkien wrote the story to entertain his three sons but he also let others read it, including the his fellow Oxford don, C. S. Lewis. On another occasion he lent a manuscript to Elaine Griffiths, a family friend and student of his. In 1936, Susan Dagnall, a member of staff at the publishers George Allen & Unwin, visited Griffiths who suggested that Dagnall read Tolkien's story.

Dagnall reacted so favourably to the tale that she showed it to her boss, Stanley Unwin. Unwin gave the book to his ten-year-old son Rayner, who he paid to write a review of it. Rayner wrote, "This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9." This recommendation was enough for his father who decided to publish the book.

On 21st September 1937, George Allen & Unwin, Ltd published the first edition of The Hobbit with illustrations by Tolkien including those on the dust cover. The book was very well received, with all 1500 copies of the first print run selling by December. Translated into over forty languages, The Hobbit went on to become an international best-seller, as was its sequel The Lord of the Rings.

Read Anne T. Eaton's 1938 review of The Hobbit from the New York Times.

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Mandy Southgate said...

That is so cool. I visited the college at Oxford Tolkien went to in December. If memory serves me well, it was the same college Philip Pullman went to.

Dinah said...

wow, thanks for this bit of trivia. I have read this during the LOTR craze but would love to re-read it again!

Bookish Worm

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comments.

Emm: It seems that the alumni of Exeter College includes many men and women of letters. Not only Tolkein and Pulman but also Martin Amis and Will Self.

Mandy Southgate said...

Oh yes! i think I remember that about Martin Amis too.