An Unexpected Anniversary: The Hobbit Turns 80

J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" was published 80 years ago on Sept. 21, 1937.

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. ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

Anniversaries are a wonderful thing.

When a person gets married, significant anniversaries that follow are traditionally marked by items, oftentimes gifts of, increasing value — the first anniversary is paper, the second is cotton, the fifth is wood, the tenth is tin, the 20th is China, the 25th is silver, the 30th is pearl, and so on.

While today may, in some people’s lives, be a wedding anniversary, today also marks the 80th anniversary of something else, something extremely special, and something very personal to me and scores of other literate types.

But instead of being celebrated with precious stones, diamonds, or metals, this anniversary will be commemorated with something entirely different: A pair of oversized, furry feet.

It was 80 years ago today that “The Hobbit” was first published.

For those unfamiliar, “The Hobbit” (or “There and Back Again”) was a children’s fantasy novel written by English author and Oxford Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, aka J.R.R. Tolkien about the adventures undertaken by a reluctant hero named Bilbo Baggins, coincidentally, who is the very hobbit for which the book is named.

A hobbit is a race of creatures similar to humans in appearance, but significantly smaller, except for their feet which are disproportionately large compared to the rest of a hobbit, and hairy — very hairy, we’re not just talking about a few toe knuckle hairs here, we’re getting into shag rug territory, although — in the context of the book (and books to follow), it’s actually an advantage as hobbits tend to not wear shoes. They probably couldn’t find any in their size, anyway

But I digress.

As a people, hobbits are inclined towards a simple life, living in a mostly agrarian society, not understanding most machines, being disinclined towards leaving their communities, lovers of peace and quiet and not overly adventurous.

Given they’re general characteristics, it wouldn’t be untrue to confess that I’ve been referred to as a hobbit more than a few times over the course of my life. I’m totally fine with this. I don’t like having to wear shoes as it is.

To very briefly synopsize the book, which is set in a mythical realm of Middle-earth “between the dawn of Faerie and the dominion of men,” Bilbo is swept up in a quest to aid a human wizard and band of dwarves in a quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and its vast treasure from a dragon named Smaug. Over the course of the book, the travelers encounter various obstacles and meet new races and creatures — not all of them nice, Bilbo finds an interesting ring, (SPOILER ALERT) the dragon is slain, and Bilbo returns home, having broadened his thinking and matured for his adventures.

As far as “children’s books” go, it was ...just a little deep.

I got my first copy of “The Hobbit” in 1977 as a present from my sister for my 11th birthday, in a collection with it’s follow-up books in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers,” and “Return of the King,” making the collection a quadrilogy, I guess? The “Ring” books expounded on the foundation Tolkien built in “The Hobbit,” introducing even more adventures, lands, races, and characters (but that’s a column for another time).

While, on the surface, “The Hobbit” is a fantasy adventure written for children, Tolkien’s prose and writing techniques were today’s standards, at least ..somewhat elevated for most juveniles. It took me a few tries to get started and to lose myself in Middle-earth, but once I did, I was a fan -- aside from my early days reading comics, one of my earliest fandoms would have to be Tolkien.

To put the book in historical perspective, other popular books of that year were John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile,” Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not,” and Virginia Woolf’s “The Years” — each of which, while still being regarded as literary classics, have arguably diminished in readership over the decades since they were first published.

“The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings” book however, have only grown more and more popular.

With an initial printing of a scant 1,500 copies, since it’s first printing, “The Hobbit” has been reprinted in numerous updated editions, translated into more than 50 languages, adapted on stage, on television, into video games, and in movies (one version of which, coincidentally, Ralph Baski’s animated version of “The Hobbit” was released the same year I was gifted my first copy of the book).

Although figures vary, considering on which source is referenced, to date, the number of copies of “The Hobbit” sold is estimated at well over 100 million copies and it has never been out of print.

Yeah, it’s a pretty big deal.

Here’s the thing:

Reading “The Hobbit” as a child, one enjoys all the surface elements Tolkien created — magical creatures, wizards, monsters, and a rollicking, dragon-slaying adventure.

Not unlike Bilbo Baggins himself, as one matures and has a greater understanding of the world around them, the reader begins to read between the written words and begins to see the themes woven into the material — finding one’s inner strength, loyalty, heroism, self-sacrifice, the importance of friendship, the dangerously corrupting potential of power — and more. More scholarly men (and women) than I have certainly written in much more depth than I ever could on the book’s influence, even today.

Who could have thought — 80 years on — that we would still be talking about this little story written by an Oxford professor about a short, large-footed, and stout fellow named Bilbo Baggins, who gets conned into going on an adventure with a bevy of dwarves by a bushy-eyebrowed old wizard named Gandalf?

According to legend — and aren’t each of us legends in our own way? — one day, Tolkien wrote the words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” on the back of an envelope or a slip of scrap paper, having no idea what a hobbit was.

This line gestated in his imagination until something solid formed, and he very much knew what a hobbit was, what their habits were, and where they lived, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, happy 80th anniversary to “The Hobbit” — to Tolkien, to Bilbo, and Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield, to Elrond and Bard and Beorn, to Frodo and Samwise, to Gimli and Legolas. Not so much to Tom Bombadil, but to Aragorn and Boromir, and even to Gollum. You took us along with you on your adventures, and taught many of us lessons we didn’t even realize we were learning along the way — there and back again.

This Week's Circulars