I remember being eleven years old and peeling back the dust jacket on my copy of The Hobbit for the first time. J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterwork transported me into Middle Earth. The Hobbit didn’t just have this effect on me; all of my friends growing up became fascinated with Tolkien’s world. We watched the animated version of The Hobbit hundreds of times, and when the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring was released in 2001, we waited in the freezing cold for hours (one of my friends even dressed as Gimli) for the theater to open so we could see if Peter Jackson’s vision of Tolkien’s trilogy would do justice to ours. Now, on the 75th anniversary of the release of The Hobbit, we are all patiently waiting for December 14th when its cinematic version turns an old journey anew…or should we say, unexpected?
In honor of ‘The Hobbit’s’ literary milestone, here’s a brief history of Tolkien’s journey into making this masterful work the stuff of legends…
As a child in England, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien immersed himself in language and literature. His mother, Mabel, placed an importance on proper education, and Tolkien benefited from her abilities as a homeschooler. He developed an interest in the natural world and became a proficient artist (he drew all the art for The Hobbit). In between serving on the front lines for the British in World War I, Tolkien earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Exeter College and then began a career in academia as the youngest professor at the University of Leeds. During this time, Tolkien began to write fantasy tales, beginning with outlines for what would become The Silmarillion and eventually undertaking his most ambitious project yet, The Hobbit.
In part to entertain the four children he had with wife Edith Bratt, Tolkien began to imagine a magical world filled with myths, humor, and characters of legend. By the late 1920s, Middle Earth had formulated in Tolkien’s mind, and he set pen to paper to create a universe like no fan of fantasy and imagination had seen before. In 1937 his dreams came to fruition in the form of The Hobbit, a coming-of-age adventure starring Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit in search of more than his little world had to offer.
A publicity still from the upcoming film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Bilbo encounters all sorts of mythical creatures on his journey: dwarves, elves, goblins, trolls, and dragons, among others. The heroic quest takes Bilbo, Gandalf the wizard, and thirteen dwarves on a journey from the idyllic shire to the harrowing peaks of the Lonely Mountain, where the treacherous dragon Smaug guards his horde of treasure. Along the way, Bilbo and his companions face terrible dangers and learn much about the world around them. Upon release, The Hobbit proved immediately successful and revolutionized the genre of children’s fantasy.
The booming response to Tolkien’s oeuvre thrilled his publishers George Allen & Unwin. They immediately requested he start work on a sequel. Despite beginning work on The Lord of the Rings in the late 1930s, the book was not finished for release until 1954. The epic was divided into three parts, released one a year. Again, Tolkien’s work saw critical and commercial success. Between them, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have sold over 100 million copies worldwide and have been translated into over thirty languages; both have been adapted into multiple film versions. Additionally, the two novels have received numerous awards and appeared on almost every venerable “Top-100” list.
The widespread appeal of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings cemented Tolkien’s legacy as one of the most significant and accomplished writers of all time. His work helped open fantasy to a broader audience and influenced a generation of writers. In later life, he often worked on his material but published rarely. He died on September 2, 1973, at the age of 83. Christopher Tolkien, his son, took up the mantle for his father and helped finish several of his books for posthumous release.
Just in time for the 75th anniversary of ‘The Hobbit,’ Warner Bros. has released a new trailer of Peter Jackson’s film that comes out December 14th.