Friday, November 4, 2011

Adventure classics -- Return to Middle Earth

The Hobbit

by J.R.R. Tolkien


Never underestimate the importance of bedtime stories. Fantasy writer Rick Riordan said he started his bestselling “Lost Hero” series because his son demanded more stories. Even more famously, an obscure professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University scribbled a line on the blank page of an examination paper he was grading. The line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” grew into a tale he told his children.

And after the head of a publishing firm got a positive report on the completed story from his own ten-year-old son, Rayner Unwin, the tale became The Hobbit, published in 1937. The professor, of course, was J.R.R. Tolkien.

Although in Tolkien’s remembrance, that first sentence of The Hobbit seemed random, it drew on a fascination with languages dating back to his own childhood and on a personal mythology he had begun to write as an escape from the horror of service during the First World War and recurrences of the dreaded trench fever that flourished in the unsanitary conditions.

As he recalled in a letter, he was already writing the stories that would be the basis of the underlying history of Middle Earth “. . .in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.”

They did not, however, include any beings remotely like hobbits. And when Tolkien offered his publisher the stories that would form the Silmarillion, the verdict came back, “not commercially publishable.”

The work that would seal Tolkien’s fame, The Lord of the Rings, did include plenty of hobbits. The by-then adult Rayner Unwin guided it through its later stages despite the reluctance of his father’s firm to incur an expected loss on its publication.

As the Tolkien Society’s website,, reports in its understated way, “It soon became apparent that both author and publishers had greatly underestimated the work’s public appeal.”

A reminder of that continuing appeal came recently from British blogger Mark Lord ( spreading news of a new Hobbit movie directed by Peter Jackson. I also found a regular chronology of the film’s making by tracking the dates of uploads (just search “hobbit film”).

Peter Jackson, also known as the man who brought the complete Lord of the Rings to the screen, will release the first of the two-part production December 14 in his hometown of Wellington, New Zealand. Hope it’s in my town by Christmas!

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a November of fantasy with Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Bonus for Texas readers -- Beagle will be at the Texas Renaissance Festival near Plantersville this coming weekend, November 5-6, and at Wizard World in the Austin Convention Center November 12-13. He’s also very accessible on Facebook.)

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