It took a review by a ten-year old boy to convince a publisher to print it, but on September 21, 1937, the first edition of The Hobbit hit the bookstores. These first 1500 copies would mark the beginning of the one most successful novels of the 20th century.
The story of Bilbo Baggins is now celebrating its 75th anniversary, and with as many as hundred million copies already sold The Hobbit is still going strong. A two-part film based on the novel is about to come out, with the first part The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, being released in December. The new attention will probably ensure further generations of new readers.
J.R.R. Tolkien, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, began writing The Hobbit in the late 1920s. His academic research – he is still a highly regarded scholar on Beowulf and other medieval literature – helped him create a world of elves, dwarves, dragons and hobbits. Prompted by friends, Tolkien submitted the book to the publishing house Allen and Unwin. The Hobbit was reviewed by 10-year-old Rayner Unwin, the son of Stanley Unwin. The father routinely asked his son to review books that were destined for the children’s market, paying his son one shilling for each completed review. In his report back, Rayner wrote:
Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit who lived in his Hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his Dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exciting time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they get to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home — rich! 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.
The Hobbit quickly sold out of its first 1500 copies, and it remained a popular book over the next several years. However, it was not until J.R.R. Tolkien’s sequel, The Lord of the Rings, was published in 1954-55 that work became an international bestseller.
Corey Olsen, Assistant Professor of English at Washington College in Maryland, explains in an article in the Wall Street Journal that while the book was originally aimed at children, it can also be very captivating for an adult audience. “The Hobbit,” he explains, “is a brilliantly constructed story unfolding themes that adult readers will still find compellingly relevant to the modern world: themes such as the nature of evil and the significance of human choice, or the corruptive power of greed and the ease with which good people can be drawn into destructive conflict.”
Wayne Hammond, a scholar of Tolkien’s work, adds that The Hobbit, “is something that is timeless and that can speak to a great variety of people around the world. It stands as a landmark of children’s fiction and as fantasy fiction.”