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The History of The Hobbit
John D. Rateliff
HarperCollins, 905 pages

The History of The Hobbit
The History of The Hobbit
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Steven H Silver

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Long before Frodo traveled to Morder to destroy the One Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote another tale of Bilbo, who traveled with the wizard Bladorthin to steal the treasure of the dragon Pryftan. If some of those names are not familiar, it is because Tolkien's The Hobbit went through numerous iterations before reaching its final version.

Diana Pavlac Glyer recently documented Tolkien's writing process and collaborations in relation to the other members of the Inklings in her study The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis & J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. John D. Rateliff provides a more detailed illustration of Tolkien's process by collecting the variants of The Hobbit in the two volume The History of The Hobbit.

The History of The Hobbit includes the entire plot of The Hobbit, but it is in a very non-linear manner. Tolkien's story features numerous redundancies as Rateliff compiles rewrite upon rewrite. Not satisfied to allow the text to stand on its own, Rateliff adds to the value of his study by providing copious textual notes to point out the differences between the various versions and the final version and also to discuss the importance of the changes Tolkien made as the story evolved.

In many passages, there are only minor, if any, changes, perhaps a little polishing or changing a name. At other times, it is clear that Tolkien completely rethought the actions of his characters or aspects of their personalities. These changes allow the reader to see character growth, not as it is normally associated with the finished novel, but rather as the author reconsiders how the characters will interact with each other and the world around them.

The History of The Hobbit, as with the earlier The History of The Lord of the Rings, was not compiled for the casual reader, or even the casual fan. The detail of both texts and supporting apparatus are such that the books are really targeted at those who can't get enough of Tolkien's writing, including his ephemerae, or are interested in the creative process which underlies writing a novel. It is all too easy to look at a finished book, especially a masterpiece, and think it sprung from the mind of the author like a literary Athena. The History of The Hobbit provides the proof that writing is a much more tortuous project than the published work would ultimately suggest.

The History of The Hobbit demonstrates that Tolkien, in effect, wrote several novels to achieve the work he eventually published. The dead-ends of his early drafts meant backing up and finding new routes to his ultimate goal, making the composition of The Hobbit similar to Bilbo's own trek from Hobbiton to the Lonely Mountain.

Copyright © 2008 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a seven-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings. He is the publisher of ISFiC Press. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is heavily involved in convention running and publishes the fanzine Argentus.


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