Rayner Unwin first read the manuscript of The Hobbit in 1936 when he was asked to write a report on it for his father, Sir Stanley, of Allen & Unwin.
21st September this year marks the 50th anniversary of its publication and here Rayner Unwin recalls the progress into print of Tolkien’s now classic children’s story.
The word `Hobbit’, or rather the sentence `In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’, originated as a scribble on a blank leaf of an examination paper that Professor J R R Tolkien was correcting. Now that the word is so well established as to have earned a place in the Oxford English Dictionary (with a definition approved by its inventor in his lifetime), it seems churlish to reflect on those other books that were published as a result of my father’s logical and economical use of `house’ readers.
I wrote a lot of reports for him during the thirties and the standard fee was one shilling. He believed that children were the best judges of children’s books, and I needed pocket money. It was a practical arrangement. I remember being particularly enthusiastic about The Adventures of Dan the Dog Detective, which, though published, seems to have lost staying power. Certainly no one seems to be commemorating Dan 50 years after publication. But few are likely to remain unaware of The Hobbit’s half-century this year.
The Reader’s Report
Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who lived in his hobbit-hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard persuaded him to go. He had a very exciting time fighting goblins and wargs, at last they got to the lonley mountain;
Smaug, the dragon who gaureds 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. Ray Aged 10
I wince a bit at the shilling’s worth of opinion that started it all off; the spelling was original, the literary perception minimal and the superiority of a 10 year old in defining the likely readership was egregious. All the same it did the trick. I’ve never made a better judgement since.
Professor Tolkien wrote the story, as his son Christopher tells in the foreword he has written for the forthcoming anniversary edition, to entertain his own children during their `winter reads’. It was a distraction from academic work, and from the huge imaginative undertaking that we now know as The Silmarillion, which for 20 years before and 35 years to come was the undersong that dominated his whole creative life.
Outside his immediate family few knew about The Hobbit. But an Oxford colleague, Elaine Griffiths, had read it and mentioned it to one of her pupils, Susan Dagnall, whose first job was with Allen & Unwin, and she suggested that we should ask to see the manuscript.
What happened next should have been a straightforward story, but nothing in the history of publishing Tolkien is entirely straightforward. Contracts were exchanged; no advance or anything fancy, though my father volunteered £25 just before publication when the subscription looked promising. I have a theory that literary merit can usually be measured in inverse proportion to the size of publisher’s advance.
The first complication came in January 1937 when the entire Tolkien household and most of Allen & Unwin succumbed to `flu. Despite this a succession of long and bizarre letters was exchanged every few days on the subject of moon-runes. These form part of Thror’s map, which Tolkien had drawn, and their peculiarity lies in the fact that they should only be seen on the paper when the moon shines behind them. This posed a problem for the production department.
7.1.37 A&U to Tolkien: `We are trying a rather more cunning method of letting the runes be both there and not there.’
17.1.37 Tolkien to A&U: `I look forward to finding out your method of reproducing the magic runes.’
23.1.37 A&U to Tolkien: `The “magic” was left out through a misunderstanding on the part of the blockmaker and fresh blocks will be made.’
At this point Tolkien decided to draw fresh runes in mirror-image for printing on the back of the map, but …
1.2.37 A&U to Tolkien: `The responsible member (of the production department) and the blockmaker’s representative who had worked out the scheme went down with `flu simultaneously, and the instructions regarding making the runes “magical” was misunderstood by the Works.’
Despite promises to try again the heart had now gone out of the enterprise. Germs and confusion frustrated a major technological breakthrough. Not for the last time the author retreated, baffled.
5.2.37 Tolkien to A&U: ‘Let the production department do as it will.’
A similar bafflement surrounded the making of the now-familiar jacket. In April a first draft design in four colours on the back of `two pieces of philological waste paper’ was submitted. For reasons of economy one of the colours – red – had to be dropped. Tolkien redrew, omitting the pink flush on the central mountain that had been thought to make it `look just a trifle like a cake’, but still retaining a red dragon and sun because `red is very desirable’. Characteristically, when he saw the printed version that has, as we know, triumphantly withstood the test of 50 years, Tolkien wrote, `I am sorry that disaster and procrastination have spoiled the project.’ It is pleasant to record that red will reappear (except on the mountain) on the jacket of this year’s anniversary edition.
A month later consultation again foundered on the design of the binding case. `The wavy mountains could have appeared at bottom or top, according to the dragon selected,’ Tolkien observed. And so it went on. More than 60 letters, some of considerable length and complexity, were exchanged during the year. The date of publication began to be threatened. Tolkien’s friends were reported as `beginning to add The Hobbit to my long list of never-never procrastinations’.
At last, on 21st September, it was published and, on the whole, favourably received. Nearly 20 newspapers reviewed it during the autumn. On the strength of The Times review my father was able to persuade Bumpus to buy 50 copies. Even in Oxford, the author reported, `interest is mildly aroused. I am constantly asked how my hobbit is. The attitude is not unmixed with surprise and a little pity.’
Meanwhile, Houghton Mifflin had agreed to publish The Hobbit in the US and wanted to include some coloured pictures `by good American artists’. Tolkien did not object ‘as long as it was possible to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all of whose works I have a heartfelt loathing)’; but he had painted four or five pictures of his own which had been seen, and reluctantly discarded on grounds of cost, during the lengthy preparation of the A&U edition. Houghton Mifflin was easily persuaded to take them instead, and pay the artist $100.
Before they could be used, however, the originals were summoned back to England. A reprint was needed before Christmas, and it was decided to include four of the author’s colour plates and hold the price at 7s 6d. This variation between the first two English printings has had the unusual effect of making the second impression as valuable as the first in the antiquarian trade.
It was an exciting autumn. C S Lewis plugged his friend’s book (anonymously) in the Times Literary Supplement; Richard Hughes, Howard Spring and others praised it. My father, in a rare burst of enthusiasm, told Tolkien that he was `one of those rare people with genius’. Tolkien, more down to earth, expressed the hope that ‘Mr Baggins will eventually come to my rescue – in a moderate way’.
Houghton Mifflin sold over 5,000 copies in their first year, but at home sales must have slowed down. There were still unbound sheets of the A&U second impression in Key & Whiting’s warehouse when, in 1940, it was bombed, and they were destroyed along with over a million of my father’s woefully undervalued books. Paper rationing made reprints difficult during the war, but with help from Foyle’s children’s book club a third printing of 5,000 copies was undertaken in 1942 and quickly sold out. There were none in stock by 1944 when Tolkien wanted a copy himself.
The post-war history of The Hobbit and its multi-million sales is another story, and closely linked to the history of The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, the second edition, with considerable changes especially to the `Riddles in the Dark’ chapter, became necessary in order that the story of the One Ring should be consistent between the two books.
And it is worth noting in conclusion that without The Hobbit there would have been no Lord of the Rings. My father and I were determined on a sequel to The Hobbit, and Tolkien, who really wanted to get back to The Silmarillion, was initially reluctant. But he accepted the challenge, and three months after The Hobbit was published he wrote to my father, `I have written the first chapter of a new story about Hobbits – a long expected party.’ Against this, in pencil, my father scribbled, `Three cheers’.
Unwin Hyman published anniversary editions of The Hobbit in both hardback (0 04 823386 2, £7.95) and paperback (0 04 823188 6, £2.50)
Available this month is a new paperback edition of The Illustrated Hobbit with illustrations by Michael Hague (0 04 823380 3, £8.95).
Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J R R Tolkien has also just been reissued in paperback (0 04 928039 2, £4.95).
Rayner Unwin is chairman of Unwin Hyman.
This article first appeared in the Bookseller in January. It is reprinted by permission of the author and the Bookseller.