When the red carpet rolls out in Wellington next month for the first of The Hobbit trilogy, it will complete a 75-year journey from modest success to billion dollar business. Yet, Greg Dixon finds, that the little book that helped spawn an industry might not have seen the light of day.
"Shh," said Mrs Sutton.
In Waihopai School's Room 12, we, a class of 8-year-olds, shh-ed and waited, sitting at our desks as silent and as still as sleeping cats. She continued. Today, she said, we were in for a treat. Today she was to begin reading us a wonderful book. She opened the cover, turned to the first chapter called "An Unexpected Party", and began to read.
"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit ..."
How many times have I read that sentence since? I really have no idea. What I am certain of is that in the four decades since Mrs Sutton read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit to me and the rest of Room 12 during the long, bleak Invercargill winter of 1974, my affection for this little book about an awfully big adventure has grown and grown.
The story of Bilbo Baggins and his journey "there and back again" is more than simply a rollicking tale about hobbits and dwarves, riddles in the dark with Gollum, wargs and goblins, the Lonely Mountain, a dragon called Smaug and a climactic battle, or any of the other numerous excitements and horrors that fill its pages. For most of us who discovered the book as a child, The Hobbit is a foundation stone of our imaginations and love of good yarns well told. So each re-reading as an adult is a sentimental journey there and back again into childhood, as much about lowering oneself into a warm bath of nostalgia as it about Bilbo's awfully big adventure.
Incredibly, The Hobbit was first published 75 years ago this week, and for some it will only ever be the slim, unsophisticated forerunner to The Lord of the Rings, nothing more than a whimsical children's book, complete with naive illustrations by the author himself.
Its fans know better, of course. As C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and a friend of Tolkien, wrote a couple of years after The Hobbit was first published, it "must be understood that this is a children's book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice [in Wonderland] is read gravely by children and with laughter by adults; The Hobbit on the other hand will be funniest to its youngest readers, and only years later, at the tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what a deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true."
"Prediction is dangerous," Lewis concluded all those years ago," but The Hobbit may well prove to be a classic."
Which, you'll agree, now seems like classic understatement. Certainly, as we contemplate the first part of Sir Peter Jackson's gazillion-dollar movie adaptation opening next month - which was green-lit on the back of his The Lord of the Rings trilogy generating close to US$3 billion in revenue - Lewis' prognosis for his friend Tolkien's little book seems unbelievably tentative, implausibly half-hearted.
Indeed in the 75 years since it was first printed by British publishers Allen & Unwin, The Hobbit has become something like a benchmark for classic children's books, selling an estimated 100 million copies, printed in more than four dozen languages. If you happen to own one of the 1500 British first editions of The Hobbit, published in September 1937, you have something worth a small fortune; four years ago, one was bought by an anonymous bidder for £60,000 (NZ$120,000) at a London auction. The book's title, meanwhile, has entered the language, or at least the dictionary, with the OED including the word "hobbit" for the first time in the same year Mrs Sutton read the book to Room 12.
And of course The Hobbit is, arguably anyway, the primary source in the fantasy genre which, on the strength of the success of something like Game of Thrones, looks to be in no danger of falling down the cracks of Mount Doom and dying a horrible death any time soon.
Yet for the longest time The Hobbit was little more than a modest success - as a Tolkien biographer Dr Thomas Shippey wrote in the Daily Telegraph recently, "the book created only enough of a splash for his publisher Stanley Unwin to ask for a sequel".
Indeed, in a letter held by the University of Leeds that was written shortly after The Hobbit was published, Tolkien promised to send the then rather more successful Leeds author Arthur Ransome a revised copy of The Hobbit "if there is a reprint" and added "sales are not very great".
The first 1500 copies did sell out by Christmas of 1937, helped along by one of Tolkien's Oxford colleagues who had bought two copies, because, as Shippey notes, "he'd heard that first editions of Alice in Wonderland were now fetching a good price".
A reprint was soon ordered, but Tolkien, for many years, made little money from the book, money he desperately needed. An Oxford academic for most of his working life, he struggled on his modest professor's salary to keep his family's unpretentious home in Northmoor Rd in Oxford and to bring up four children who were privately educated before going on to university.
It wasn't until Tolkien was elderly and his children long into adulthood that The Hobbit began to become what it is today. As another biographer, Michael White, noted in his 2001 book Tolkien, it wasn't till the mid-1960s - nearly 30 years after The Hobbit's publication - that it became a money spinner, and then only on the back of the success of its rather grander sequel, The Lord of the Rings.
"The Hobbit had been a success for Tolkien," White writes, "but it did not make him huge sums of money at this time (the late 1930s). He learned in 1938 that the American publishers had sold 3000 copies of the book and in England it had sold around the same number during its first year in the shops. The money this provided was useful but it did not really change things greatly."
As it turned out, Tolkien was forced to continue topping up his modest income with a menial holiday job which, in a way, was where The Hobbit began.
"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," came into Tolkien's head while he was marking a secondary school exam paper. Although he'd been appointed Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University five years before, in 1930 he was still marking school certificate papers during his holidays to help pay the bills. Tedious work though it might be, Tolkien took pride in it. But clearly his mind did wander.
According to Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien's first and probably best biographer, it was on a summer's day in 1930 while Tolkien was sitting by the window in the study at Northmoor Rd laboriously marking another batch of these exams when, as told Carpenter years later, he found that "one of the candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it (which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner) and I wrote on it: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit'. Names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I'd better find out what hobbits were like. But that's only the beginning."
Well not quite. As Carpenter says, in the years before that summer's day in 1930, Tolkien had already created stories, some he'd made up for the amusement of his children, others, with grander Arthurian and Celtic themes, he'd created for his own amusement (many of which were finally published after his death as The Silmarillion). "[However] something was lacking," Carpenter writes, "something that would bind the two sides of his imagination together at once heroic and mythical and at the same time turned to the popular imagination."
The sentence he wrote on the spare page of an exam script was that something.
The classically educated Tolkien said that the story grew "out of the leaf-mould of the mind", and in the decades since his death in 1973 a whole industry has grown up to sift through that leaf-mould, which includes the author's birth in South Africa, his boyhood days in the semi rural idyll of Worcestershire (this apparently inspired the rural idyll of "the Shire"), his early love of Norse myths and of languages, his experiences in the trenches of the Somme and his expertise in Anglo Saxon and Middle English. However Carpenter is no doubt right when he writes that "no account of the external events of Tolkien's life can provide more than a superficial explanation for the origins of his mythology".
There is no certainty either about when exactly Tolkien began the act of actually writing The Hobbit. In the years after that summer's day it became a bedtime story for his younger children, according to White, and, by 1936, the book, occasionally lent out to friends like C. S. Lewis, existed as an incomplete and half-forgotten manuscript in a desk drawer in Tolkien's Northmoor Rd study - and there it might have stayed but for a casual conversation over lunch and a boy of 10.
One of the people who did see the manuscript, White reports, was a former Tolkien student, Elaine Griffiths, who in 1936 was working on a translation of Beowulf for publishers Allen & Unwin. Over lunch with her A&U editor, an old Oxford friend Susan Dagnall, Griffiths happened to mention Professor Tolkien's little book and suggested Dagnall ask him if she might read it - which Dagnall soon did. She fell in love with the incomplete book, and quickly asked Tolkien to finish the story. The finished novel went to the publisher's chairman, Stanley Unwin, for approval, but he believed children's book were best judged by children. So, Carpenter writes, Unwin handed the manuscript of The Hobbit to his 10-year-old son Rayner, who read and wrote this report:
"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 got to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards it is killed and after a terrific battle with goblins he returned home - rich! This book ... is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9."
And children aged, ahem, 46. But what is it about this little book filled with childish things like dragons and trolls, wizards and dwarves, giant spiders and elves that still makes a grown man sigh with pleasure?
Partly it must be its timelessness. The Hobbit - The Lord of the Rings even more so - has elements and themes common in classical mythology, with little Bilbo's epic journey there and back again and his transformation from trembling hobbit to brave hero echoing the so-called "monomyth" Joseph Campbell wrote about in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, published in the decade before The Rings. C. S. Lewis wrote a decade or so after its publication that "The Hobbit escapes the danger of degenerating into mere plot and excitement by a very curious shift in tone. After the humour and homeliness of the early chapters, the sheer 'Hobbitry' dies away [and] we pass insensibly into the world of the epic".
Somehow it feels like history too, with the reader having the sense Tolkien is not making it up but was describing a world that exists or at least existed.
However, I suspect that the biggest ongoing attraction of this little book about an awfully big adventure is because we - well me, anyway - like the author himself, identify so strongly with Bilbo.
"I am in fact a hobbit," Tolkien wrote late his in life, "in all but size."
Mrs Sutton helped make me be one too.By Greg Dixon Email Greg