The creation of “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien marked the beginning of a modern mythology.
As Randel Helms states in “Tolkien’s World,” Tolkien had once expressed to a friend that he was dismayed the English people had so few myths of their own that they had to borrow from other traditions, and so he had decided to make one himself. Tolkien’s desire to create a new folklore similar to traditional world mythologies was central to his creation of Middle-earth.
"The Hobbit" was first published in 1937, though its origins stretch back much further. According to Douglas Anderson’s introduction to “The Annotated Hobbit,” Tolkien began telling stories to his children around 1924, including a tale called “The Orgog” about a creature traveling through a strange land, and “Roverandom” about a toy dog’s trip to the moon and back.
John Rateliff’s “A Brief History of The Hobbit” suggests that many elements of “The Hobbit” came from stories like these that Tolkien told to the family. Tolkien recalled the precise moment of inspiration that, combined with family stories, launched “The Hobbit.” In a June 7, 1955, letter to W.H. Auden, Tolkien wrote:
“All I remember about the start of ‘The Hobbit’ is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it, for a long time, and for some years I got no further than the production of Thror’s Map. But it became ‘The Hobbit’ in the early 1930s.”
Tolkien read portions of it to his children as he wrote. “The Hobbit” was written slowly. Mr. Rateliff divides the book’s composition into Phases 1–7. Phase 1 of the novel’s composition consists of that first line scrawled on the exam paper and the writing of most of Chapter 1. Mr. Rateliff includes in this phase two early manuscripts that he calls “The Pryftan Fragment” and the “Bladorthin Typescript” due to the name of the dragon and wizard used in each respectively. These names would later be changed to the familiar “Smaug” and “Gandalf.”
Phases 2 and 3 encompass the completion of the first draft and its first publication. As Anderson relates, a former student of Tolkien’s, Elaine Griffiths, was approached by a friend, Susan Dagnall, who worked for Allen & Unwin. Dagnall was looking for publishable material, and Griffiths, who had read some of “The Hobbit,” told her to “go along to Professor Tolkien and see if you can get out of him a work called ‘The Hobbit,’ as I think it’s frightfully good.” Dagnall read the manuscript and encouraged Tolkien to finish it and send it to A&U, which he did. Stanley Unwin approved of it and asked his son Rayner, age 10, to read the manuscript as well. With Rayner’s approval, contracts were signed.
Phase 4 marks the transition to post-publication revisions. Between the first edition of “The Hobbit” (1937) and the second edition (1951), Tolkien made key revisions to the scene where Bilbo finds the ring and encounters Gollum, in order to align it better with “The Lord of the Rings.”
In Phase 5, around 1960, Tolkien set out to rewrite “The Hobbit” in the more serious, adult style of “The Lord of the Rings.” This effort was never completed, however.
In the early 1960s, Tolkien’s American publisher asked him to revise “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” in order to assert the American copyright against unauthorized editions. This marks Phase 6.
Finally, in Phase 7, Tolkien made some final small changes and included some addition paratextual material for a 1966 edition by Longmans Green and Company, including a timeline of events and charts of dwarven runes.
The little story about a hobbit and his journey “there and back again” was the leaf that expanded into the tree of “The Lord of the Rings” and other Middle-earth stories. It was the beginning of a modern mythology, and one of the most critically and commercially successful bodies of work of all time.