“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” — J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
With these opening lines, Tolkien kick started one of the most beloved fantasy stories of all time and put in motion the events that would lead to The Lord of the Rings years later. There isn’t a figure on this, but it’s safe to say that The Hobbit has acted as a fantasy gateway drug for thousands of people throughout its publication history, making it one of the most important fantasy works ever written.
And, while Tolkien rightly deserves all of the credit for coming up with the story itself, there’s an unknown hero we all need to thank for giving the world such an amazing tale: the 10-year-old boy who approved its publication.
Yes, the fate of The Hobbit — and, most likely, Middle Earth as a whole — was in the hands of a young boy back in October 1936.
Here’s the rather unknown story of how The Hobbit came to be:
Let’s start at the beginning, the place where Tolkien would want us to start if he were writing this article. Where did the idea for The Hobbit come from?
According to Tolkien, in a letter written to W. H. Auden in 1955, he started crafting The Hobbit in the early-1930s when, on a whim, he wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” on the back of an exam he was grading.
At this time, Tolkien had no idea what a hobbit was. The line, which would go on to hold so much weight in the fantasy world, was basically nonsense. However, Tolkien knew that he had to explore what this “hobbit” thing could be, why it lived in the ground, what foods it liked, how much hair it had on its feet, and all of the other attributes that we know a hobbit has now.
Over the next two years, Tolkien worked out the story of The Hobbit, attempting to create a tale that children would want to read. Of course, Tolkien being Tolkien, he drew a ton of inspiration from old mythologies and wove those influences into both of his most popular works.
Here’s a great interview with Tolkien that took place back in the 1960s where he describes The Hobbit and its conception (it’s archival so the quality is, you know, iffy):
Once the story was complete, he lent a few copies out to his colleagues and friends. The most notable hands the manuscript touched were that of C. S. Lewis — the two were pretty close buds — and one of Tolkien’s students, Elaine Griffiths.
By chance, in 1936, Susan Dagnall, a staff member working for publisher George Allen & Unwin, made her way to Oxford and got in touch with Griffiths. The details here are a bit fuzzy but somehow Griffiths told Dagnall about Tolkien’s new book and suggested that she give it a read. We don’t know if she borrowed Griffith’s copy or asked Tolkien for her own, but that’s neither here nor there.
Upon reading the manuscript, Dagnall passed it up the chain to her boss, Stanley Unwin, who was, obviously, in charge of what was accepted and rejected for publication at the company.
This is where the story takes a turn to the oddly amazing.
Stanley Unwin held the point of view that the best way to tell if a children’s book was any good or not was to have a child read it. This meant that many of the children’s books that got the green-light from the publication company had to pass one simple test: a review by his son Rayner.
At the time, Rayner was a mere 10 years old when his father came home and told him to write a simple book report for some story called The Hobbit.
Rayner took to the book ferociously and returned a few days later with a handwritten report. Here’s what he said:
In case that’s a bit hard to read, it says:
“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 (sic) 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.”
And with that simple, to the point report, his father green-lit The Hobbit.
Years later, Rayner recounted his early book report by saying:
“Not a very good piece of literary criticism, but in those happy days, no second opinion was needed; if I said it was good enough to publish, it was published.”
The rest is history. The Hobbit has gone on to sell well over 100 million copies, and the book’s early success drove Tolkien to complete The Lord of the Rings and all of its background mythology. Rayner, by the way, went on to follow in his father’s footsteps, joining the company in the 1950s.
So, the next time you pick up The Hobbit, just remember that you have a 10 year old boy and a series of seemingly random events to thank for it.