Interview with John D. Rateliff - the author of the History of the Hobbit (01.04.07 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

We are now counting down the days towards the publication of The Children of Hurin. The excitement for this new book makes us almost forget that this year we also celebrate the 70th anniversary of The Hobbit. There for this Q&A with John D. Rateliff, the author of The History of the Hobbit. This two volumed book presents for the first time the complete unpublished text of the original manuscript of J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit, his draft of the revision of the Gollum encounter for the second  edition, and the fragment of what, if he'd completed it, would have been the third edition of 1960. The book wil be a lively and informative account of how the Hobbit came to be written and published. For those who missed my previous article on this two-volume book, you can find it here. Info on the three volume celebration edition of the Hobbit can be found here.

Q: I'd like to talk about your upcoming book, THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT. What prompted you to write the book?

Taum Santoski and I were asked to undertake the project by the Estate. And of course we were delighted to have the chance. Unfortunately, not long afterwards I had to withdraw in order to concentrate on my dissertation, and not long after that Taum became terminally ill. When he was not able to complete the book, I promised to see it through and, after far too many years in the works, I have finally succeeded in doing so.

Q: What special qualifications do you have for making this study? What makes you different from your colleagues?

Certainly others could have done this project and done a good job with it, though it would have been a very different book then, reflecting the expertise and preferred approach of each. For example, Taum’s unfinished edition was strikingly different from mine. That said, I do think my knowledge of pre-Tolkienian fantasy, my familiarity with Tolkien’s manuscripts from years of study in the Marquette Archives, and my sense of the unity of the various strands of Tolkien’s writings up until that point–mythological, scholarly, and for his children–helped me see how The Hobbit fit into and brought together all those parts of his imagination.

Q: The book is broken down into two volumes " THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT: MR. BAGGINS” and “The History of the Hobbit: Return to Bag-End”. Why do you make the book in two volumes? How did you pick the names for the volumes?

As with Tolkien’s own LotR, the reason for multiple volumes was simply a matter of length. My completed book is right around 350,000 words long, which makes for a massive tome; splitting it into two volumes was a publishing decision, and far better than the alternative, which would have been to abridge the text. The main difficulty was deciding on where to make the break: in the event, we’ve gone with having Part One cover Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain (Chapters I-X) and Part Two cover everything that happens once he arrives (Chapters XI-XIX) plus Tolkien’s various later revisions to the story (e.g., the 1947 Hobbit, the 1960 Hobbit). As for the names, ‘Mr. Baggins’ was always my preferred title for the project as a whole (being a synonym for ‘The Hobbit’ himself), so I was delighted to have a chance to use it; ‘Return to Bag-End’ was suggested by the publisher and approved by me.

Q: Do you consider the work to be a biography? Or a study which can be compared with the History of Middle-earth series? Or more like the Annoted Hobbit?

It’s not a biography, although I think it sheds a good deal of light on Tolkien as a writer, but a textual study deliberately modeled on Christopher Tolkien’s example with the History of Middle-earth series. It’s quite different from The Annotated Hobbit, but the existence of Doug Anderson’s book meant I didn’t have to cover some topics because he’d already done so definitively (for example, listing all the post-publication changes made in the various editions during Tolkien’s lifetime). I consider his book and mine to be complementary; any reference to the published book I make is to Doug’s edition.

Q: We know Santoski was preparing this book. Are there any parts left from his hand?

Very little, unfortunately; most of Taum’s commentary would have been linguistic in nature, but he put very little of it down on paper. I have quoted him on some points where his insights illuminate some feature of the text, but there are all too few such citations.

Q: To write the study, do you work alone or do you have help from others, like fe. Christopher Tolkien or Wayne Hammond?

I work alone, but I’ve benefitted greatly from consulting with Tolkien experts of all types, as well as experts in other fields.

Q: Will there be many parts which have not been published before? Will there be many maps (or other drawings) which were never published?

I’m not certain how many of the draft maps will make it in, but certainly the original version of the Mirkwood chapter (which lacks the Enchanted Stream interpolation) and Tolkien’s 1960 re-write of the first few chapters have never seen print before.

Q: We heard rumours about this book a long time ago, how long are you working on the book? Is the book near completion or is a lot of writing and research still going on?

Yes, it’s been in the works for a long time. The idea was first mooted in 1987, though we didn’t get down to work until the next year. I dropped out in 1989 (see above) and then returned to the project in 1991, getting back to work in earnest in 1992. Unfortunately, throughout most of the time since I’ve had to work on it during the spare time from my day job, so it’s taken me a long time to get it done. It’s all done now but the Index.

Q: We saw some covers on the net already? Do you choose the cover artist or is this in the hand of the publishers?

I suggested the cover art—using Tolkien’s own draft of the cover illustration for this edition of the draft of the book just seemed appropriate somehow—and the publishers found a way to make that work. I think they did a wonderful job; I’m very lucky.

Q: Will the book be published as a hardback or will there be a paperback version also?

It’s initially coming out as two hardbacks; whether it eventually comes out in paperback is up to the publishers.

Q: Will there be a three volume box set to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Hobbit? Or are there no plans in that direction?

I understand that a boxed set is in the works, but you’d have to ask the publishers for details.

Q: What is your hope for your readers?

That they will read and enjoy the book. That it will help them to see The Hobbit anew, and appreciate it as a stand-alone work in its own right, not just as a ‘prelude’ to The Lord of the Rings. That they’ll find things in it that interest them and spark further discussion. That it lays to rest for good the old claims that Tolkien abandoned the work unfinished, or that it was originally unrelated to the Silmarillion tradition (the manuscript of the very first chapter mentions Beren & Luthien by name!).

Q: What do these two volumes reveal about Tolkien the man?

Tolkien himself is not the focus, though his work certainly is. I think it shows a lot about how Tolkien wrote and how he found inspiration in his academic work, in the writing of favorite authors, and in his own earlier works. And, of course, the enormous amount of care he took to get things right.

Q: Having worked on the Hobbit for so long, do you have insight why Tolkien has been so popular with readers?

First and foremost, because he’s a superb writer; his prose does exactly what he wants it to, and in drafts like these we can see how hard he worked to revise and polish it. He’s also a compelling storyteller: the revised Gollum chapter is a real tour de force. Second, because he says things that readers want or need to hear; I, for example, had never come across anyone who cared about trees the way I did before discovering Tolkien. Third, because his evocative descriptive method, as outlined in one of the endnotes to ‘On Fairy-Stories’, is deliberately designed to help the reader envision elements in the story in his or her own terms, leaving the reader deeply invested in the world.

Q: So why has Tolkien been so unpopular with the critics?

At first it was because he came from outside the tradition and didn’t fit the pattern. Tolkien wrote as if Modernism never happened, and gave critics invested in the mainstream the sense of a man simply not living in his own century. As time went on, his popularity counted against him: academia doesn’t value popular success, and in fact many within it disdain writers whose books sell a lot of copies. Hence, for example, you’re far less likely to find a seminar on Robert Frost (a great modern poet who is easy to read) than on Ezra Pound (a great modern poet who’s very difficult to read). It was not until people who’d read Tolkien in their teens grew up, gained academic positions, and became professors in their turn that the onus lifted.

Q: What remains unique in Tolkien's work?

See above. No one else combines his immersion in medieval literature, his overarching vision of a lost mythic prehistory, his appealing narrative voice, and his sheer talent at conveying that vision.

Q: I'd like to talk a bit about the actual process of writing. When you started this study, how did you approach it? Do you have a special system for research and organization?

Throughout I’ve wanted to keep my own words and Tolkien’s distinct (typographically when possible), so that those who wanted to could just skip all my commentary and read straight through Tolkien’s draft. My first impulse was to reproduce exactly what Tolkien wrote, page by page, line by line, and stroke by stroke. When this proved unwieldy, I edited the transcript so that it would read more smoothly, giving all but the most minor changes either in brackets or as Text Notes. I follow each chapter of Tolkien’s text with commentary in the form of several short essays on topics arising in that chapter—for example, the Gollum chapter has mini-essays on Gollum himself, the Riddles, the Ring, and Invisible Monsters. I don’t think I have any special system for research, other than doing a lot of it; an enormous amount of research went into this book, and I hope readers enjoy the results.

Q: One final question. What do you think about the Hobbit movie?

I’m greatly looking forward to it, though of course with trepidation. I think the story could make an excellent film; whether it will in fact be made into an excellent film is something we’ll just have to wait and see.

THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT: Mr Baggins

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