So, as I mentioned in my last post, the newly arrived splendidly illustrated catalogue for the current Bodleian Tolkien exhibit, TOLKIEN: MAKER OF MIDDLE EARTH by Catherine McIlwaine, contains valuable new information about the dating of THE HOBBIT.
For years we've been bedeviled by contradictory information as to when Tolkien started the book: Tolkien's emphatic statement that it was after he moved to the new house on Northmoor Road, vs. his two eldest sons' insistence that it had been at some point while they were still at their previous house (right next door), and therefore sometime between 1926 and 1929. Now we have new evidence which makes the earlier date certain. McIlwaine writes
Tolkien began to write The Hobbit in the late 1920s,
reading it to his sons in instalments during the evening
in his study, the proper 'place for such amusements'.*
His eldest son John recorded in his diary for New Year's
Day 1930, 'In the Afternoon we played in the Nursery.
After tea Daddy read The Hobbit'.
(McIlwaine p. 290)
That about as decisive as anyone cd possibly wish. This is the best kind of evidence: first hand, contemporary, and unambiguous. We're lucky to have it. I'll have to go back and revise my account in MR. BAGGINS giving the chronology of the book's writing.
My preliminary conclusion in the light of this new evidence is that what we have in JRRT's account of sitting at this study in the new house on a summer's day writing that iconic first sentence of his book is a composite memory. In his 1964/65 Guerroult radio BBC interview he describes a mental image that he now realizes is a 'beautifully worked out pastiche' of his father's house in Bloemfontein with his grandfather's house in Birmingham, features of both appearing in a composite in his memory. Something of the same must have been the case in his memory of creating that first page of THE HOBBIT.
Now if only more evidence wd turn up to help nail down when Tolkien finished the book as well.
*quoted from LETTERS OF JRRT, p. 21
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