Thursday, June 21, 2018

I Was Wrong (The 1930 Hobbit)

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.

--John R.

*quoted from LETTERS OF JRRT, p. 21


OnTheTrail said...

Surely John that has to justify a new edition of THotH :) or some other new Tolkien related work from yourself.

John Garth said...

Thanks for posting on this. From recent experience, I know just how it feels to commit an elaborately researched timeframe to print and then discover evidence that it's wrong. But it's a positive thrill to access new information – especially, as you say, first hand, contemporary and unambiguous. This snippet does make one wonder what else may be turned up in future years to shed fresh light (or fresh gloom) on the Hobbit date question.

I like the composite memory idea, and it seems entirely feasible. Alternatively, it's not hard to see how Tolkien could have fumbled over the house numbers, saying 20 Northmoor Road when he meant 22. After all, he managed to fumble over his lovingly crafted tengwar for "Elen síla lúmenn' omentielvo" in the same 1968 BBC interview. "Oh Lord! I've made a mistake. Never mind."


John Garth said...

Thanks, onthe trail (your real name?)

I suspect Tolkien and the Great War has just missed the obvious commercial window for a new edition. Anyway, to make it really worthwhile it would also need to take in the kind of material glimpsed in the Bodleian exhibition, where there is a lovely letter to Edith describing Officer Training Corps night manoeuvres on Oxford's Port Meadow.

But I am indeed working on new material. Bits of it keep popping up here and there, if you look carefully.

Regarding The Hobbit, my personal feeling (no more than that) is that this antedating makes the likeliest inception date 1928. That's the year Tolkien wrote the Thû sequence in The Lay of Leithian, and the lines about him leaving his tower for a darker place which John, in his (splendid and essential!) History of The Hobbit, shows to be echoed closely in the earliest surviving Hobbit fragment.

There seem to have been flashpoints in Tolkien's creative life where an idea from one story leaps into another, with no long period between them. For an example, see the conversation at the foot of my blog post here about Roverandom and The Fall of Númenor: