When The Hobbit came out on September 21, 1937, it caused a great interest among readers and critics alike. Among all the reviews published in the time following the release of the book, there were favourable alongside a few unfavourable ones. Some reviewers simply described the story while others had a lot more to say about Mr Bilbo Baggins and his adventures. Let us have a look at the selection from the latter category.One of those critics to sense the vast world beyond the light tone of The Hobbit and enjoy the density of events in the book was May Lamberton Becker from the New York Herald Tribune, who wrote:
Into these pages a world is packed, an odyssey compressed, as adventures on the road to the dragon’s ill-got treasure thickens (1).
Comparing Tolkien’s style with that of Lord Dunsany’s, the critic saw that The Hobbit is a rather serious book once you read carefully, noted that “the story has unmistakable signs of having been told to intelligent children” (2) and was enchanted by the tale presented by the Professor.
The depth of The Hobbit, its belonging to a wider world in the author’s imagination and its sources of inspiration were also accurately noticed by the Horn Book critics. In the March-April 1938 issue Anne T. Eaton wrote:
The background of the story is full of authentic bits of mythology and magic and the book has the rare quality of style. It is written with a quiet humor and the logical detail in which children take delight. … All those, young or old, who love a finely imagined story, beautifully told, will take The Hobbit to their hearts (3).
Anne T. Eaton became among the few critics to notice that The Hobbit is more than merely a children’s book, but can be enjoyed by a person of any age with a taste for good stories. In the same issue of Horn Book Anne Carroll Moore went further and noted Tolkien’s wider inspirations which The Hobbit is rooted in:
…a refreshingly adventurous and original tale of dwarfs, goblins, elves, dragons, trolls, etc., in the true tradition of the old sagas… It is firmly rooted in Beowulf and authentic Saxon lore… There is sound learning behind The Hobbit, while a rich vein of humor connects this little being, described as smaller than a dwarf, with the strange beings of the ancient world and the world we live in today (4).
Anne Carroll Moore saw what most other critics failed to perceive in the book: the influences of myths and sagas that fuelled Tolkien’s imagination. She disagreed and considered a mistake the common opinion among the critics who stuck to comparing The Hobbit with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, mostly, it seemed, because both books were written by university professors and originally told to their children. Anne Carroll Moore was among the few reviewers who managed to see to the heart of The Hobbit and its real background.
Such comparisons with Alice did not seem to be to the taste of C. S. Lewis, Tolkien’s close friend, either. Lewis wrote first anonymous reviews of The Hobbit for The Times and The Times Literary Supplement. Both his reviews showed a profound understanding of what went into creating The Hobbit:
Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown-ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funniest to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic. (5)
(Times Literary Supplement)
Such praise had nothing to do with Lewis’s being Tolkien’s friend: he did not hesitate to critisise the Professor’s writings in private when that was necessary. But being aware of Tolkien’s interests and inspirations Lewis wished to make it clear in his reviews that there was not an ordinary book in front of the readers. In The Times’ review he also highlighted an essentially Tolkienian trait: “The Professor has the air of inventing nothing” (6). This air is the reason why Tolkien’s books are read as if they were real historical accounts and not fiction, and Lewis’s words preceded and echoed what Tolkien himself wrote in a letter in 1951 saying that with his stories he had “the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’” (Letters, № 131).
Lewis’s prophetic view that The Hobbit could become a classic was bold, but supported by some other reviewers of the time. In December 3, 1937 issue of the Spectator L. A. G. Strong says: It is dangerous to say that a book is really original, but in this case I risk it gladly. The Hobbit should become a classic (7). Bold though these words could sound in 1937, both Lewis and Strong showed a keen understanding of what constitutes a really good book that can survive through times and remain relevant even 80 years later. I am sure that they would have been glad to know that their predictions have come remarkably true.
(1) The Annotated Hobbit – p. 20
(2) ibid. – p. 19-20
(3) ibid. – p. 20
(4) ibid. – p. 21
(5) ibid. – p. 18
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Douglas A. Anderson – The Hobbit or there and back again: revised and expanded edition annotated by Douglas A. Anderson; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2003.
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.