Hobbit fans around the world are already lining up to see part 2 of Peter Jackson‘s adaptation of The Hobbit, called The Desolation of Smaug. I have already talked about how important C.S. Lewis was to the publication and promotion of The Hobbit. But friendship with C.S. Lewis wasn’t the only providential moment in J.R.R. Tolkien’s career as a fantasy writer. Twice the hand of history was moved so that our lives could be filled with the mystique of Middle Earth.
First, C.S. Lewis encouraged–really, drove–Tolkien to finish The Hobbit and allow it for publication. Tolkien’s sales are in the hundreds of millions now, so it is tempting to think that it obvious that The Hobbit should succeed. But we have to remember the context. The genre of Tolkienesque fantasy did not exist yet. Who knew what a hobbit was? There was no market for elves, and the fairy tale market was slim. Plus, it was the Great Depression, and there were few space shillings for frivolous books–and Bilbo’s tale is brilliantly frivolous. Finally, Tolkien was an Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon literature–hardly the sort of chap to be publishing a children’s book of fantasy. Although the odds of a Tolkien genius finding the market are far lower today, we cannot forget the uphill battle that he would face if he ever finished his There and Back Again tale.
And we can never forget that it hadn’t happened yet. C.S. Lewis liked Tolkien’s little story, but Lewis was only a failed poet and clever friend at this point. None of us knows in the midst of our literary ambitions and authorial doubt whether what we have in our hands and on our hard drives is worth anything.
Time and again the dwarves of The Hobbit observe that Bilbo Baggins has more than his share of good luck. Some of Bilbo’s luck rubbed off on his creator, I think.Alister McGrath, recent biographer of C.S. Lewis, tells the accidental tale of how The Hobbit finally made it to publication, against all odds:
The eventual publication of The Hobbit was the result of a series of fortunate accidents. Tolkien had lent the typescript of The Hobbit to one of his students, Elaine Griffiths (1909–1996). Griffiths in turn drew the text to the attention of Susan Dagnall, a former Oxford student now working for the London publisher George Allen & Unwin. After securing a copy of the typescript, Dagnall passed it on to publisher Stanley Unwin for his evaluation. Unwin in turn asked his ten-year-old son, Rayner, to read it. Rayner gave it such an enthusiastic review that Unwin decided to publish it. The contract’s deadline for submission gave Tolkien the motivation he so badly needed to complete the writing. On 3 October 1936, the work was complete (Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis: A Life, 198).
It is a brilliant set of small movements that have turned this wheel of history. You can read some of the Hobbit correspondence in Tolkien’s letter collection, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien’s biographer. The coincidences and chance meetings–what Thorin’s folk call luck–I have elsewhere hinted is the hidden hand of providence in Tolkien’s work. And while not all will feel that Peter Jackson’s interpretation is guided by the same wise force, it does bring us on this occasion to be thankful for this rich world that, save for an Oxford don, a student, and a 10 year old boy, we would be without.
Now, back to the those movie line ups! Despite all the things Peter Jackson will inevitably get wrong, and despite my puzzlement over the elf love interest, I will enjoy the film. I hope.