J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Annotated Hobbit

BC038349-311C-4185-9708-B70E0AD613CCIf The Lord of The Rings is the ultimate in adult fantasy works, and I believe it is, than The Hobbit is not truly the prequel to it, but rather a separate novel, and clearly, like Peter Pan, it is intended for the child within all of us. I first read it nigh onto thirty, perhaps forty (or more), years ago in a cheap paperback edition over a summer’s break from school, and I still clearly ‘member the joy of encountering this work for the very first time. I have re-read it a dozen times or better over the years, and now own the slipcased edition released a few years back by Houghton Mifflin, as well as the one-volume One Hundredth Anniversary edition of The Lord of The Rings, illustrated by Alan Lee, which the same publisher released.

So I obviously had no need atall for another copy of The Hobbit, but that didn’t stop me from snagging the choice piece of swag when it came in recently. The result? I rediscovered the joys of reading The Hobbit, but also gained a better appreciation of how inventive Tolkien was in creating this novel, which in some ways is better than The Lord of The Rings — it’s both a more joyful undertaking and the required reading to understand how the ever-so-dark events of the trilogy that follows must come to be. (I am ignoring the various volumes of queer back story called The History of Middle-earth that have since been released by Christopher Tolkien. They are not truly important to this tale. I’m sure ‘nother Green Man staffer will give you a splendid review of them.) But what we are discussing here is The Annotated Hobbit, which really does belong in the library of anyone who loves Tolkien and his work.

The Annotated Hobbit has two aspects, both of which are important. The first is that both the text of the novel (obviously) and most of the artwork (surprise) are by Tolkien. Indeed, what you get is a fully corrected text of The Hobbit as J.R.R. Tolkien approved it before his death in 1973. Anderson has compared every page from every major edition of The Hobbit with Tolkien’s own last proofing copy (Tolkien was a self-acknowledged ‘niggler’ who never left his work alone, even after it was published! –ed.) for this definitive edition. I’m not sure that the casual reader will even notice the changes wrought by Anderson in correcting the text to that which Tolkien wished it was, but it’s nice to see Tolkien’s vision of the text realized! This is not the original edition of The Annotated Hobbit, as there are many design changes. For example, the earlier dust jacket featured Tolkien’s original artwork (the blue, green, and black illustration that is used on the classic edition), but this edition has a colour illo by Tolkien of a dragon, Smaug one presumes, in the midst of a green jacket. The high-quality paper used for the first edition was a heavy bright bond with a high rag content, but I see no indication that the paper here is anything but common run-of-the-mill paper — good, but not exceptional. A pity. It is worth noting that the book is a wee bit smaller than the original , measuring 7 3/4 inches wide by 9 inches tall instead of the original 8 3/4 inches wide by 11 1/4 inches tall. That makes it a bit wider than the other Hobbit in me library, but just barely. I have no idea as to why it got ever-so-slightly smaller…

On the page facing the title page in both editions is a black and white photographic portrait of Tolkien, taken in London in the fall of 1937. In the new edition, the preceding page has a black and white drawing (and all illos unless otherwise stated are by J. R. R. Tolkien) of a dragon over the words The Annotated Hobbit. Nice, very nice. And there are many, many illustrations herein — both by Tolkien and others — including superb maps of Middle Earth. A two-page preface by Anderson goes into how the Annotated Hobbit was compiled and explains which version of the various versions of The Hobbit was used. In the twenty-five page Introduction (up from a mere six pages in the first edition!), Anderson provides some biographical information on Tolkien and some interesting historical details about The Hobbit, including how The Hobbit came to be.

I find the custom of ‘Winter Reading’ in the evening in the Tolkien household, which is how this novel was first unveiled, to be charming. It’s well-known that Tolkien was a great lover of that oral epic called Beowulf, so reading this story out loud to his children and wife makes complete sense. This is in contrast to The Lord of The Rings which, to me thinking, is a literary affair meant to be read by the fire on a cold winters night, with a blanket over your legs and a mug of tea at hand like a proper hobbit would, not an orally influenced and friendly work like The Hobbit!

Included in the new edition are two appendices, one called ‘The Quest of Erebor.’ ‘The Quest of Erebor’ is Gandalf’s explanation of how he arranged the adventure that Bilbo undertook — the earliest manuscript is now published in The Peoples of Middle-earth and is incorporated into The Return of The King. This adds nought to the enjoyment of The Hobbit, but does suggest that Tolkien was indeed concerned with placing this work within the greater context of The Lord of The Rings mythos. And the second appendix, ‘On Runes and Their Values,’ shows how finely detailed Tolkien was in building his world. Runes, first used by Rudyard Kipling in Just So Stories (1902), allowed Tolkien to create languages as rich and detailed as the real ones that his tales grew out of. Entish may not be real, but we, his dear readers, certainly think of it as real. Oh, did I mention the most excellent bibliography? From a listing of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, including Grey Walker’s favourite (and soon-to-be reviewed ) book by him, Tree and Leaf, and my favourite, The Father Christmas Letters, it’s as good a bibliography as can be expected. The bibliography includes a section in which Anderson gets to explain the the rather complex history of The Hobbit as Tolkien worked on it over and over again. You’ll mayhap need an aspirin or too after trying to follow the rather complex revision and printing and revision and printing and so forth of The Hobbit! Hell, I want a copy of An Hobbit, pe eno ha distro, the 2001 Brezih translation! Or the 1973 Finnish edition, which is called Lohikåårmevuori, eli, Eraån hoppelin matka sinne ja takaisin. The latter is fitting, given, as I noted previously, the Nordic roots of this mythos.

Now, the annotations themselves are a sheer joy that I will not spoil by revealing anything — you really should discover them without me telling you ’bout them. Suffice it to say that everything from where the Hobbit’s name came from to variants on the riddles that Bilbo and Gollum exchange are herein. In a fitting piece of self-reference, Anderson notes that some copies of the first edition were themselves annotated by other Tolkien scholars! All in all, an amazing amount of information gets added to an already finely detailed tale. I must stress that I would not have wanted this to be my first encounter with The Hobbit, as the annotations are distracting, but I will cherish this valuable addition to me library!

Now excuse, as I’m off to start reading The Hobbit all over again.

(Unwin & Allen, 1937)



Iain Nicholas Mackenzie

I'm the Librarian for the Kinrowan Estate. I do love fresh brewed teas, curling, English mysteries and will often be playing Scandinavian or Celtic  music here in the Library here in Kinrowan Hall if the Neverending Session is elsewhere. I'm a violinist too, so you'll me playing in various contradance band such as Chasing Fireflies and Mouse in the Cupboard as well as backing my wife Catherine up on yearly Christmas season tours in the Nordic countries.

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