On 21 September, 1937, one of the most celebrated and collectible books in modern literature was published in London. The brain child of a bored college professor, who while in the midst of marking papers, jotted the words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” onto a blank paper. It was at that point that the seed for a classic was planted.
The Hobbit’s initial UK release through Allen & Unwin in 1937 was a mere 1,500 copies. Receiving enthusiastic reviews, it sold out in a couple of months prompting subsequent printings and a North American release through Houghton Mifflin.
As popularity grew, publishers and fans alike began urging Tolkien to write a second book. As he began writing, it wasn’t long before Tolkien realized the need to revise the text of The Hobbit so it would properly integrate into a sequel. This also came at a time when Tolkien was in an ongoing piracy battle with US publishers, and editing the text enabled him to copyright the book and end the piracy.
The revised section occurs where Bilbo plays a riddle game with Gollum. In the original Gollum bets his ring in a game of chance, but this is reworked in later editions in order to reflect Tolkien’s new concept of the One Ring and its powerful hold on the poor creature. Tolkien explained the differing stories between editions by stating that he was simply the translator of the supposedly historic Red Book of Westmarch and had used Bilbo's original story in the first printings, but later retranslated the work with the "true story" recorded by Frodo.
While The Hobbit gained enough popularity to prompt the publishing of Lord of the Rings, it did not achieve its full audience until the 1960s when publishers printed a huge reissue of affordable Hobbit copies in the US. The timing of the release was perfect as it coincided with a cultural revolution that embraced many of the social themes in the works.
Another factor in the success of the novel was adult acceptance of fantasy, where as previously the genre had been mostly regarded as children’s entertainment. Tolkien’s acute attention to detail when creating the Middle Earth universe was the key to this success. “He used his knowledge as a scholar and a linguist to create an entire mythology for his work that was grounded in existing mythology and real languages,” explains Dan Gregory of Between the Covers Bookshop. “This set a new, and perhaps unsurpassed standard for creating a fully-fledged fantasy world full of not just a single culture, but multiple cultures, languages, and histories all intertwined. You can see the influence in several other successful series, such as Dune and Dragon Riders.” Had Tolkien not been there to pave the way authors such as Terry Brooks, CS Lewis or even JK Rowling and her beloved Harry Potter may never have achieved the same mass appeal.
Gregory continues, explaining that this new found mass appeal began to drive the collectors market for early editions. “The readers of the 1960s became the collectors of the 1970s and the price of early editions started to rise along with the books popularity, and have been continuing to rise ever since.” In fact a first edition copy of The Hobbit was the most expensive book ever sold on AbeBooks. Selling in December of 2005 for $65,000, and that isn’t even considered the ceiling for what firsts can sell for. Gregory recounts of one bookseller who purchased a first edition Hobbit to keep as a nest egg, eventually selling it several years later. “The sale put them well on their way to a home they were buying, and this was prior to the release of the latest film adaptations.”
Despite the fact that Tolkien taught for many years at Oxford University, and was not a recluse like Thomas Pynchon or Cormac McCarthy, signed material is relatively uncommon on the market, particularly with respect to demand. According to Gregory “A Tolkien signature in one of his books usually doubles or triples the value. In the case of reprint editions, the presence of a signature can affect the price significantly more. (Interestingly enough Tolkien’s close friend C.S. Lewis, who was also a professor, shared his distaste for signings.)
It is not only true first editions that are sought after by collectors. Various reprints of Tolkien’s works have collectible value, either because he made textual changes, because they contain new artwork appreciated by fans, because the true first editions are so expensive, or simply because Tolkien collectors are, well, really into Tolkien. So much so that the academic works he produced as a linguistics professor (pre-Middle Earth writing) are also collected by his fiction fans simply because he wrote them).
Now over seven decades after John Ronald Reuel Tolkien first let readers into his Middle Earth world, we can take a look back at all the adventures he created.