As The Hobbit reaches its 70th anniversary, Nicola Lisle of Rare Book Review reflects on the enduring popularity of Bilbo Baggins and friends.
  The Hobbit

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ This must be one of the most famous opening lines in English literature, penned by arguably the greatest fantasy writer of the 20th century – the Oxford professor JRR Tolkien. In those few words, Tolkien invited his readers into the mythical world of Middle Earth, which was inhabited by the now classic characters of Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the wizard, the ‘small slimy’ Gollum and a host of dwarves, elves and other strange creatures.

Those same words were scribbled on the back of a student exam paper by Tolkien in the late 1920s. Where this sudden flash of inspiration came from is open to conjecture, but his description of the hobbit’s burrow bears a close resemblance to his home at Northmoor Road in Oxford, where the front door opened ‘onto a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel’ and had doors that opened onto rooms ‘first one side and then on the other’. It is also likely that Tolkien’s interest in ancient languages and mythology played its part in creating Middle Earth.


The Hobbit was several years in the making. From that first small seed it gradually evolved into bedtime stories that Tolkien read to his children. At around the same time, he and CS Lewis formed the literary group The Inklings, whose members met weekly to discuss work in progress. Their most famous meeting place was the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, where they would gather in a snug back room known as the Rabbit Room. Here Tolkien read parts of The Hobbit, to universal approval. CS Lewis, with remarkable perception, commented that ‘The Hobbit may well become a classic’.

Eventually an incomplete version of the manuscript found its way into the hands of Susan Dagnall, an employee of the publishers George Allen & Unwin Ltd. She encouraged Tolkien to complete it, and then showed it to the chairman, Sir Stanley Unwin, who asked his ten-year-old son, Rayner, to read it. Rayner gave it such an enthusiastic review that Unwin was convinced it was worth publishing.

The first edition of The Hobbit, or There and Back Again appeared on 21 September 1937, and the initial print run of 1,500 sold so quickly that a second impression was issued on 15 December, this time with a print run of 2,300. Two further impressions were issued in 1942 and 1946, by which time it had long been clear to Allen & Unwin that they had a major success on their hands.

All four impressions of the first edition featured a wraparound dustjacket designed by Tolkien and printed in black, blue and green. This is undoubtedly one of the author’s most striking and most recognisable illustrations, which has been re-used for many of the later editions. The green cloth covers were imprinted with Tolkien’s drawing of a dragon along the bottom of both front and back boards, and a mountain scene across the top. Inside, the front and back endpapers featured Thror’s Map and Map of Wilderland, printed in red and black.

In addition, all featured the same eight black and white drawings by the author: The Trolls; The Mountain-path; The Misty Mountains looking West; Beorn’s Hall; The Elvenking’s Gate; Lake Town; The Front Gate and The Hall at Bag-End.

There were also some distinctive variations between the four. The first impression contained a number of errors, most notably on the rear flap of the dustjacket, where there is a handwritten correction to the mis-spelt ‘Dodgeson’. This was corrected for the second impression.

Tolkien bibliographer Wayne Hammond identified 16 typos within the text, including incorrect and missing letters, missing words and incorrect punctuation marks. Among the worst examples are ‘above stream’ instead of ‘above the stream’ on p210; ‘leas’ instead of ‘least’ on p216; ‘you imagination’ instead of ‘your imagination’ on p229 and ‘nay breakfast’ instead of ‘any breakfast’ on p248. Examples of punctuation errors include reversed double quotation marks on p183, and ‘dwarves good feeling’ instead of ‘dwarves’ good feeling’ on p205. These were all corrected in subsequent editions.


The second impression featured four colour illustrations, including The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water, Rivendell, Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves and Conversation with Smaug. Two of the black and white illustrations – The Hill and Mirkwood – were removed. Of the 2,300 copies printed, 423 were destroyed during the London bombings of November 1940.

The third and fourth impressions, issued in print runs of 1,500 and 4,000 respectively, featured the same eight black and white drawings as the second impression, but a colour frontispiece of The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water was substituted for the four colour illustrations. These war-time impressions were both cheaply produced due to paper rationing.

A special Children’s Book Club edition was issued alongside the third impression, with a one-off print run of 3,000. This was a cheaper and more simplified version, with just eight black and white illustrations, no colour illustrations, no maps on the endpapers, plain yellow cloth boards and a white dustjacket printed in orange.

A year after the first UK edition, a new edition was published in the USA by Houghton-Mifflin, with a print run of 3,000. Unlike the UK first impression, the US version included the four colour illustrations, and was slightly larger, with the endpaper maps printed in red only. The dustjacket was printed in medium blue with the title in white, and featured Tolkien’s illustration of Hobbiton in colour with a red frame. The drawing of Smaug featured on the reverse, again in colour. The boards were tan with blue lettering, and featured a red hobbit emblem on the front, and a red dwarf’s hood on the spine. The hobbit emblem was repeated on the title page.

An interesting feature of the first US edition is that the two maps were reversed, so they don’t correspond correctly to the list of illustrations. It also incorrectly identified Chapter VII Out of the Frying Pan as Chapter VI.


Although the Houghton-Mifflin first editions are all dated 1938, some distinctive variations indicate that there were four separate print runs (or ‘states’) between its initial publication in 1938 and the appearance of the second edition in 1951.

The second state, which had a print run of 5,000, replaced the hobbit emblem on the title page with a seated flautist, largely because the publishers were uncomfortable with the fact that the hobbit in the emblem wore boots, which conflicted with the textual description of a bare-footed hobbit. The third state corrected the Chapter VII heading, and the fourth state featured the maps as free pages.

Prices for the first US editions are generally lower than the UK versions, simply because they are later editions. But demand is increasing, especially for the first state, which is now extremely rare, especially with a dustjacket in good condition.

The second UK edition was published by George Allen & Unwin in 1951, with a print run of 3,500 copies. The design differed little from the first edition, with the same eight black and white drawings as the second, third and fourth impressions, the same colour frontispiece of The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water and the same two maps on the endpapers.

There was a significant change to the text in that Chapter V, Riddles in the Dark, was substantially revised by Tolkien to bring The Hobbit more in line with its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, on which he was working at the time. Additionally, there was a brief introduction detailing these changes, and discussing inconsistencies in the use of the name Thrain.

Confusingly, the impression numbering continued on from the first edition, so the second edition begins with the fifth impression. There were eleven impressions in total, issued between 1951 and 1965; the final one, the 15th, inexplicably omitted the colour frontispiece.

The third edition, issued in 1966, continued the impression numbering from the second edition, but to add to the confusion an error was made in the recording of the new edition. What should have been recorded as the 16th impression was incorrectly recorded as the 15th. So the 15th impression of 1966 does not actually exist – the ‘real’ first impression was the 16th. It was not until 1968, with the issue of the fourth impression, that the sequence was re-numbered.

The third edition was also issued in paperback, again continuing the impression numbering from the second edition, starting in 1966 with the 16th impression. This policy changed in 1969, so the impression for that year was shown as the seventh, but the next three were then incorrectly printed as the 19th, 20th and 21st impressions. The eleventh impression in 1971 corrected the numbering, which then proceeded logically to the 19th and final impression in 1974.


The paperback edition was issued alongside the Longmans Schools Edition, which was issued in hardback in 1966 with the map endpapers but with the black and white drawings omitted. A total of six impressions were published between 1966 and 1971, with the new Longman’s logo being introduced from the second impression onwards.

The fourth and final edition with the George Allen & Unwin imprint was published in 1978, featuring the map endpapers, eight black and white drawings and five colour illustrations instead of the usual four, the extra one being Bilbo woke with the early sun in his eyes. Five impressions were issued up to 1985.

Since then, there have been numerous editions and impressions issued in both hardback and paperback, with various cover designs, illustrations and textual amendments. There are far too many to detail here, but some deserve a special mention.

One is the Deluxe Edition published by Allen & Unwin in 1976. This was issued in a box, and four impressions were published between 1976 and 1986. The usual map endpapers were included, and the eight black and white drawings were coloured by HE Riddett. A further impression was issued in a slipcase under the Unwin Hyman imprint in 1990. The Deluxe Edition was also issued for The Folio Society; the design was exactly the same, save for The Folio Society title page, and the binding case designed by Jeff Clements.

Intriguingly, some Folio Society editions have the Allen & Unwin imprint on the title pages. The reason for this is a mystery, but it is thought that these pages may have been sent to The Folio Society in error, or the Society requested some additional copies after the initial print run.

A very rare issue is the 50th Anniversary edition published by Unwin Hyman in 1987. As with most of the earlier editions, this included the two map endpapers, eight black and white illustrations and five colour illustrations, but also has a Foreword by Christopher Tolkien, which reproduces two pages from the original manuscript of The Hobbit, plus six extra illustrations and extracts from Tolkien’s letters. Two impressions were issued in the same year.


To commemorate The Hobbit’s 70th anniversary, new editions are being issued in the UK and the US this year. The UK edition will be a boxed gift set that includes The Hobbit and the two-volume companion The History of the Hobbit by John D Rateliff. The latter, comprising Volume 1 – Mr Baggins and Volume 2 – Return to Bag-End, includes the original, unpublished manuscript of The Hobbit, with detailed, chapter-by-chapter commentary on the changes made to the text before and after publication. This is a fascinating insight into how the story of The Hobbit evolved. Also included are some of Tolkien’s previously unseen illustrations and maps. The boxed set, entitled The Hobbit, Mr Baggins and the Return to Bag-End, will be published by HarperCollins on 17 September 2007, priced £40.

In the US, a new edition of The Hobbit is being issued by Houghton-Mifflin, featuring an introduction by Christopher Tolkien, many more of Tolkien’s drawings and colour illustrations, and all the most recent corrections incorporated into the text. This will be published in September, priced $25 (£12.50).

Both editions are worth snapping up while they are still reasonably priced. With the current trend for all Tolkien editions, particularly special issues, to escalate in price, these anniversary editions are undoubtedly a sound investment.

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