The World of Tolkien’s Hobbit

BY Colleen Shalby  December 14, 2012 at 10:49 AM EDT

Since its first publication in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” has been adapted into a 1970s cartoon, a Russian animated short and fan-fiction musicals and parodies. But no adaptation may more closely resemble Bilbo Baggins’ greatest adventure as Peter Jackson’s film “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which premieres in U.S. theaters Friday.

Jackson’s cinematic vision couldn’t have been conceived without the imagination of Tolkien, whose creation of intricate languages and dynamic characters are immortalized in the inimitable world of Middle Earth.

Earlier this week, we talked to Jason Fisher, author of “Tolkien and the Study of his Sources,” about Tolkien’s ability to bridge mythology and language, and his constant revisions:

Tolkien, who was a member of the Inklings at Oxford, studied Old and Middle English literature. What led him to create his own mythological world?

Jason Fisher: Once Tolkien had made a thorough study of the history of English and it’s literary artifacts, he discovered the native English had actually lost their mythology when the French came during the Norman conquest. So Tolkien became interested in trying to figure out whether he could restore some of that mythology. Eventually he gave up the idea that he would be restoring an actual mythology for England. But this mythological backdrop continued to permeate everything that he wrote for the rest of his life.

How did language play into his creation of mythology?

Jason Fisher: Tolkien envisioned a whole series of different languages; languages spoken by elves, men and dwarves. Because he was actually trained in what would become historical linguistics, which was mainly called philology in his day, he was trained in how languages related to one another and changed over time. He attempted to mimic [that evolution] in his own creative world.

Tolkien’s interest in language led him to create languages, and he therefore wanted to create a mythology and a world in which those languages might have been spoken. For him it started with languages, with words, with names, and from those he created narratives and full stories.

“The Hobbit” went through three editions from its first publishing. What revisions were made that might surprise readers?

Jason Fisher: Tolkien was actually an inveterate niggler. He constantly tinkered with his works. For most people, “The Hobbit” that they know today is the version that includes all of these changes and revision. But if you read the first edition of “The Hobbit” you see all kinds of strange things, like references to policemen on bicycles, references to Lilliputians, a reference to the Gobi Desert, the wild wireworms of the Chinese, all of these references to the real world. After the first edition, Tolkien cut all of those references and made it more of its own separate world.

The pull of this mythology and these languages are center stage in the “Lord of the Rings,” and over time they began to exert this gravitational pull backward to “The Hobbit.” Since “The Hobbit” had already been published, Tolkien had an interesting challenge of finding a way to work “The Hobbit” into the context of this larger mythology retroactively. One of the ways that he did this was by changing Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark.” The riddle contest between Gollum and Bilbo in the first edition is a very different, much more fanciful fairytale. But by the time the “Lord of the Rings” was being completed it was clear that the one ring was a much more sinister thing. Therefore, Tolkien made a revision so that Gollum was a bit nastier and the ring was a little bit more [threatening].

Do you think that any of that extra writing that Tolkien started but never made it into a revised copy could pop up in the film series?

Jason Fisher: Indirectly, yes. What Tolkien was doing in those abandoned 1960 revisions was attempting to bring “The Hobbit” in line with “The Lord of the Rings” in terms of its style and its tone and its character. I think that’s very much what Peter Jackson is probably doing. Judging by the material I’ve seen so far, it seems that Peter Jackson is attempting to create a prequel to “The Lord of the Rings” that will match “The Lord of the Rings” in terms of style and tone and character. Some of it will come from background material that Tolkien wrote for the appendices to “The Lord of the Rings.”

And finally, how do you think the story may be affected by being stretched into three films?

Jason Fisher: Since the book is a relatively short novel — shorter than any one of the volumes of “The Lord of the Rings” — it probably could have all been addressed in a single long film. Splitting it into three films really compounds that, so the question arises of just how much of the three films will belong to the plot of “The Hobbit.” For myself, I would have been happier with a single long film, or perhaps two. Three films really is pushing it, but I will be in line to see them with everybody else.