Revisiting "The Hobbit" is like sifting through the deep piles of loot in a dragon's hoard: there's always something new to discover about J.R.R. Tolkien and his classic. Here are 10 secrets concerning the author and his tale that you, good lover of Middle-earth, might have overlooked.
A Hobbit Smorgasbord
The first translation of "The Hobbit" was in Swedish, and Tolkien was none too pleased with the result. The translator altered the name of Hobbits to the bizarre Hompen. Tolkien hated it when foreign publishers changed his word Hobbit to something else, like the first Portuguese edition that was called "O Gnomo" ("The Gnome"). Thankfully the most recent translations of "The Hobbit" in both of these languages now use the word "Hobbit" in their titles. FYI: If you speak Esperanto the book is called "La Hobito."
Smells Like Hobbit Spirit
In Tolkien's posthumously published story "The Quest of Erebor," Gandalf states that he chose the plucky Bilbo to join Thorin's expedition to the Lonely Mountain for one very important reason: Smaug the dragon would not be able to identify the down-to-Middle-earth aroma of one of the Shire-folk. Smaug was a great connoisseur of Dwarves, however. And after eating six of their pack animals he instantly recognizes the toothsome taste of Dwarf-ridden-pony. Now that's a subtle palate!
Riddles In The Dark Redux
A remarkable tale in the history of publishing is how Tolkien rewrote parts of "The Hobbit" after its first printing (in 1937) to better fit with the legendarium that he was developing for "The Lord of the Rings." In the first version of "The Hobbit," Gollum is actually sort of sweet and willingly offers to give up his ring if Bilbo wins the riddle contest. Tolkien significantly changed the chapter "Riddles in the Dark," fleshing out the evil and ring-corrupted Gollum that we all find so precious.
Aragorn Was There!
When he was a child, Aragorn's mother took him to live in Rivendell after his father was killed. So when Bilbo came to the Last Homely House East of the Sea for the first time, the 10-year-old Aragorn was living there. Sadly, we can only imagine this fanfic-worthy meeting because there is no mention of Aragorn in "The Hobbit." Why? Because Tolkien had not yet invented this character. In fact, in an early draft of "The Fellowship of the Ring" the mysterious stranger Frodo meets at The Prancing Pony was called Trotter, and he was a hobbit!
According to "The Quest of Erebor," Gandalf and Thorin met by chance on the road near Bree (Gandalf was on his way to the Shire for a little pipe-smoking vacation). Perhaps the wizard and the Dwarf had both been sampling beer at one of that town's fine inns. Whatever the case, after hearing Thorin's audacious plan to take back the Lonely Mountain, Gandalf decides to enlist Bilbo on the dangerous journey. He reckons that Smaug must be dealt with before the Necromancer turns the monster to his own evil purposes and has a premonition that the light-footed and adventurous Baggins is the burglar for the job. (Plus Bilbo smells like a hobbit-hole.)
Bilbo The Big-Eyed Hobbit
In 1969 Tolkien sold the screen rights to "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" for £100,000 so that his heirs would be able to pay the huge estate taxes due upon his death without selling the publication rights to his books. The first version of "The Hobbit" was televised in 1977 from the makers of the stop-motion "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Even though the animated film of "The Hobbit" has German-accented elves that look like anemic troll dolls, a Bilbo who seems to have stepped from a big-eyed Keane painting, goblins who belt out jaunty show tunes, and a Gollum that is a cross between a dead frog and Don Knotts, the movie is actually not as horribly sucky as we all remember. (OK, I lied. It is.)
Son Of An Unwin
When Tolkien gave publisher Stanley Unwin his manuscript of "The Hobbit," Unwin handed it off to his son Rayner to review it. For this job Rayner was paid exactly one shilling--enough to buy a hobbit a pint of beer. The boy enjoyed Tolkien's book and wrote, "...it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9." (The sophisticated Rayner was 10 at the time.) The next year Rayner read the first chapter of Tolkien's unnamed sequel and complained that there was too much "hobbit-talk." Almost 20 years later, however, Rayner-the-editor helped publish "The Lord of the Rings"...despite all the hobbit-talk.
Halflings Are From Scotland
The word "Halfling" comes from the Scots hawflin and was the Medieval equivalent of a gawky teenager (aka a dorkwad). After the Tolkien estate sued the makers of Dungeons & Dragons for copyright infringement, the D&D people were forced to remove all mention of "hobbits" from their game. The word was replaced with the un-copyrightable Halfling, thus creating an unintended ironical correlation between geeky teens and fantasy role playing games.
Bag End = Arse Sack
Tolkien's name for Bilbo's ancestral home, Bag End, is actually a clever pun. In France dead-end streets were named after the butt end of a sack (a cul-de-sac). Bag End, sitting at the terminus of Bagshot Row, is the end of the road in Hobbiton. When Bilbo's parents first got married the place was just a sandy hill. By the bye, Bilbo's dad Bungo built Bag End for his beloved Belladonna. (Say that three times fast.) Bilbo's nemeses in the Shire are his Bag End-coveting, spoon-stealing and very Frenchy-sounding cousins: the Sackville-Bagginses.
When Bilbo and Gandalf return to the Shire at the end of "The Hobbit," they pass by the troll cave where they had found their Elven swords. Bilbo is reluctant to take the remaining troll booty, but Gandalf convinces him to bring it home. It's not until "The Fellowship of the Ring" that we find out what happened to all that gold. As Frodo, Merry, Pippin, Sam and Strider pass the same troll cave on their journey to Rivendell, Frodo tells his friends that Bilbo gave away all of the troll treasure. The reason? Because the wealth had come from robbers and was ill-gotten. Bilbo didn't want to be the Middle-earth equivalent of a thieving investment bank: a Goldman Sachsville-Baggins.
Noble Smith's "The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life" is now out in paperback.