In the early 1930s Tolkien was pursuing an academic career at Oxford as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, with a fellowship at Pembroke College. Several of his poems had been published in magazines and small collections, including Goblin Feet and The Cat and the Fiddle: A Nursery Rhyme Undone and its Scandalous Secret Unlocked, a reworking of the nursery rhyme Hey Diddle Diddle. His creative endeavours at this time also included letters from Father Christmas to his children—illustrated manuscripts that featured warring gnomes and goblins, and a helpful polar bear—alongside the creation of elven languages and an attendant mythology, including the Book of Lost Tales, which he had been creating since 1917. These works all saw posthumous publication.
In a 1955 letter to W. H. Auden, Tolkien recollects that he began work on The Hobbit one day early in the 1930s, when he was marking School Certificate papers. He found a blank page. Suddenly inspired, he wrote the words, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." By late 1932 he had finished the story and then lent the manuscript to several friends, including C. S. Lewis and a student of Tolkien's named Elaine Griffiths. In 1936, when Griffiths was visited in Oxford by Susan Dagnall, a staff member of the publisher George Allen & Unwin, she is reported to have either lent Dagnall the book or suggested she borrow it from Tolkien. In any event, Dagnall was impressed by it, and showed the book to Stanley Unwin, who then asked his 10-year-old son Rayner to review it. Rayner's favourable comments settled Allen & Unwin's decision to publish Tolkien's book.
The setting of The Hobbit, as described on its original dust jacket, is "ancient time between the age of Faerie and the dominion of men" in an unnamed fantasy world. The world is shown on the endpaper map as "Western Lands" westward and "Wilderland" as the east. Originally this world was self-contained, but as Tolkien began work on the Lord of the Rings, he decided these stories could fit into the legendarium he been working on privately for decades. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings became the end of the "Third Age" of Middle Earth within Arda. Eventually those tales of the earlier periods became published as The Silmarillion and other posthumous works.
One of the greatest influences on Tolkien was the 19th-century Arts and Crafts polymath William Morris. Tolkien wished to imitate Morris's prose and poetry romances, following the general style and approach of the work. The Desolation of Smaug as portraying dragons as detrimental to landscape, has been noted as an explicit motif borrowed from Morris. Tolkien wrote also of being impressed as a boy by Samuel Rutherford Crockett's historical novel The Black Douglas and of basing the Necromancer—Sauron—on its villain, Gilles de Retz. Incidents in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are similar in narrative and style to the novel, and its overall style and imagery have been suggested as having had an influence on Tolkien.
Tolkien's portrayal of goblins in The Hobbit was particularly influenced by George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin. However, MacDonald influenced Tolkien more profoundly than just to shape individual characters and episodes; his works further helped Tolkien form his whole thinking on the role of fantasy within his Christian faith.
Tolkien scholar Mark T. Hooker has catalogued a lengthy series of parallels between The Hobbit and Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. These include, among other things, a hidden runic message and a celestial alignment that direct the adventurers to the goals of their quests.
Tolkien's works show much influence from Norse mythology, reflecting his lifelong passion for those stories and his academic interest in Germanic philology. The Hobbit is no exception to this; the work shows influences from northern European literature, myths and languages, especially from the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. Examples include the names of characters, such as Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dori, Nori, Dwalin, Balin, Dain, Nain, Thorin Oakenshield and Gandalf (deriving from the Old Norse names Fíli, Kíli, Oin, Glói, Bivör, Bávörr, Bömburr, Dori, Nóri, Dvalinn, Bláin, Dain, Nain, Þorin Eikinskialdi and Gandálfr). But while their names are from Old Norse, the characters of the dwarves are more directly taken from fairy tales such as Snow White and Snow-White and Rose-Red as collected by the Brothers Grimm. The latter tale may also have influenced the character of Beorn.
Tolkien's use of descriptive names such as Misty Mountains and Bag End echoes the names used in Old Norse sagas. The names of the dwarf-friendly ravens, such as Roäc, are derived from Old Norse words for "raven" and "rook", but their peaceful characters are unlike the typical carrion birds from Old Norse and Old English literature. Tolkien is not simply skimming historical sources for effect: the juxtaposition of old and new styles of expression is seen by Shippey as one of the major themes explored in The Hobbit. Maps figure in both saga literature and The Hobbit. Several of the author's illustrations incorporate Anglo-Saxon runes, an English adaptation of the Germanic runic alphabets.
Themes from Old English literature, and specifically from Beowulf, shape the ancient world Bilbo stepped into. Tolkien, a scholar of Beowulf, counted the epic among his "most valued sources" for The Hobbit. Tolkien was one of the first critics to treat Beowulf as a literary work with value beyond the merely historical, and his 1936 lecture Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics is still required in some Old English courses. Tolkien borrowed several elements from Beowulf, including a monstrous, intelligent dragon. Certain descriptions in The Hobbit seem to have been lifted straight out of Beowulf with some minor rewording, such as when the dragon stretches its neck out to sniff for intruders. Likewise, Tolkien's descriptions of the lair as accessed through a secret passage mirror those in Beowulf. Other specific plot elements and features in The Hobbit that show similarities to Beowulf include the title thief, as Bilbo is called by Gollum and later by Smaug, and Smaug's personality, which leads to the destruction of Lake-town. Tolkien refines parts of Beowulf's plot that he appears to have found less than satisfactorily described, such as details about the cup-thief and the dragon's intellect and personality.
Another influence from Old English sources is the appearance of named blades of renown, adorned in runes. In using his elf-blade Bilbo finally takes his first independent heroic action. By his naming the blade "Sting" we see Bilbo's acceptance of the kinds of cultural and linguistic practices found in Beowulf, signifying his entrance into the ancient world in which he found himself. This progression culminates in Bilbo stealing a cup from the dragon's hoard, rousing him to wrath—an incident directly mirroring Beowulf and an action entirely determined by traditional narrative patterns. As Tolkien wrote, "The episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at this point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same."
The name of the wizard Radagast is widely recognized to be taken from the name of the Slavic deity Rodegast.
The representation of the dwarves in The Hobbit was influenced by his own selective reading of medieval texts regarding the Jewish people and their history. The dwarves' characteristics of being dispossessed of their ancient homeland at the Lonely Mountain, and living among other groups whilst retaining their own culture are all derived from the medieval image of Jews, whilst their warlike nature stems from accounts in the Hebrew Bible. The Dwarvish calendar invented for The Hobbit reflects the Jewish calendar in beginning in late autumn. And although Tolkien denied allegory, the dwarves taking Bilbo out of his complacent existence has been seen as an eloquent metaphor for the "impoverishment of Western society without Jews."
George Allen & Unwin Ltd. of London published the first edition of The Hobbit on 21 September 1937 with a print run of 1,500 copies, which sold out by December because of enthusiastic reviews. This first printing was illustrated in black and white by Tolkien, who designed the dust jacket as well. Houghton Mifflin of Boston and New York reset type for an American edition, to be released early in 1938, in which four of the illustrations would be colour plates. Allen & Unwin decided to incorporate the colour illustrations into their second printing, released at the end of 1937. Despite the book's popularity, paper rationing due to World War II and not ending until 1949 meant that the Allen & Unwin edition of the book was often unavailable during this period.
Subsequent editions in English were published in 1951, 1966, 1978 and 1995. Numerous English-language editions of The Hobbit have been produced by several publishers. In addition, The Hobbit has been translated into over forty languages, with more than one published version for some languages.
In December 1937, The Hobbit's publisher, Stanley Unwin, asked Tolkien for a sequel. In response Tolkien provided drafts for The Silmarillion, but the editors rejected them, believing that the public wanted "more about hobbits". Tolkien subsequently began work on The New Hobbit, which would eventually become The Lord of the Rings, a course that would not only change the context of the original story, but lead to substantial changes to the character of Gollum.
In the first edition of The Hobbit, Gollum willingly bets his magic ring on the outcome of the riddle-game, and he and Bilbo part amicably. In the second edition edits, to reflect the new concept of the One Ring and its corrupting abilities, Tolkien made Gollum more aggressive towards Bilbo and distraught at losing the ring. The encounter ends with Gollum's curse, "Thief! Thief, Thief, Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!" This presages Gollum's portrayal in The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien sent this revised version of the chapter "Riddles in the Dark" to Unwin as an example of the kinds of changes needed to bring the book into conformity with The Lord of the Rings, but he heard nothing back for years. When he was sent galley proofs of a new edition, Tolkien was surprised to find the sample text had been incorporated. In The Lord of the Rings, the original version of the riddle game is explained as a "lie" made up by Bilbo under the harmful influence of the Ring, whereas the revised version contains the "true" account. The revised text became the second edition, published in 1951 in both the UK and the US.
Tolkien began a new version in 1960, attempting to adjust the tone of The Hobbit to its sequel. He abandoned the new revision at chapter three after he received criticism that it "just wasn't The Hobbit", implying it had lost much of its light-hearted tone and quick pace.
After an unauthorized paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings appeared from Ace Books in 1965, Houghton Mifflin and Ballantine asked Tolkien to refresh the text of The Hobbit to renew the US copyright. This text became the 1966 third edition. Tolkien took the opportunity to align the narrative even more closely to The Lord of the Rings and to cosmological developments from his still unpublished Quenta Silmarillion as it stood at that time. These small edits included, for example, changing the phrase "elves that are now called Gnomes" from the first, and second editions, on page 63, to "High Elves of the West, my kin" in the third edition. Tolkien had used "gnome" in his earlier writing to refer to the second kindred of the High Elves—the Noldor (or "Deep Elves")—thinking "gnome", derived from the Greek gnosis (knowledge), was a good name for the wisest of the elves. However, because of its common denotation of a garden gnome, derived from the 16th-century Paracelsus, Tolkien abandoned the term.
Since the author's death, two editions of The Hobbit have been published with commentary on the creation, emendation and development of the text. In The Annotated Hobbit, Douglas Anderson provides the text of the published book alongside commentary and illustrations. Later editions added the text of "The Quest of Erebor". Anderson's commentary makes note of the sources Tolkien brought together in preparing the text, and chronicles the changes Tolkien made to the published editions. The text is also accompanied by illustrations from foreign language editions, among them work by Tove Jansson. The edition also presents a number of little-known texts such as the 1923 version of Tolkien's poem "Iumonna Gold Galdre Bewunden".
With The History of The Hobbit, published in two parts in 2007, John D. Rateliff provides the full text of the earliest and intermediary drafts of the book, alongside commentary that shows relationships to Tolkien's scholarly and creative works, both contemporary and later. Rateliff provides the abandoned 1960s retelling and previously unpublished illustrations by Tolkien. The book separates commentary from Tolkien's text, allowing the reader to read the original drafts as self-contained stories.
Illustration and design
Tolkien's correspondence and publisher's records show that he was involved in the design and illustration of the entire book. All elements were the subject of considerable correspondence and fussing over by Tolkien. Rayner Unwin, in his publishing memoir, comments: "In 1937 alone Tolkien wrote 26 letters to George Allen & Unwin... detailed, fluent, often pungent, but infinitely polite and exasperatingly precise... I doubt any author today, however famous, would get such scrupulous attention."
Even the maps, of which Tolkien originally proposed five, were considered and debated. He wished Thror's Map to be tipped in (that is, glued in after the book has been bound) at first mention in the text, and with the moon letter Cirth on the reverse so they could be seen when held up to the light. In the end the cost, as well as the shading of the maps, which would be difficult to reproduce, resulted in the final design of two maps as endpapers, Thror's map, and the Map of Wilderland (see Rhovanion), both printed in black and red on the paper's cream background.
Originally Allen & Unwin planned to illustrate the book only with the endpaper maps, but Tolkien's first tendered sketches so charmed the publisher's staff that they opted to include them without raising the book's price despite the extra cost. Thus encouraged, Tolkien supplied a second batch of illustrations. The publisher accepted all of these as well, giving the first edition ten black-and-white illustrations plus the two endpaper maps. The illustrated scenes were: The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water, The Trolls, The Mountain Path, The Misty Mountains looking West from the Eyrie towards Goblin Gate, Beorn's Hall, Mirkwood, The Elvenking's Gate, Lake Town, The Front Gate, and The Hall at Bag-End. All but one of the illustrations were a full page, and one, the Mirkwood illustration, required a separate plate.
Satisfied with his skills, the publishers asked Tolkien to design a dust jacket. This project, too, became the subject of many iterations and much correspondence, with Tolkien always writing disparagingly of his own ability to draw. The runic inscription around the edges of the illustration are a phonetic transliteration of English, giving the title of the book and details of the author and publisher. The original jacket design contained several shades of various colours, but Tolkien redrew it several times using fewer colours each time. His final design consisted of four colours. The publishers, mindful of the cost, removed the red from the sun to end up with only black, blue, and green ink on white stock.
The publisher's production staff designed a binding, but Tolkien objected to several elements. Through several iterations, the final design ended up as mostly the author's. The spine shows runes: two "þ" (Thráin and Thrór) runes and one "d" (door). The front and back covers were mirror images of each other, with an elongated dragon characteristic of Tolkien's style stamped along the lower edge, and with a sketch of the Misty Mountains stamped along the upper edge.
Once illustrations were approved for the book, Tolkien proposed colour plates as well. The publisher would not relent on this, so Tolkien pinned his hopes on the American edition to be published about six months later. Houghton Mifflin rewarded these hopes with the replacement of the frontispiece (The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the Water) in colour and the addition of new colour plates: Rivendell, Bilbo Woke Up with the Early Sun in His Eyes, Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves and a Conversation with Smaug, which features a dwarvish curse written in Tolkien's invented script Tengwar, and signed with two "þ" ("Th") runes. The additional illustrations proved so appealing that George Allen & Unwin adopted the colour plates as well for their second printing, with exception of Bilbo Woke Up with the Early Sun in His Eyes.
Different editions have been illustrated in diverse ways. Many follow the original scheme at least loosely, but many others are illustrated by other artists, especially the many translated editions. Some cheaper editions, particularly paperback, are not illustrated except with the maps. "The Children's Book Club" edition of 1942 includes the black-and-white pictures but no maps, an anomaly.
Tolkien's use of runes, both as decorative devices and as magical signs within the story, has been cited as a major cause for the popularization of runes within "New Age" and esoteric literature, stemming from Tolkien's popularity with the elements of counter-culture in the 1970s.