December Artifact of the Month: First edition of The Hobbit

One book Tolkien fans always love to see when visiting the Wade Center is our first edition of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

THE HOBBIT first edition

THE HOBBIT by J.R.R. Tolkien. London: Allen and Unwin, 1937. 1st edition, 1st impression. Cover design by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Originally published in 1937, The Hobbit had a quite notable and unusual beginning. Sometime around the summer of 1930, Tolkien recalls sitting at his desk grading examination papers. The work provided his family with some extra income during the summer months. It was a task which was, according to an interview he did for the film “Tolkien in Oxford” (BBC, 1968), “very laborious and unfortunately also very boring.” He recalls that one page of an examination was left blank with nothing to read, and he scribbled on it without knowing why: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” That sentence, the opening line of The Hobbit, has become one of the most famous lines in literature.

Tolkien went on to develop the story as he told it to his four children, and eventually sent it to the publisher Allen and Unwin. Stanley Unwin, the firm’s chairman, believed that children were the best judges of children’s literature and hired his ten-year-old son Rayner to write a review of The Hobbit before officially accepting it for publication. Rayner wrote a very favorable review, stating at the end that “This book, with the help of maps, … is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.” He received a shilling for his work, and The Hobbit was first published in England on September 21, 1937, with an initial print run of 1,500 copies. C.S. Lewis supported Tolkien by anonymously contributing 2 glowing reviews of the book to The Times in October 1937.

The first printing sold well enough that a second printing was needed before Christmas. Four full-color plates of Tolkien’s own artwork were added for this second printing of 2,300 copies. These Hobbit first editions remain rare to this day and are sought-after collector’s items — most especially due to the unfortunate loss of 423 copies when a London warehouse was bombed by the German Luftwaffe in November 1940 during World War II.

The Wade has both the British (Allen and Unwin, 1937) and American (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1938) first editions of The Hobbit. One of our British first editions (a second impression, “impression” being a term for the number of copies of an edition printed at one time) contains Tolkien’s signature in the front as shown here, perhaps given to someone as a gift.

Tolkien Signature

1st edition of THE HOBBIT signed by J.R.R. Tolkien. Click to enlarge.

The original dust jacket of The Hobbit was illustrated by Tolkien, and similar designs using his artwork appear on modern editions as well.


First edition of THE HOBBIT, dust jacket design by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Enjoyment of The Hobbit continues, and in 2012 the book celebrated its 75th anniversary. This December also marks the release of the last of the Hobbit films in a trilogy by Director Peter Jackson. If you are looking for some special holiday reading, settle in a cozy armchair with a copy of The Hobbit, and enjoy.

For more information on The Hobbit and its various editions, here are some recommended resources:

Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark,” has a different ending in the first edition than in the current edition. Gollum has quite a different personality. The full text of both editions is available in The Annotated Hobbit as well as The History of The Hobbit (listed above).