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He looked at what he'd written and thought, “Ah, I must find out what a hobbit is”

From the Listener archive: how Tolkien began with a blank sheet, and worked backwards.

A discerning ten-year-old boy named Rayner Unwin convinced his father to publish The Hobbit, and so helped bring a 20th-century literary classic to light. In this 1987 interview with the Listener, Unwin recounts his memories of J R R Tolkien and discusses the early development of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.


THE LISTENER, July 25, 1987, #2475, p30

RAYNER UNWIN made the best decision of his life at the tender age of 10. His publisher father, Stanley Unwin, brought home, as was his custom, the manuscript of a book for children. By this stage, Rayner’s older brother and sister had moved on to become arbiters of teenage fiction, so this typescript was dished out to the family's youngest child, who duly filed the following reader’s report, dated 30 October 1936.

Rayner Unwin's original review of The Hobbit

“Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who lived in his hobbit-hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his dwarves perswaded him to go. he had a very exiting time fighting goblins and wargs. at last they got to the lonley mountain; Smaug, the dragon, who gaurds it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home — rich! This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.”

“Only a 10-year-old would be capable of such lofty condescension,” smiles Rayner Unwin, who now heads the Unwin Hyman firm. He is very modest about his early effort: “Not a great piece of literary criticism, I fear.” His father paid him one shilling for the report, his standard fee. “Actually, this was one of the better shilling’s worth because the manuscript was fairly forbidding for a 10- year-old. It was very long and presented in single-spaced typescript — the eye boggles a bit at that ... I was wrong about the illustrations, of course.”

Nevertheless, that shilling was undoubtedly the best shilling his father ever spent. The Hobbit, by J R R Tolkien, first appeared in 1937. It was a modest success and reprinted within the year. But no one quite foresaw that 50 years later they would be celebrating the production of eight million copies in the English language alone, as well as numerous editions in 15 other languages.

Tolkien aficionados will know the famous story of the origins of The Hobbit but it is worth repeating for those who don’t. J R R (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien was Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University in the days when dons were paid even less than they are now. He had four children, and to earn a bit of pin money he took on the excruciatingly boring task of marking exam papers. Wading his way through a pile of these one day, he came across a blank sheet of script. A blank sheet was a signal for rejoicing since it didn’t have to be read. “Hurrah,” he shouted, and scribbled on the blank sheet of paper the following words: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Tolkien never knew why or how he came to write that first sentence of The Hobbit. He looked at what he had written and thought, “Ah, I must find out what a hobbit is,” and then he worked backwards from that point.

“That was just how his mind worked," says Rayner Unwin. “His imagination worked almost totally upside down from other people's. Having made a statement he had to find out what it meant. He worked with language in the same way; he sometimes invented language in order to have a justification for some quite trivial thing.”

A first edition of The Hobbit

Fortunately, Tolkien did find out what a hobbit was and incorporated his newfound knowledge into a story written simply for his children's winter reading. He never intended to publish it. Like many a good book before and since, it came to the public through a curious set of circumstances. Stanley Unwin employed a graduate from Oxford whose tutor had been a friend of Tolkien’s. She mentioned the story, Unwin followed it up, acquired the typescript, took it home . . . and now Tolkien, in the form of a bust done by his daughter-in-law, sits in his publisher's office staring down at his first reader. “It is fairly astonishing,” says Rayner Unwin. “You plant an acorn and you get an oak tree, and you can't quite understand that it comes from such a trivial act.”

RAYNER UNWIN is overly modest about his role in Tolkien’s success. For his part in the story didn’t end with that reader’s report. He and his father were then instrumental in pushing Tolkien for a sequel to The Hobbit. Tolkien was reluctant. His heart lay in The Silmarillion, his life’s work, begun in 1916 and still unfinished when he died in 1973. Nevertheless, he grudgingly agreed to attempt another children’s book about hobbits.

“Anyone who reads The Lord of The Rings carefully,” says Unwin, “will find that the first chapter or two has got a little bit of the winsomeness of a children’s book. But very soon it loses that slight indulgence and becomes far more serious, more sinister and profound. It started as a sequel and then it grew and things took over.

“People arrived in the plot and Tolkien didn’t know what to do with them. It was a bit like the genesis of The Hobbit. Things would happen in his writing and then he would read what he had written and scratch his head and say, ‘What’s this chap doing? What is he there for? What’s he going to do? In this way, for instance, Aragorn arrived in the plot – for no particular reason at all. He was just a slightly strange, taciturn hobbit figure; he wasn’t the future king at all. But he became so later on.

“The whole thing was written and rewritten. It was typical of Tolkien, “ continues Unwin. “He started in 1938 to write a sequel, staggered on through the whole of the last war and came out in the 1950s with a sequel which was three or four times longer than it should have been.”

Rayner Unwin was privy to the development of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was halfway through it when Unwin first met him. “I was 17,” he recalls, “and I had been sent up to Oxford on what was called a short course – half academic, half military training. Tolkien got to know that his first reader was there, and he came to look me up. It was very much in his character — he was a most thoughtful and unassuming person. In those days Oxford dons seemed very grand people and I was in a tizz when he arrived. But he was very sweet and he asked me to tea in his home, and this became a sort of weekly occasion.

“He would give me tea (I was very much on my best behaviour — sitting on the edge of the chair) and then he would usually struggle out and bring back a piece of his manuscript which he would give to me, saying, ‘Read this, dear boy .. . read this and tell me what you think about it when you come back next week.'

“So in consequence I read various bits of work in progress. I didn’t know what they were, whether they were from The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion. They were very much out of sequence and I didn’t know who was doing what to whom. But nevertheless they had this strange power which certainly affected me, and affects many other people today.”

Rayner Unwin/Listener archive

Unwin then went off to fight for king and country, and afterwards to be educated at two universities. Meanwhile Tolkien finally completed The Lord of the Rings and offered it to Unwins in conjunction with The Silmarillion, which he estimated would run to one million words when complete. Unwins felt that The Lord of the Rings had got out of hand as a children’s book and turned down the offer. Tolkien then took the same double package to Collins, who also rejected it. Disappointed, Tolkien took his manuscript home and put it in his bottom drawer.

When Rayner Unwin returned to publishing in the 50s, one of the first things he did was go and see Tolkien and find out what had happened to the work. “I learned then that it had been rejected, so I asked to see it again. When I'd read it I asked my father, who was in Japan at the time on a business trip, if he was pre- pared to lose £1000, because I thought it was a work of genius. And he allowed his idiot young son to indulge himself to that extent.

“The only thing I really contributed was to ask Tolkien to divide The Lord of the Rings into three parts. He always used to object violently when it was described as a trilogy, which it isn't. It is one book divided for convenience into three parts. I asked him to invent a new title for each part, which he did, and we published at six-monthly intervals -- 3500 of the first part, 3250 of the second, and 3000 of the third, on the principle that there is always a falling off.”

SINCE THEN, there has been anything but a falling off of interest in Tolkien. Unfortunately, the fame and money came just a bit too late for the author to enjoy it. By the mid 60s when his work became a cult, especially in the US, Tolkien was an elderly man. He was pleased, but all his life he had feared that he was on the verge of penury and he never quite got used to the idea that he was, at the very least, financially secure. “The most he would do,” smiles Unwin, “was take taxis. He did learn to do that much, but that was his only luxury.

“He was always an extremely modest man. He was kindness itself, courteous in a Victorian way. He loved conversation with other men. There was an informal club called the Inklings which used to assemble in the back room of an Oxford pub called The Eagle and Child, better known as the Bird and Baby. They used to drink beer and talk — Tolkien, C S Lewis, Charles Williams and others of that ilk — and once a week they would meet in the evening and read to each other's work in progress.

“Tolkien talked very fast. He was full of enthusiasms. He talked very fast because he thought very fast, and he assumed that you were following his thought processes . . . which you weren't. You were often very confused because he would suddenly veer off on some extraordinary virtuoso little digression on, say, the etymology of the world ‘galosh’ — how it came through the West Mercian form or somesuch. He would tell stories very amusingly and then just as the punch line was coming up and you were preparing to laugh, he would burst into loud laughter and ram his pipe in his mouth, and you had lost the punch line and couldn't understand the joke. He smoked matches, more or less; there were always clouds of smoke everywhere."

When success suddenly hit, Tolkien was wary. He had an absolutely clear vision of his work, and he was very concerned about the strenuous attempts that some people made to warp what he had done into a different form. He would not allow the publication of an abridged version or any attempt to simplify his language, and he did not care for other people’s illustrations. The film of The Lord of the Rings was made after his death but he himself had authorised it.“Well,” he said, “it’s a case of cash or kudos and this is cash.”

And how does Unwin think Tolkien would have reacted to the video game of The Hobbit? “Well, it’s a generational problem really. After all, when Tolkien first met a tape recorder, he was highly suspicious. He exorcised the machine by reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Gothic.” Unwin himself, who admits to knowing The Hobbit pretty well by now, was declared dead on 16% achievement when he attempted the video game. “It’s very ingenious,” he concedes.

The Tolkien industry continues. Unwin remains a close friend of the Tolkien family and sees himself as a guardian of the author’s work. He has visited the US and was recently in New Zealand to promote the new 50th anniversary edition of The Hobbit. While here he took the chance to catch up with relatives; three of Stanley Unwin’s brothers emigrated to New Zealand, so Rayner has more cousins here than anywhere else. The new edition features a 16-page introduction by Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son, who has spent the past few years sorting through the huge volume of his father’s papers. It also features unpublished illustrations by the author and the sole surviving page of the original draft of the first chapter.

In addition to the anniversary edition, the hardback volumes of the Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King will be reissued with full colour jackets. “There is always a new audience coming up who are fascinated when it is presented to them, “says Unwin. “The new edition recently featured for seven weeks on Britain’s list of bestselling paperbacks.”