The Hobbit - First vs. Second Edition (Modern Editions) Reading

edited January 3 in General Book Babble

A while back I picked up the facsimile of the first edition of The Hobbit. As some of you know, there are differences between the 1937 first edition and the 1951 revision. Largely these differences are chalked up to generally minor changes to bring the story in line with The Lord of the Rings as much as possible and specifically changes to the Riddles in the Dark chapter which sets the provenance, or at least the importance, of the one ring.

In our slow read of The Lord of the Rings I remember arguing at times with @clash_bowley and others (who I'll admit know more about Tolkien's works than I) that Tolkien was less clear on some of the facts of Middle Earth (and specifically on the nature of Gandalf) in his early works than in the later ones. Reading the 1937 edition of The Hobbit reinforces that opinion for me, though I admit it is just an opinion based on my interpretation of the text. IOW, I am seeing evidence for a theory I already had. If you read the text with a different theory, you might not see the same evidence or give it the same weight as I have. Even so, it's a fascinating discussion regardless of who is "right."

Anyway, I am going to drop my notes here on the textual differences for those who are interested and want to comment. I assume that certainly Clash, @Apocryphal and @Michael_S_Miller will want to see this.


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    edited January 3

    Chapter 1: An Unexpected Party

    On the Size of Hobbits

    In the description of hobbits, their size is given as "...small people, smaller than dwarves (and they have no beards) but very much larger than lilliputians. Their is little or no magic about them..."

    In the revised version they are "...“little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them ..."

    Presumably Tolkien realized that referencing the height of one fantasy race to another provided very little information and so included humans. Also "lilliputians" is a fourth-wall-breaking reference to Gulliver's Travels. Though Tolkien doesn't mind breaking the fourth wall elsewhere, this one was quite a stand out.

    On the Alleged Dalliance between the Tooks and Other Races

    The unrevised edition says "It had always been said that long ago one or other of the Tooks had married into a fairy family (the less friendly said a goblin family); certainly there..."

    The revised version says "“It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but certainly there..."

    The thought of hobbits and goblins marrying is not in keeping with The Lord of the Rings at all, and it is one of the first signs, to my thinking, of how different (or at least less defined) Tolkien's view of Middle Earth was in 1937.

    On Gandalf

    There will be lots to say on this point as the story progresses, but in our first description of him in the 1937 edition we are told that Bilbo perceived him as "a little old man." This is later revised to "an old man with a staff." But in any case, Gandalf in both versions of the story is consistently referred to as a man. I have argued a number of times with my friends -- who I admit are more deeply seeped in Tolkien lore than I -- about when exactly Tolkien decided that Gandalf was neither human nor elf but rather a lesser, divine being. I have (probably ignorantly) contended that in the 1937 Hobbit, Gandalf is an enigmatic old man who can cast spells, period. I don't think Tolkien had conceived much about his background, or the council of wizards and their colors, or anything of that sort. In fact, Gandalf isn't "the Grey" here -- he wears a blue hat, a grey cloak, a silver scarf, and black boots. His eyebrow hair sticks "out further than the brim of his shady hat" and at first he has a "stick" (walking stick?) rather than a staff (though it is referred to as his "magic staff" by the end of the night of the unexpected party).

    All that being said, I seem to recall that @clash_bowley can point to a letter pre-dating 1937 that discusses Gandalf's angelic origin?

    As for his magic ... see the next chapter.

    On Hobbit Adventures

    The unrevised edition tells us that Gandalf is responsible for young hobbits "going off into the Blue for mad adventures, anything from climbing trees to stowing away aboard the ships that sail to the Other Side." This is quite a revealing little point. It's later revised to "“going off into the Blue for mad adventures? Anything from climbing trees to visiting elves—or sailing in ships, sailing to other shores!” It perhaps tells us that early on Tolkien was less clear on who could 'pass into the West' and certainly points to how we would eventually wind up the The Return of the King.


    A minor point here, but in the 1937 edition when Bilbo unexpectedly shrieks, Gandalf refers to him as an "excitable little man." This is revised to "excitable little fellow."

    In the unrevised version, Smaug is reported to have gotten fat from "devouring so many of the maidens of the valley" rather than "“so many of the dwarves and men of Dale."

    Gandalf inserts more proper names in the revised version. Thror and Thrain are not named in the unrevised version, but simply referred to as Thorin's father and grandfather. Also not named in the unrevised version is the name of the goblin (Azog) that killed Thror in the mines of Moria.

    There are of course other very minor changes. For instance, Gandalf tells Bilbo to bring out the chicken and tomatoes in the unrevised edition vs. the chicken and pickles in the revised edition. But I'll skip over these inconsequential changes.

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    edited January 3

    Chapter 2: Roast Mutton

    The Lands (and Dates) Between The Shire and Rivendell

    In the unrevised version there are some key differences in the description of the lands between where the hobbits lived and Rivendell. Here are the comparative passages:

    1937 unrevised: "Things wen ton like this for quite a long while. there was a good deal of wide respectable country to pass through, inhabited by decent respectable folk, men or hobbits or elves or what not, with good roads, an inn or two, and every now then a dwarf, or a tinker or a farmer ambling by on business. But after a time they came to places where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before. Inns were rare and not good, the roads were worse, and there were hills in the distance rising higher and higher. There were castles on some of the hills, and many looked as if they had not been built for any good purpose. Also, the weather which had often been as good as May can be, even in tales and legends, took a nasty turn."

    Revised: "At first they had passed through hobbit-lands, a wide respectable country inhabited by decent folk, with good roads, an inn or two, and now and then a dwarf or a farmer ambling by on business. Then they came to lands where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before. Now they had gone on far into the Lone-lands, where there were no people left, no inns, and the roads grew steadily worse. Not far ahead were dreary hills, rising higher and higher, dark with trees. On some of them were old castles with an evil look, as if they had been built by wicked people. Everything seemed gloomy, for the weather that day had taken a nasty turn. Mostly it had been as good as May can be, can be, even in merry tales, but now it was cold and wet. In the Lone-lands they had been obliged to camp when they could, but at least it had been dry."

    Tolkien's revision depopulates this area to bring it in line with the journey the hobbits take with Aragon that includes the awesome and spooky encounter at Weathertop. Notably, in the unrevised edition, elves are included in the races that live in the area closer to The Shire (the words "The Shire" are never used in The Hobbit, by the way). Later we see that where there were once inns, albeit poor ones (unrevised), there are now no longer inns (revised) and the party is forced to camp earlier in their adventure. In the unrevised version it is clearly noted that they camp "for the first time" on the night of the trolls. (This change stating when they first camped wasn't actually made until later revisions, as it is still in the audiobooks narrated by Rob Ingles in 1991 but not in the text I have that was published in 2001. In the earlier revisions there is an odd discrepancy between them camping earlier and camping 'for the first time' on the night of the trolls.) He also clarifies that the castles have an evil look, and were probably built by wicked people whereas in the unrevised version they simply appear as if they had not been built for any good purpose. (One can put different emphasis on the word "good" in the earlier edition which changes them from looking pointless to evil.)

    Also, Tolkien seems to mess with the dates just slightly. In the unrevised version Bilbo remarks that "it is June the first tomorrow." Tolkien revised it to "it will soon be June." This removes a pinpoint on the calendar that would have marked the exact date of the evening on which they encountered the trolls. I assume this was done for a purpose, but I haven't investigated it.

    Later in the same chapter, the unrevised version tells us that "these parts are none too well known, and are too near the mountains. Policemen never come so far, and the map-makers have not reached this country yet. They have seldom even heard of the king round here..." The revised version changes this passage to "These parts are none too well known, and are too near the mountains. Travellers seldom come this way now. The old maps are no use: things have changed for the worse and the road is unguarded. They have seldom even heard of the king round here..."

    So the land goes from unmapped to having out-of-date maps. I have also often wondered about the reference to "the king" here. I presume they mean the steward of Gondor??


    We get more insight into the differences between Gandalf of The Hobbit and Gandalf of The Lord of the Rings in this chapter. When they first miss him the text (of both editions) reads: "So far he had come all the way with them, never saying if he was in the adventure or merely keeping them company for a while. He had eaten most, talked most, and laughed most. But now he simply was not there at all!" Either he is in an uncharacteristically good mood or he soured between this time and the time of The Lord of the Rings. That would make sense as the world takes a turn for the worse between the two novels. As for magic...

    We see him doing a lot more trivial magic in The Hobbit than we do in Lord of the Rings. When they find the troll hole, for instance, he tries "various incantations" to open it before Bilbo remembers he has the key. Afterward "they" (presumably Gandalf, but it isn't stated as such) "put a great many spells" on the chests they bury to conceal them. As for the blades they took, Gandalf says "if we can read the runes on them" we will know more about them, whereas in the revised version he says "when we can read the runes." Changing "if" to "when" is a very small difference, to be sure, but an interesting one.

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    PS, yes, I know he tries a lot of opening spells at the gates of Moria. I'll keep an eye on the references to his magic (and the magic of others) as I go along. Note that in the first chapter Tolkien points out that there isn't much magic possessed by Hobbits. He is, of course, referring to the magic that other races have. We know that men, elves, and dwarves all have some form of magical abilities. The making of the rings, the palantir, the toys sold in Dale, the preservation of Lorien and the waking up of trees, etc. It begs the question of what magic even means in Middle Earth. Especially when you have the mental battles mentioned in The Lord of the Rings between Sauron and others (Galadriel, Gandalf, Aragon, and Saruman). My point being that magic isn't just D&D spell casting. It's also crafting/enchanting and natural/genetic and 'psionic' and use of magic items ... it has many different forms.

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    edited January 3

    On Dragons

    While I'm thinking about it, can we point to the attitude about the existence of dragons in The Hobbit? First of all, it seems to be dragons: plural not singular. Here are a few quotes from the first chapter. They seem to indicate a general experience with dragons and understanding of their ways. And Gandalf even remarks that Hobbits (wrongfully, it is implied) think of them as legendary. I seem to remember as they talk about going through Mirkwood there is also a note about it being dangerous to travel around the north because of dragons. Anyway, it's pretty clear that Smaug is (possibly/probably) not unique in his species.

    Also, what the hell are the "wild Were-worms in the Last Desert!?" I want to hear those stories!!

    Gloin: “one shriek like that in a moment of excitement would be enough to wake the dragon and all his relatives, and kill the lot of us.

    Bilbo: “Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert.”

    Thorin: “I know where Mirkwood is, and the Withered Heath where the great dragons bred.”

    Gandalf: "“Swords in these parts are mostly blunt, and axes are used for trees, and shields as cradles or dish-covers; and dragons are comfortably far-off (and therefore legendary). ”

    Thorin: “Undoubtedly that was what brought the dragon. Dragons steal gold and jewels, you know, from men and elves and dwarves, wherever they can find them; and they guard their plunder as long as they live (which is practically for ever, unless they are killed), and never enjoy a brass ring of it. ... There were lots of dragons in the North in those days, and gold was probably getting scarce up there, with the dwarves flying south or getting killed, and all the general waste and destruction that dragons make going from bad to worse.”

    Later in the Tolkien mythos we get the sense that Smaug was the last or one of the last dragons. They are fairly scarce even in The Silmarillion. Am I recalling that correctly?

    There's nothing here that would preclude the idea of dwarves remembering that there were a bunch of dragons once - hundreds of years ago - and only one or a few now. But I feel like there is a general tone/sense that some are still around.

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    Interesting! I flagged this edition to get for myself. I'll set some time aside to read your notes later this week!

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    I never read the original Hobbit. In fact I read the Hobbit long after I read the LotR. All of this is news to me! As for the bit about Gandalf's angelic origin, I am sure that was from Tolkien's collected letters, but can't remember precisely. I will dig! These are all fascinating! And having read Christopher Tolkien's History of Middle Earth, I know many of the ideas he had about Middle earth changed in the writing of the LotR, and in very interesting ways.

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    AS for dragons, they still bred on the Withered Heath as far as I know. Smaug was the mightiest of dragons left, not the last. :D

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    Following on from my post on Tolkien's Treasures here's the bit about the original version of The Hobbit which is relevant:

    [The Hobbit] developed into a story that he told to his three young sons and was initially a stand-alone tale, unrelated to the earlier legends of Middle-earth on which he had been working for many years. However, the pull of his unpublished legendarium proved too string and The Hobbit was drawn into the world he had created for 'The Silmarillion'.

    (The chapter on The Hobbit includes some splendid illustrations by JRRT for the book, only some of which I had seen before).

    The wider mythic context had been on his mind for many years before 1937 - for example there is a 1915 picture he made of the two trees of Valinor - he was 23 at the time, was about to join the army, and would not marry Edith until the following year. But specifically as regards the 1937 version of The Hobbit, it seems to me altogether likely that there will be numerous divergences from the world of LotR and The Silmarillion.

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    edited January 7

    Thanks for that @RichardAbbott. I do think my primary questions about this edition revolve around what Tolkien had decided (and more importantly what he hadn't) about his world in 1937. But this is also a key difference -- the audience for which The Hobbit was originally written. I do feel like most fans prefer the tone of one or the other. Those who LOVE The Hobbit are rarely happy with The Lord of the Rings. Those who love the tone of the latter often think The Hobbit is "fun" (in an almost dismissive way).

    That's probably a dumb generalization. I don't know if it's true - it's just my gut feeling from talking to people who have read or failed to read both.

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    edited January 7

    Chapter 3: A Short Rest

    Arrival at Rivendell

    This chapter tracks pretty closely between the new and old editions; there are only a few differences of note. The first is the time of the party's arrival at Rivendell. In 1937 the dwarves arrive at the ford in the afternoon. In the revised version they arrive in the morning. The difference is really the feel in how long it takes them to get from the ford to Elrond's house. Since that part is kind of missing in The Lord of the Rings (Frodo is blacked out), the comparison is irrelevant. For some reason I like the idea of arriving in the afternoon: elves and twilight go together. But either way, it is getting dark by the time they reach Elrond's crib.

    Do Elves Smell?

    In both editions, Bilbo thinks upon nearing the last Homely House "Hmmm! It smells like elves!" This begs several questions. What do elves smell like? Where does the smell come from - the kind of foods they eat, the wood they burn, their perfume? And, how does Bilbo know what elves smell like!?

    Elrond and Co.

    The elves at Rivendell in The Hobbit are really quite silly. They feel more superficial and carefree than the sober Lord of the Rings elves. Also, Elrond is called an "elf-friend" not an elf. He is, of course, half-elf, as is explained in the text, or rather he has both elves and "heroes of the North" for ancestors. Phrases like "as fair in face as an elf-lord" seem to really set him apart from the elves. He is also "as strong as a warrior, as wise as a wizard" and "as venerable as a king of dwarves." I don't remember how this is handled in Lord of the Rings, but I feel like his elf side is played up more. Certainly, in the movies, he just seems like an elf. In The Hobbit, like Gandalf, Elrond is a bit of a legendary figure without much explanation, leaving the reader to imagine or assume all kinds of things.

    The oddest difference between editions in this chapter is the following passage (Elrond speaking):

    "These are not troll-make. They are old swords, very old swords of the elves that are now called Gnomes. They were made in Gondolin for the Golbin-wars."

    The sentence about gnomes is left out of the revised Hobbit. I believe this has been explained by some as a reference to the Noldor, one of the tribes of elves. In any case, Tolkien seems to like to divide his elves into families or tribes that are geographically and to some degree ideologically different. Even in The Hobbit, wood elves and Rivendell elves feel quite different.

    One last note about Elrond, he knows all kinds of runes and moon letters and history and all ... but he doesn't know what Durin's Day is?

    "'Then what is Durin's Day?' asked Elrond.
    'The first day of the dwarves' New Year,' said Thorin."

    And just to rub it in, in the 1937 edition, Thorin says "as everyone knows." In the revised edition he is kinder, saying "as all should know." I guess Elrond just doesn't study dwarven lore.

    Sidebar: Troll-make?

    I meant to make a note in the last chapter about how different trolls of The Hobbit are from those of Lord of the Rings. The thought of Lord of the Rings trolls forging swords, even bad ones, seems really far-fetched. As we learn from Aragorn, LotR "Trolls do not build." I suspect they also don't forge. But in The Hobbit, trolls seem like big, gross, and slightly dumber humans. (Also, something people miss a lot in Lord of the Rings is that trolls have elephant-like feet, no separated toes. And I seem to recall they have black tongues - or red tongues in black faces.* Anyway, they are more monstrous and alien in The Lord of the Rings, and we find out that they were made "in mockery of the Ents, as Orcs were of Elves.")

    • I looked this up. I remembered it came from the chapter The Battle of the Pelennor Fields, but mis-remembered that the passage was about trolls: "... out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues." Obviously not Tolkien's finest moment there and one of the passages people focus on when accusing him of racism. (But to such critics I say - you had better judge Gygax and Salvator for their evil black-skinned drow just as harshly!)

    Where and When the Thrush Knocks

    Is the 1937 edition, the moon letters say to "stand by the grey stone where the thrush knocks..." The revised edition says to "stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks." The change from "where" to "when" is a minor difference, but an interesting one. The thrush isn't actually needed for either the where or when, as the letters indicate that "the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will sine upon the key-hole." So the thrush is really just a harbinger. An omen. (And of course he has another key role to play!)

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    Yeah, he changed the name of the 'Gnomes' to the 'Noldor' after passing through a phase of being 'Ñoldor'. There have always been several different branches of elves, as you said, but their names change over time.

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    edited January 12

    Here's a nice nod to some of the things about The Hobbit that have gotten lost in modern mixes of the fantasy genre or simply forgotten by Tolkien-heads.

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    @Ray_Otus said:
    Here's a nice nod to some of the things about The Hobbit that have gotten lost in modern mixes of the fantasy genre or simply forgotten by Tolkien-heads.

    <3 >:)

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