How I Found “The Hobbit”

[Originally posted on December 13, 2012 by David Sheppard]

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings
J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings

I suppose everyone has a story about how they came to read The Hobbit. I’m no exception. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been a part of my family for the last forty-four years. I ran onto it by chance. I was attending Stanford University at the time and working on an MS in astronautical engineering. My wife, Betty, had given birth to our second child, a daughter, the previous summer and was still struggling with postpartum depression. One day before I left for class, she asked me to pick up something light for her to read, a novel, perhaps a fantasy.

It was the summer of 1968, and I remember entering the Stanford bookstore and browsing the shelves. I pulled out a few books in the fantasy section, can’t remember what, but rejected them. I then pulled out a little volume by someone named J. R. R. Tolkien. The three initials sounded a little pretentious, but I took a look at the cover. The illustration was like something from The Wizard of Oz, a promising sign. It was a Ballentine paperback, and on the front cover, it said, “The enchanting prelude to The Lord of the Rings.” This sounded interesting because if Betty liked the first volume, she’d have three more to occupy her time. I turned it over, and on the back cover it said,

In this delightful and enthralling tale, J. R. R. Tolkien first created the imperishable world of fantasy called Middle-earth–the Hobbits–whose adventures are continued in The Lord of the Rings.

They had used the magic words, “world of fantasy.” Just what I was looking for. It cost 95 cents. The three volumes of The Lord of the Rings were in a boxed set right next to The Hobbit. If Betty liked The Hobbit, I’d return for the boxed set. I took The Hobbit to the lady behind the counter and bought it.
I headed up to the Aero/Astro Department library. It was a small, dark room with bookcases lining the walls and a couple of tables for students in the center. The Department was quite small in those days. I took a chair and started to study my textbook. I was taking a class in Complex Variables, and although I was interested in the math class, the little paperback I had just purchased had piqued my curiosity. I pulled it out and thought I would read a couple of pages to get a better idea as to whether I thought Betty would enjoy it.

About that time a couple of my classmates joined me, and I remember being a little ashamed to be reading fantasy in an engineering library. They asked me about it, and I told them that I had picked it up for my wife, and explained the situation. I read a couple of pages out of The Hobbit, smiled and read some more. I watched my fellow students out the corner of my eye to make sure they hadn’t noticed that I was still reading it. After all, it was a children’s story.

By the time I got home that afternoon, I had read the first few chapters, and I was reluctantly quite excited about the story. I told Betty a little about it over dinner, and she said she’d take a look at it before bed. I also told her that if she liked it, I could get the three extra volumes the next day.

As I remember it, Betty read on after I went to sleep that night. The next morning she said that she’d devoured a good number of pages. Over breakfast, we talked about the chapters I’d read and how much we both enjoyed the story. She said that I should take a look at the other three volumes, and if they promised to be as good as The Hobbit, I should buy them.

The first thing after class that afternoon I went back to the bookstore. I was a little afraid that someone might have bought the boxed set out from under me, but there it was still on the shelf. I pulled out the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, and on the back it had this quote from Loren Eisley:

These are sure to remain Tolkien’s life work, and are certainly destined to outlast our time. They stand as a major creative act.

I didn’t know of him at the time, but Eiseley, an archaeologist and author, was to also become one of my favorites writers. I bought the boxed set.

In the coming days, we’d take turns reading it and discussing which part of it we liked the most. We thought Gollum was an unbelievably great character. And how about that magic ring? We started reading to each other after we got the kids in bed. The dragon was an amazing character himself. We finished The Hobbit in short order and plunged into The Fellowship of the Ring. I remember getting to the Bridge of Khazad-Dum first and waiting for her to catch up. Could Gandalf really have died? We were devastated. We charged on through The Two Towers and The Return of the King. I specifically remember reading several times the part where Eowyn kills the Black Rider. And when the ring was at last disposed of in Mount Doom, we both dreaded for it end. Four volumes were not nearly enough.

In the coming years, I would revisit Middle-earth from time to time. I reread it from end to end another time or two. And then when our kids were old enough, I started with The Hobbit. My son was three years older than his sister, but she’d come into his bedroom while I read to him and fall asleep while we read on. When I came to The Lord of the Rings, I had to paraphrase rather than read word for word. They just weren’t old enough. But in the years to come, they were both to read it for themselves. My daughter, the most avid reader, used to reread it every year. I’m not sure but what she still does.

And so it was that Middle-earth stayed with us until Peter Jackson decided to take on the task of putting it on the big screen. It’d been tried before and failed, but for some reason we thought he just might be the one to do it justice. How right we were. We have our beefs with him concerning some of the compromises he made, and in a few instances can’t forgive him for what he did to some characters, but overall, we love the movies.

We have the best of hopes for Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit. It really is a children’s story, so I’m not so sure it’ll go over as well with the public as did The Lord of the Rings. But I’m sure kids will love it. I’ll certainly be in line to watch all three when they first hit the big screen.
I still read the books. I reread The Hobbit earlier this year, and I’m currently almost finished with The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s been quite a ride, and one I expect to never end.

[Update: Well, sadly, I didn’t much care for the three movies Peter Jackson made from The Hobbit. To me, the story was from a different time and the movies should have reflect it. It just seemed overwrought, and I was also disappointed that one of the main arcs involved characters that weren’t even in The Hobbit. I also thought there was too much of Smog. Too much that wasn’t Tolkien. Maybe I’ll come around someday, but for now, I’m disappointed.]