"In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit."

With those words hastily written on a blank page of a student's exam, J.R.R. Tolkien embarked on what would amount to an epic journey of his own, one that would spark the most influential works of fantasy literature of all time. Tolkien's impulsive sentence would become The Hobbit, a story that was immediately popular in Great Britain, and would lead to an even more popular work, The Lord of the Rings. The writing of The Hobbit was an unexpected, long journey, but it was the start of a work that would captivate millions of readers, and inspire new worlds along the way.

The exact date that Tolkien began his work on the Hobbit is unknown: it was most likely during the summer of 1930, when the family lived at 20 Northmoor Road in Oxford, although it’s possible that it might have happened earlier. Two of Tolkien's children, Michael and John, later noted that they might have heard elements of the story before then. Following the composition of the first sentence, the paper was set aside, but the idea lingered. Tolkien went back to write the first chapter, before setting it aside and returning to before the story ended with the dragon Pryftan's death (later Smaug). It's likely that he pulled it out again to read to his children around the holidays, as storytelling was a tradition for the family. Tolkien also shared the newly typed story with friend and fellow author C.S. Lewis towards the end of 1932, who greatly enjoyed it.

According to Tolkien’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien's children were growing up, and not as eager as they once were to hear the winter stories. As a consequence, the story was never quite finished, and was set aside for several years. The Hobbit would remain untouched until Tolkien met with Susan Dagnall of George Allen & Unwin in 1936. Dagnall enjoyed the story and felt that it was something that Allen & Unwin would be interested in, provided it had a proper ending. Tolkien agreed, and set about adding in several new chapters, finishing the story around August. In October, he retyped the story but turned in the earlier version, with the additional chapters, now titled The Hobbit, or There and Back Again to Allen & Unwin. The firm's chairman, Stanley Unwin, gave the manuscript to his 10-year-old son, Rayner, who read the story and gave up the following report:

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"Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit who lived in his Hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his Dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exciting time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they get to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards 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."

Unwin was convinced by his son’s report that the story would be appealing to children, and the book was accepted for publication. In the spring of 1937, Tolkien provided illustrations and maps for the book, and September 21st, 1937, the book was released.

The public reaction was a positive one. C.S. Lewis praised the book in an anonymous review for the London Times, proclaiming it an instant classic, while Tolkien received a number of letters from appreciative readers. With the coming Christmas season, the first print run quickly sold out with a second ordered. Almost overnight, the public’s appetite for The Hobbit grew, and it became apparent that they would be interested in more Hobbit stories.

On October 10th, Tolkien received word from Unwin that "a large public will be clamoring next year to hear more from you about Hobbits." The writer was taken aback: he hadn't thought of the Hobbit as anything that he would return to, even though the story tied into his epic that he had begun assembling during the First World War, The Silmarillion. Tolkien wrote to Unwin, hoping that it might be suitable as a follow-up.

Unwin didn't feel the same. Undeterred, Tolkien began drafting “The Long Expected Party,” the first chapter of a new story. He was at first unsure in which direction to take his characters, but soon realized that the Ring recovered from Gollum's cavern would play a significant part. Unwin was thrilled with the idea, and encouraged Tolkien to proceed.

The sequel quickly grew, no longer becoming the intended lighthearted follow-up to The Hobbit, but something much grander in scale. The sequel grew far larger than Tolkien could have anticipated, eventually becoming the grand Lord of the Rings trilogy, a far different story than the second Hobbit story that Unwin expected. It was a darker book, one that connected more to Tolkien’s epic mythology than the smaller children’s tale. By 1949, the sequel was complete, and was comprised of three separate volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, which saw publication in 1954 and 1955, where it was released to even greater success. 

Prior to the release of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien sought to bring some of the elements in The Hobbit closer to the events of his follow up story. In September 1947, Tolkien wrote to Allen & Unwin, enclosing a number of minor corrections to The Hobbit, which the publisher then incorporated into the novel’s reprinted editions. He submitted further edits in June 1950, expressing his desire to further “remodel” some of the original story, particularly with the chapter “Riddles in the Dark,” where his hero Bilbo Baggins meets Gollum under the Misty Mountains, to better line up with the upcoming sequel trilogy. In the Hobbit’s earlier editions, Bilbo's encounter with Gollum is a peaceful one: a contest of riddles, with the Ring as a prize. Tolkien’s edits reveal a far more malevolent Gollum, and foreshadow the Ring’s role in Middle Earth.

The story of The Hobbit didn’t end with the release of The Lord of the Rings: an animated feature of The Hobbit was produced and released by NBC in November 1977, which was followed by a separate animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings in 1978, with a third feature, The Return of the King in 1980. The quest for a live action film of Tolkien’s creations lasted until 2001, when Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the trilogy came out in theaters. However, it wasn’t until 2012 when Jackson returned with a three-film adaptation of The Hobbit that the story that began it all came to life, once again placing a spotlight on Middle Earth and its creator.

Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He can be found online at his blog and on Twitter @andrewliptak.