The Hobbit Eighty Years
Eighty Years Ago…
My daughter came home from school on the last Thursday in June happier than I think I have seen her for a long time. Why? She had just sat the last of her GCSE exams, and for her the summer was about to start. I suggested that she show some sympathy for the examiners, the poor army of academics whose summer won’t begin until they have finished marking the work of hundreds of thousands of students – but my sympathy was, of course, not shared by my daughter. So much for Sweet Sixteen!
Eighty years ago this summer, J.R.R. Tolkien, a Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, was in his study at home, ‘sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children’. The School Certificate was the precursor to the modern GCSE for 16 year olds, though traditionalists will doubtless tell you how much harder exams were in those days! It was then, as I am sure it is now, a tedious way for teachers and lecturers to make extra pocket money, and the slightest opportunity for a diversion from the task was for the likes of Tolkien obviously something to be seized upon – something like a stray sheet of blank paper, perhaps?
‘I can remember sitting one summer with a pile of dreary exam papers in a chair near the front window of my study in 20 Northmoor Road. I came across a blessed blank page and scrawled on it (without conscious reflection of effort of invention) In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit. The story that grew from that unfolded itself gradually, but gradually entered the world of the Silmarillion (in which I had been engaged since 1917).’
Tolkien’s eldest sons, John and Michael, would say later how their father had begun telling them stories of hobbits in the late 1920s, before they moved to 20 Northmoor Road from the house next door. But nothing was written down until Tolkien was inspired to write that first line while marking those dreary exam papers in what we now know to have been 1930. The rest of the book was written down over the next three or four years, during which time the dragon Pryftan became Smaug and the wizard Bladorthin became Gandalf, names that have passed into legend for generations of readers. (Would ‘Bladorthin’ have been as memorable? Now there’s an interesting exam question!)
So for all those students who have come through their exams this year, I hope they spare a thought for the tortured souls who have to mark their work. Perhaps we should hope that, exactly 80 years after Tolkien’s boredom led him to scrawl one of the most famous opening lines in literary history, maybe a few blank pages might find their way into the piles of exam papers and that a new masterpiece will emerge from the task?
Here’s to the 80th birthday of the genesis of The Hobbit. And to ‘impecunious academics’ everywhere!
Publishing Director – Estates