Historia, the domain of the Muse Clio, can mean two things. First, it could be the "history" in the English sense of a recounting of purportedly "true" events from the past which are of some importance for the reader of that day and time. Or conversely, it can mean "story" in the sense of a narrative account which might impart something of value to its recipient.
Both meanings come into play when reading and reviewing a critical examination of an author's manuscripts. What "histories" lie buried within the layers of texts that might influence a reader's perception of a novel's evolution? What "story" or "stories" might be contained within variant texts that might impart something of depth and of added value for the reader wanting to learn more about the genesis of a favorite story?
The best scholarly writings on historical documents, whether they be of tax records or of a fictional author's manuscripts, do much more than just lay out the facts. A well-written and superbly-researched study will produce something that not only will enable a reader new to the text to garner something about that document's importance but will also give the experienced reader more to consider about how that text came into being and what meanings could be derived from considering it at angles that perhaps the reader had not done before.
John D. Rateliff's two-volume study of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit manuscripts aims to accomplish those lofty goals. Rateliff, who earned his Ph.D. at Marquette University, home of the Tolkien papers, certainly has the background for pursuing a detailed analysis of Tolkien's work, having spent years organizing the papers and assisting Christopher Tolkien with the arrangement of the papers for the latter's twelve-volume The History of Middle-Earth (HoME) series. But until now, no one had attempted a systematic approach towards examining the evolution of The Hobbit, the influences on its development, and its oft-troublesome connections with the larger Middle-Earth mythology. Christopher Tolkien declined to do this in favor of Rateliff's greater familiarity with those particular papers. This proved to be an excellent decision.
Rateliff never met the elder Tolkien, therefore while he cannot use personal conversations as a guide to interpretation as Christopher Tolkien did, he also is not shackled with those same conversations being the cornerstone of the debate. For example, his discussion of the origins of the first stage in the writing of The Hobbit reveals that Tolkien's sons had differing recollections as to when their father began that story. After presenting their comments, Ratliff then notes that due to textual clues as well as comments made by the elder Tolkien much closer to the story's publication (most notably his references to a two-year writing period when presenting C.S. Lewis with a finished draft for commentary in 1932), that the sons' belief that their father began the tale in the mid-to-late 1920s is more likely a mistake of recollection rather than their father erring in his comments made in the late 1930s. It is this fact-checking and the use of sources outside the immediate family that illustrate Ratliff's devotion to exploring every available avenue when writing about the story's genesis and the influences on it.
Speaking of said influences, Rateliff brings out things such as the unproven (or rather, mostly disproven by him, depending on how you view the evidence he presents) theory that it was due to being bitten (or "stung," as Tolkien mistakingly thought these creatures did) by a spider-like creature in his infancy in South Africa that led to the creation of Ungoliant, Shelob, and the monstrous spiders of Mirkwood. He also notes how the opening chapters reflect a certain comedy of manners expression, not to mention the possible influence that Kenneth Graham's classic The Wind in the Willows might have had on the tone and presentation of the earlier drafts, a tone which makes it into the published story.
In addition, Rateliff's division of the manuscript into "phases" related to how the character names and key details evolved makes for an easier approach. The first volume, Mr. Baggins, deals with the first and second phase (while the second volume, Return to Bag-End, deals with the final phases up through the 1960s, when an abortive revision to make it even more closely-aligned with LotR). Although the main early segments are quite familiar, from the tea party to the setting forth, there were quite a few differences that Rateliff spends much time focusing on throughout this volume, from how the wizard's (then named Bladorthin, a name which in true Tolkienian fashion appears elsewhere) physical and magical characteristics changed to what these original traits might have meant before the story evolved.
While much (electronic) ink could be wasted in detailing each of these changes and their significance, I would rather shorten matters by noting that in cases besides the ones I have already noted, Rateliff does a good job setting the stage, postulating theories as to why Tolkien chose one approach over another through the judicious use of primary (the text) and secondary (in this case, letters from Tolkien to others over the years commenting on the story's evolution). In addition, Rateliff goes beyond what Christopher Tolkien did with the twelve-volume HoME when he writes summarizations of characters and events within the chapters (which are organized based on the published The Hobbit). This makes for a more "readable" story, making it easier for the reader to not just learn things of importance about the story's evolution, but also allowing that reader to take more from the story than what otherwise would have been possible.
Are there flaws in Rateliff's approach? Of course there are. On occasion, Rateliff indulges too much in reiterating points that had been covered before. This repetition detracted a little bit from the flow of the narrative explanation, but not to the point of making me want to put down the book for a while. As a study, Rateliff's The History of The Hobbit is one of the first professional researches into that story. It presents the evidence in a clear fashion, it examines it, and it makes reasonable presumptions based on what is available in the Marquette papers. As a book for the casual reader, it is more "readable" than the twelve-volume HoME, although it too might be a bit too "academic" in places for those who want the Reader's Digest version of the story. But on the whole, I believe this to be one of the more excellent researches done into the writings of a speculative fiction author and I would be disappointed if this is not considered for some awards next year for a related study.
Publication Date: September 21, 2007 (US), Hardcover in two volumes; May 1, 2007 (UK).
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (US); HarperCollins (UK)