The Annotated Hobbit – Review

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Annotated Hobbit. Ed. Douglas A. Anderson. Rev. Ed. Boston: Houghton, 2002. Print.

This is not going to review The Hobbit or even compare the book to the recent films based on The Hobbit. If the reader has not read The Hobbit, that is its own punishment.

This is The Annotated Hobbit. In the past I have enjoyed certain annotated editions of classics such as The Annotated Ancient Mariner. This is like those, with plenty of illustrations and a fairly thorough bibliography—and lots of marginal notes. That is, after all, what annotated means.

The notes (or annotations) fall into four main categories: (1) textual variations, (2) references to other Tolkien works, (3) sources of inspiration, and (4) language and nomenclature of Middle Earth. All serve their purposes.

The textual variations are precisely that. The text of The Annotated Hobbit primarily follows the Houghton Mifflin 2001 edition’s revisions. Most of the variations noted are from the original 1937 edition which Tolkien revised for 1967. But other editions have other wording from time to time—some legitimate changes, some typographical errors. Editor Anderson believes the 2001 edition has all the bugs out. The notes may also refer to the 1966 Ballantine paperbacks or differences in wording between British and American editions. For the most part, these are the least interesting notes since the differences are usually slight, but that is what annotated editions do.

The references to other Tolkien works sometimes shed light on the characters, location, or background in The Hobbit. Yes, there are numerous references to The Lord of the Rings, especially to fill us in on some of Gandalf’s adventures. There are also references to many other works by Tolkien. A number of poems in The Hobbit originally appeared as free-standing poems or songs in literary magazines. Anderson also refers to the magisterial History of Middle Earth.

Tolkien’s sources of inspiration are somewhat eclectic. Anderson quotes many fairy tales that Tolkien either read as a child or read to his children. Of course, there are sometimes extensive quotations from medieval writings—especially Icelandic sagas but including Old and Middle English, Welsh, Irish, French, Finnish, Breton, and various Germanic sources from Gothic roots to the Brothers Grimm. Tolkien was a fan of William Morris, the Victorian poet and artist. Like C.S. Lewis, he was indebted to George MacDonald’s children’s stories—though later in life Tolkien wrote that he did not think MacDonald wrote that well. The goblins in The Hobbit (a.k.a. orcs in The Lord of the Rings) are based a lot on MacDonald’s in The Princess and the Goblin.

I found the discussions of Tolkien’s language and names surprisingly interesting. Annotations discussing Tolkien’s word choices usually shed light on what Tolkien was trying to get across. For example, at the end of the story when Bilbo returns home, he finds that a lot of his belongings are being sold at auction. But auction in some regional British dialects also means a messy room.  The book describes the goblins as shriking, which is also regional dialect and related to both shriek and screech.

Most of the names have interesting origins. Tolkien’s elven language is loosely based on Welsh—a language he grew up with—but the rest of the Middle Earth names come from English or Nordic sources. Anderson has located Icelandic and Old Norse stories about dwarfs (dwarves?) with names, and every dwarf name used in The Hobbit comes from one of these sources. Authentic! He points out that not only does the name Beorn suggest “bear” (Norse björn), but his epithet the Beserker comes from Old English literally meaning “bear shirt.” Instead of wearing a “sark” made from bearskin, Beorn is a skin-changer, so the title is just as apt.

The Annotated Hobbit has many illustrations. Perhaps the most significant are those done by Tolkien himself. His landscapes and colors are eye-catching. There are also illustrations from many of the hundreds editions of The Hobbit from many lands. Some appear childish or distorted, others are abstractions, but nearly all have annotations as well: name of artist, when published, which language and edition, and what Tolkien thought of them if he saw them. One German edition’s line drawings were “too Disnified” for him. Color plates in the center show off Tolkien’s talent and also have a few pictures from other artists.

Three appendices conclude the annotated edition. The first is “The Quest of Erebor,” the full-length version of how  the Smaug quest began as told from Gandalf’s point of view. A shorter version appears at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf certainly seems to be enjoying himself.

The second appendix is a brief two pages on runes. While it is not nearly as detailed as the appendix on runes in The Lord of the Rings, it covers in detail what we need to known for The Hobbit, namely, the runes on the original dust cover and the language of Thror’s map.

The edition ends with a detailed bibliography which includes all the foreign language editions of The Hobbit through 2002. I counted 39 languages from Armenian to Ukrainian, including nearly all European languages, even those with small populations like Breton, Faeroese, Luxembourgish, and even Esperanto. I counted more Russian editions than editions in English. Besides editions of The Hobbit, there were lists of the standard editions of all of Tolkien’s works (both his fiction and his scholarly works), a summary of English revisions of The Hobbit, and scholarly writings about The Hobbit by others. One daunting piece in the bibliography is the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth edited by Christopher Tolkien. I am sure it is rich in mythpoeia, but it would take a dedicated fan to get through it—someone like Douglas A. Anderson.

Alas, there is no index. If the editor or publisher were ever thinking of revising and expanding this “revised and expanded edition,” they would do well to consider an index. Since annotations already abound in minutiae, such a revision might take years and add a hundred pages.

Even if it is just for the pictures, The Annotated Hobbit is worth the reading.

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