Tolkien letter laments 'not very great' sales of The Hobbit

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Dec 17, 2012

Since its publication 75 years ago, The Hobbit has sold roughly 100 million copies (a number that's likely to shoot even higher with a movie on the way). Its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, is now a revered and legendary figure in the world of fantasy literature. But back when the novel was new, Tolkien wasn't very confident about its future, and wasn't afraid to share his concern with fellow authors.

In a letter to fellow children's author Arthur Ransome (who wrote the Swallows and Amazons series), Tolkien promised to send a copy of a revised edition of The Hobbit along "if there is a reprint." But at the time, he thought that possibility was slim.

"Sales are not very great," Tolkien wrote.

The letter was written in response to Ransome's own letter to Tolkien in which he voiced some concerns about the dialogue in The Hobbit. Apparently, Ransome did not always like the way Tolkien used the word "man" among his characters, and wasn't happy with the way Gandalf used "boys" as an insult. Tolkien agreed that it "was rather silly and not quite up to form," and promised to revise it if he ever got the chance.

This reaction to Ransome's criticism is particularly fascinating to scholars. According to Dr. Alaric Hall of the School of English at the University of Leeds (where the Ransome letter is held and where Tolkien taught from 1920 to 1925), it's an insight not only into Tolkien's respect for Ransome, but into how he viewed his Middle-earth writings as a whole.

"What this letter shows is that Tolkien is thinking of himself as a translator of a lost text," Hall said. "He is slipping into a kind of fantasy as if he's writing about a real world, as he loves doing. It's part of his humour, and I guess he thought that Arthur Ransome was going to enjoy it and get his joke."

The letter was highlighted recently when the Leeds Civic Trust and the Tolkien Society unveiled a plaque honoring the author at his former Leeds home.

(Via BBC)