Tolkien was unsatisfied with the tone and style of The Hobbit in his later life and he did produce two revised editions of the book as well as briefly attempting a comprehensive rewrite. However, Tolkien ultimately let The Hobbit remain a children’s book and, aside from rewriting the chapter “Riddles in the Dark”, made few attempts to force it to become consistent with its sequel. Because this question is usually raised in the context of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, it bears mentioning that even the most radical changes that Tolkien considered pale in comparison to the alterations made for the films. To better understand Tolkien’s opinions and intentions, however, we should begin with the textual history.
Tolkien famously began The Hobbit by spontaneously writing the phrase
In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit. He told the story of Bilbo Baggins to his sons in parts over a period of some years, probably in the late 1920s or early 1930s. In the mid-1930s Tolkien’s typescript of The Hobbit was read by various friends and acquaintances, eventually coming to the attention of the publishing house George Allen & Unwin. Sir Stanley Unwin gave the typescript to his then-ten-year-old son Rayner, who recommended publishing the book. This came to happen in September 1937 and the book was an immediate success; by the end of the year Tolkien had already begun work on a sequel at his publisher’s request. In 1947, with The Lord of the Rings close to completion, Tolkien sent his publishers a number of corrections to the published text of The Hobbit as well as a rewritten version of “Riddles in the Dark” reflecting the new, much darker nature of the Ring. Tolkien did not realize that Allen & Unwin intended to publish the new chapter until three years later when he received galley proofs for the forthcoming second edition. He then wrote a note, included in the published book, explaining the difference in the new edition as reflecting two different stories that Bilbo told about how he found the Ring (Guide, The Hobbit).
The Lord of the Rings was finally published in 1954-5, though the final volume was delayed by Tolkien’s need to finish the Appendices (the main story had been finished in 1949). Tolkien initially intended for the Appendices to include “The Quest of Erebor”, a short story in which Gandalf recounts some of the events of The Hobbit from his point of view, but only a few fragments made it into Appendix A. Two draft versions of “The Quest of Erebor” were eventually published posthumously in Unfinished Tales and The Annotated Hobbit. After the publication of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien grew increasingly dissatisfied with the earlier book. In a 1959 letter he stated that he had written it as a children’s book because
I had at that time children of my own and … I had been brought up to believe that there was a real and special connexion between children and fairy-stories, though he had become skeptical of that notion (Letters, no. 215). Tolkien’s thoughts about fairy-stories (his use of the term was closer to what modern audiences know as “fantasy fiction”) had since crystallized in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” and through writing The Lord of the Rings. In 1960 he attempted to rewrite The Hobbit in a less juvenile style, though he didn’t remove the infamous talking purse or the Cockney trolls. Tolkien abandoned this project less than three chapters in after receiving feedback on it. As John D. Rateliff describes:
According to Christopher Tolkien, when his father had reached this point in the recasting he loaned the material to a friend to get an outside opinion on it. We do not know this person’s identity, but apparently her response was something along the lines of ‘this is wonderful, but it’s not The Hobbit’. She must have been someone whose judgment Tolkien respected, for he abandoned the work and decided to let The Hobbit retain its own autonomy and voice rather than completely incorporate it into The Lord of the Rings as a lesser 'prelude’ to the greater work. When he briefly returned to it in 1965 for the third edition revisions, he restricted himself in the main to the correction of errors and egregious departures from Middle-earth as it had developed (e.g., the policement of Chapter II; DAA.69) and left matters of style and tone alone…. (HoTH, p. 812)
It is worth noting here that Tolkien was not, generally speaking, the kind of writer to let negative feedback stop him from pursuing a certain idea. The repeated rejections of the “Silmarillion” material never put him off continuing to work on those stories and he risked not being able to publish The Lord of the Rings either by refusing edits or cuts to it (Guide, The Lord of the Rings). For him to have ceased work on the 1960 rewrite suggests that his heart wasn’t really in it or that he thought better of the idea. However, he continued to express regret over the children’s book style of The Hobbit even while refraining from rewriting the whole book or making major edits for the third edition (unpublished letter to Rayner Unwin; qtd. in Guide, The Hobbit). With this in mind, we can then consider some of the claims that have been made about The Hobbit movies, particularly the idea that Peter Jackson was following in Tolkien’s footsteps or doing what Tolkien himself had wished but failed to do. Jackson himself was an early proponent of this argument. As he stated to Deadline the summer before the first film in the trilogy was released:
What people have to realize is we’ve adapted The Hobbit, plus taken this additional 125 pages of notes, that’s what you’d call them. Because Tolkien himself was planning the rewrite The Hobbit after The Lord of the Rings, to make it speak to the story of The Lord of the Rings much more. In the novel, Gandalf disappears for various patches of time. In 1936, when Tolkien was writing that book, he didn’t have a clue what Gandalf was doing. But later on, when he did The Lord of the Rings and he’d hit on this whole epic story, he was going to go back and revise The Hobbit and he wrote all these notes about how Gandalf disappears and was really investigating the possible return of Sauron, the villain from The Lord of the Rings. Sauron doesn’t appear at all in The Hobbit. Tolkien was retrospectively fitting The Hobbit to embrace that mythology. He never wrote that book, but there are 125 pages of notes published at the back of Return of the King in one of the later editions. It was called The Appendices, and they are essentially his expanded Hobbit notes. So we had the rights to those as well and were allowed to use them. … We haven’t just adapted The Hobbit; we’ve adapted that book plus great chunks of his appendices and woven it all together. The movie explains where Gandalf goes; the book never does. We’ve explained it using Tolkien’s own notes. (my emphasis)
There are a number of factual errors in Jackson’s account. Tolkien was not “planning” to rewrite The Hobbit, he actually began to, but then apparently thought better of it and left the book mostly as-is even after preparing a third edition of it some years later. The Appendices were not added “in one of the later editions” but were part of The Lord of the Rings from its first publication, and thus predated Tolkien’s abortive Hobbit rewrite. “The Quest of Erebor”, which is a very short piece, does touch on Gandalf’s concerns about the rise of Sauron but it does not discuss Gandalf’s activities during the period when he is separated from Thorin and Company. In any event, Jackson and his co-writers did not have the rights to “The Quest of Erebor” (or anything else in Tolkien’s posthumous works; only the rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were ever sold), so the Appendices were the only additional source he could draw on. Because not everyone reads the Appendices after finishing LOTR, it’s worth recounting what is actually in them to see if there are any “great chunks” relevant to The Hobbit or the White Council and Dol Guldur. I’ve used the page numbering in the 50th Anniversary One Volume Edition as my guide:
- Appendix A (49 pages): condensed histories of Númenor, Arnor, Gondor (including the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen), Rohan, and Durin’s Folk. Relevance to The Hobbit: about 10 pages on Dwarves, including a family tree, most of which deals with Erebor. Includes fragments of “The Quest of Erebor”. Devotes a single paragraph to the events at Dol Guldur.
- Appendix B (17 pages): aka The Tale of Years, including timelines for the entire Second and Third Ages, as well as a day-by-day chronology for the main period of The Lord of the Rings itself and a partial timeline of the early Fourth Age. Relevance to The Hobbit: a handful of entries in the Third Age timeline mostly repeating information from Appendix A.
- Appendix C (7 pages): family trees of several prominent Hobbit families. Relevance to The Hobbit: it shows Belladonna Took, but she (and the whole Baggins/Took dichotomy) was mainly mentioned by the narrator, who was understandably absent from the film.
- Appendix D (7 pages): notes on calendrical systems used by Hobbits, Elves, and humans. Relevance to The Hobbit: essentially none.
- Appendix E (14 pages): information on writing systems, spelling, and pronunciation of Tolkien’s invented languages. Relevance to The Hobbit: limited to translators, dialogue coaches, and set and prop design.
- Appendix F (11 pages): additional linguistic and cultural information and “On Translation”. Relevance to The Hobbit: four paragraphs about Dwarves that include some information not otherwise found outside of HoMe.
The vast majority of the Appendices are backstory and ancillary information about The Lord of the Rings (which makes sense considering which book they’re bundled with) and they are certainly not notes from a planned Hobbit rewrite, but there is some relevant information that gives greater context to the events of The Hobbit. However, Jackson made very little use of it beyond the general concepts. The backstory of Erebor presented in An Unexpected Journey compresses much of Tolkien’s backstory but adds Thrór’s “dragon sickness” and portrays the Dwarves as politically dominant over nearby peoples such as the Elves of Mirkwood, neither of which are present in the Appendices. Neither is the Elf-army that watches Smaug sack Erebor in the film. A big chunk of the Dwarf material from Appendix A discusses the War of the Dwarves and Orcs, culminating in the Battle of Azanulbizar, which is shown in flashback later in the first film. The film’s version of the war is very different though as Thrór’s death occurs in the final battle, rather than being the cause of the conflict, and Thorin is given Dáin’s role by defeating Azog. The survival of Azog and the involvement of the Ringwraiths are also inventions of the filmmakers. Film!Elrond states that Middle-earth is enjoying a “Watchful Peace”, which is a phrase from Appendix A, but in the book refers to a period that ended 500 years before The Hobbit. (The film does not try to square this with the relatively recent occurrences of the sack of Erebor and the War of the Dwarves and Orcs.)
Setting aside the Appendices, however, there’s still the fact that Tolkien was unsatisfied with the tone of The Hobbit. Corey “Tolkien Professor” Olsen is another significant proponent of the idea that Jackson was following in Tolkien’s own footsteps since Tolkien
spent a good deal of time working to retrofit ‘The Hobbit’ for the world of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. However, this idea rests on a conflation of the broader backstory to The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien developed and The Hobbit itself. Tolkien’s “retrofitting” of The Hobbit was primarily limited to the chapter “Riddles in the Dark” and in removing a few other particularly egregious (but less intrusive) inconsistencies. As noted above, he stopped himself from going through with many of the ideas he briefly considered. Furthermore, none of the things we know Tolkien considered approached the kind of expansion Jackson engaged in. It’s understandable that Jackson wanted to make prequels to his earlier films more than he wanted to adapt the book (
to treat these as three movies that are basically going to lead into the three Lord of the Rings films … that was really the point, that’s what I am doing and that’s the reason why I’m doing it). But to consider Dol Guldur an integral part of The Hobbit is to essentially deny its independent existence as a story and reduce it to mere fodder for background material to The Lord of the Rings. This is the inevitable result of adding a subplot for the White Council (which is, in the grand sweep of Third Age history, far more important than Smaug), a subplot for Legolas, a subplot involving the Ringwraiths, and endless references to the earlier films, including dialogue repeated verbatim. It prevents The Hobbit films from standing on their own and renders them wholly dependent on The Lord of the Rings for any sense of identity or purpose.
While we have no record of Tolkien even considering changes like these, he seems to have understood that the nature of The Hobbit is tied up in it being Bilbo’s story, told from a Hobbitish viewpoint, about the gradual opening up of his parochial worldview. Continually cutting away to more “epic” high fantasy storylines is not only a distraction, it obliterates the literary effect of experiencing Middle-earth similar to how Bilbo does and seeing it open up gradually. It can be interesting to read “The Quest of Erebor” and see the broader context surrounding the plot of The Hobbit, but that’s very different from the character-driven story of The Hobbit. There is a reason why not even the much-overhyped 1960 rewrite went that route.