I’ve read The Lord of the Rings a number of times. As a result of all that repetition, I’ve internalized most of the story’s primary aspects and plot points. And though I’ve not read it with the same frequency, I’ve also read The Hobbit a not-insignificant number of times. So I was surprised to find, in my most recent reading of the latter, that so many plot points and details in The Hobbit are mirrored in The Lord of the Rings. The big items (hobbits, Gollum, the Ring, etc.) are obvious, but it was the repetition of small details that so surprised me.
In each book: there is a forest stream in which people fall into a magical sleep, the protagonists barely escape wolves just outside of the Misty Mountains, a mysterious and powerful woodsy man of indeterminate age and origin offers his home as a temporary shelter, and a hobbit stabs a giant spider in the eye. The list goes on. Tolkien, I am sure, was cognizant of all this repetition which is, in many cases, clearly intentional.
What if these similarities represent more than just allusions, though? Is it possible that with The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was intentionally re-writing and re-packaging much of the same story that he had used in The Hobbit? Is is possible that The Lord of the Rings is not just a sequel, but also a rewrite? This all seems rather unlikely, and yet it also seems within the realm of possibility, so let’s take a closer look.
Despite the narrative similarities, it must be pointed out that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings read very differently. While The Hobbit is very much a children’s story with its lighter atmosphere and grandfatherly narrator, The Lord of the Rings, which starts out in a similar vein, quickly abandons that tone and narrator in favor of a more adult approach steeped in arcane lore and the threat of apocalyptic darkness.
Both books, however, are fundamentally the story of a hobbit going ‘there and back again’ on what should be someone else’s journey. As noted above, a number of similar elements, both big and small, are repeated across the books with the comparatively dark tone and expansive depth and length of The Lord of the Rings setting the two apart.
Even the books’ conclusions reflect these related-but-divergent viewpoints as both Bilbo and Frodo return home from their respective journeys only with differing results: Bilbo gets the more stereotypical happy ending (R.I.P. Thorin) as he returns home and gets to continue his regular life; alternatively, Frodo’s experience is much more complex and bittersweet as he ultimately realizes that he has sacrificed his own happily-ever-after in order to save everyone else’s.
If Tolkien meant for these similarities to be more than just allusions, we must first assume that he, who was not yet famous at the time of The Hobbit‘s publication, didn’t think – as he was writing that book, at least – that anyone would ever read it. This would not have been an unreasonable thing to think. Tolkien had been working on what eventually became The Silmarillion (his epic mythological history of Middle-Earth) for more than 15 years when he started writing The Hobbit – and as no one had expressed much interest in publishing The Silmarillion at that point (it was published posthumously in 1977), it’s entirely possible that he considered The Hobbit to be a pet project as well.
If that were true, and Tolkien was surprised by the success of The Hobbit, then it’s possible that Middle-Earth was revealed to the public in a more simplistic form than he might have wanted. I would argue that it’s possible that Tolkien, seeing that people actually enjoyed Middle-Earth, may have wanted to revisit not only that universe but also that narrative. He may have wanted to give people a vision of that world – and that story arc – with the gravity that he thought they deserved. It’s also not insignificant that Tolkien was a translator – retelling stories was a big part of what he did.
Could he have loved one narrative enough to rewrite it and publish it in two separate forms? Given his epic history of revision, his penchant for retelling existing stories in new language, and his love of the Middle-Earth universe and it’s extensive lore, I’d say yes.
All this conjecture is based on nothing more than my own personal speculation, but – after all my readings – it certainly seems possible, albeit not particularly probable. And, assuming that any of this were to be accurate, we’re left with one lingering question: was The Lord of the Rings history’s first gritty reboot?