A buyer recently contacted me to help him find an American first edition of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Since the amount that he was willing to pay was ridiculously below the usual prices that the title brings, I didn’t even bother to search. But it did get me thinking about the early editions of the beloved book and how they varied by publication date.
The first edition of The Hobbit differs in some substantial ways from the second edition. By 1937, Tolkien had begun work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy with the sinister One Ring as its centerpiece and realized he needed to revise the chapter about Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum to be more in line with events in his new books. In the first version of “Riddles in the Dark,” Gollum is a far less devious character, who cheerfully bets his “precious” in the game of riddles that he plays with Bilbo. When Gollum goes searching for the Ring and can’t find it, Bilbo having already cleverly pocketed it, he is only sorry that he can’t give it to Bilbo for winning the game. He then willingly leads Bilbo out of the cave where they’ve met. In the revised version, of course, Bilbo forfeits his life if he loses the game (Gollum’s suggestion) and despite winning it, is pursued out of the cave by a murderous Gollum, anyway.
Pictured here is the first American edition, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1938. Along with the original version of “Riddles in the Dark,” it contains four color plates of Tolkien’s illustrations and red maps on the end-papers. The Hobbit has not been out of print since its publication.