A to Z of the Hobbit

As J R R Tolkien fans prepare for their latest big-screen blockbuster from Middle-earth, Mike Higgins reads the runes to bring you some halfling truths

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The Independent Culture

A is for Aryan

In 1938, a year after The Hobbit's first British edition, the German publishers enquired about Tolkien's "Aryan" heritage. Outraged, he gave his publisher two responses: in one he regretted the lack of Jewish heritage; the other was said to have stated his German-English origins. The latter was sent.

B is for Beowulf

Tolkien championed the Old English epic poem, which was a source for much of his fiction. He would often begin lectures with a cry of "Hwaet!", the first word of Beowulf, according to one of his students, Humphrey Carpenter.

C is for Care

Tolkien took enormous care with the production of The Hobbit. In the run-up to its publication in 1937, Tolkien wrote 26 letters to his publisher. They were, recalled his publisher's son, "exasperatingly precise".

D is for Don

No one enjoyed a lecture more than John the Don. He was said to turn up occasionally in chain mail, for added effect, and regularly held more than 70 lectures annually, double the amount in his contract with Oxford University.

E is for Elves

Tolkien was obsessed with elves. His publisher deplored their "eye-splitting" names. His fans worried about whether elves' ears were pointy or not – they were pointy, said Tolkien, but "only slightly".

F is for Fans, and Females

That's fan as in fanatic. Many celebrate Hobbit Day, 22 September, Bilbo's birthday. The Hobbit is blokey, to put it mildly – only one female is named, Belladonna Took, Bilbo's mother.

G is for Gollum

Gollum is a hobbit warped in every way by his possession of the magical Ring – which he happily loses to Bilbo in The Hobbit. Only when Tolkien was conceiving The Lord of the Rings did he revise that scene to grump Gollum up a bit.

H is for Hobbits

The "halflings" first appear in Tolkien's writings in The Hobbit as "relatives" of men, averaging 3ft 6in in height and who live to an average of 100 years. (Bilbo is 50 at the start of The Hobbit.) But those horrible big hairy feet! Hairy, you can blame Tolkien for, but big is, apparently, a tweak by later illustrators.

I is for Inspiration

Marking an exam paper in the early 1930s, Tolkien found himself writing the following words on a blank page: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."

J is for Jackson

As in Peter Jackson the 51-year-old Kiwi director responsible for bringing first The Lord of the Rings trilogy and now The Hobbit to the big screen. Disappointingly, he looks less like a member of the Baggins family than was once the case.

K is for Knight

As in Gawain and the Green Knight. In the early 1920s, Tolkien produced an edition that became standard. If you can't face The Hobbit and haven't read this 14th-century Middle English romance, do so. 'Tis a must-read, a gruesome tale for Christmas.

L is for Languages

Tolkien spoke a dozen well, and was expert in old European languages, which he taught. For him, language and myth were inseparable, which is why he created language systems for elves, men and other populations of Middle-earth. His Finnish was a bit iffy, by all accounts, though.

M is for Middle-earth

Tolkien's imaginary setting for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, thought to be located on an imaginary Earth about 6,000 years ago. Mapped by the author himself and every fan who wondered how to get from Rivendell to Rohan while avoiding that nasty black spot by the Mines of Moria.

N is for Nausea

Some early viewers are reporting that the techno-wizardry in Part One of the film adaptation of The Hobbit is making them feel sick. Warner Bros refutes the criticisms, but the thought of Martin Freeman's hairy toes at 48 frames per second in 3D is not exactly stomach-settling.

O is for Oxford

Tolkien taught at the university for much of his career, retiring in 1959. It was there that he met his great literary chum C S Lewis, though the two later fell out over religion. (Tolkien was a Catholic.) Oxford was even said to be on the same latitude as Bilbo Baggins's home village, Hobbiton.

P is for Plot-Spoiler Alert!

Bilbo sets off for Lonely Mountain and tricks Gollum out of a magic ring. He then nicks some treasure. Some elves and men turn up and there's argy-bargy over who keeps Lonely Mountain. Goblins arrive and are defeated. Bilbo is minted, end of .... (You'll get only one third of that in the first film, though.)

Q is for Quenta Silmarillion

The Tale of the Silmarils was the mythic background to The Hobbit, and Tolkien worked on it for more than 50 years. After the success of The Hobbit he proposed it for publication: it was rejected in the belief that the public wanted "more about hobbits". Tolkien's son published it in 1977 as The Silmarillion. For purists only.

R is for Rayner

Rayner Unwin, that is. In 1936, the 10-year-old was given a manuscript of The Hobbit by his publisher-father for his assessment as a member of the target market. "Exiting [sic] … and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9." A great day/dark moment in the history of publishing – delete as appropriate.

S is for Sales, and Sarehole

The Hobbit is thought to have sold 100 million copies and been translated into 50 languages. No, Sarehole is not a puerile anagram; it is the Midlands hamlet where Tolkien grew up and is thought to have inspired Hobbiton. It's now part of Birmingham.

T is for Trilogy

There has been much beard-scratching at the decision to eke a trilogy out of The Hobbit, a quarter of the length of The Lord of the Rings. But after the latter's success, Warner Bros can probably think of a few reasons.

U is for Unfinished Tales

What? The Silmarillion wasn't niche enough? Crikey – then try Unfinished Tales, a series of even more fragmentary and incomplete Middle-earth scribblings by Tolkien, and published by his son in 1980.

V is for Voluspa

That's the Old Norse epic poem about the creation of the world, as you well know. It's also the source for 12 of the 13 names of the dwarfs – Fili, Kili, Dwalin, Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Thorin, Oin, Gloin, Dori, Nori, and Ori – in The Hobbit. No, I don't know which one he made up.

W is for War

Tolkien was invalided out of the First World War, having fought on the Somme. He later wrote: "By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead." It was to colour his portrayal of war, not least in The Hobbit. In the aftermath of the Battle of the Five Armies, Bilbo concludes: "Victory after all, I suppose! Well, it seems a very gloomy business."

X is for X-Rated

I'm sorry to break this to you, but there are scenes of elf-sex fan fiction on the web. Before you snigger, don't forget how Fifty Shades of Grey started.

Y is for Yazneg

Who he? Well, quite, my hobbity chums – for he is a creation of the Dark Lord Peter Jackson and existeth not in The Hobbit of Tolkien! Jackson has also bunged in some stuff Tolkien did actually create, but was not in the original book.

Z is for Zaentz

Film producer Saul Zaentz acquired the film rights for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 1976. Last year, his company turned its guns on media giants the Hungry Hobbit café in Birmingham and the Hobbit pub in Southampton for copyright infringement.