Most first edition copies of the fantasy novel for children The Hobbit were lost during World War II, the author J.R.R. Tolkien once told a Maltese student.
It’s fascinating to see how Tolkien’s world is just as alluring to children today
Charles Calleja, 71, now a retired English lecturer at the University of Malta, corresponded with Professor Tolkien in 1966 while still a student working on his dissertation.
In his typewritten letter, with handwritten annotations, Prof. Tolkien explained that the second edition Hobbit was different to the original.
He had tweaked the first edition, released in 1937, when the publishers pushed him to write the Lord of the Rings trilogy – and he had to give the ring in The Hobbit a bit more prominence.
“You will not find it possible, I think, to acquire a copy of the first edition... they are very scarce, most of the stocks having perished in the London blitz,” Prof. Tolkien wrote.
This correspondence came to light as the film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson, hits the big screen in time for children’s Christmas holidays.
Mr Calleja hopes that on seeing the film, children will go back to the books because it is a whole “unbelievable” world.
He had forgotten the lure of Tolkien’s storytelling until recently, when his two grandchildren Sam, nine, and Nina, six, started reading the book.
When Mr Calleja, then a student at the Royal University of Malta, decided to write his essay on the use of the English language in storytelling, his tutor Richard Beck encouraged him to write to the author of the children’s classic. Prof. Beck had studied with Tolkien at Oxford University.
“Hurry up, because he’s quite sick and you’re lucky to catch him alive,” Prof. Beck had told him.
Mr Calleja wrote to him querying several issues the author raised in the book, among them whether there was any intended allegory in his tales.
In his reply Prof. Tolkien wrote: “Being influenced by, or making use of, events or experience of one’s life (which is inevitable) has nothing to do with allegory.”
The Hobbit follows the quest of home-loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins to win a share of the treasure guarded by the dragon Smaug. This theme of good and evil so evident in his books was influenced by his life.
“Tolkien was a lieutenant in the trenches of World War I, which is why his battle descriptions in his books are so vivid: he had first-hand experience of battles,” Mr Calleja says.
In the subsequent correspondence with Mr Calleja there was, however, no handwritten annotation as Prof Tolkien had taken ill and his secretary answered his letters.
He died in 1973. Mr Calleja treasures the correspondence to this day, and his studio pays homage to his love for fantasy literature and storytelling.
An original map of Middle Earth – the setting for Tolkien’s series of books – graces his wall.
He talks about the English language with a passion and, when asked what Prof. Tolkien would say if he had to see his movies on screen, Mr Calleja replies without hesitation: “I think he would say, ‘You are destroying imagination’.”
The Hobbit was originally a collection of stories he used to tell his children and the professor was quite surprised by how well the book was received.
“He shunned popularity throughout his life,” Mr Calleja says.
“It’s fascinating to see how Tolkien’s world is just as alluring to children today; his books are more universal than I thought.”
As he puts his tattered copy of The Hobbit back in its place on the bookshelf, with Tolkien’s letter carefully folded inside, Mr Calleja says: “There must be something which time has not eroded: as Coleridge said, true literature is when there is suspension of disbelief.”