21 September 1937: The first publication of ‘The Hobbit’

Chip the glasses and crack the plates!

Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates -
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!

From 'The Hobbit' by J.R.R.Tolkien (1892-1973)

Some of the greatest children's books - actually I dislike the idea of separating children's books from so called 'adult' books (which sound very dodgy) so let's just say; - some of the greatest ever books, have been written with specific children in mind. 'Alice in Wonderland' was first written down for Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, Lewis Carroll’s Oxford College. Richard Adams improvised the stories in ‘Watership Down’ to amuse his little daughters on long car journeys, 'Treasure Island', Robert Louis Stevenson wrote for his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, and of course A.A. Milne wrote the Pooh books for his son Christopher.

The Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon, John Ronald Reul Tolkien had four children. Every Christmas he wrote them a letter from Father Christmas with news from the North Pole. The letters were really stories about polar bears, goblins – always a problem, and Father Christmas’s long-suffering elf secretary, Ilbereth. The letters were a sort of rehearsal for what was to come later. Tolkien was a Beowulf expert and the ancient time between ‘The Dawn of Færie and the Dominion of Men’ was his natural habitat. 

In the early 1930s, Tolkien was marking School Cert papers (and how boring that must have been). In some poor student’s script he found a blank page and he wrote on it the words ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’. Once he got going, the story gripped him and two years later he finished it and showed it to friends. ‘The Hobbit’ was published by Allen and Unwin on the 21th September 1937 and has never been out of print. I've been re-reading the great tea party scene from the first chapter ‘An Unexpected Party’, when poor home loving Bilbo Baggins is descended upon by a group of dwarves who, together with Gandalf the Wizard persuade him, very much against his will, to become a burglar and steal back the dwarves’ treasure from under the belly of Smaug the dragon.

The dwarves seem to have an uncanny knowledge of what's in Bilbo's larder, and demand he brings out apple tart, raspberry jam, mince pies, cheese, pork pie, salad and more cakes and ale and coffee and a few eggs and cold chicken and pickles….all of which sounds like the great Yorkshire high teas my Grandmother used to put together.  The following morning the dwarves have departed, leaving the washing up, and Bilbo, prompted by the Took side of his ancestry, hastens off to join them in a chapter entitled ‘Roast Mutton’.

Food is fundamental to a good children’s story, and I can think of lots; Jo eating Russet apples in 'Little Women', the Famous Five cooking up all sorts of grub, the Swallows and Amazons cooking ‘pemmican’ – which I think was what they called corned beef.  The wonderful picnic at the beginning of ‘Wind in the Willows’ when Ratty reels off the contents of the picnic basket, Pooh getting stuck in his front door because he’s eaten too much honey and Tigger wolfing down malt extract because ‘that’s what Tiggers like best’.  The contemporary author Jacqueline Wilson has just written ‘Four Children and It’ - a modern version of the classic children’s book ‘Five Children and It’ by E. E. Nesbit.  In the best tradition of children's' stories there's lots of lovely food in it. I am a big E.E.Nesbit fan; member of the Fabian Society, follower of William Morris and, like Tolkien, a bit of a good egg.

So I’ve made a cake. The sort of cake a hobbit might have in his larder or a group of hungry children might have for their lunch in some secret woodland hideaway whilst playing with a magical creature who just happens to live under a tree root….

What's in the cupboard cake?

This is actually a boiled fruit cake by another name, but it is such a useful and amenable recipe, I've adapted it in many ways to suit what I happen to have at hand. I was looking through my baking ingredients today and seeing what needed using up before I start buying in for the great baking marathon leading up to Christmas. So don't hesitate to change the ingredients, just keep the proportions the same. I often change the fruit, I sometimes add nuts, I swap the syrup for honey or marmalade, I cook the fruit in tea or fruit juice...

Today I used up some rather tired glacé cherries and some dried cranberries and sultanas. I soaked the fruit in vanilla tea and added a shot of marmalade from the bottom of a jar. This is the basic recipe, and many thanks to my dear friend Pat who gave it to me many years ago.

12oz plain flour
2 level tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp cinnamon

6 oz butter or margarine
4oz soft brown sugar
6 oz golden syrup
¼ pint plus 4 tablespoons of water
12oz dried fruit
2 oz peel

2 eggs

Put the first five ingredients in a bowl and all the rest except the eggs in a pan. Heat though and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to blood temperature. Add to the dry ingredients and then stir in the beaten egg. Bake for 1hr 15 minutes at 150c in a fan oven, test with a skewer in the usual way.

Far over the misty mountains cold

To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day,
To find our long forgotten gold.



Pete Thompson said...

I've been looking for a good boiled fruit cake recipe and this one looks great. Thanks Liz.


MAry Beth said...

Ahh- food in books - with children in mind- I still remember the Grandfather preparing a meal of toasted bread' and melted cheese for Heidi when she first came to live with him high in the Alps. And the Christmas breakfast that the four Little Women sacrificed for the poor family down the road...

Nice job as usual, Liz!

Liz Woods said...

Heidi ! I loved Heidi, I should have remembered the toasted cheese. I have wondered since if it was actually fondue, just not very well translated, but didn't he put it on a stick? I'll have to go and look it up now...thanks Mary Beth. Xx

Mary Beth said...

Liz, Happy Michaelmas! Or Blessed Michaelmas?

As you have posted so wonderfully about Michaelmas in the past, I didn't think you would have a new one this year. So I just pulled up your previous posts and they read as wonderfully as ever :-)

Peter Reinhart writes about the Scottish (Celtic?) tradition of a harvest bread, Struan, that is baked on the eve of Michealmas. (In "Brother Juniper's Bread"). I just discovered this recipe in the past month and have baked it a few times. Lovely bread, and yet another way to celebrate! (I see you have posted a recipe of a harvest bread for Lammas Day.)

Regardless, may you go with the Angels today!

Liz Woods said...

Bread tomorrow Mary Beth!