Perhaps the most important critique of The Hobbit came from ten-year-old Raynor Unwin, the son of English publisher Sir Stanley Unwin. According to Daniel Grotta, in his biography J. R. R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth, young Unwin earned between a shilling and a half-crown for reviewing children's literature. His assessment of The Hobbit is as follows:
Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who lived in his hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exciting time fighting goblins and Wargs. At last they got to the lonely mountain: Smaug, the dragon who guards it, is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home—rich!
This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations. It is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.
Raynor Unwin said years later, "I wouldn't say my report was the best critique of The Hobbit that has been written, but it was good enough to ensure that it was published."
The Hobbit was published in 1937, and most reviewers concurred with Unwin's positive assessment. Although the book was primarily viewed as children's literature, several reviewers emphasized the book's appeal to older readers. A reviewer (believed to be C. S. Lewis) in the London Times Literary Supplement wrote, "It must be understood that this is a children's book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery."
In the New York Times, Anne T. Eaton asserted, "Boys and girls from 8 years on have already given The Hobbit an enthusiastic welcome, but this is a book with no age limits." Because Tolkien believed that mythology and fairy tales helped bridge the gap between generations, he would have been pleased with these assessments.
Despite the excellent reviews, The Hobbit was not initially a financial success for Tolkien. However, the commercial success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy during the 1950s also affected the sales of its predecessor. Tolkien lived to see The Hobbit sell over a million copies in the United States alone. It continues to be one of the best-selling fantasy titles in print.
Tolkien's work has generated a great deal of scholarly criticism, primarily concentrating on The Lord of the Rings. Much commentary focuses on the creation, history, and languages of Middle-earth. Several authors, including Edmund Fuller, have looked for allegory (characters or events used to represent things or abstract ideas to convey a message or teach a lesson) in Tolkien's work. However, the author vehemently denied the use of allegory in his books. In his introduction to the Ballantine edition of The Lord of the Rings, he wrote:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the reader. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purported domination of the author.
The Hobbit is first and foremost a grand adventure, a tale of good overcoming evil.