“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”
So begins Tolkien's first published work - this sentence marks the beginning of the world's experience with Middle Earth. The Hobbit was originally published in 1937, and it was more than 15 years later before the first edition of The Fellowship of the Ring would be released. It's nearly impossible today to recreate the experience of reading The Hobbit in a vacuum, but it's interesting to remember that at the time of original publication, The Hobbit stood alone as the window into Middle Earth.
It was also my personal first experience with Middle Earth. Tolkien wrote it as a story for children, and I was a child when I, first, heard it read to me by my mother, and later, read it for myself. When I read it as a child, it existed as an wholly self-contained entity, a single, simple, delightful fantasy about a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. My perspective is quite different now - I read it as a more mature, and hopefully more thoughtful, reader, and I read it with the greater understanding of how it fits into Tolkien's larger universe.
The first chapter introduces the reader to Gandalf, one of the most important figures in the entire mythology. He appears on Bilbo's doorstep like something out of memory or folktale:
“Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered? Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons? Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those! Old Took used to have them on Midsummer’s Eve. Splendid! They used to go up like great lilies and snapdragons and laburnums of fire and hang in the twilight all evening!”