Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a story for children. However, I've never seen a specific age mentioned. Did Tolkien intend the story for young children or for teens?
What reading level should a child be at to understand and enjoy The Hobbit?
When Tolkien began writing The Hobbit in 1930, his children were 13, 10, 6, and 1, and he finished it two years later, so if the story that he wrote it for his own children is true, then presumably he hoped his two oldest children would enjoy it.
According to wikipedia:
In a 1955 letter to W. H. Auden, Tolkien recollects that he began work on The Hobbit one day early in the 1930s, when he was marking School Certificate papers. He found a blank page. Suddenly inspired, he wrote the words, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." By late 1932 he had finished the story and then lent the manuscript to several friends, including C. S. Lewis and a student of Tolkien's named Elaine Griffiths. In 1936, when Griffiths was visited in Oxford by Susan Dagnall, a staff member of the publisher George Allen & Unwin, she is reported to have either lent Dagnall the book or suggested she borrow it from Tolkien. In any event, Miss Dagnall was impressed by it, and showed the book to Stanley Unwin, who then asked his 10-year-old son Rayner to review it. Rayner's favourable comments settled Allen & Unwin's decision to publish Tolkien's book.
So a contemporary 10 year old was able to enjoy the book. If you're trying to ascertain whether your child would be able to enjoy it, you should probably consider whether he knows a high enough percentage of the vocabulary to really understand it. The story of The Hobbit is not especially complicated - it's the language that is difficult. As I recall, studies have shown that as long as children know approximately 85% of the vocabulary in a book, they will have no difficulty filling in the rest from context. (Though I have long since sold back that psych textbook, and I can't seem to find a statistic online.)
At what reading level should a child be to understand and enjoy The Hobbit?
The lore states that The Hobbit was written as a story by Tolkien for his children, but it is unclear if he intended them to read it themselves or be read to.
In any event, The Hobbit is not too challenging in terms of writing, and there is enough action and adventure with little in the way of dry, dusty passages which can appear in LOTR. I'd say that any child who has read books like the Narnia series would be able to move onto The Hobbit. Even if a child doesn't understand all of the words, children by the age of 10 can easily learn mostly from context, and as long as there is a willing parent nearby to help with the rest, then there should be no problem.
The various adventures and "action" sequences are well-spaced to keep moderate attention spans occupied, too.
For the record - I was 9/10 when I first read the Hobbit (I'd already read the Narnia books at 7 and 8), and I read the Lord of the Rings almost right after (although, that took me a couple of months or so). The librarian aid it was for 12 years old.
While it appears your question about Tolkien's intentions for the book itself seem to have been answered, I thought I would address the reading level aspect of the book.
Reading level is determined by vocabulary and sentence structure complexity and actually does not generally consider the content itself at all. The Lexile framework score for The Hobbit is 1000, which puts it at a reading level more diffficult and higher than most of the Harry Potter books, Hunger Games and many other children's and young adult fiction using the same reading level scoring system. This is partially because some of the vocabulary is not current with our modern usage of the words so the reading level expectation has probably gone up simply because of changes in the way we speak even in the not-quite 100 years since Tolkien was working on the story. Using an AR score (which stands for Accelerated Reader and is a different system for measuring reading challenge level) it is considered a level 7 which puts it at the same level as Door in the Wall, and Bridge to Terabithia. RL scoring (Reading Level) which is the older measure for reading challenge says it should be read at about ninth or tenth grade.
Having said all that, since none of those measures truly consider content. I think they are all a bit "off." The story, in my opinion, and based on the experience of many as well as Tales of Tolkien's intentions himself, is that the book is written for a younger audience than any reading level score comes up with. Therefore, my suggestion is to read it together and enjoy it. Kids will often understand a much greater amount of a story when it is read to them, than when they have to read it by themselves. It is a bonding experience for the both of you, helps kids fall in love with books (as it is an awesome story) and The Hobbit is light-hearted enough that your average 2nd or 3rd grader would probably enjoy it very much if he/she didn't have to read it alone. If you have an advanced reader, take turns reading your child can read some, but you'll be there to help and you'll be there for your turn to give your child a break.
I am currently reading the book for a second time with my seven year old. We read it to her when she was five as well and she remembers it well. Admittedly, she has an awesome vocabulary for a kid her age, but has absolutely no problem engaging in discourse about what has happened in the story. She still isn't keen on reading it out loud to others (our babysitter joined us for last night's family read and she wouldn't take a turn reading aloud) but she loves the story and is always excited to read on and even said, "It's still exciting and fun" when it was pointed out that she already knew the end. So, have fun!
I remember reading somewhere that the Hobbit was for his children, and LotR was also for his children, and was therefore 3-4 years more adult, as his children were growing up. However, it is probably valid to argue that the children of an Oxford English professor might have a slightly higher reading ability than average.
So I would say it was written for well read and educated 10-12 year olds - I think he was looking at his older children initially.
As to what age it should be read at today, I would say that any young teen or pre-teen should be able to give it a go, depending on their personal reading maturity. Much under this and they may not have the understanding ( of the ideas, not just the words ) to really appreciate and enjoy it.
Rather than write about what level should someone be at to understand and enjoy reading The Hobbit I would like to talk about what the title asks - but in a different way. I would like to add though that even if one cannot read I would say that if it was read by a parent (or sibling or someone else) to a child they would still enjoy it as long as it's their type of story (I want to say that if it isn't there is something wrong with them but I won't go there).
Originally it was meant to be for children but he later had regrets about the tone and style; he talks about this in a number of letters. Let's start with the first one being #131 (note that I have made bold my points whereas there are occasions where he made text italic):
The generally different tone and style of The Hobbit is due, in point of genesis, to it being taken by me as a matter from the great cycle susceptible of treatment as a 'fairy-story', for children. Some of the details of tone and treatment, I now think, even on that basis, mistaken. But I should not wish to change much. For in effect this is a study of simple ordinary man, neither artistic nor noble and heroic (but not without the undeveloped seeds of these things) against a high setting - and in fact (as a critic has perceived) the tone and style change with the Hobbit's development, passing from fairy-tale to the noble and high relapsing with the return.
So here you can clearly see that it is a simple story in his mind; however he does seem also to regret the tone and style. But why is that the case? Although it seems odd he does explain it (and the explanation is odd too in my view). He has a bit to say about not being careful in The Hobbit in letter #153; however the next piece that shows where his thinking is is in #163. Here he talks in this paragraph the way The Lord of the Rings was originally quite unconnected to it but he also talks about the tone/style:
It was unhappily really meant, as far as I was conscious, as a 'children's story', and as I had not learned sense then, and my children were not quite old enough to correct me, it has some of the sillinesses[sic] of manner caught unthinkingly from the kind of stuff I had had served to me, as a Chaucer may catch a minstrel tag. I deeply regret them. So do intelligent children.
But clearly his latter assessment isn't true; intelligence doesn't really have a play here does it? The best I can think of is that something happened in his head once he was working on The Lord of the Rings (this letter, incidentally, was posted on 7 June 1955) but this is mere speculation on my part. In letter #165 he has this brief bit to say and I think here we might finally have the answer as to why he regrets the tone and style:
My work did not 'evolve' into a serious work. It started like that. The so-called 'children's story' [The Hobbit] was a fragment, torn out of an already existing mythology. In so far as it was dressed up as 'for children', in style or manner, I regret it. So do the children. I am a philologist, and all my work is philological. I avoid hobbies because I am a very serious person and cannot distinguish between private amusement and duty. I am affable, but unsociable. I only work for private amusement, since I find my duties privately amusing.
So it seems to me that he had an issue with seriousness and lack thereof. Perhaps he was conscious of some critique? He did make clear that he was the most critical of his work out of all critics but I suppose that's how we all are, whether we know it or not. Letter #215 has some more interesting bits on why he might have wrote it the way he did:
The relation between The Hobbit and its sequel is I think this. The Hobbit is a first essay or introduction (consideration will admit I think that it is very just point at which to begin the narration of the subsequent events) to a complex narrative which had been brewing in my mind for years. It was overtly addressed to children for two reasons: I had at that time children of my own and was accustomed to making up (ephemeral) stories for them; I had been brought up to believe that there was a real and special connexion between children and fairy-stories. Or rather to believe that this was a received opinion of my world and of publishers. I doubted it, since it did not accord with my personal experience of my own taste, nor with my observation of children (notably my own). But the convention was strong.
It seems pretty clear from the above that he had mixed feelings on it; certainly he wanted to believe he was wrong to target children despite the fact he made up stories for his own children. He goes on to say that it builds up into more serious or significant and more consistent and historical but he regrets it all the same. Yet at the time there wasn't meant to be any relation to it and The Lord of the Rings (as it wasn't conceived) so there is some inconsistency here too. He was asked what his definition of what children are. He goes on to say that we all need literature that is above our measure although we might not have sufficient energy for it at the time. He suggests this too:
Therefore do not write down to Children or to anybody. Not even in language. Though it would be a good thing if that great reverence which is due to children took the form of eschewing the tired and flabby cliches of adult life. But an honest word is an honest word, and its acquaintance can only be made by meeting it in a right context. A good vocabulary is not required by reading books written according to some notion of the vocabularly of one's age-group. It comes from reading books above one.
I found that very intriguing because it seems contradictory to what he was talking about in the first place. But letter #234 is very interesting on the subject of children and childishness. This is about The Lord of the Rings:
It was not written 'for children', or for any kind of person in particular, but for itself. (If any parts or elements in it appear 'childish', it is because I am childish, and like that thing now.)
In this letter he has something interesting to say on vocabulary:
Children are not a class or kind, they are a heterogeneous collection of immature persons, varying, as persons do, in their reach, and in their ability to extend it when stimulated. As soon as you limit your vocabularly to what you suppose to be within your reach, you in fact simply cut off the gifted ones from the chance of extending it.
Finally in letter #257 he says that he told (often orally) many stories to his children all unpublished - and that The Hobbit was meant to be one of them. And what a loss that would have been...
So in summary I think we can conclude that:
He clearly wrote it for children.
He believed however that one shouldn't write to children or any age group as such, in a way.
He actually at one point enjoyed the childishness but he seemed to be at odds of this at times (since he said his work started out serious as he takes his life seriously).
He believes intelligent children wouldn't appreciate Hobbit.
But in any case whether or not he intended to write it for children (which he admitted he did) he still regretted it yet somehow had mixed feelings on it. I think we can all speculate on how this all interconnects but I don't think it says anything on the reading level targeted or whether children would enjoy it; these are just his regrets and thoughts on the work after the fact. And he was his worst critic for certain. Children do enjoy it, always have and I believe always will, regardless of what he felt. It was also written for children even though he was at times at odds with this.
I read the hobbit at 7 years old and continued to read it for many years to come, as it was part of my favourite collection. Even now, I still have the same book and it is still my favourite story. :) And I will surely give it to my kids as well. It teaches that good triumphs over evil, and it was inspiring for me to learn those values at a young age. Now I can't wait for the Hobbit movie to hit cinemas. :)
I didn't read The Hobbit until I was thirteen, but I probably would have been able to read and enjoy it years earlier.
If I remember correctly, I was given and read Bent's Fort by David Lavender a few years earlier, and I suppose that it was considered a somewhat more gown up type of book.
On summer vacation when I was twelve I read The Wizard of OZ and a book of short stories including Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", so I read stories written for widely different age groups.
The minimum age to use the adult section of the local library was sixteen, but I began using it when I was fourteen.
So I think that I could have read The Hobbit by myself and enjoyed it several years before I was thirteen.