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Concerning Hobbits

A few years back I stumbled upon a Hobbit hole. I chanced upon it in a lecture of 1900 by John Rhys, the first Oxford Professor of Celtic. Rhys was arguing that behind the divinities, demons, fairies and phantoms of Celtic folklore are dim memories of various peoples that once inhabited the British Isles. What especially drew my attention was his interpretation of Welsh fairy stories.

Welsh traditions of the ‘little people’, Rhys explained, have their origin in encounters between incoming Celtic tribesmen and pre-Celtic farmers, who the Celts drove into the hills. From the stories he inferred that these first settlers of Britain had been:

“a small swarthy population of mound-dwellers, of an unwarlike disposition… and living underground.”

Turning to archaeology, Rhys pointed to the remains of “certain underground – or partially underground – habitations.” He connected these dwellings with Britain’s native settlers, and observed that some of their homes:

“appear from the outside like hillocks covered with grass, so as presumably not to attract attention… But one of the most remarkable things about them is the fact that the cells or apartments into which they are divided are frequently so small that their inmates must have been of very short stature…”

Was this the origin of Tolkien’s Hobbits? If so, how did Bilbo Baggins emerge out of an apparently playful reading of Rhys’ account of Welsh fairy tales? I set out to answer these questions.

Initial results were encouraging. Rhys was still teaching when Tolkien went up to Oxford, and the undergraduate Tolkien probably attended his lectures on the Mabinogian. And serious scholarly engagement with Rhys is evident in Tolkien’s essay on ‘The Name “Nodens”’, a paper engaging with inscriptions unearthed at Lydney Park on the Welsh border and published in 1932 – the year that Tolkien first wrote down the story that would be published five years later as The Hobbit.

The picture became complicated, however, when I opened up Tolkien’s earliest tales. If anything, they suggest hostility to Rhys’ reading of Welsh fairy stories. For the young Tolkien not only belittles Celtic tradition but also identifies as the original settlers of the British Isles, not peaceful mound-dwellers, but Elves, who in his stories are quite warlike and live in cottages and towers and such like.

These early stories tell of the history of the Elves in “the days before the days, in the Northern regions of the Western World.” But they are also imagined as a lost tradition of English folklore. Tolkien describes a pre-migration Englishman, an Angle, who travels to an island in the west where Elves still dwell. This island is Britain. The Elves of Britain tell the traveler their stories and, because he passes these tales on to his sons, and they to theirs, so today the English “have the true traditions of the fairies, of whom the Íras and the Wéalas (the Irish and Welsh) tell garbled things.”

Behind his combative attitude towards Celtic folklore one can discern Tolkien’s unease with the idea that the English took their present lands from others. In these early writings he tells of how, in the face of successive invasions by different Celtic tribes and Roman legions, the Elves of England faded and diminished; but they are said to perk up again on the arrival of the English, with whom they recognize a special affinity. The suggestion – not entirely convincing – is that the Anglo-Saxons were not so much invading the lands of the ancient Britons as coming home to the original land of the fairies.

Tolkien was evidently unsatisfied with this early attempt to tie the English to England. His idea of England as the last refuge of the Elves was soon revised and, by the late 1920s pretty much abandoned.

What I think happened next – my ‘Hobbit hypothesis’, if you will – is that on reencountering Rhys’ scholarship in the early 1930s Tolkien came to see that it offered a new solution to an old problem. The result was the reconceptualization of ancient England as the green and pleasant Shire of the Hobbits.

The key to this new development was Tolkien’s dual theory of national identity. This is articulated in ‘English and Welsh’, a lecture delivered in 1955 (the day after publication of The Return of the King). According to Tolkien, we each receive two inheritances. From what he calls “our speech-ancestors” we receive our “cradle language”, and also the culture associated with it. From our biological ancestors we inherit our inner nature, which manifests itself in our individual dispositions and predilections. There is no necessary connection between our outer language and culture and our inner selves.

Tolkien’s vision of the history of the British Isles gives concrete form to this rather abstract theory. He agreed with Rhys that Britain had been settled before the arrival of Celtic-speakers. He also believed that neither Celts nor Anglo-Saxons had driven these first settlers from the land: the history of Britain is one of racial mixing not ethnic cleansing. So the succession of incursions has given rise to wholesale changes of language, but not of blood; and this entails that many today who speak English (or Welsh) are descendants of those pre-Celtic settlers that Rhys back in 1900 had discerned behind Welsh traditions of the ‘little people’.

If my hypothesis is correct we are now in a position to answer that most delicious of questions: what is a Hobbit?

Well, Hobbits are (a somewhat tongue-in-cheek) representation of the little people that back in 1900 Rhys had identified as Britain’s first farmers. But because this original population has never been driven from the land, Hobbits are at the same time a depiction of the inherited ‘inner selves’ of many who live in England today.

Hobbits are that part of the English people that is native to the land; they are Tolkien’s way of explaining why the modern English truly belong to the land now called England.

And The Hobbit is a story of how this native part of us comes to terms with its English cultural inheritance: the tale of a peaceful bachelor, with a penchant for bacon and eggs, who rediscovers himself by venturing out into the perilous world of ancient English tradition; there, and back again.

Sources

For the Tolkien quotes see The Shaping of Middle-earth: the Quenta, the Ambarkanta, and the Annals(1986) and The Book of Lost Tales, edited by Christopher Tolkien¸ Volume II (1984); ‘English and Welsh’, in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (1983). All three of these volumes are edited by Christopher Tolkien and published in the UK by Allen & Unwin. They are given here in the order in which the quotations appear in the essay.

For Rhys’ lecture see ‘Presidential Address to Section H. of the BAAS’, Report of the Seventieth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, London: John Murray, 1900, pp. 884-896, available at the Internet Archive.

For the scholarly context informing the work of both Rhys and Tolkien see my essay ‘The Making of the English: English history, British identity, Aryan villages, 1870-1914’, Journal of the History of Ideas, October 2014, available on my academia.edu page and my recent essay J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology, available in electronic format from Amazon.


This essay first appeared on The History Vault.

 

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Meetings of People: W.H.R. Rivers & Diffusionism

Originally posted to the Grote Club.

W.H.R. Rivers was a key figure in the development of both psychology and anthropology in early twentieth-century Cambridge. Consequently, much of what is distinctive in the development of one discipline in this period relates directly to the other. Nevertheless, the pivotal event in Rivers’ anthropological career – his ‘conversion to diffusionism’ around 1911 – was not directly related to his psychological research.

Rivers announced his conversion in his 1911 Presidential Address to the Anthropology Section of the British Association. He explained that in writing up the results of  his 1908 expedition to Melanesia he had come to see that “the change I had traced was not a spontaneous evolution, but one which had taken place under the influence of the blending of peoples”. Quite why Rivers came to see social change in this new way has mystified modern scholars.

In this post I explain Rivers’ 1911 ‘conversion’. The explanation is extrapolated from several published articles (details below) and constitutes a digression from my series of posts on Rivers and psychology. Taking this digression, however, will allow us in later posts to pinpoint more accurately the place of psychology in the Cambridge moral sciences. Continue reading

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Richard Rohlin on ‘King Sheave’

  • The following is a guest post by Richard W. Rohlin:

I’ve been taking a close look at Tolkien’s ‘King Sheave’ poem (you can read the full text here). This poem has completely captivated my attention and I’ve come back to it several times over the course of the semester when I really should have been working on other things.

As I detail in my research paper ‘Men out of the Sea: Corn-kings and Culture Heroes in Tolkien’s Middle-earth,’ the ‘King Sheave’ poem is an effort on Tolkien’s part to connect the “corn-king” and Sceaf/Sheave legends of Northern Europe with the Númenorean cycle of his mythology. All right, so that’s a bit of an over-simplification, but the point is that it was part of an evolving effort to engage with the Sceaf legend. You can read all about this in The Lost Road, volume V of The History of Middle Earth. What I’m more interested in for purposes of this post is the way that Tolkien engages with the mythical past of Northern Europe, not just through his subject matter, but through his diction. Continue reading

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Awesome Amgalant

Today I started to read what is looking like the perfect historical novel. It is called Amgalant and you can download the first part for free on the website of its author, Bryn Hammond.

I read a lot of historical novels and most of them are more or less degrees of garbage. Some are very good. But Bryn Hammond is up there with Mary Renault, which is to say damn near perfect.

At some point I’ll either return to this post or start another one because I would like to try to explain what, in my opinion, makes the perfect historical novel. But right now I want to carry on reading Amgalant.

So let me urge you to check out Bryn Hammond’s books and leave you with some suitable music…

What they don’t teach you at college

Someone just said to me that “writing is hard”. This was an incorrect statement. Writing is easy; thinking is hard.

Thinking is hard but it is very easy to fool ourselves and think thinking easy. When we think about something we are alone in our heads, in a private world. Nobody is there to call us out when we miss a step, converge one line of thought into another that is actually distinct, or take more out of something than is actually in it. The act of thinking too easily slides into that of day-dreaming; we give ourselves a long hard look in a mirror with a face covered in cosmetics and the lighting turned down.

Putting our thoughts on paper is about rinsing our face in cold water and turning on the lights.

mirror_stairWriting is not hard. But our writing is often bad. This is because our thinking turns out to be not nearly so clear as we had wanted to believe. Picking out the flaws in our writing is an indirect but powerful way of correcting our thinking. That is why I say that editing is the ultimate Socratic art: an editor is the midwife of thought.

But this is not an art you are likely to learn at college. You may be taught about theories of history, or molecular physics, media communications or library management, physical anthropology or political science, but you are unlikely to be taught how to think.

And this is not so surprising. From around the 1880s and for about a century, rising social prosperity fueled a massive expansion in higher education. But all the self-illusions of liberal arts colleges notwithstanding, the kind of intensive personal engagement between master and student that one encounters in a Platonic dialogue is simply too costly to be a viable option even in elite universities.

But the end result is depressing for all that. For every year these educational institutes turn out thousands of graduates who can talk the talk, strike a posture, flood your head with jargon, but cannot think through a complicated idea and, consequently, are unlikely to give birth to any truly original thoughts.

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Emerging unconscious

W.H.R. Rivers was one of the first English psychologists to discover the unconscious. His work with ‘shell shocked’ soldiers during World War One is today well-known thanks to his appearance, alongside Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. Identifying the instinct of self-preservation rather than sex as the key to the psycho-neuroses of his patients, Rivers fashioned a version of Freudian doctrines palatable to a respectable English audience.

My intention in this post is to show how Rivers’ notion of the unconscious was derived from the psychological model introduced in my last post. This is not to question the significance of Rivers’ encounter with Freud. I am merely pointing out how easily some of Freud’s ideas could be integrated into the established Cambridge model of the mind. Continue reading

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The Cambridge Mind, 1868-1920

In this post I introduce the psychological model at the center of a series of posts I am contributing to a new online venture: the collaborative blog known as the Grote Club.

From the late 1860s through to World War One and beyond, this model of the mind was widely regarded within Cambridge as the foundation of the various sciences of Man and of Society. Its distinguishing characteristic was that it looked to a unified physiological account of the nervous system in order to explain both reasoning and  instinctual action. This physiological model was itself evolutionary and hierarchical. But this gave rise to a psychological model that, as we shall see, supported two quite opposite readings of human society. Continue reading

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What is a Hobbit?

I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height…

J.RR. Tolkien, The Hobbit

One day, a few years back, I happened to be reading a forgotten lecture delivered in 1900 to the Anthropological section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.* Continue reading

On disciplinary sin

Here are some implicit assumptions that appear to underpin much current Tolkien studies:

Because Tolkien wrote stories the proper study of his work belongs to students of English literature. What is more, himself a Professor of English, the modern day student of English enjoys privileged access to Tolkien’s life and work.

The purpose of this post is to suggest that these assumptions limit and ultimately stultify our engagement with Tolkien. Continue reading