Category Archives: The Hobbit

The-Hobbit_01-660x330

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.

 

Bag End entrance

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

lake town

Lake Town

If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence.

J.R.R. Tolkien in a letter of 1967

Middle-earth, Tolkien insisted, is not an imaginary world; it is our world in an imagined past, since when the land and seas have changed and shifted. But if The Lord of the Rings tells of Hobbits who journey from around the area of Oxford in what was once the Shire all the way to Gondor and Mordor in what is now Southern Europe, where does Bilbo’s adventure take him? Continue reading

Tolkien’s Triumph (a review)

Tolkien’s Triumph: The Strange History of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, John Lennard, Kindle Direct Publishing, $4.99.

TT

John Lennard published this ebook in October 2013. I discovered it one sleepless night when a random Amazon search brought it into view and, based on its low price, I took a gamble.

What downloaded onto my Kindle was an extended essay by an accomplished literary scholar with a longstanding and genuine love of Tolkien’s writings.

Lennard has some interesting things to say about Tolkien; but it is the form of Tolkien’s Triumph that is truly remarkable. Continue reading

On Tolkien fundamentalism

My recent essay ‘in praise of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit’ was published on April 1. This date was not chosen because the essay was an elaborate hoax, nor because I am a fictional person (as one jaded commentator claimed on another site). All I wanted to suggest with this date is that we kill the spirit with the letter when we take ourselves and our discussions of Middle-earth too seriously. Continue reading

Who the ‘ell is Tauriel? In praise of Peter Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’

Friends, elves and hobbits, lend me your ears. For with ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ soon out on DVD I come to praise Peter Jackson’s interpretation of The Hobbit, not to bury it.

The purists (who did love him once) have cried that Jackson is a dictator who has offended against both plot and genre. And the purists are honourable critics. But I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts. I come only to tell you what you already know. Continue reading