In the house of Tom Bomadil, Frodo the hobbit asks his host: Who are you, master? In the first draft of the story, penned in the autumn of 1938, the reply is: I am an Aborigine (Shadow 117, 121).
A principle behind all these pages: I read story ideas found in The Lord of the Rings as a commentary on The Hobbit; the earlier the passage in the sequel the more direct the engagement with the original. Such readings bring into view two sides of the same riddle and point at underlying ideas.
Tom Bombadil was an aborigine because Tolkien wished to clarify what this term meant once he had decided that hobbits, as a matter of fact, were not aborigines. In the original hobbit story they are, as also is Gollum, although this quality is rather hinted at than named.
The hobbits’ native identity is discovered by reading the first page or so of The Hobbit together with a lecture of 1900 by Oxford’s first professor of Celtic, John Rhys. The first pages describe Bilbo’s home in the side of a hill and hobbits as a people who were once prosperous but are now rare and tend to magically disappear in the face of intruding big folk. In his lecture, Rhys extracted a historical kernel from Welsh folk traditions of the “little people.”
Behind these fairy stories, Rhys argued, were memories of encounters by early Celtic speakers with the aboriginal inhabitants of Britain. These people must once have been spread over much of Britain, but the series of prehistorical and historical intrusions from the east had driven them into the wild hills on the peripheries of the mainland. These natives, Rhys told his audience, had been a non-Indo-European, matriarchal folk, “a small swarthy population of mound-dwellers, of an unwarlike disposition, much given to magic and wizardry, and living underground.” In Scotland, he reported, could still be seen some of their “underground — or partially underground — habitations.” Rhys seems to have in mind Skara Brae, never visited but read about and envisaged by this Oxford professor much as a later one pictured a hobbit hole. These original habitations, he explained, “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, like our Welsh fairies. (Rhys 1900, 896, 887-8)
Also, hobbits. And also Gollum, who is painted in the original version of the riddle game as an aborigine who has survived the intrusion of goblins but lost all contact with friends and relatives and now lives in the permanent darkness of his hole in the ground.
Now, Rhys and Tolkien were both philologists (and Tolkien probably attended Rhys’ lectures as an undergraduate). But their philological conclusions about Britain’s aboriginal population were different. Rhys wanted to picture this population in relation to the first Celtic speakers to arrive because he thought the aboriginal language might explain the distinct linguistic development of that branch of Celtic. Consequently, he dedicated significant labour to identifying traces of this aboriginal tongue old Celtic formulas.
Tolkien talks of the aborigines in his 1955 lecture ‘English and Welsh.’ He suggests that the subsequent waves of intruders interbred with these natives and that their blood flows strongly in the modern population of the British Isles. But he insists that their language has entirely disappeared, leaving no traces we can detect in place or any other names (M&C 170-71).
(Tolkien had by then made significant use of one word that was claimed as aboriginal – ond for ‘stone.’ Ond is the original name of Gondor, city of stone. But this was to draw on the idea of an aboriginal tongue, not to accept that the word really was of that vanished language.)
So, why did a philologist who believed that philology could not reach the aboriginal peoples of the British Isles tell a magical story about one of these people, who in another hole in the ground met a monsterous version of himself?
Because a philologist is interested in the general phenomenon of naming, and must therefore confront the problem of the nameless.
The nameless appears to us a lawless realm, strangely illicit, even threatening. The nameless is profoundly challenging, for our apparently innate reaction to discerning a nameless presence is to attempt to negate it by naming it. People give names to thing and people who already have names, but somewhere down the etymological line the nameless awaits. A philologist interested in naming must face a nameless beginning.
The Hobbit begins with a nice trick. The story will illustrate the theory of naming already set out in The Name ‘Nodens.’ Bilbo Baggins will play a role like Nodens, albeit in his own story. Bilbo Baggins has a proper name. But his essential quality is that he is a hobbit – he is one of a now nameless people. Rather than march into a state of virgin namelessness, as might a modern atomic physicist, the nameless realm we enter was not always so but has been reclaimed by the nameless through our forgetting. This is to tame the nameless at the start.
An aborigine means, for Tolkien, someone who gave names to things, including himself, but whose own name is beyond our reach.
We are still a long way from Tom Bombadil’s aboriginal identity. To arrive at this holy grail we must pass through the story of how Bilbo Baggins earned the name of the burglar and the revolution of the magic ring as it became the One Ring…