Academic journal article Mythlore

The Myths of the Author: Tolkien and the Medieval Origins of the Word Hobbit

Academic journal article Mythlore

The Myths of the Author: Tolkien and the Medieval Origins of the Word Hobbit

Article excerpt

Tolkien's Myth of the Hobbit

AS SHE TOLD THE STORY DURING A BBC INTERVIEW in 1965, it was in the summer of 1930 (1) that J.R.R. Tolkien, who had recently been named Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, sat down in his study to mark examinations for the Certificate in English Literature:

The actual beginning--though it's not really the beginning, but the actual flashpoint I remember very clearly. I can still see the corner of my house in 20 Northmoor Road where it happened. I had an enormous pile of exam papers there. Marking school examinations in the summertime is very laborious and unfortunately also boring. And I remember picking up a paper and actually finding--I nearly gave an extra mark for it; an extra five marks, actually--there was one page of this particular paper that was left blank. Glorious! Nothing to read. So I scribbled on it, I can't think why, In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. (Rateliff 1.xii)

Tolkien himself seemed to be aware of the unusual nature of that particular moment, and of course of that particular noun, hobbit: "I don't know where the word came from," he said in 1967; "You can't catch your mind out" (Rateliff 1.xiii). Tolkien did, however, apparently set his mind to the matter of the word: "Names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I'd better find out what hobbits were like" (Carpenter 172). Thus began, according to the standard account, the writing of The Hobbit. (2)

By the time Tolkien was composing that book's eventual sequel, The Lord of the Rings, he had gone further than just figuring out what hobbits were like: he had constructed an artificial etymology for the word hobbit, one that would, as Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner recently put it,

   fit the word into the linguistic landscape of Middle-earth. This
   was a remarkable feat of reverse engineering, not quite like any of
   his other etymological exploits amongst the tongues of Middle
   -earth. (144)

On encountering the Rohirrim, the hobbits notice that their speech contains many words that sound like Shire words but have a more archaic form. The prime example is their word for the hobbits themselves: holbytla. This is a well-formed Old English compound (because Tolkien represents the language of the Rohirrim as Old English). It is made up of hol 'hole' and bytla 'builder'; it just happens, as far as we know, never to have existed in Old English, and if hobbit turned out to be a genuine word from folklore it is most unlikely that this would be its actual etymology. Worse still for this etymological exercise, the word holbytla--if it had ever existed--would have been far more likely to have come down to us as hobittle than as hobbit, a fact Tolkien would surely have known all too well. (3)

Whatever else we might say about Tolkien's imaginary etymology, at the very least we must admit that it is a fabrication of a later date than the word's appearance in The Hobbit, which was published in 1937. In early 1938, after reading a letter which had been published on 16 January in the Observer under the name "Habit" and which inquired among other things about the origin of the term hobbit, Tolkien responded that giving a definite answer to such a question might not be the best thing:

But would not that be rather unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.

However, with regard to the Habit's principal question there is no danger: I do not remember anything about the name and inception of the hero. I could guess, of course, but the guesses would have no more authority than those of future researchers, and I leave the game to them. (Letters 30)

Tolkien might well have been facetious about "future researchers" delving so deeply into his work, but in hindsight he was remarkably prescient: the author's claim to not remember any influences seems to have quieted the matter for a time, but the silence would not last. …

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