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First recorded in III 1050
'Hole-builders', from the ancient Northern word, holbytlan (see The History of 'Hobbit' below)
Other names


About this entry:

  • Updated 27 June 2015
  • Updates planned: 1
Hobbits of the
later Third Age

A mortal race almost certainly related to Men, though their origins are unknown. Their most distinguishing feature was their short stature; even the tallest Hobbits rarely exceeded four feet in height.

Originally a widespread people, Hobbits were found in much of the north of Middle-earth and down the Vales of Anduin. As the Third Age passed, the Hobbits moved north and west, eventually founding the land of the Shire in III 1601.

The Three Branches of Hobbit-kind

Fallohides Originally a people of forest and woodland, the Fallohides were the tallest of the three branches of Hobbit-kind, with fairer hair and lighter skin than their fellow Hobbits. Skilled in hunting and in language, they were disposed to be friendly with the Elves, and were more naturally adventurous than the Harfoots or the Stoors (it was a pair of Fallohide brothers - Marcho and Blanco - who led the settlement of the Shire).
Harfoots The most common of the Hobbit types, the Harfoots were smaller than the Fallohides and darker of skin. They were also less adventurous, preferring to settle in one place rather than explore. These were upland Hobbits, seeking out hillsides for their Hobbit-holes, and for many years they lived in the foothills of the Misty Mountains. They were notable as being the first of the three kinds to pass the Mountains into Eriador, though in early times they remained in the regions eastward of Weathertop.
Stoors The broadest and heaviest branch of Hobbit-kind, the Stoors dwelt southward of the other kinds in the Vales of Anduin. They were fond of riversides, and when they eventually crossed the Misty Mountains they lived for the most part around the Angle of the Loudwater and Hoarwell. In the upheavals of the middle Third Age the Stoors eventually abandoned the Angle. Some crossed back over the Misty Mountains, while many others made their way northward to the Shire. They reached that land some thirty years after its founding, and most of them settled in its Eastfarthing, along the banks of the river Brandywine.

The History of ‘Hobbit’

'On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' I did not and do not know why.'
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 163, to W.H. Auden, dated 1955

This is Tolkien's own account of his invention of the word 'hobbit', while marking School Certificate papers: he gives no date, but from the clues he gives, this most likely happened one summer in the late 1920's. This, then, is one of the most significant doodles in the history of literature: without it, there would have been no Hobbit, and without The Hobbit no Lord of the Rings, and without The Lord of the Rings, surely no Silmarillion. If not for those ten scrawled words, the world might never have heard of J.R.R. Tolkien.

On the face of it, the origins of 'hobbit' are easy to explain: a bored academic invents an amusing little word 'from nowhere' and jots it down. As the word became well known, though, debates began about its origins. Some doubt was even cast on whether Tolkien had invented the word himself. Probably of more importance to Tolkien himself, though, was the history of 'hobbit' within his universe, and we'll address this question first.

The Invented Etymology

Why do Hobbits call themselves 'hobbits'? What is the history of the word within the world of Middle-earth? These are questions that most writers wouldn't even consider, but they gave Tolkien a problem. Most of his names for characters and places came from established languages, fictional or otherwise, and so they had a 'real' history in Tolkien's imagination that could be translated into his fictional world. 'Hobbit', though, had appeared spontaneously, and so had no history of its own. Tolkien needed to invent one.

In Middle-earth's past, the Hobbits had dwelt in the northern reaches of the Vales of Anduin, and the language Tolkien used to represent that region was Old English, the tongue of the Anglo-Saxons. His task, then, was to find words from Old English that might transform over millennia into the form 'hobbit'.

The word hob (meaning 'sprite' or 'little man', as in hobgoblin) seems an obvious solution. It's a mark of Tolkien's attention to detail that he didn't use it - the word is far too young (less than a thousand years old) and was unknown to the Anglo-Saxons. Hence, the Northmen of Middle-earth wouldn't have known hob either.

The solution he chose was more sophisticated: he selected the Old English words hol byldan, or some similar variant, meaning 'to build a hole', and developed the fictional compound meaning 'hole-builder': holbytla (plural holbytlan). It is easy to see how, over several thousand years, this could evolve into 'hobbit'.

The success and ingenuity of this solution, though, hide one inconvenient detail: 'hole-builder' is, at best, a highly unconventional use of English. One can no more 'build a hole' than one can 'dig a house'. It's noticeable that Tolkien's later works tend to interpret holbytla as 'hole-dweller' rather than 'hole-builder'. In particular, he submitted 'hole-dweller' to the Oxford English Dictionary when asked to define the name (see The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 316). We don't know what happened next - perhaps some sharp-eyed Anglo-Saxon-speaking researcher intervened - but the modern Dictionary has reverted to the more strictly accurate 'hole-builder'.

Who Invented 'Hobbit'?

Almost as soon as The Hobbit was published, questions started to be asked about the real origins of the word. Of course, Tolkien's use of it was his own invention, but was he definitely the first to use the word? Perhaps it had already been invented by someone else? Perhaps Tolkien had come across it in childhood and forgotten the event, only to have the word reappear from his subconscious years later?

These questions seem to have originated with a letter written to The Observer newspaper, published on 16 January 1938 (see The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 25). The author, known only by the punning pseudonym of Habit, claimed that a friend remembered a fairy-tale called The Hobbit dating from about 1904. Other mentions of this tale (apparently about a rather ferocious creature) have surfaced since, with dates that vary around the turn of the twentieth century.

Was there a Hobbit before Tolkien's? We just don't know. So far as we can establish, no-one has yet produced a copy of this 'proto-hobbit'. Tolkien himself, while not entirely dismissive of the idea, suggested that a similar-sounding title might have been misremembered in light of his own invented word. If an earlier hobbit ever did exist, a century has passed since it was published, so the chances of finding any proof are negligible (though if you should happen across a copy, please let us know!).

Though 'Habit's' mysterious fairy-tale has never been rediscovered, we do have a handful of potential sources. In the nineteenth century Michael Aislabie Denham wrote a series of pamphlets known as the Denham Tracts. One of these contains a list of magical creatures, and in the middle of this list, among the 'boggleboes', 'freiths' and 'wirrikows' lies the term 'hobbits'. Denham claimed that the creatures he listed came from his own research, notably from the The Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584. Unfortunately the word 'hobbits' is not in that source, nor indeed in any other known source, and Denham does not explain its context or origin.

It is not known whether Tolkien was familiar with Denham's material, or was influenced by it any way. At the very least, however, the appearance of 'hobbits' in the Denham Tracts demonstrate that the word existed before 1895, when the relevant volume of Denham's tracts was published. Thus we can say for sure that the word 'hobbit' predated Tolkien's first use of it by some decades.

The Denham Tracts are not the only possible origin of the name 'hobbit' in literature. Another example - albeit with slightly different spelling - appears in Lord Dunsany's The Gods of Pegāna, originally published in 1905, in which there's a passing reference to a minor 'home god' named Hobith. We know for sure that Tolkien was familiar with Dunsany's work, and indeed some have suggested an influence on The Silmarillion, though the extent of any such influence is difficult to gauge.

Nonetheless we do have some direct references to Dunsany by Tolkien. In a letter written in 1937 - shortly after the publication of The Hobbit - Tolkien mentions that he was less than impressed by Dunsany's invented names. There would indeed be a certain irony, then, if the name 'Hobith' had worked its way into his subconscious from Dunsany's writing and later emerged as 'Hobbit'.

Ultimately, though, there is no unequivocal connection between Tolkien's 'Hobbit' and any earlier use of the name. The last word on this topic came from the Oxford English Dictionary, when they decided to honour Tolkien by including 'hobbit' in their hallowed pages. For the etymology, they needed to establish definitively when the word was first used. Their conclusion effectively closes the matter:

'hobbit n. one of an imaginary race of half-sized persons in stories by Tolkien; hence ~RY (5) n. [invented by J.R.R. Tolkien, Engl. writer d. 1973, and said by him to mean 'hole-builder']'
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English

(If you have any old books in your attic, though, it might be worth leafing through them to see if any forgotten 'hobbits' are lurking there!)

Of Hobs and Boggarts

Throughout northern Europe, there exists a prevailing tradition of 'Little People'. They have an endless list of names: brownies, pixies, fays, leprechauns are just some of the more common. In some regions, these beings are far more than just myths or folklore: even today, they have an effect on people's everyday lives.

Take, for example, the Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea: an island with a severe fairy infestation. In the southern parts of the island is the 'Fairy Bridge', a bridge that no Manxman would cross without greeting the Little People that live there. To most, of course, this is just superstition, but there are those who literally believe that they share their island with all manner of fairy creatures. Among these is a being known as a phynnodderee; shy of humans, friendly and happy-go-lucky, hairy-legged, fond of wine and beer and given to farm-work. Sound familiar?

The Manx aren't alone, of course: from Germany, where miners are helped by friendly burrowing 'kobolds', all the way to Iceland, whose Elves occupy a ghostly realm curiously similar to Tolkien's 'wraith-world', there are similar traditions.

What's more, even their names are familiar: we've already mentioned hob, but boggart, boggard, flibbertigibbet and even Hobberdy, Hobbidy and Hobberdy Dick (these last three are listed by Tolkien himself; The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 319, dated 1971).

Perhaps surprisingly, Tolkien denies that he was influenced by this in choosing the name 'hobbit', but he seems to have embraced the tradition by the time he wrote the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings. There, he says that Hobbits are 'more numerous formerly than they are today', and that they 'avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find'. We can only realistically see this as an attempt to marry his fictional people with the 'hobbits' of folklore and tradition.

A story that started with an idle note on a blank piece of paper has, in the end, taken us back through thousands of years of myth and language. This is one of the great joys of Tolkien - his work has an almost 'fractal' quality. The more you examine a single detail, the more it unravels into an epic mesh of connections and complexity. The last word on this matter is best left to the master himself:

'Oh what a tangled web they weave who try a new word to conceive!'
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 319, dated 1971

See also...

A Hobbit’s Holiday, Adalgar Bolger, Alfrida of the Yale, Aman, An Unexpected Party, Andwise ‘Andy’ Roper, Ann-thennath, Aragorn Elessar, Archet, Argeleb II, Asfaloth, Baggins Family, Balbo Baggins, Bamfurlong, Banakil, [See the full list...]


About this entry:

  • Updated 27 June 2015
  • Updates planned: 1

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