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from J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
by Tom Shippey
1: THE HOBBIT: RE-INVENTING-EARTH
story of how J.R.R. Tolkien came to be launched on his career, not as
a writer of fiction--this had begun many years before--but as a writer
of published fiction, is a familiar one. According to Tolkien's own account,
he was sitting one day, after he had become Professor of Anglo-Saxon in
the University of Oxford, in his home in Northmoor Road, laboriously marking
School Certificate papers: something, one should note, which was no part
of his university duties, but which many academics then undertook as a
summer-time extra to supplement their incomes. A boring job, then, engaging
Tolkien's intellect at well below its top level, but at the same time
one which in decency to the candidates had to be done conscientiously,
with full alertness: academic piece-work which, unlike sewing or standing
on a production line, gave no opportunity for the mind to wander. In this
circumstance (the strain of which only those who have marked, say, five
hundred handwritten scripts on the same subject will fully appreciate)
Tolkien turned over a page to find that a candidate:
left one of the pages with no writing on it (which is the best thing
that can possibly happen to an examiner) and I wrote on it: 'In a hole
in the ground there lived a hobbit'. Names always generate a story in
my mind. Eventually I thought I'd better find out what hobbits were
like. But that's only the beginning.
p. 172; see also Letters, p. 215)
it was, but it was also for Tolkien, as for Bilbo finding the ring on
the tunnel-floor in chapter 5 of The Hobbit, 'a turning-point in his career'.
We know now that Middle-earth, in a sense, already existed in Tolkien's
mind, for since at least 1914 he had been writing the elvish and human
legends which would appear, many years later and after his death, as the
published Silmarillion and Book of Lost Tales. But Middle-earth would
never have caught the public attention without hobbits.
So what are
hobbits? And how did Tolkien come to write the seminal sentence in that
momentary gap when an alert concentration suddenly slackened, and allowed,
one might imagine, something long repressed or long incubating to break
free? Where did hobbits come from, as an idea?
To this last
question there are several answers, of increasing levels of interest and
complexity. Perhaps the simplest and least satisfying one is gained by
looking the word 'hobbit' up in the dictionary--specifically, in the Oxford
English Dictionary, a gigantic collective project more than a century
old, which Tolkien had himself worked for and contributed to in his youth,
but which he perhaps as a result continually disagreed with and even went
out of his way (in Farmer Giles of Ham) to mock. The second edition of
the OED, published in 1989, says only, 'In the tales of J.R.R. Tolkien
... one of an imaginary people, a small variety of the human race, that
gave themselves the name' (etc.), which gets us no further. However Robert
Burchfield, former chief editor of the OED, reported with some pride in
the Times for 31st May 1979 that hobbits had at last been run to earth.
The word did exist before Tolkien. It is found, once, in a publication
called The Denham Tracts, a series of pamphlets and jottings on folklore
collected by Michael Denham, a Yorkshire tradesman, in the 1840s and 1850s,
and re-edited by James Hardy for the Folklore Society in the 1890s. 'Hobbits'
appear in Volume 2 (1895). There they come, by my count, 154th in a list
of 197 kinds of supernatural creatures which includes, with a certain
amount of repetition, barguests, breaknecks, hobhoulards, melch-dicks,
tutgots, swaithes, cauld-lads, lubberkins, mawkins, nick-nevins, and much,
much else, along with the relatively routine boggarts, hob-thrusts, hobgoblins,
and so on. No futher mention is made of hobbits, and Hardy's index says
of them, as of almost all the items in the list, only 'A class of spirits'.
Tolkien's hobbits, of course, are anything but 'spirits'. They are almost
pig-headedly earthbound, with (as Tolkien wrote in his very earliest account
of them, on page 2 of The Hobbit):
or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps
them to disappear quietly and quickly when large, stupid folk like you
and me come blundering along making a noise like elephants which they
can hear a mile off.
It is possible
that Tolkien read The Denham Tracts, picked up the word 'hobbit', and
then forgot all about it till the moment of the blank exam script, but
whatever the Times may say, the single-word appearance can hardly be called
his source, still less his 'inspiration'. Philologists love words, true,
but they also know what they are: the word is not the thing.
Not on its
own, anyway, for we should remember that Tolkien was keenly interested
in words, and names, and their origins, and knew more about some kinds
of them than anyone alive (see further pp. 57-9 and 82-6 below). This
thought leads to an only slightly more productive theory about hobbits,
which is that they sound rather like and therefore might have something
to do with rabbits. Shortly after The Hobbit came out, on 16th January
1938, the Observer printed a letter from an unknown correspondent suggesting
some evidently unconvincing connections between hobbits and other real
or rumoured furry creatures. Tolkien replied to the corresondent (he did
not mean the Observer to print his leter, but they did), good-humouredly
denying the suggestiong, and rejecting both furriness and rabbits:
... was not furry, except about the feet. Nor indeed was he like a rabbit
... Calling him 'a nassty little rabbit' was a piece of vulgar trollery,
just as 'descendant of rats' was a piece of dwarfish malice.
from Myth Maker: J.R.R. Tolkien
by Anne E. Neimark
tall grass of the desert farm in Bloemfonlein, Africa, almost hid him
from view. His nurse screamed his name, her voice chasing him, but he
kept running from her -- a pale three-year-old child in a white blouse
the prickle of wild grass against his face and the bright clusters of
flowers. Stopping to bend down, he yanked off his shoes and socks. "Ronald!"
his nurse shouted, but she was still far behind him, her dark face wet
from the sun.
He ran with
bare feet pummeling the dry earth, stalks of grass bending and cracking
near their roots. Now he could see the camelthorn tree on the hill! Once,
his father had taken him to this nearby farm, lifting him onto a limb
of the tree. He'd wrapped his legs around the warm, scratchy bark. "We
don't have many trees in South Africa's desert," his father had said.
"That's why I like planting them at home."
A fiery pain
stabbed through Ronald's foot. Gasping, he toppled sideways onto the ground,
his small arms flailing against his shorts. "No!" he blurted
out, his eyes filling with tears. Something was darting -away over the
dirt -- a black, furry thing with crooked legs, fearless as the snakes
with tongues that slid across his parents' garden.
his nurse was upon him, dropping to her knees. Scooping him into her lap,
she saw the huge spider waiting slyly atop a bush. "Tarantula!"
she shrieked, babbling in both English and Afrikaans. "John Ronald
Reuel Tolkien! You shouldn't have run off."
put Ronald on his back under the scorching sun. His leg was lifted upward,
his wounded foot grabbed and pulled toward the bright red of her mouth.
Moaning and cooing, she sucked the spider venom from the swelling beneath
his toes. Wincing, Ronald tilted his head so that he could glimpse the
base of the camelthorn tree. "Take me to the tree," he said.
"I can climb it!"
taking you home, Master Tolkien! You can rest on the balcony upstairs
and look at the trees your father planted."
him like a large sack of corn, his socks and shoes bulging from her pockets,
the woman awkwardly loped away from the farmland and hurried down a road
near her native kraal or village. Ronald's foot stung even more as it
touched the starched pleats of her apron; cringing, he imagined spiders
crawling out of her hair. At Bloemfontein's market square, not far from
his home, he saw houseboys on their daily errands. "May I have an
apple?" he asked, his voice trembling, but his nurse bypassed the
stalls and ran over the steps of the Raadzaal, Bloemfontein's most important
Tolkien! Mrs. Tolkien!" the nurse called in singsong cadence when,
a few moments later, she dashed with Ronald into the Tolkien house. "A
tarantula bit your son!"
hurried from the kitchen, her long skirt hoisted above her ankles, her
face drawn from the day's excruciating heat. Seeing the crimson welt on
the bottom of Ronalds foot, she took him from the nurse's shoulders. "Africa's
playground," she whispered sadly to herself, then asked Isaak, the
houseboy, for calamine lotion and bandages from the cupboard.
foot was swabbed with pink lotion and covered with gauze. "It was
a spider as big as a dragon!" he told his mother. He asked to sit
on the balcony with, his favorite book of fairy tales, the one with pictures
of fire-breathing dragons and goblins, but his mother only reluctantly
agreed. Always, she fretted over his health, finding him too thin and
frail in the relentless sun.
balcony chair, Ronald opened the book he could not yet read caught up
by an etching of an armored knight on horseback whose sword menaced a
two-headed dragon. Below, in the Tolkien garden, trees planted by Ronald's
father -- cypresses, firs, and cedars -- rustled as if the brave knight
had just ridden past them. Ronald stood up, putting his weight squarely
on both feet, defiant against the soreness under the gauze. Perhaps, he
thought, he was crushing spiders with his feet and might himself be a
brave knight. He decided he would ask Isaak, the houseboy -- not his nurse,
who always said "No" or his mother, who often looked sad --
to take him back to the desert farm in the morning so that, even with
his bandaged tarantula bite, he might finally climb the camelthorn tree.
been, from the start, an observant child, quick to mark details around
him -- the shop signs along Maitland Street, the gray blue of the Indian
Ocean where he once was bathed, the wilting boughs of the eucalyptus tree
at his first Christmas. Brought to his father's bank office, he would
find pencils and paper and make simple drawings of what he'd seen. He
drew the locusts that had descended on the dry grassland and destroyed
the harvests. He drew the ox wagons that carried bales of wool into the
market square, and the white two-story house where he lived with his parents,
Arthur and Mabel Tolkien, and his one year old brother, Hilary.
raised in England, his parents had moved to Africa to begin their marriage.
At Lloyds Bank in Birmingham, England, his father's salary had been too
small to support a family, he'd gone to Bloemfontein when offered a better
job by the Bank of Africa. His mother - homesick before shed even left
England's shores - had followed in April 1891, her steamer trunk full
of Birmingham mementos.
On an April
day, weeks after he was bitten by the tarantula, Ronald climbed onto the
family steamer trunk in the parlor, touching its dented comers and polished
lid. His mother had been packing the trunk with clothes; she'd told him
that he and Hilary would be traveling with her to visit relatives in faraway
England. "You'll be much cooler while we're away," his mother
said, "and you'll grow fatter..."
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