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Hobbits

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A typical hobbit taking a break from puffing on his pipe.

Hobbits are creatures from the works of JRR Tolkien - little people about 3 feet high. They first appeared in Tolkien's children's book The Hobbit and later in The Lord of the Rings. In both, hobbits are the protagonists of the story. Although different from us, they are still normal people who like to live normal lives, farming, gardening and consuming large quantities of food. Hobbits live in the Northwest of Middle-earth in the land they call 'the Shire'.

Description of Hobbits

  • Small - between 2 and 4 feet in height, but typically about 3 foot 6 (107cm).
  • Rather broad - they are stocky people, although not as much so as dwarves. They often have big bellies, due to their liking for food.
  • Their feet are covered in thick hair and have thick soles so that they normally don't wear shoes but walk barefoot. Only one type of hobbit regularly wore shoes. Hobbit feet aren't noticeably bigger than human feet, but Peter Jackson made them so in his films to call attention to them.
  • Their hair is generally short and curly, and their ears are very slightly pointed.
  • Hobbits do not grow beards, although some can develop a wispy down on their chins.
  • Hobbits are simple folk who have great endurance. While they like to take things easy, they can endure great physical hardship when necessary.
  • Although they love gossiping and talking loudly among themselves, they are very quiet when moving - they can walk through a forest without making any sound and are very good at going un-noticed.
  • They enjoy eating, drinking and smoking pipes - they claim to have invented smoking tobacco, which they call pipeweed, a plant that was introduced to Middle-earth by the Numenorians who had sailed all over the world. The dwarves and the wizards learnt smoking from the hobbits. Both Saruman and Gandalf are enthusiastic pipe smokers.
  • Hobbits live a long time. They regularly reach 100 years old, and at least one, the Old Took, reached 130. (Bilbo himself reached this age, but that was probably due to the influence of his magic ring). As a result of their great longevity, they are slower to develop and are not considered adults until they are 33.

Tolkien considered his Middle-earth to be a folkloric description of our own world long ago. The folklore of the British Isles frequently mentions little magical people, such as the leprechauns of Ireland or the gnomes of England. Tolkien imagined that hobbits might once have been common and now are very scarce.

The Genesis of Hobbits

The word 'hobbit' occurs once in a long list of magical creatures of England made by Michael Aislabie Denham in the 19th Century. Occurring beside 'hobgoblin', the 'hob' part of the name probably comes from the same source, a name for the devil. There is no evidence that Tolkien ever saw this list, but it is possible that he did.

Tolkien was busy one day marking student exercises and a sentence sprang fully formed into his mind: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' He didn't know what a hobbit was, but developed the idea, imagining it to be a small person and started to tell stories to his children about hobbits. Then he decided to publish one of them in book form, as The Hobbit, using the sentence that had come into his mind as the first line of the book. Suddenly hobbits became very popular and the publisher was back demanding more stories. This led to the writing of the much more elaborate The Lord of the Rings. The story in it is seen from the viewpoint of the hobbits but it concerns all the free people of the world.

Tolkien invented the word 'hobbit' out of the blue and later disowned any intention of making it stand for something specific. Some resonance with the words 'habit' and 'hobby' is inescapable, however, and Tolkien tacitly confirms this by making the hobbits to some extent personifications of the habits and hobbies of a British gentleman.

He even gave his hobbits names showing which habit/hobby they represent. Merry Brandybuck suggests an enthusiast for fine wines and spirits; Pippin Took suggests pipe and tobacco1 and certainly Pippin has a fondness for his pipe, despite being still considered a child by the other hobbits. Clearly Fatty Bolger's weakness is eating, and Odo Proudfoot could stand for hiking and country walks.

The Bagginses are keen on collecting things - Bilbo Baggins is one of the richest hobbits at the start of The Hobbit, and he comes back from that adventure with bags of money as well as a magic sword and the fateful ring, which he will find it surprisingly difficult to part with. His 'baggings' are innocent enough, though, compared with the Sackville-Bagginses, who will sack a hobbit's home for plunder: we find Lobelia Sackville-Baggins stealing some spoons on a visit to Frodo's home. Later, Lotho Sackville-Baggins organises the pillaging of the whole Shire for his own gain.

This leaves the real hero of the story, Sam Gamgee. His habit/hobby is at once the humblest and the noblest of all, gardening. His name, however, has a different meaning: gamgee is a form of dressing for wounds, invented by a Victorian doctor of that name. Perhaps it is not stretching a point too far to suppose that Tolkien used the name to suggest Sam's true vocation, that of caring. This essential and invaluable pursuit is still undervalued today, while the more vicious habits/hobbies such as drinking and amassing wealth are dressed in glory. At the end of the story Sam returns to quiet wedded bliss, while Merry, who has contributed little enough to the success of the ring-bearer's mission, becomes Meriadoc the Magnificent.

The relationship of the gentlemen in the stories (particularly Gandalf and Aragorn) to their adopted hobbits is like that of a British gentleman to his chosen habits and hobbies. They pretend that they mean little to them personally, treating them with amused disdain bordering on contempt, but they find themselves curiously unable to do without them, even when they become a nuisance. If there is a moral message in all this (despite Tolkien's disavowal of any such) it is surely this: that the small things, that you pretend you could do without, may be more important in your life than you ever knew.

History of Hobbits

In Tolkien's fictional world, there are no records of where hobbits came from originally. They themselves did not learn writing until after they had settled in the Shire, and the Elves and Men who wrote down the histories did not concern themselves with hobbits, if they were even aware of them. Hobbits seem to have started out in the upper vale of the River Anduin, in the part of Middle-earth known as Wilderland. Here they met and mixed with the ancestors of the people of Rohan, the Rohirrim, which is why the Rohirrim had a word in their language for hobbit ('holbytla')2. In the early years of the Third Age, the upper Anduin valley was a much more hospitable place than it later became. There were very few orcs in the mountains and they kept to themselves. To the east of the river was the huge forest which was known as Greenwood the Great. This was a pleasant place and was inhabited by wood elves ruled by Thranduil.

There were three main divisions of hobbit:

  • Harfoots - the smallest and most common type. They had hairy feet and liked to go without shoes. They lived by simple agriculture.

  • Fallohides - the least numerous type. Taller and slimmer with fair hair, they were friendlier than other hobbits to outsiders and were more open to outside influences. They preferred hunting to farming as they were more inquisitive.

  • Stoors - the broadest and heaviest of the hobbits. They liked water and rivers most of all the hobbits, but also engaged in agriculture. They often wore boots. Some Stoors grew downy hair on their chins.

About a thousand years into the Third Age, and about two thousand years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, a shadow started to appear in the south of Greenwood the Great - the evil Necromancer built a fortress there and lots of creatures such as giant spiders started to infest the forest. It became known as Mirkwood. At the same time, the number of orcs in the mountains increased and they started causing trouble, raiding the homes of the men and hobbits living in the valley. It was thought at first that the Necromancer must be a Nazgûl, a Ringwraith, but it was many years before it was proved that he was in fact the Dark Lord Sauron returned. Sauron had caused a number of wars in the Second Age.

The hobbits began to feel uneasy living near so many evil creatures. They decided to leave Wilderland and go west across the Misty Mountains to Eriador - although the ancient kingdom of Arnor had broken up into three smaller kingdoms, there was still some semblance of order there, with the King of Arthedain ruling from the city of Fornost.

The Harfoots were the first to cross the mountains, in about the year 1050. They used a pass in the far north, around the source of the Hoarwell river, and followed the river southwest, then travelled west, eventually arriving at the area which was later known as Bree, where they settled down. This was part of the Kingdom of Arthedain, so was much safer for the hobbits.

The Fallohides followed the same route about 100 years later, crossing the mountains westward at the same place and also following the river to Bree, arriving there in about 1300.

The Stoors crossed into Eriador further south, via the Redhorn Pass above Moria in the year 1150. Some of them went as far south as Dunland but most settled in the Angle, the area between the Loudwater and Hoarwell rivers.

In about 1300, Sauron's most trusted servants, the Nazgûl or Black Riders reappeared in Middle-earth. The most powerful of them set up the evil kingdom of Angmar in the far north of Eriador. He became known as the 'Witch-king of Angmar', although later he was known as the Lord of the Nazgûl. A prophesy was made about him: 'not by the hand of man will he fall'.

In about 1350, the Stoors decided to move again, to avoid the influence of Angmar. One group went west and joined the other hobbits at Bree. Another group crossed back over the mountains and settled around the River Gladden, living there for at least another thousand years. Gollum, or Sméagol as he was originally known, was a member of this group. He left the group in about 2470 and the group then appears to have died out. When the Nazgûl arrived there in 3018 searching for the Ring, they found some abandoned ruins.

In Bree, the three divisions of hobbit all mixed together and intermarried, becoming one race, although there were still Fallohidish tendencies in some families such as the Tooks and Brandybucks, and the more Stoorish hobbits tended to live beside rivers. Two Fallohide brothers, Marcho and Blanco, went west with a group of followers and founded the Shire in 1601, with permission from King Argeleb II of Arthedain.

After this, hobbit life was relatively peaceful for the next 1300 years. They were protected from evil by the men of Arthedain. When the kingdom was destroyed, the descendants of these men became the Rangers and continued to protect the Shire, although the hobbits didn't know it. There was one recorded orc attack on the Shire, in 2747, in which a distant ancestor of Pippin Took defeated the orc chieftain. Other than that, the hobbits lived their bucolic lives sheltered from the chaos around them.

Bilbo Baggins

Bilbo Baggins was 'The Hobbit' of the book. He was 50 years old, which was considered early middle age for a hobbit, old enough to have settled down but still healthy and fit enough to have lots of adventures. Bilbo's parents were both dead and he had inherited their wealth, making him one of the better off hobbits. His hobbit hole in the village of Hobbiton was very luxurious.

While a trifle lazy, Bilbo had been an inquisitive and adventurous hobbit when he was younger. It took a while before this side of his nature was re-awakened, but when it was, there was no stopping him. He was brave, resourceful and honest.

Bilbo was thrown into an adventure by the actions of Gandalf. In The Hobbit, it is never really explained why Gandalf did this, but in 'The Quest for Erebor', unpublished during Tolkien's lifetime, we learn that Gandalf had an intuition that it was very important that Bilbo should join with Thorin's quest to the Lonely Mountain. They're not mentioned much in the books, but Tolkien's world was looked after by powerful angelic creatures called Valar. In general they stayed aloof from day to day events, but they kept an eye on things, and could conceivably have sent a message to Gandalf to this effect; it's not clear - even the Valar don't seem to have been able to predict much of what was to come.

In any event, Bilbo's discovery of the One Ring turned out to be far more important than any killing of a dragon or recovering of a lost kingdom. He sees the ring as a useful tool for succeeding in adventures; as time progresses he appears to be remarkably well preserved for his age, but never attributes this to the presence of the ring. In the end he gives up the ring, passing it to Frodo, although it takes a lot of persuasion by Gandalf before he does so.

Bilbo brought back a few bags of treasure from his adventures and obviously invested it wisely, as he was always one of the wealthiest of hobbits.

In later years Bilbo became interested in poetry and lore. He translated old stories from Elvish into the Common Speech and of course he wrote his memoirs in the book which became The Hobbit.

Frodo Baggins

Frodo was a young hobbit who was Bilbo's distant cousin on both his mother's side and his father's. Frodo's parents died in a boating accident when he was young. He was brought up in the hustle and bustle of Brandybuck Hall where many families lived together. Bilbo adopted him and he moved to Bilbo's home, Bag End. Frodo inherited all Bilbo's wealth and possessions, including the Ring, when Bilbo decided to give it all up and go wandering, never to be seen in the Shire again.

Frodo was a well-educated hobbit with a strong sense of duty. He had a reasonable working knowledge of Elvish from Bilbo, and knew something of the history of Middle-earth.

When Gandalf discovered that Frodo's ring was indeed the One Ring, it fell on Frodo to do something about it, initially just getting it to safety in Rivendell, and then accepting the greater mission of bringing it to Mordor and destroying it in the fires of the volcano, Mount Doom.

Frodo is the best person for the job, as he is educated enough to understand the dangers of the Ring, he has no real family ties so less to lose than the other hobbits and he trusts Gandalf completely.

Frodo's Relationship to Bilbo

You can think of Bilbo as a sort of uncle of Frodo. That certainly captures the difference in age between them. In fact his relationship was more distant and more complex. Frodo's grandmother on his mother's side was Mirabella Took, sister of Belladonna Took, Bilbo's mother. This made Frodo a first cousin once removed of Bilbo on his mother's side. In addition, Frodo's great-grandfather on his father's side was Largo Baggins, brother of Mungo Baggins, grandfather of Bilbo, so Frodo was a second cousin once removed of Bilbo on his father's side.

Merry Brandybuck

Merry's full name was Meriadoc Brandybuck. Tolkien deliberately gave the Brandybucks weird, Celtic-sounding names to make them seem slightly out of place among the rest of the hobbits. The name Brandybuck itself was originally a joke name. The Elvish name for the river that formed the eastern border of the Shire was 'Baranduin' which literally meant 'golden brown river'. The hobbits changed this name to 'Brandywine' in honour of one of their favourite pastimes, drinking alcohol. The Oldbuck family crossed the river and built a home for themselves on its east side, changing their surname to 'Brandybuck'.

The Brandybucks had a lot of Stoor blood in them and liked the river and boating. They also had a strong Fallohide streak, going on adventures and enjoying living beside the rather curious Old Forest where odd things lurked.

Merry appears to be the most practical of all the hobbits, good at organising things, knowing where he is going and deciding what to do next.

He and Pippin were separated from the rest of the group at Rauros, being captured by a band of orcs with the intention of bringing them to Isengard. They managed to escape from the orcs and wandered into Fangorn forest where they met the Ents, ultimately bringing about the defeat of Saruman. Merry in particular became a friend of Théoden, the king of Rohan. He accompanied the Riders of Rohan when they went to help the people of Gondor in their battle against Mordor. Together with the woman of Rohan, Éowyn, Merry killed the Lord of the Nazgûl, Sauron's most feared lieutenant, thereby fulfilling the prophecy that he should not fall by the hand of a man.

In later years after the War of the Ring, Merry became Merry the Magnificent, Master of Buckland, but kept up his ties to Rohan, where he was known as Master Holdwine (pr. 'hold-wee-nuh'), a name which appears to mean 'loyal friend'.

Pippin Took

Pippin's full name is Peregrin Took. His family are the nearest thing there is to nobility in the Shire - his father is the Thain, nominal ruler of the Shire, although he does not appear to have any actual duties. The Tooks have correspondingly aristocratic-sounding names, but because Pippin is only young, he is still known by the nickname of Pippin3. He is 28 at the start of their great adventure, which is still considered a child in hobbit terms. He won't arrive at adulthood for another five years.

Pippin is one of the few people in the book who actually gets to see Sauron, the Lord of the Rings4. He does this through the palantir, a sort of telepathic communication device in a crystal ball. After his ordeal, Gandalf takes him to Gondor, where Pippin meets Denethor, the Steward and ruler of Gondor. Pippin volunteers to serve him and becomes a soldier in the army of Gondor.

Sam Gamgee

Sam, whose full name is Samwise, is Frodo's gardener. He's less educated than the others and much more a typical stay-at-home hobbit. He knows nothing about the world outside the Shire. Sam is from a solid working-class background. His father was the gardener at Bag End before him, and his uncle Andy has a rope-making business. Sam thinks the world of 'Mr Frodo' and will literally go to the ends of the earth to help him and keep him safe.

Sam shows his true bravery later in the story when he and Frodo go alone together into Mordor, where Sam fights a giant spider, breaks into an orc stronghold and even for a while carries the One Ring.

Gollum

Gollum is a minor character in The Hobbit, one of the many hazards Bilbo must endure to get to the end of his journey. He is a major character in The Lord of the Rings. It is revealed that he is in fact a hobbit, a Stoor of the group that lived in the Vale of Anduin in later years. Gollum's original name was Sméagol. He has been corrupted by half a millennium of using and being close to Sauron's Ring. Gollum's first known act was to murder his friend Déagol when Déagol found the Ring and wouldn't give it to him. The Ring had a strong effect on the people around it, but nobody else reacted quite so strongly, so we can assume that Gollum was not a decent hobbit to start off. His inherent deceitfulness was exaggerated by the Ring to make him a totally self-centred creature who cared about nothing except himself and the Ring.

In the first edition of The Hobbit, Gollum was not such an evil creature. In his riddle game with Bilbo, he was going to eat Bilbo if he won the game, but if Bilbo won, Gollum was going to give him his magic ring. He was quite upset when he went back to the island to get the ring and found it gone, because he could not now give Bilbo his prize and that would be a violation of the rules of the game. Tolkien had to rewrite this section of The Hobbit in the second edition to make Gollum a more evil creature so that it would fit in with the role he had chosen for him in The Lord of the Rings.

Other Hobbits

  • Fredegar 'Fatty' Bolger - another great young friend of Frodo, but who doesn't come on the great journey. He stays behind to keep up the appearance that Frodo is still around and just reclusive.
  • Lobelia Sackville-Baggins - a distant relative of Bilbo, she and her husband Otho had just bought Bag End, Bilbo's presumed-abandoned home, when he arrived back from his travels and they had to give it back. Frodo finally sold it to Lobelia and her son Lotho when he went on the great journey, but Lotho was killed when Saruman took over the Shire, and Lobelia didn't have the heart to live in the place after that. She sold it back to Frodo.
  • The Gaffer Gamgee - Sam's father, his real name was Hamfast (which means 'stay at home') but he was always known by the title of 'The Gaffer' (the boss). He was the gardener at Bag End until he retired and Sam took over the job.
  • Rose Cotton - a quiet, young hobbit girl who is more or less engaged to Sam, and very relieved when he arrives back out of the blue. At the end of The Lord of the Rings, Sam and Rose get married and Frodo presents them with Bag End as a wedding present. They live long and fruitful lives.
  • Farmer Maggot - a farmer who lives in the Marish, the low-lying area near the river. He has two vicious dogs, and doesn't take kindly to young hobbits stealing his mushrooms, but is a decent and fair man.
  • Nob and Bob - two hobbits who work at the Prancing Pony, the inn in Bree.
  • Trotter was in the early drafts of The Lord of the Rings, but didn't make it into the final version. When the hobbits reached Bree, they didn't know where to go next, but they met Trotter, a strange hobbit who knew his way through the wild lands and he agreed to guide them to Rivendell. Unlike most hobbits, Trotter wore wooden shoes, and got his name from the noise these made as he walked. In one version it was revealed that these weren't shoes at all but wooden feet, as he had been horribly mutilated. Trotter was later replaced by a mysterious man called Strider, and later still Strider became Aragorn, noble descendant of Kings.

Thanks to Recumbentman for the hobby/habit theory.

1It's unlikely Tolkien was thinking of the word 'toke' meaning to smoke cannabis, as this usage seems to be a more recent invention.2Tolkien used Old English to represent the language of the Rohirrim, and 'holbytla' in fact means 'hole dweller' in Old English, offering a fictional etymology for the word 'hobbit'.3While the name may be intended to suggest pipe-smoking, it is also possibly a reference to his rosy cheeks: a pippin is a red-skinned apple.4The others being Gollum and Aragorn.

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