CHAPTER 1: THE HOBBIT: RE-INVENTING-EARTH
The 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:
had mercifully 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.
(Biography, p. 172; see also Letters, p. 215)
Beginning 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):
little 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:
my hobbit ... 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.
The 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 and shorts.
He loved 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.
Before long, 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."
The nurse 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!"
"I'm taking you home, Master Tolkien! You can rest on the balcony upstairs and look at the trees your father planted."
Carrying 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 government building.
"Mrs. 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!"
Mabel Tolkien 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.
Ronald's 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.
From the 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.
Ronald had 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.
Born and 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..."