If Tolkien lovers are nerds, it is only because they are walking in the pathway of the Master Nerd himself. The more I study Tolkien, the more I get the sense that no one was more amazed by the entire Middle Earth legendarium than Tolkien himself. Less of an author hammering out words on a keyboard, Tolkien was more like an archaeologist carefully brushing the sand away from the artifacts of another world buried in the sands of history. The swish, swish, swish of the Tolkien brush goes ever on and on as editors, scholars, and linguists continue–a century after it has begun–to reveal the strata of a community most Tolkiendils cannot bring themselves to call “fictional.”There were moments, though, that Tolkien addressed his “private hobby” for a listening world. One was in response to an anonymous letter to the editor in the UK Observer in 1938. Signed as “the Habit,” Humphrey Carpenter records some of the fan questions in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien:
… asking whether hobbits might have been suggested to Tolkien by Julian Huxley’s account of ‘the “little furry men” seen in Africa by natives and …. at least one scientist’. The letter-writer also mentioned that a friend had ‘said she remembered an old fairy tale called “The Hobbit” in a collection read about 1904’, in which the creature of that name ‘was definitely frightening’. The writer asked if Tolkien would ‘tell us some more about the name and inception of the intriguing hero of his book. …. It would save so many research students so very much trouble in the generations to come. And, by the way, is the hobbit’s stealing of the dragon’s cup based on the cup-stealing episode in Beowulf? I hope so, since one of the book’s charms appears to be its Spenserian harmonising of the brilliant threads of so many branches of epic, mythology, and Victorian fairy literature.’
Tolkien wrote a response, and naturally he hoped it would not be printed. The letter in response gives us a real sense of the stories and fictional worlds that live behind The Hobbit. Tolkien begins with self-deprecating humour that draws Smaug (and his vanity) into the entire history of sentient dragons:
Sir, – I need no persuasion: I am as susceptible as a dragon to flattery, and would gladly show off my diamond waistcoat, and even discuss its sources, since the Habit (more inquisitive than the Hobbit) has not only professed to admire it, but has also asked where I got it from. But would not that be rather unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.
This is not the moment that Tolkien shares in his response to “the Habit.” Instead, he denies that hobbits, as such, have any particular predecessor, and he considers some of the fictional and historical worlds that came before his.
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.
I was born in Africa, and have read several books on African exploration. I have, since about 1896, read even more books of fairy-tales of the genuine kind. Both the facts produced by the Habit would appear, therefore, to be significant.
But are they? I have no waking recollection of furry pigmies (in book or moonlight); nor of any Hobbit bogey in print by 1904. I suspect that the two hobbits are accidental homophones, and am content that they are not (it would seem) synonyms. And I protest that my hobbit did not live in Africa, and was not furry, except about the feet. Nor indeed was he like a rabbit. He was a prosperous, well-fed young bachelor of independent means. Calling him a ‘nassty little rabbit’ was a piece of vulgar trollery, just as ‘descendant of rats’ was a piece of dwarfish malice — deliberate insults to his size and feet, which he deeply resented. His feet, if conveniently clad and shod by nature, were as elegant as his long, clever fingers.
Ah, the trollery that the average halfling has to put up with! Being misunderstood is a problematic part of life–and a key reason why the average hobbit would prefer to avoid big people and their world.
But The Hobbit and the Middle Earth legendarium of which it is a part are not without predecessors. Rather than a merely “original” piece of work, The Lord of the Rings and all the rest emerges out of a complex conversation with the literature and speculative worlds of the past.
As for the rest of the tale it is, as the Habit suggests, derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story – not, however, Victorian in authorship, as a rule to which George Macdonald is the chief exception. Beowulf is among my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing, in which the episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at that point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same.
Beowulf, in particular, is at the roots of Middle Earth, and Tolkien avoids most modern authors, except for George MacDonald. I would also add William Morris, and Diana Pavlac Glyer‘s work demonstrates that Tolkien was not uninfluenced by his friends, the Inklings. Still, when thinking about intertextuality, Tolkien engages is a marvelous new adventure of drawing stories into stories:
My tale is not consciously based on any other book — save one, and that is unpublished: the ‘Silmarillion’, a history of the Elves, to which frequent allusion is made. I had not thought of the future researchers; and as there is only one manuscript there seems at the moment small chance of this reference proving useful.
Notice here how he draws together a source from our timeline, the Poetic Edda of the Norse, and the marvelous “world Bible” that only Tolkien had really seen up to this point:
… There is the question of nomenclature. The dwarf-names, and the wizard’s, are from the Elder Edda. The hobbit-names from Obvious Sources proper to their kind. The full list of their wealthier families is: Baggins, Boffin, Bolger, Bracegirdle, Brandybuck, Burrowes, Chubb, Grubb, Hornblower, Proudfoot, Sackville, and Took. The dragon bears as name – a pseudonym – the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb Smugan, to squeeze through a hole: a low philological jest. The rest of the names are of the Ancient and Elvish World, and have not been modernised.
You can be excused if you didn’t get the philological joke the first time through. But why did a philologist with such exacting attention to words and names spell it “dwarves” and not “dwarfs.” It is a classic and, perhaps, providential error:
And why dwarves? Grammar prescribes dwarfs; philology suggests that dwarrows would be the historical form. The real answer is that I knew no better. But dwarves goes well with elves; and, in any case, elf, gnome, goblin, dwarf are only approximate translations of the Old Elvish names for beings of not quite the same kinds and functions.
Perhaps Tolkien would have been concerned that “dwarrows” would confuse readers. Most of us who read today do not always realize to what degree Tolkien’s non-human creatures are a departure from the myths and legends he draws from. In digging into that distinction we get an early peak at the complex system of languages behind the few names and places and runic hints in the first editions of The Hobbit.
These dwarves are not quite the dwarfs of better known lore. They have been given Scandinavian names, it is true; but that is an editorial concession. Too many names in the tongues proper to the period might have been alarming. Dwarvish was both complicated and cacophonous. Even early elvish philologists avoided it, and the dwarves were obliged to use other languages, except for entirely private conversations. The language of hobbits was remarkably like English, as one would expect: they only lived on the borders of The Wild, and were mostly unaware of it. Their family names remain for the most part as well known and justly respected in this island as they were in Hobbiton and Bywater.
There is the matter of the Runes. Those used by Thorin and Co., for special purposes, were comprised in an alphabet of thirty-two letters (full list on application), similar to, but not identical, with the runes of Anglo-Saxon inscriptions. There is doubtless an historical connection between the two. The Feanorian alphabet, generally used at that time, was of Elvish origin. It appears in the curse inscribed on the pot of gold in the picture of Smaug’s lair, but had otherwise been transcribed (a facsimile of the original letter left on the mantelpiece can be supplied).
“There is doubtless an historical connection between” Anglo-Saxon runes and Middle Earth’s runes? Can you imagine how that statement would have inflamed the most serious readers in that first generations? I love how Tolkien plays between the idea of Middle Earth as a created world and as referential to the real world. After all, where did he possibly find the original letter left above the fire?
Then Tolkien turns to a key problem in intertextuality: when the author is unaware of how much his or her work is an adaptation or echo of previous work. Continuing his ambivalence, he covers up the question by throwing it forward to the riddle battle between Bilbo and Gollum:
And what about the Riddles? There is work to be done here on the sources and analogues. I should not be at all surprised to learn that both the hobbit and Gollum will find their claim to have invented any of them disallowed.
Tolkien ends in making fun of himself and giving future textual critics a bit of a puzzle to work on for their MA and DPhil theses.
Finally, I present the future researcher with a little problem. The tale halted in the telling for about a year at two separate points: where are they? But probably that would have been discovered anyway. And suddenly I remember that the hobbit thought ‘Old fool’, when the dragon succumbed to blandishment. I fear that the Habit’s comment (and yours) will already be the same. But you must admit that the temptation was strong. –
J. R. R. Tolkien
And in closing this letter–even if he never meant it to meet its public–Tolkien has both teased and revealed in the way that other stories sit behind The Hobbit.
 Not quite. I should like, if possible, to learn more about the fairy-tale collection, c. 1904.