Tolkien’s “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size)” in Context: A Note on Books and Their Authors (#hobbitday)

I don’t know that there is any more famous J.R.R. Tolkien quote than his claim to, in fact, be a hobbit. It’s really quite a delightful statement and worth quoting more fully:

I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.

The only time I ever wore an ornamental waistcoat was when I was paid to do so (as an actor)–but you can hear more about Tolkien’s diamond waistcoat here. I would be terribly afraid to try most of the mushrooms that grow wild nearby. I can’t afford French cooking, and I like my food either hot or cold–not lukewarm–and stored safely in the refrigerator whenever possible. Though I am closer in size to a hobbit than Professor Tolkien and have characteristic rotundity and floppy hair. Though I do love green growing things, and have a good urban garden, I am not in fact, a hobbit.

But where is this sudden statement of hobbit self-identification coming from? And why was Tolkien talking about vegetables and waistcoats in the first place?

The fun of it is that Tolkien is, actually, responding to a personal research request. All through the letters that Humphrey Carpenter has published from the late 1950s, Tolkien found himself responding to fans who pushed him on the world in and behind the text of Lord of the Rings. Though Tolkien occasionally found it tiresome to correspond, he kept a number of these letters in draft or duplicate form. I think they allowed him space to clarify things like linguistics and philology, hobbit lore, and the many dancing threads of the legendarium, still hidden from the rest of the reading world.

This note on hobbitishness was to Deborah Webster on 25 Oct 1958. Webster, who would go on to write about Tolkien in society journals, wanted background facts about his life so she could get to know his work better. This happened before as well. In June of 1957. Caroline Everett wrote to Tolkien for biographical details to support her thesis research. This is a famous letter because in it Tolkien talks about “Leaf by Niggle“–a story so peculiar to his work because it is so autobiographical, not to mention being in the short story genre and an allegory. He generously shares the struggles he had in developing the Lord of the Rings over two decades. And he does supply some background biography, including schooling and his connection to the Inklings.

Famously, though, Tolkien begins the letter like this:

Though it is a great compliment, I am really rather sorry to find myself the subject of a thesis.

This is not mere humility, for he liked that his myth was getting some traction in the publishing world. His reluctance comes from his understanding of what literary critics do:

I do not feel inclined to go into biographical detail. I doubt its relevance to criticism.

For many of us, this might come as a shock. My whole literary critical project is about triangulating the life-story of the Inklings with their work and their contemporary culture. What would I do without biography? The Lord of the Rings is a Tolkienish book, and Tolkien was a Middle-earth man. How do I sever the two?

The knife that was purported to cut this Gordian knot appeared in this period. Prof. I.A. Richards led the Cambridge critics and the New Critics, passing out poems to students stripped of context and authorship beginning in the 1920s. This began a school of thinking about literature at the very space of the encounter between reader and text–a conversation that dominated the 20th century and still teases in the minds of readers today. With his literary theory text, The Personal Heresy, Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis was part of this new critical movement that distanced itself from biographical criticism. Was Tolkien adding to this school of readership?

While the Inklings as literary critics were part of the conversation, Tolkien did not think that texts needed to be anonymous or that there was no real author–though he valued anonymous works, especially that of Beowulf.

Instead, Tolkien went on to articulate what he thought (for him) was the connection between his work and his life.

I doubt its [a biography’s] relevance to criticism. Certainly in any form less than a complete biography, interior and exterior, which I alone could write, and which I do not intend to write. The chief biographical fact to me is the completion of The Lord of the Rings, which still astonishes me. A notorious beginner of enterprises and non-finisher, partly through lack of time, partly through lack of single-minded concentration, I still wonder how and why I managed to peg away at this thing year after year, often under real difficulties, and bring it to a conclusion. I suppose, because from the beginning it began to catch up in its narrative folds visions of most of the things that I have most loved or hated.

I think there is a kind of honest, humble–can I say hobbitish?–genius about this phrase. While books can extend out to all kinds of meanings, and while we may never know authors from their works in the way we know our friends and family, there is an authorial imprint left on most books. Tolkien’s intense care and scattered perfectionism shine through. As does the great expansiveness of his mind, his critical love of languages, his interest in geography and botany, and the fact that his work is a kind of biography of human mortality. Though I cannot know everything about Tolkien from his work, I could never believe that he wasn’t someone who delighted in humour.

And this is the critical thing: With due respect to the “Death of the Author” folks, I cannot read C.S. Lewis’ work and not believe that he was a funny person and well-read. Before I knew of Charles Williams‘ or Stephen King‘s darker sides, I felt it in the text. I cannot pick up Harry Potter and believe that J.K. Rowling was not someone who evinced a deepfelt motherly love and personal care for outsiders. As much as Ursula K. Le Guin tried to keep her feminism out of her fiction, it squeezed through finally in Earthsea to give us a sublime reading of how women and men find their voices.

There is something of the author left in the text. Kafka, who tried to erase himself as author, has left us something that is more Kafkaesque than any of the copies.

My hope in putting Tolkien’s doubts about biography and an author’s work in context will help us see how perceptive and instinctive is his sense of self in the text. I think he is not just a hobbit when it comes to food and green, growing things, but a hobbit in the way he understands books–that stories come with histories, that great tales have a certain pattern to them, and that all claims should be taken with a halfling’s self-contradicting innocent skepticism. Here is the entire letter to Deborah Webster with its hobbit self-identification in context, from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter:

Letter 213: From a letter to Deborah Webster 25 October 1958)

I do not like giving ‘facts’ about myself other than ‘dry’ ones (which anyway are quite as relevant to my books as any other more Juicy details). Not simply for personal reasons; but also because I object to the contemporary trend in criticism, with its excessive interest in the details of the lives of authors and artists. They only distract attention from an author’s works (if the works are in fact worthy of attention), and end, as one now often sees, in becoming the main interest. But only one’s guardian Angel, or indeed God Himself, could unravel the real relationship between personal facts and an author’s works. Not the author himself (though he knows more than any investigator), and certainly not so-called ‘psychologists’.

But, of course, there is a scale of significance in ‘facts’ of this sort. There are insignificant facts (those particularly dear to analysts and writers about writers): such as drunkenness, wife-beating, and suchlike disorders. I do not happen to be guilty of these particular sins. But if I were, I should not suppose that artistic work proceeded from the weaknesses that produced them, but from other and still uncorrupted regions of my being. Modern ‘researchers’ inform me that Beethoven cheated his publishers, and abominably ill-treated his nephew; but I do not believe that has anything to do with his music. Then there are more significant facts, which have some relation to an author’s works; though knowledge of them does not really explain the works, even if examined at length. For instance I dislike French, and prefer Spanish to Italian – but the relation of these facts to my taste in languages (which is obviously a large ingredient in The Lord of the Rings) would take a long time to unravel, and leave you liking (or disliking) the names and bits of language in my books, just as before. And there are a few basic facts, which however drily expressed, are really significant. For instance I was born in 1892 and lived for my early years in ‘the Shire’ in a pre-mechanical age. Or more important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic. The latter ‘fact’ perhaps cannot be deduced; though one critic (by letter) asserted that the invocations of Elbereth, and the character of Galadriel as directly described (or through the words of Gimli and Sam) were clearly related to Catholic devotion to Mary. Another saw in waybread (lembas)= viaticum and the reference to its feeding the will (vol. III, p. 213) and being more potent when fasting, a derivation from the Eucharist. (That is: far greater things may colour the mind in dealing with the lesser things of a fairy-story.)

I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I love Wales (what is left of it, when mines, and the even more ghastly sea-side resons, have done their worst), and especially the Welsh language. But I have not in fact been in W. for a long time (except for crossing it on the way to Ireland). I go frequently to Ireland (Eire: Southern Ireland) being fond of it and of (most of) its people; but the Irish language I find wholly unattractive. I hope that is enough to go on with.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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19 Responses to Tolkien’s “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size)” in Context: A Note on Books and Their Authors (#hobbitday)

  1. lolalwilcox says:

    Having lived through a time when many said you had to drink or do drugs in order to write (and pointed to authors who did), I rejoiced to read these sentences: “There are insignificant facts (those particularly dear to analysts and writers about writers): such as drunkenness, wife-beating, and suchlike disorders. I do not happen to be guilty of these particular sins. But if I were, I should not suppose that artistic work proceeded from the weaknesses that produced them, but from other and still uncorrupted regions of my being.” It is my personal experience, and that of many of the writers and painters that I know, that when they are writing (in full consciousness) they are in touch with an Energy beyond themselves, a “muse” perhaps, and in union with it while they work.

    My husband says “We were lucky that we read the Hobbit so early on without knowing anything about Tolkien. We loved it for itself; we read it aloud to each other, talking about it. Then we read it to our boys and we all talked about it. Later we listened to Williamson’s recording with RJ Stewart’s music on long trips in the car. We all had a feeling about the author, like seeing a shadow behind the work, but didn’t talk about him very much. Only later, when we found the Inklings through C.S. Lewis, did we begin to learn who the author was. Lucky us.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for this great note, Lola!

      Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      And distinct thanks for one detail: I had encountered movies with Nicol Williamson decades ago, but never knew about his (abridged) Hobbit audiobook until a year or so ago, when I ran into a ‘loading’ of it on YouTube – and thoroughly enjoyed it! I’m not sure if it’s one of those things regularly ‘hunted down and removed’ by copyright owners/claimants, but I imagine the late Nicol Williamson might be happy the better known it was… and I’d certainly recommend searching around for it, and giving it a try, if found!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Tolkien’s expression of his motives and thoughts when writing LOTR is interesting, as is his reaction to what people read into it, though I wonder how far his letter to Webster is post-fact justification. The question is the extent to which he was consciously including content, and whether other things simply ‘came out in the telling’ as a function of that conscious content. To me there is an awful lot of First World War in The Lord of the Rings – not just the ‘orc talk’ and the description of the Dead Marshes (Western Front trench systems), but more subtly in Frodo’s post-return behaviours, which were pretty much PTSD, and in the jealousies associated with long life. This last was a significant issue on the Western Front, where life expectancy might be measured in days. I’d been thinking along these lines well before reading Garth’s book; the historical work I was doing kicked up the clear Tolkien connection. One writes from experience: but I suspect sometimes the experience can overtake the writer, and for Tolkien – an inveterate tinkerer – aspects of the First World War ‘flavour’ may have happened unintentionally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think this is right, Matthew. As a writer, you know that you draw on your experiences, one way or the other. It is for this reason that I cannot go with Lewis and the way he wants to distance the reader from the writer (at least initially). I think it makes good classroom teaching, to take a poem or story with no context and read it. But I remain fascinated by all kinds of contextual clues, including the author’s life.

      Like

  3. dtrichards says:

    This is not directly related to your field, Benton, but I’ve always wondered about David Foster Wallace. I felt, when I read his essays, a real persona behind them, someone who had faith and was struggling to understand the world through it. But I hated his fiction. Yet one of his writing friends wrote that the “real” DFW was in his novels, and the persona in his essays was put-on. I wonder if we both (the writing friend and I) are seeing an author we want to see.

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  4. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I think sometimes knowing more about an author can shed light on his work, if not necessarily always. Knowing that Tolkien was a physically timid man makes the thesis behind LOTR a lot clearer – ie, that there are other kinds of bravery apart from the purely physical kind.

    But there discrepancies between the man and his work that still evoke my curiosity. Bilbo is similar in his habits and tastes to Tolkien, but Tolkien was a family man with five children whereas Bilbo was a dyed-in-the-wool bachelor; their very similarities only accentuate their differences. I’m also intrigued by how a man can write a book that is over a thousand pages long and still see himself as somebody who rarely finishes anything, and then only when the scale of the project is small (the basic thesis behind ‘Leaf by Niggle’).

    Liked by 2 people

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Part of the answer to the last point may be, all the things he thought he ought to be finishing – of which Bowers’ Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer (OUP, 2019) gives interesting glimpses.

      Maybe part of the first is drawing on different parts of himself – I am astonished to think of his work with horses, which seems unHobbit like, despite the various glimpses of Hobbit affection for them. But, very Rohan- and Gandalf-like…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It struck me, even as I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) this splendid piece, that to this day there is a basic English mistrust of psychotherapy and, by extension, self-revelation. I am not sure if I have ever had a conversation in my own country in which someone made reference to “my analyst”. I do know one or two people who offer this professionally but not anyone who has been in analysis or therapy. They keep this to themselves. That is certainly true of the generations who experienced the two world wars, my father’s and grandfather’s. My grandfather was proud to have been at the last great sea battle of the Royal Navy in 1916 but never spoke much of it apart from that fact. My father was a part of the Normandy landings in June 1944, seconded to a Canadian unit, by the way, and landing on the beach in an American landing craft. The only thing about this that we ever learned was that there was a machine for making ice cream in the craft. We were able to piece together a few things in his last years but it was pretty sketchy. My father and Tolkien would have been in complete agreement that “one didn’t speak about such things”. You left the dodgy business of self revelation to people like actors.
    I think that Tolkien, my father and also myself, would also be in agreement that the best of Beethoven’s music and, I would add, Tolkien’s writing, come from a place within that is at a deeper level of consciousness than that in which Beethoven’s bad temperedness or Tolkien’s likes and dislikes resided. At its most sublime (Beethoven’s late string quartets for example or the Missa Solemnis) perhaps it comes from that place within every one of ourselves that Meister Eckhart or Julian of Norwich describe as having never consented to sin. Sadly there are some who reside solely in the superficial and are disconnected from this. Experience tells me that most people have known this deeper connection, including the hobbits who have never left the Shire, and they are willing to tell people like priests about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is brilliantly put, Stephen, thank you for the note! I wonder if it is not just an English thing but maybe even a British thing. We know almost nothing of our family’s experience in Scotland before they moved to Prince Edward Island. And it was as if the entire old world before 1820 just simply didn’t exist. I’m not sure why that is, because I grew up in a family of storytellers, and one that loved history. So I am kind of beginning to wonder if the rejection in our bones and blood of self-analysis might be part of that whole story in my family as well.
      For my own part, I would love to go to psychoanalysis! I simply can’t afford it! However, as a scholar, I do grow weary really quickly of psychological readings, even though I do want to push past the limits of what CS Lewis set up as good reading and peek into the world of the author or poet.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Tolkien’s “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size)” in Context: A Note on Books and Their Authors (#hobbitday) — A Pilgrim in Narnia – Bardic Lore

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Hmm… are there momentous secrets yet to be revealed? Where is the Red Book? How did Tolkien learn Westron? Why are there those bits – like the fourth paragraph of The Hobbit – where he sounds more like an ethnologist in the field than merely a scholar of ancient manuscripts? Is Dr. Cornelius in Prince Caspian based on Tolkien, though Lewis put it in terms of ‘Dwarf’ so as not to reveal too much? In short, is Tolkien “in fact a Hobbit (in all but size)” – or, at least, ‘ Hobbit-descended’ ?

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    • These are all great questions! I honestly allow my brain sometimes to just fancy itself in a world where some of these narnian and Middle-earth discoveries are actually something where the author has found another world, not just described one

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        That’s part of the fun of Tolkien’s ‘Notion Club Papers’ where they talk about Lewis as science fiction writer, but This Stuff Is Really Happening to Them!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: The Tolkien And Lewis Bromance: The Diana Glyer Interview on the Babylon Bee | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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