I think everyone has at least a basic understanding of Hobbits. Gone are the days when the opening line of Tolkien’s first classic, “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit” caused endless confusion. “What is a hobbit? Is it some kind of rabbit?” someone might have asked in 1937 when Hobbits first appeared in bookshops. We have a better idea now- they’re a short people, around three and a half feet tall, with curly hair and hairy feet. They like smoking pipes, brewing and drinking ale, eating several meals each day, peace, quiet, and good-tilled earth. That is the essence of a Hobbit.
There is more to them than that, of course. Where did they come from? Where did they go?
The answer to the second is simple and sad. According to Tolkien, Hobbits have dwindled in numbers and grown smaller and shier. They can disappear into the trees well before we Big People know they’re there. Perhaps they are still wandering in the deep forests, far from any people. Perhaps they, like Elves and many other beautiful things, are gone forever.
As for the first, it’s something of a mystery. Hobbits appeared in Middle-earth sometime during the Second Age, though the wise don’t know for sure because Hobbits were (and are) generally below the notice of the ‘Big People’. Suddenly, Hobbits were there and moving into places long abandoned by Elves and Men. Eventually, they divided into three different kinds: Harfoots, Stoors, and Fallohides. They often went their own ways, though there was a noticeable strain of taller, fair-haired Fallohide stock mixed in among the smaller, dark-haired Harfoots (particularly among the Tooks, from whom Bilbo and Frodo Baggins were descended) who wandered into the northwest, developing communities of their own as the world aged around them and largely forgot Hobbits.
While the world was growing old and dark and warlike, the Hobbits were shielded from the great wars of the later years. They prospered among their fields, and because they never fought among themselves (having no desire for power or acquiring great wealth) they largely forgot their martial skills. This doesn’t mean they could not fight, only that they did not, unless it was to defend themselves. Their soft lifestyles hid a core hardiness that belied their outward appearance. Hobbits were uncommonly tough and able to put up with terrible conditions that would lay Men low. They had keen eyesight and good aim, and should a Hobbit ever pick up a stone to throw, their foes knew to take cover.
But in general, Hobbits were a peace-loving folk who would rather gossip or rattle on about family lineage than go off on adventures. Shielded by guardians they had long since forgotten, Hobbits became incurious about the wider world, preferring to stick with what they already knew. Being an insular people, they grew suspicious of anyone who came from Somewhere Else, even if that was a few miles down the road. Though they were well-to-do and generous Hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins were regarded as very strange, bordering on mad for wandering the countryside, talking with Elves and Dwarves, and writing poetry. But as much as the Hobbits wanted to ignore the world outside their borders, the outside world was not going to ignore Hobbits. Elves and Dwarves were on the road, and the Bounders (the border-wardens of the Shire) worked harder than ever to keep strange men and other creatures out of the Shire. And of course, by the time our story really gets going, strange figures cloaked in black are wandering around, disturbing decent folk and asking after the whereabouts of a certain Hobbit named Baggins…
The Red Book of Westmarch
J.R.R. Tolkien was a philologist and a medievalist. He poked at old and crumbling texts from Britain, Iceland, and Scandinavia until they revealed their secrets, taking a name from here and a story concept from there, building the world and history of Middle-earth over the course of a lifetime from his first poem about Eärendel in 1914 until his death in September 1973. He compiled half-forgotten stories from a variety of conflicting sources, so I am not surprised that, in the building of his ‘mythology for England’, Tolkien developed the notion of ‘The Red Book of Westmarch’. This was meant to be the original story of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as told by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins themselves, with the last chapters written by Samwise Gamgee. Decades later, Peregrin Took brought a copy to Gondor, and many annotations, copies, and compilations of other stories of the War of the Ring were added. Over time, the original tale was fragmented, altered by later scribes, and possibly nearly forgotten until, late in the Fourth Age, a medievalist took an interest in these odd stories and story fragments and spent his life compiling the many accounts and translating the various languages so that now, we have the stories of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
This framing story allows for many devices to show up in the book– the changes from low style to high and back again, for example, or the fact that characters like Aragorn spout lengthy poems of perfectly metered verse on the fly. I think it also helped Tolkien connect his stories to the centuries’ old sagas and poems he studied, infusing it with even more depth.
While it’s fun to go into detail about The Red Book of Westmarch and discuss the framing story it provides The Lord of the Rings and all the quirks and oddities that entails, it is not essential to the story itself. Readers can enjoy the story as it is without reflecting on its roots in Beowulf, The Kalevala, the Icelandic Sagas, and all the other bits of tales and verse Tolkien drew upon in the making of Middle-earth.
With that background in place, we have a Long Expected Party to look forward to! Next Saturday, September 22nd, we’ll celebrate the birthdays of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, hear of strange goings-on in the Northfarthing, and learn about some shadows creeping in out of the past.