Were Tolkien's hobbits inspired by an older folklore?
In his book, 'The Hobbit Companion,' David Day explained that as a philologist and compiler of the Oxford English Dictionary, Tolkien had a passion for words and often enjoyed drawing hidden meanings into his creations.
According to the dictionary, the word hobbit is used to describe imaginary beings which appear in Tolkien's stories. Some people believe that Tolkien's work is a mytho-history - drawing on archetypes and collective memory which has certainly been my stance.
In UK folklore, a ‘hob’ was a fairy, elf or sprite - often described as a household spirit found in north England, the midlands and the Anglo-Scottish borders. They could help in farmyards and help plants to grow quickly, yet if offended they could cause problems. They were described as small and hairy and could help people with healing and sometimes they were described as living in hills - although the energies feel different, it is easy to imagine that Tolkien may have found inspiration here.
"In the English Shires are scores of hollow hills: burial mounds, barrow graves and tumuli that are known locally as Hob Hill Houses or Hobthrush Houses. In popular mythology these Hobs are believes to be hairy little Brownies of sorts, variously named Hobs, Hobmen, Hob-i-t’-hursts, Hob Thrushes and Hob Thrusts. Only a few miles from Tolkien’s home was Hob Hurst’s House, an ancient round barrow which is not typically remembered as a tomb, but as a house or hollow hill wherein the spirit called Hob Hurst still lives beneath the mound. Hobbits are both Hole-Dwellers and Hill-Dwellers. How did this come about? Perhaps the reason is in part buried deep in the roots of the language: is there a connection between hill and hole?" said David Day.
I also discovered that there was a Hob Hill in Bromsgrove in the West Midlands and in his childhood, Tolkien lived near this village - it's likely that he was inspired by these landscapes, including his aunt Jane's farm, Bag End. Again, in nearby Derbyshire in the East Midlands, the Bronze Age barrow of Hob Hurst’s House (a round mound on the moor) was named after a local hobgoblin who haunted the nearby forests - according to some legends the goblin was friendly while others called him a vengeful nature spirit. Hob Hurst's House is an ancient place and home to a Bronze Age cairn and a rectangular stone cist (stone grave.) For more information please visit:
Traces of burnt bones were found in the cist along with evidence of fire across the whole enclosure and in his book, Ten Years’ Diggings in Celtic and Saxon Grave Hills, in the Counties of Derby, Stafford and York, from 1848 to 1858, Thomas Bateman wrote: “In the popular name given to the barrow, we have an indirect testimony to its great antiquity, as Hobhurst's House signifies the abode of an unearthly or supernatural being, accustomed to haunt woods and other solitary places, respecting whom many traditions yet linger in remote villages.”
Drawings from Thomas Bateman's 'Ten years diggings in Celtic and Saxon grave hills 1848-1858'
In folklore, a hobgoblin was a spirit of the hearth, which was often considered helpful until the rise of Christianity and they were described as small and hairy men. A Hobthrush or Hobthrust was another type of hobgoblin, they could help with household tasks and were sometimes described as being naked – one hobthrust was described as living in Hob Hole cave near Runswick Bay who could cure whooping cough. Many places in North England contain the word ‘hob.’
Near Whitby, a similar legend could be found of hobs (or boggles) who lived inside Boggle Cave and had magical healing powers. Many places in North England contain the word ‘hob.’ At Hart Hall farm, there were stories of a friendly and helpful hob who worked secretly at night and was rewarded with a jug of fresh cream – he once helped to unload a stuck cart at night. Yet after being spied upon and offered a gift of a hessian shirt he explained kindly to the farm boy: “Gin hob mun hae nowt but a hardin hamp he’ll cum nae mair, nowther to berry nor stamp.” Hardin hamp meant a hessian working shirt – he always needed to do his work naked and could not accept gifts. The word berry meant ‘to thresh’ and stamp meant to knock off the beards of barley. After he said these words he left Hart Hall and was never seen again. The parallels of these rural, farm-dwelling magical beings are quite striking - the mythos of the hobbit may go deeper than we may have realised. Please see the full story here:
“Hobbits are the Spiritus Mundi of England. They are meant by Tolkien to be the Anglo-Saxon earth spirits who are most in touch with the land itself. They literally live in the earth, and in so many ways are meant to define the essential elements of Englishness,” wrote David Day who continued to draw the distinction between the hobbits of the tamed landscaped compared with the Celtic Brownies of the wild lands of Britain. Interestingly, the Shire is a place inhabited by the hobbits in Middle-earth and in Great Britain, a ‘shire’ was a term to describe the division of land and was first used in Wessex at the time of an Anglo-Saxon settlement and this system spread throughout the UK with the rise of the West Saxon kingdom. Although ‘spriritus mundi’ literally means ‘spirit of the world’ in Latin, it is phrase thought to encapsulate the social, spiritual or cultural values of a certain era.
Tolkien spoke about how he identified as being a hobbit himself and it is easy to imagine when we see him sat beneath a tree wearing a waistcoat or smoking his pipe:
"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." It is also interesting to note that it is hobbits who write down the story of The Lord of the Rings and the journey to the Misty Mountains - both Frodo and Bilbo are great storytellers, like Tolkien himself.
Over 25 years ago, a lost recording of Tolkien was discovered dated March 28th, 1958 which took place in Rotterdam at a “Hobbit Dinner” put on by Tolkien’s Dutch publisher and a bookseller. Tolkien appeared before 200 hobbit fans at a feast complete with clay pipes and tobacco with labels such as ‘Old Toby’ and ‘Longbottom Leaf.’ Tolkien spoke about the presence of hateful wizards yet finished his speech with an uplifting reflection: “And yet here gentle hobbits may I conclude by giving you this toast. To the hobbits! And may they outlast all the wizards!”
Interestingly, he began his tale of the ring with an image of a hobbit. In the 1930s, whilst marking a student’s exam paper, one candidate had left a page blank and without knowing why Tolkien wrote: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ Eventually he went onto write, “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.” In a letter to Milton Waldman, written in 1951, which was featured at the beginning of the book, The Silmarillion, Tolkien explained more about his creative processes:
"I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched...They arose in my mind as 'given' things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour (especially since, even apart from the necessities of life, the mind would wing to the other pole and spend itself on the linguistics): yet always I had the sense of recording what was already 'there', somewhere: not of 'inventing'."
One night, on the 20th of July, I had a very profound dream whilst sleeping beneath a yew tree on the Mendip Hills. I saw visions of two hobbits (a man and wife) – it felt clear that they were real yet also of the Otherworld. They had a very faery-like energy about them as well, which I hadn’t quite appreciated from their Middle-earth descriptions by Tolkien. Their eyes twinkled with magic and they had fine features on their face although they were clearly very ‘hobbit-like’ in their energy.
I feel that hobs or hobbits can reveal maps or pathways for how we can live, farm and garden on this land as co-creators, whereas wilder spirits such as the brownies and fay can teach us how to access deeper parts of our psyche when we wish to journey into the unknown and bring this back into our lives. When I look at the creations of the beautiful hobbit houses now being built across the world, it is easy to see the charm of this simple, yet homely lifestyle. Many people are learning how to make simple but energy efficient homes with cob-style techniques and there are now lots of videos online showing what people have created including this home which was constructed with £3,000:
This beautiful hobbit inspired home, with circular doors and lots of crafts, on Air bnb also has some inspiring images. Happy exploring :)