Tuesday, 27 December 2011

How many species of Hobbits?

Tolkien, having coined the name, then (as was his wont) invented a mock-etymology for it. But this is widely misunderstood -- as for instance does Wikipedia: 'He set out a fictional etymology for the name in an appendix to Lord of the Rings, to the effect that it was derived from holbytla (plural holbytlan), a speculative reconstruction of Old English, meaning “hole-builder”'. This isn't right, though. Tom Shippey knows better:
Hol of course means hole. A "bottle" even now in some English place-names means a dwelling, and Old English bytlian means to dwell, to live in. Holbytla, then, = 'hole-dweller, hole-liver'.
What this means is that there are at least five peoples in The Hobbit who can be described, without distortion, as Hobbits: Bilbo's people; the Dwarves; the Goblins -- and Gollum (both of whom live in the caves under the Misty Mountains) and Smaug himself. The titular 'The Hobbit' starts to look like ironic understatement.

1 comment:

Gareth Rees said...

In Tolkien's first draft, Theoden's guess at the etymology of hobbit was different. From Christopher Tolkien's The Treason of Isengard:

"'... This day is fated to be filled with marvels: for here I see alive yet others of the folk of story: the half-high.'
'Hobbits, if you please, lord,' said Pippin.
'Hobbits,' said Theoden. 'Hoppettan? I will try to remember. No tale that I have heard does them justice.'"

In Old English hoppettan means "to hop, leap, jump for joy".