On Hobbits. Part III.The third and final part of my series Concerning Hobbits...
Today I'm going to use the two previous posts in this series to suggest an answer. These earlier posts presented facts - that is, claims easily verifiable by looking at original texts. Today I'm going to move from the fact to an interpretation - a Hobbit hypothesis, if you will.
Let's quickly rehearse the facts:
(1) Like most British scholars since the 1880s, Tolkien took it for granted that the British Isles had been inhabited by a succession of peoples, each of whom had interbred with and mixed with the older inhabitants, and - furthermore - that the first settlers predated the Celts.
(2) Tolkien's earliest stories (c.1917) refer to this background of invasions but posit the original settlers not to have been humans but Elves - who have a special connection with the Anglo-Saxons.
Now my first suggestion (which I think pretty clear from the early stories) is that Tolkien felt uneasy with the idea of the English taking their present land from others (i.e. Celtic-speakers) and wished to strengthen the tie between the English (people and culture) and the land (of modern day England).
This seems certainly to be going on with the early stories of the Elves fading in the face of the Celtic and Roman invasions - and then perking up again when the English arrive.
But it is also clear that Tolkien was unhappy with this early idea of England as the last refuge of the Elves. His early stories chop and change and, by the late 1920s, the idea was pretty much abandoned.
Now let me add another fact. Around 1930 Tolkien was researching Celtic folklore in an attempt to comment on the name Nodens found on some inscriptions on the Welsh border. From the essay that resulted we know this research led him to read carefully the writings of John Rhys, the first Oxford Professor of Celtic (whose lectures Tolkien probably attended as an undergraduate).
And here is my Hobbit hypothesis: Tolkien found in Rhys a new solution to his old problem. More concretely, in reading Rhys, Tolkien discovered Hobbits.
Rhys believed that Welsh fairy tales contained dim memories of a 'little people' who had inhabited the British Isles before the coming of the Celtic-speakers. From the tales he inferred that these first settlers were:
“a small swarthy population of mound-dwellers, of an unwarlike disposition… and living underground.”
And turning to archaeology, Rhys pointed to the remains of “certain underground – or partially underground – habitations.” He connected these dwellings with Britain’s native settlers, and observed that some of their homes:
“appear from the outside like hillocks covered with grass, so as presumably not to attract attention… But one of the most remarkable things about them is the fact that the cells or apartments into which they are divided are frequently so small that their inmates must have been of very short stature…”
Here is a Hobbit hole.
Indeed, Tolkien's essay on ‘The Name “Nodens”’ - which reveals a deep engagement with Rhys' scholarship - was published in 1932 – the same year that Tolkien first wrote down in manuscript form the story that would be published five years later as The Hobbit.
How did this provide Tolkien with a new solution to his old problem?
The key is found in Tolkien's 1955 lecture 'English and Welsh' (delivered the day after publication of 'The Return of the King').
Here Tolkien distinguishes between our linguistic and cultural inheritance, on the one side, and our biological inheritance, on the other.
What this means is that the modern English have inherited a language and culture with roots in the land between the North Sea and the Baltic - the original homeland of the English.
But what this also means is that many of the modern English have inherited inner dispositions and predilections - a consuming passion for mushrooms, for example - from Rhys' small and peaceful population of mound-dwellers.
If my hypothesis is correct we are now in a position to answer that most delicious of questions: what is a Hobbit?
Hobbits are (a somewhat tongue-in-cheek) representation of the little people that back in 1900 Rhys had identified as Britain’s first farmers. But because this original population has never been driven from the land, Hobbits are at the same time a depiction of the inherited ‘inner selves’ of many who live in England today.
Hobbits are that part of the English people that is native to the land; they are Tolkien’s way of explaining why the modern English truly belong to the land now called England.
And 'The Hobbit' is a story of how this native part of us comes to terms with its English cultural inheritance: the tale of a peaceful bachelor, with a penchant for bacon and eggs, who rediscovers himself by venturing out into the perilous world of ancient English tradition; there, and back again.
You can disagree with the interpretation, but if you do the onus is on you to explain the facts in a better way! #Hobbits #TheHobbit #Tolkien