So, what are hobbits?
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
Tolkien found the word in a publication called The Denham Tracts, a series of pamphlets and jottings on folklore collected by Michael Denham, a Yorkshire tradesman, in the 1840s and 1850s, and re-edited by James Hardy for the Folklore Society in the 1890s.
“Hobbits” appears 154th in a list of 197 kinds of supernatural creature which includes barguests, breaknecks, hobhoulards, melch-dicks, tutgots, swaithes, cauld-lads, lubberkins, mawkins, nick-nevins, and much, much else, along with the relatively routine boggarts, hob-thrusts, hobgoblins, and so on.
No further mention is made of hobbits, and Hardy’s index says of them, as of almost all the items in the list, only “A class of spirits.”
Tolkien’s hobbits, of course, are anything but “spirits.” They are almost pig-headedly earthbound, with (as Tolkien wrote in his very earliest account of them, on page 2 of The Hobbit ):
little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large, stupid folk like you and me come blundering along making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off.
So, the list of spirits in The Denham Tracts doesn’t account for Tolkien’s hobbits other than presenting him a curious word-puzzle to ponder.
Many people recognize that “hobbits” and “rabbits” sound rather like and therefore the creatures might have something to do with rabbits.
Tolkien good-humouredly denied the suggestions, rejecting both furriness and rabbits:
my hobbit . . . was not furry, except about the feet. Nor indeed was he like a rabbit . . . Calling him “a nassty little rabbit” was a piece of vulgar trollery, just as “descendant of rats” was a piece of dwarfish malice.
(Letters, p. 30)
However, the trolls were not the only ones to make the connection:
The eagle carrying Bilbo in chapter 7 tells him, “You need not be frightened like a rabbit, even if you look rather like one.”
In the previous chapter Bilbo had himself started “to think of being torn up for supper like a rabbit.”
At the end of his stay in Beorn’s house, Beorn picks him up, pokes his waistcoat disrespectfully, and remarks, “Little bunny is getting nice and fat again on bread and honey.”
Thorin shakes him “like a rabbit” in chapter 17.
The opinion that hobbits are like rabbits is, it seems, pretty widespread among those who meet them.
Just the same one can see why Tolkien so firmly rejected the connection. He did not want hobbits, and Bilbo in particular, to be equated with bunnies, or even coneys (another word for “rabbits” which Bilbo uses): small, fluffy, harmless, irretrievably childish, never rising above the status of pet.
The word “rabbit” was probably professionally interesting to Tolkien, and may have had something to do with the relationship between hobbits and the other races of Middle-earth.
But whatever else might be said about them, hobbits had to be allowed to be people: not spirits, not animals, but people.
Considering the relationship between hobbits and the other races of Middle-earth may take us back to rabbits, and to hobbits.
Tolkien’s hobbits are like rabbits in a way which few people suspect, but which he himself was almost uniquely qualified to observe, that is, in their etymological history (real or imagined).
The word “rabbit” is a strange one.
Almost all of the names for the wild mammals of England have remained more or less the same for more than a thousand years.
Words like fox, weasel, otter, mouse, hare, were virtually the same in Old English, respectively fuhs, wesel, otor, mus, hasa.
“Badger” is a relatively new word, from French, but the old word, brocc, is still used.
Such words tend to be the same in other Germanic languages too:
the German for “hare” is Hase,
the Danish hare, and so on.
The reason, obviously, is that these are old words for creatures which have long been familiar.
But “rabbit” is not like that: The words for the animal in neighbouring languages are different,
French lapin, and so on.
Old English has no word for “rabbit.”
Again, the obvious reason is that rabbits are a relatively recent import into England, like mink, brought in first by the Normans as fur-bearing animals, eventually released into the wild.
However, not one English person in ten thousand realizes that, nor do they care.
Rabbits have been naturalized, have made their way into folk-tale and popular belief and children’s story.
Now it seems as if they have always been there.
This is the fate which I think Tolkien would like for hobbits.
His dwarves and elves are similar, in the age of their names and their wide distribution, to hares and foxes.
Hobbits are (if one discounts the slender evidence of The Denham Tracts) imports, like rabbits. But perhaps in the end, or even, by art, in the beginning, they can be made to seem harmonious, to settle in, to look as if they had been there all along — the niche which Tolkien eventually claimed for hobbits, “an unobtrusive but very ancient people.”
Tolkien even found an etymology for hobbits, as the OED has failed to do for rabbits.
His first words about them were, as has been said, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
Many years and many hundreds of pages later, in almost the last words of the last Appendix of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien suggested that “hobbit” might be a modern worn-down form of an unrecorded but perfectly plausible Old English word, holbytla.
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, equals “hole-dweller, hole-liver.” “In a hole in the ground there lived a hole-liver.”
What could be more obvious than that?