Hobbits & Englishmen

WHY SHOULD [Tolkien] choose to specialise in early English? Something exciting happened when he first realised that a large proportion of the poetry and prose of Anglo-Saxon and early medieval England was written in the dialect that had been spoken by his mother’s ancestors.

He was deeply attached to the West Midlands because of their associations with his mother. Her family had come from the town of Evesham, and he believed that his West Midland borough and its surrounding county of Worcestershire had been the home of that family, the Suffields, for countless generations. He himself had also spent much of his childhood at Sarehole, a West Midland hamlet. That part of the English countryside had in consequence a strong emotional attraction for him; and as a result so did its language.

His deep feeling that his real home was in the West Midland countryside of England had, since his undergraduate days, defined . . . his scholarly work. The same motives . . . now created a character that embodied everything he loved about the West Midlands: Mr Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit.

Tolkien chose for the hobbit’s house the name “Bag End,” which was what the local people called his Aunt Jane’s Worcestershire farm. Worcestershire, the county from which the Suffields had come, . . . is of all The Shire from which the hobbits come; Tolkien wrote of it:

"Any corner of that county (however fair or squalid) is in an indefinable way ‘home’ to me, as no other part of the world is.” But the village of Hobbiton itself with its mill and river is to be found not in Worcestershire but in Warwickshire, now half hidden in the red-brick skirt of Birmingham but still identifiable as the Sarehole where Ronald Tolkien spent four formative years.

Tolkien once told an interviewer: ‘The Hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects the generally small reach of their imagination—not the small reach of their courage or latent power.”

To put it another way, the hobbits represent the combination of small imagination with great courage which (as Tolkien had seen in the trenches during the First World War) often led to survival against all chances.

"I've always been impressed,” he once said, “that we are here, surviving, because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds.” CH

By Humphrey Carpenter

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #78 in 2003]

Excerpted from Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977). Permissions granted by the Estate of Humphey Carpenter.
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