Where did The Hobbit come from?

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

According to the now well-known story, as reported in Tolkien-Online (an impressive site of Tolkien lore):

. . . he was grading papers . . . when he came across a page which had been left blank. Tolkien was an inveterate doodler on any paper or margin that was available. Many of the earlier stories in his Middle-earth “mythologies” were first recorded this way, and The Hobbit was no exception.

On that blank page, Tolkien wrote the sentence, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” This has since become one of the most recognizable sentences in all of English literature.

But why a hobbit? The idea of pipe-smoking, cozy-hole dwellers with hairy feet was an invention by Tolkien. There has been speculation, which I think is off-track, that there was a connection between “hobbit” and Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel Babbitt. Tolkien himself fueled that by saying it might have influenced him subconsciously. Scholar John Rateliff has confirmed that Tolkien knew of the Babbitt novel and said he had read “all of Lewis’s work.” But I don’t see that as more that a stray idea: Tolkien himself wondering if there was a connection.

Personally, it really makes most sense to me that Tolkien’s subconscious was merging “hob” (also in “hobgoblin”) with the simple idea of a rabbit. After all, the phrase makes sense if you replace the word hobbit with rabbit. But he made up a new word: hobbit. (A free-association spinoff of Babbitt? Of habit? Who knows?) The word just popped out of his semi-idle, absent-minded-professor-grading-papers mind, to his own surprise – which makes it most likely a melding of many diverse ideas.

Then, over the years, Tolkien started to wonder just what a hobbit was.

Significantly, Tolkien was also very familiar with a 1927 book titled The Marvelous Land of the Snergs. The Snergs book , about a race of small human-like beings, “only slightly taller than the average table,” was very popular in the Tolkien household and “probably an unconscious source-book for the Hobbits” (he told W.H. Auden). Here’s more about the many connections of Snergs and Hobbits. Some of the similarities between Bilbo the Hobbit and Gorbo the Snerg are quite remarkable.

Gorbo the Snerg

Gorbo the Snerg

As a writer/editor, I tend to think that the hobbit phrase was most likely a case of spontaneous creative combustion. It happens. Scholars may not like the lack of clear antecedents, but I think of Tolkien’s own words about his creative process:

One writes such a story out of the leaf-mould of the mind.

(Leaf-mould being notoriously hard to properly document and footnote.)

For instance, Tolkien took a youthful Alpine trek in 1991. From that, he brought home a postcard that he saved, eventually placing it is an envelope that he would mark as the origins of Gandalf, the great wizard of Middle-earth. The postcard showed a painting of “the spirit of the mountain”: an old man with flowing beard, broad-brimmed hat and long cloak, sitting on a rock under a pine.

To me, the story of the scrap of paper with “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” jotted down has the most to do with the story of how Dr. Seuss came up with And To Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street.

Returning from a trip to Europe, Theodor Geisel was stuck on a boat for eight days, listening to the ship’s engine chug away, chug away, chug away. The rhythmic sound got stuck in his head, and he started writing phrases to the rhythm. Those lines turned into his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.

To keep from going nuts, I began reciting silly words to the rhythm of the engines. Out of nowhere I found myself saying, “And that is a story that no one can beat; and to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.”

(Mulberry Street was a real-life street near his grandparents’ bakery in Geisel’s hometown of Springfield, Mass.)

So leaf-mould, chugging engines, well-worn postcards, odd moments of free-association, snippets of stray thoughts jotted down on scraps of paper, cocktail napkins, backs of envelopes – these are the places where great stories can be born.

From a single, silly phrase.

The takeaway tip for writers: jot down those lovely, mysterious phrases that roll around in the mind and pop out now and then. Save them. Snippets are your friends. Many a wonderful story has come from the briefest image or odd string of words that sounds so appealing. “In a hole in the ground there lived . . . ” Lived what? . . . maybe your next story!

[Post author Philip Martin is author of The Purpose of Fantasy and How To Write Your Best Story, both available on Kindle.]