I T is widely known that Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and a philologist: a scholar who studies words and their origins. He had worked as a scholar on the Oxford English Dictionary and knew the English language (and a multitude of other languages) to its very roots. So when Tolkien later spoke of that moment when the word "hobbit" first came to him, he commented: "Names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I'd better find out what hobbits were like. But that was only a beginning." Indeed, "only a beginning" is a ridiculous understatement.
Tolkien really did start with the word "Hobbit." It became a kind of riddle that needed solving. He decided that he must begin by inventing a philological origin for the word "Hobbit" as a worn-down form of an original invented word "holbytla" (which is actually an Anglo-Saxon or Old English construct), meaning "hole builder." Therefore, the opening line of the novel is meant as an obscure lexicographical joke and a weird piece of circular thinking: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hole builder."
T OLKIEN, not content to joke in just one invented language, extends this to a series of philological puns on "hole" and "hole builder" in Old English, Old German ("hohl"), and an invented "Hobbitish" speech ("khuduk") based on constructs from extinct Gothic ("kud-dukan") and prehistoric German ("khulaz") words. (In later years, he would invent two variations in his Elvish language, another one in the language of the Dwarves, and several in the Mannish tongues.) This is an unusual way to develop a character and write a novel, but was clearly an essential part of Tolkien's creative process.
Nearly all aspects of Hobbit life and adventure seem to evolve from names for people and things which themselves dictate the direction of the story. Names resonate with the force of their legends: words that name or describe dragons or demons often carry force over the human imagination even if their history is unknown and tale untold.
With this depth of background, it should not be so surprising that it took Tolkien six years to find out what that first Hobbit was like. In the seventh year, the rest of the world had its first opportunity to read the story about a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins of Bag End and a Winged Fire-dragon named Smaug the Golden. The Hobbit was published in 1937 and rapidly established itself as a children's classic. It would take another 17 years, however, before Hobbits would be heard of again. This came with the publication of The Lord of the Rings in 1954.
Of course, once the word "Hobbit" had a history, then the history of the Hobbit race had to be "discovered" and chronicled by Tolkien. If Hobbits were meant to be quintessentially English, logic dictated that the ancient history of Hobbits and the Anglo-Saxons should have common ground. Consequently, Tolkien "discovered" that the origins of both peoples were lost in...