THE PHILOSOPHICAL ETYMOLOGY
OF HOBBIT

wizard & ring

By Stan McDaniel

Copyright ©& 1994, 2000 by Stan McDaniel all rights reserved

This essay, which won for the author the honorary degree of "Dr. of Hobbit Letters" from the American Tolkien Society, was made available as a printed chapbook published by the American Tolkien Society, Box 373, Highland, MI 48357-0373. Current availability is uncertain. Brief quotations appearing in the body of this essay are from The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, published by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston (1966). The quotation at the beginning is from Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning by Owen Barfield, published by McGraw-Hill, NY (1954)

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"Now by our definition of a 'true metaphor,' there should be some
older, undivided 'meaning' from which all these logically disconnected, but
poetically connected ideas have sprung." --Owen Barfield

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1. The Unconscious Origin of Hobbit

Tolkien once said of his stories that they grow "like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind," adding that his own personal "compost-heap" was made "largely of linguistic matter." The word hobbit came out of that inner ferment. It was not a piece of accidental trivia vaguely connected with rabbit or hobby (as some have thought), and it was not a deliberate, consciously chosen name. It came to Tolkien in a rare moment of spontaneous intuition. Tolkien subsequently developed that intuition into one of the most unusual uses of philology in literature. He was busy grading examination papers when the word popped into his mind, not alone but as part of a whole sentence:(1)

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Tolkien trusted his philological intuition. When a name occurred to him in this manner, he usually gave it a second look. And this case was unusual in that an entire sentence was involved, not just a single name. So, even though he had formed no idea of a story or of any of its characters, he said of the occasion, "Eventually I thought I'd better find out what hobbits were like." For Tolkien the philologist, this meant something different from the ordinary course. Instead of giving imagination a free rein, Tolkien turned to research. He would subject such names to a "severe philological scrutiny." If a name had little philological interest, he was not disposed to use it.(2)

Tolkien's philological scrutiny of In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit turned out to be uncommonly productive. The way in which he eventually based a complex, rich, yet accessible story upon an etymological ground may be something unique in literature. Yet there are no published remarks by Tolkien about the research he must have undertaken and its relation to the story of the hobbit.

Here, however, a point of clarification is needed. There is a kind of fictional account of the origin of hobbit, which appears in the text and appendices of Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Fictionally, Tolkien characterizes himself not as author, but as translator of ancient manuscripts dating back to the Elder Days. In those manuscripts (the story goes) the word used by hobbits to refer to themselves is not hobbit at all, but kuduk, an odd-sounding expression supposed to derive from a yet older term originating in the land of Rohan and used to apply to hobbit-kind: kud-dukan, meaning "hole dweller."

Now Tolkien needed "English" words to translate kud-dukan and kuduk. Wishing to preserve the sense that kuduk is a "worn-down" form of kud-dukan, Tolkien first made up an "Old English" sounding word, holbytla (for hole-builder), as his "translation" of kud-dukan. Then he invented hobbit to represent a "worn-down" or modern English version of holbytla.(3)

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But this is the fictional account. It does not represent the actual origin of hobbit, which was spontaneous and unplanned, occurring before any of the names kud-dukan, kuduk, or holbytla had been thought of. And this provides a clue: Kuduk and kud-dukan came after hobbit, so their form was almost certainly influenced by philological considerations. If so, these terms may serve as guides to the true etymological background of hobbit.

In order to understand just how hobbit is related to kuduk, and how Tolkien's story about hobbits is connected to philology, it is necessary to refer to a property of language which I call the eidophonetic property, or the relation between idea and sound.(4)



2. The Concept of Eidophonetics

The words we use daily did not spring into being overnight, but grew from other words, which in turn grew from others, back into the unknown past. Even a very brief study shows that families of meanings, over the long course of time, attach themselves to particular families of sounds. Words gathered in this way are cognates, "born together."

For example, Latin caput is related to English head through changes in the sound of the consonants: the initial hard c "softens" to h, the final hard t is replaced by its softer relative d, and the middle consonant p drops out altogether. Thus head might be called a "worn-down" form of caput.

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From the point of view of sound alone the growth of new words from old ones in this manner is not a great mystery. But when the relations between the meanings of the different words in such word-families come to be considered, satisfactory explanations are often hard to find. Are the different meanings related through some underlying idea, or are they gathered together merely by chance?

It was common for philologists to look for simplistic explanations of the relations between meanings in phonetically associated words. Such "explanations" were often nothing more than a guess. But Tolkien was anything but simple. The spontaneous upwelling of In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit was undoubtedly triggered by a deep response to certain relations of meaning not accounted for by the "guesses" of traditional linguistics.

The reason for the inability of linguists to give a satisfactory account of sound-meaning patterns is the persistence of the "official view" regarding the origins of language. The official view is that sounds are connected to meanings "arbitrarily" (by accident) in all but a few unimportant cases. But certain trends in such diverse fields as philosophy, psychology, religious mythology, cosmology, poetics and, very recently, linguistics itself, indicate that the relation of idea to sound is far more complex than this. For example, in the paper "Image and Sound: An Archetypal Approach to Language" Paul Kugler accounts for the relationship between meanings and sounds in terms of the images of archetypal psychology.(5)

"When different aspects of the same archetypal image are realized in language they tend to seek similar sound patterns and form a complex of phonetically associated words."

If this is true, then the meaning-relations among word families require deep treatment and cannot be explained as a simple matter of chance.

For convenience in referring to this topic without presupposing the bias of any particular theory, I have chosen the expression Eidophonetics, defined as the study of historical sound-meaning relationships in their capacity for expressing leading ideas. A "leading idea" is an abstract notion that binds together a cluster of concrete images so as to express a definite way of organizing experience and responding to the world.(6) When words that are related in sound also have meanings expressive of a leading idea, we have a case of the eidophonetic property of language.

Tolkien's hobbit and kuduk, as I will show, belong together within just such an eidophonetic group. An exploration of the philosophical etymology of these terms will serve to illuminate the concept of eidophonetics, while at the same time it will explain many features of The Hobbit: we will find that Tolkien's story draws a major part of its action from the meanings of words in this eidophonetic group.



3. Hobbit's True Relatives

Figure 1

When Tolkien began his "severe philological scrutiny" of In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit, he would have had no difficulty understanding the correct linguistic ground. His specialty was the languages shown in Figure One (he wrote an Icelandic dictionary and was fluent in Latin, Greek, Gothic, and Anglo-Saxon). When he first encountered Gothic, his biographer reports that he did not merely learn the language, but postulated possible Gothic words that might have existed, but were not recorded.(7) In just that way hobbit slides into the list below with convincing ease.(8)

Phonetically, these terms are variations on the same consonantal theme.(9) But what is the connection in meaning? If we go by this list, "hobbits" must have something to do with "heads." What relation can there be between the idea of a "head" and the story of the hobbit? We must not forget that the entire sentence was In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Translated, this yields "In a hole in the ground there lived a head" --seeming nonsense. Most persons, even if they became aware of the phonetic connection between hobbit and head, would dismiss it as accidental and unrelated to the story. This way out, however, is not open to the philologist, who must note the remarkable fact that the family to which head belongs traces back beyond caput to an ancient Sanskrit word gupa, which means, not too surprisingly, "a hole in the ground."

This makes it impossible, without doing linguistic violence and denying Tolkien's expertise and his acknowledged procedure for choosing names, to separate hobbit from the words meaning "head."

Obvious to the philologist, as it certainly must have been to Tolkien (one can almost hear him chuckling), is the sentence's etymological reading: "In a gupa there lived a caput." The alliteration arises because the meanings "head" and "hole" are attached to linguistic/phonetic siblings. Is there, then, also an eidophonetic relation between heads and holes? Do they both participate in a leading idea? And if so, what might that leading idea be?



4. King Golfimbul's Folly

There is striking evidence that Tolkien began speculating on this right away. Early in The Hobbit he inserted an anecdote about precisely the curious connection we have just uncovered, that is, the connection between heads and holes. The anecdote draws upon the meanings of four words from the "head" family and includes a philological suggestion regarding two more words from that family. Readers will recall the unfortunate goblin-king whose CAPUT was knocked off by a KUFR, whereupon it sailed a hundred yards through the air like a GUDA, landing finally in a GUPA. You can determine the English meaning of this scenario by using the table of cognates (Figure Two).

Figure 2

Golfimbul was the name Tolkien selected for the goblin-king. He gave the name Took (hobbit spelling: Tuk) to the fierce hobbit whose club stroke knocked off the king's head. This particular Took was Bandobras "Bullroarer" Took, one of Bilbo Baggins' ancestors (Bilbo being, of course, the hero of The Hobbit).

The name of the king, Golfimbul, turns the anecdote into an awkward pun. Tolkien explains, at the end of the tale, that when Golf -imbul's head flew into the hole, the game of golf was invented--a silly joke. The reader has the impression that Tolkien went out of his way to give the Goblin an absurd name, just for the sake of punning on the English word golf.

If this were Tolkien's usual style, it might be excused. But as a matter of fact there are no comparably bad word-plays in the book. Furthermore, Tolkien later revised the book, removing from it many of the passages he considered "childish" but had allowed in the first edition. Why did he not remove this contrary-to-style pun? Was it important to him for some reason? A bit of detective-work reveals the reason for its importance: The connection between golf and goblin turns out to be a philological arrow pointing directly to the "head" family of words. Both of these terms are listed as of obscure origin, and the best speculation by philologists has been that they probably belong to the same family as caput and gupa.

Thus golf is thought by some experts to be related to English goaf, spelled g-o-l-f in Icelandic and Swedish. Goaf, or golf, refers to a bay, bin, or concavity in which material is stored, or to the stored material itself. It also takes the form gob and is cognate with gupa. And goblin has been traced to Medieval Latin cobalus, from a probable Old Teutonic expression kobwalt "house ruler." The first element of this, kob "cove, house," is also cognate with gupa.(10)

To draw attention to golf and goblin in a context of heads, holes, balls, and clubs--houbets, gupas, gudas, and kufrs--is an unmistakable linguistic signal that the focus of interest is the "head" family of words. The seemingly awkward pun has a serious philological point.



5. The Exuberant Tooks

As to Bullroarer Took (Tuk), the sturdy kuduk whose kufr knocked off the king's head with a single blow: Tuk is an English word, an old way of spelling tuck. And tuck means just what it ought to mean in this situation, that is, "stroke" or "blow"-- exactly what Bullroarer did to Golfimbul's head. Tuck is cognate with Italian tocco "knock, stroke" and stocco "truncheon, club." (We recall Friar Tuck in Robin Hood, who bests Robin with a blow from his trusty staff and thus lives up to his name.) Clearly Tolkien chose the name to suit the action (and disposition) of the character.(11) So the names Golfimbul and Took are in the anecdote for a reason. They not only reflect the action of the story through their etymology, but they also alert the interested reader to two word-families, the "head" family and the "tuck" family.



6. Kuduk Puts It All Together

Figure 3

Now we are able to reconstruct the secret of kuduk, the word Tolkien chose as the term hobbits used for themselves, and for which hobbit is the (fictional) translation. Kuduk has the special role of linking together the "head" family and the "tuck" family of words. Although it may not look so to the modern eye (to which the ear wrongly defers), kuduk nestles phonetically right inside the "head" family along with hobbit. It is possible to construct an unbroken phonetic chain linking hobbit with kuduk.

This chain "happens" because of the common linguistic phenomenon of reduplication or "echoing" of consonants. We see examples of reduplication in the Sanskrit head-cognates gudaka "ball" and gutika "cocoon." The gutteral consonants g and k "reflect" in two ways off the central dental sounds d or t: G-D-K, G-T-K. In the case of kuduk, the reduplication is perfect: K-D-K. Thus the chain starts with hobbit, moves through the Indo-European root of all the "head" words, gu- "curve," and ends with kuduk comfortably at home with its reduplicative relatives gutika and gudaka.

To appreciate fully the rationale for this revealing sequence of cognates, one has to take into account both the sounds and the meanings. Although the p consonant above gu- is replaced by d below it, the shift is firmly justified by the constancy of meaning, "guard, preserve." This constancy shows us that the dominant image in the series is the root gu- "curve."

What does curve have to do with guarding and preserving? The answer is given by the remainder of the meanings in the series, which reveal a clearly discernible eidophonetic pattern -- the leading idea of the Sheltering Curve.



7. The Sheltering Curve

Our etymological exploration of hobbit has uncovered a leading idea, the basis of eidophonetic pattern. The leading idea in this case has to do with curvature in its role as the indispensable requirement for the existence of a self-identical being, whose body must curve back upon itself in order to maintain its integrity; and with guarding, the preservation of that rounded and important self within an enclosure that matches its own bodily curvature. The images are quite consistent: A pearl within the curving shell of the oyster; a silkworm within its cocoon; a kernel safe inside the enclosing nutshell; a mouthful inside the cavity of the mouth (mother crocodiles shelter hatchlings within their jaws); one's own body protected from the elements by clothing; and finally, the "head" within the hole (kuduk, hobbit).

Knowing the etymological background, we can now easily explain Bilbo's dwelling-place: Recalling that kob "house" is cognate with gupa "hole in the ground," we can construct the following etymologically correct (though multilingual) version of Tolkien's original inspiration: The houbet's kob is a gupa --that is, "The head's house is a hole in the ground."

Why should the focus be upon the head and the protection of the head? For those familiar with the symbol systems of ancient mythology, the answer is not difficult to discern.

Entering this perspective, the focus becomes the process of childbirth and the protection of the individual throughout his or her growth from birth to maturity. In the symbol systems of the ancient world, the emphasis in birth is placed upon the head, for it is the rounded head, or crest of a thing, that first pushes its way out of the birth-matrix. Consider the boil or pimple, which first raises a rounded lump on the skin, then "comes to a head" at its peak moment of transformation. Accordingly in etymology, among the descendants of the "curve" root gu- we find guga and guzas "boil, pustule, knot." A newborn child emerges from the womb head first, the head covered over by a protective membrane: The gu- cognate kuif means "the top of the head," while a coif is "a close-fitting hat."

Kuif is also the crest, top, or growing tip of a tree. In mythological tradition, childbirth was thought of as analogous to the oozing of rounded globules of resin seeping out of the trunk of a conifer like little pearls or "heads." Thus gu- cognates Kott and copal refer to pine resin. For this among other reasons, the fir tree was the birth-tree of Northern Europe.(12)

There are several confirmations of this birth-context in The Hobbit. One of them is the riddling answer Bilbo gives when Smaug the dragon asks, "Who are you, and where do you come from?" Bilbo says, "I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me." (13) The answer to this riddle is clearly something that develops within, and is born from, a womb.(14)

Thus the head represents the birth, identity, integrity, and growing-point of an individual being--that which curves upon itself, and so must be protected by curvature of various sorts, from the containing curve of the skin to caps, helmets, caves, houses, and hobbit-holes. I call this leading idea the idea of the Sheltering Curve. A hobbit-hole, dug into a hillside with arched ceilings, round doors, and round windows, protecting the hobbit or "head" within, is a paradigm instance of the Sheltering Curve.



8. Fly Away, Little Bird !

Another confirmation of the birth-context in The Hobbit is found in the chapter "Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire." Here Bilbo and his companions are chased up some trees (fir, larch, and pine) by Wargs, the fierce wolves who live on the Edge of the Wild in the forests of the Misty Mountains and who consort with goblins. Gandalf the wizard tries to frighten the Wargs away by igniting pine-cones and hurling them down among the beasts. But goblins arrive on the scene and turn the fire against the trapped company, setting the trees ablaze beneath them.(15) Just as all seems lost, the great eagles of the Misty Mountains swoop down, plucking the company from the treetops and taking them to safety in their mountain eyries.

As explained above, the fir-tree (especially the silver fir) was the principal birth-tree of Northern Europe. The old Irish word for the silver fir was ailm, a word also applied to the palm tree. And the palm is the birth-tree of the Middle East in which the Phoenix-bird is born, consumed by fire, and reborn.(16) The Greek name for the silver fir was elate, a component of the name Eileithyia (Elate-Thuia) given to the Great Mother as the goddess of childbirth. The goddess was typically depicted with one arm raised holding a pine-torch.(17) It is certainly the pine-torch of the Birth Goddess that the goblins invoke when in their wild chanting they refer to the burning trees as

A fizzling torch / To light the night for our delight / Ya hey!(18)

One expects the hobbit and his friends, like the Phoenix that is reborn in its fiery ailm, to be compared to birds. Tolkien does not disappoint us. The goblins chant,

Fifteen birds in five firtrees / Their feathers were fanned in a fiery breeze!(19)

And (as though to make sure we get the point),

Fly away little birds! Come down little birds! Sing, sing little birds!(20)

To complete the birth-tree image, the "little birds" do fly away--with the help of the great eagles of the Misty Mountains, whose wings bear them aloft.

Tolkien gives an added dimension to this spectacular version of the rebirth of the Phoenix by means of an important structural element of the story: the number of travelers. When Bilbo Baggins is selected to accompany the dwarves on their journey, it is explained that the dwarves want him along not only because he is to be their "burglar" but also because there are thirteen dwarves, an unlucky number.(21) Bilbo brought the company up to fourteen, and with the temporary addition of the wizard there were fifteen.

This circumstance is what allows the goblins to sing the crucial line "Fifteen birds in five firtrees!" It is the numbers fifteen and five that additionally confirm the birth-context. The Celtic goddess who presided over the mythical Cauldron of Rebirth was Cerridwen, and her cauldron was known by many names including The Sweet Cauldron of the Five Trees. In general the number five was sacred to the Great Goddess.(22) By placing Bilbo and his friends in "five trees" Tolkien has situated them symbolically within the cauldron of rebirth.

What then is the significance of the number fifteen? We have here a reference to the linguistic-alphabetic mysteries which were part of the symbol-system of the goddess. In the ancient tradition trees were closely associated with letters. Robert Graves quotes Davies as noting that "in all Celtic languages trees means letters," and that "the most ancient Irish alphabettakes its namefrom a series of trees."(23)

The five "trees" of the Cauldron of Rebirth stood for the five vowels of the tree-alphabet, the first of which was the birth-vowel "A" and was named ailm, after the silver fir.(24) In this alphabet, the number of consonants was fifteen. Tolkien must have been considerably amused by his image of fifteen bedraggled "consonants" clinging desperately to five fiery vowels.

Today such things as letters and alphabets are thought of as rigid and mechanical, having nothing to do with matters of life, death, and rebirth. But in the ancient way this was not the case. Letters of the tree-alphabet were part of a calendrical symbol system that epitomized the seasonal cycles of change as yearly affirmations of the powers of renewal. Rebirth, and therefore continuity of Being, was possible because of the cyclic order. Beyond the rebirth of Bilbo Baggins we can discern Tolkien's own magnificent contribution: His works have within them the power of rebirth for the spoken and written word. At the deepest levels he has given us a means for experiencing anew the ancient vitality of speech--lest we forget.



9. The Ambivalence of Bilbo Baggins

It is a well-known fact that any curve has two sides: Curves may be either concave or convex. And it is also well known that the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the hero of Tolkien's story, has two sides to his personality. His father was Bungo Baggins, not a very formidable hobbit; but his mother was Belladonna Took, a direct descendant of fierce Bullroarer's fierce brother Ferumbras.

The struggle between the Baggins and the Took side of his ancestry is, for Bilbo, the effort to reconcile comfort and security with adventure and growth. In both cases, shelter looms importantly; but shelter on the road may take quite different forms than the friendly curves of the hobbit-hole. The eidophonetic reflection of this lies in the two curves, concave and convex (like cocoons and clubs), that have their representatives in the linguistic family. These complementary curves represent polarity, and by kuduk the polarity is represented in two ways: Through sound, by the reduplication of consonants as a kind of mirror-image,

Display 3

and through meaning, by the contact of the reflected poles with phonetically cognate forms. Kuduk is a brilliantly crafted piece of philological invention. It not only meshes tightly with the "head" words as shown earlier, but it also splits the word-stream into two branches, one describing the Baggins side, the other the Took side (Fig. 4).

Figure 4

Here the polar ambiguity of the Sheltering Curve is expressed as two modes of protection: defensive arch and attacking bow; defensive concealment and attacking thrust; defensive hole and attacking "knock" (sharp blow). This is the eidophonetic result of intruding kuduk into the stream of sounds and meanings.

And finally, the meanings that divide the two branches describe perfectly the character of the two clans of hobbits, Bilbo's dual ancestry. On the kud- side of the family we have the fat bellies and the concealing arches of the Bagginses and their hobbit-holes. Even Bilbo's greedy relatives, the Sackville-Bagginses, are represented through Welsh cwd (pron. "kood") and English cod: "sack" and "bag" respectively.

On the -duk side are the signs of the rambunctious Tooks. If anything might be the emblem of that clan, it is the tuck or rapier, a small double-edged sword used for thrusting. Bilbo was, of course, very much involved with such a sword. He called his small sword Sting, and it was a chief sign of his ability to take on the world and grow. At the very beginning of The Hobbit, when Bilbo's pride is challenged by the dwarves who doubt his courage,

Something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished
to go and see the great mountains and hear
the pine trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves,
and wear a sword instead of a walking stick.(25)

A sword instead of a walking stick--interesting comparison, between a weapon and a crutch. What kind of a sword? For Bilbo it turned out to be a tuck. Why compare it with a stick? Because stick is cognate with tuck. Both words come from Sanskrit stij- or tij- "be sharp." And why did Bilbo call his sword Sting? Because stachel, in Middle High German, cognate with tuck and stick, means "sting."

Here again, the structure of the paragraph reflects the etymology. The walking-stick, the sword, the name of the sword, and the name of the adventurous branch of Bilbo's family, all belong to the same etymological/phonetic configuration: stick, tuck, stachel, took, and sting.



10. Action, Plot, and Etymology

This ingenious weave of meanings, based upon the polarity of the leading idea, is what allows Tolkien to construct passages like the following one about Bilbo, fitting the action to the etymology.

He took from the box a small sword. "This is Sting," he said, and thrust it without effort deep into a wooden beam.(26)

An odd thing for a Baggins to do! Hardly polite of Bilbo to damage one of the posts in Elrond's fine house where Bilbo is an honored guest. Yet not so strange for the odd son of Belladonna Took: In six ways Bilbo's action (otherwise unaccountable) expresses the philology of tuck. Compare the group of cognates in Figure Five below with the passage from The Hobbit just given, and you will see the singular way in which Tolkien has brought together meaning, behavior, and philology.



Figure 5

This correlation between story action and etymology is not an isolated case or a coincidence. Not only does it build upon the material already discussed, but it is only a relatively minor example of what turns out to be the book's essential literary texture. The "head" words alone represent a group of meanings that uniquely identify the story of Bilbo Baggins. This is after all only what was to be expected, in view of Tolkien's avowed method of researching the etymology of a name to "find out" its story.

Below is a summary of important story-elements in The Hobbit. Beneath each paragraph are the corresponding terms from the "head" family. The terms shown are only a small part of the overall linguistic foundation on which The Hobbit is built. Although I have carried out the necessary philological reconstruction in considerable detail, there is no space in this paper to present all of that material. A brief display will have to suffice.



11. The Story of the Kuduk

Kuduks, also known as Hobbits, are short plump persons with very big appetites, who hide very quickly and easily.

Display 4a

They seek comfort and security, living in tube-shaped underground dwellings having circular doors and windows. One of them, Bilbo, lives in the finest of these at the top of the highest hill in Hobbiton.

Display 4b

They sport curly hair on feet and head, and boast quaint family names like Chubb and Sackville-Baggins.

Display 4c

Bilbo serves a party of dwarves almost everything in his pantries, including some round seed-cakes of which he is especially fond.

Display 4d

The dwarves doubt Bilbo's courage, so he reminds them of his ancestor Bullroarer Took, who knocked off King Golfimbul's head with a wooden club, the head sailing through the air like a ball and landing in a rabbit hole.

Display 4e

Bilbo goes away with the dwarves, borrowing a hood and cloak. During his adventure he hides in caves, treetops, and eagle's nests.

Display 4f

He finds a magic ring, which protects him by concealing him from view. He uses the ring to conceal himself in his heroic fight with giant spiders, which he calls attercops and crazy cobs.(27) He is eyed as food himself by the spiders and others (including trolls), who refer to him as a tasty morsel and a mouthful.

Display 4g

He rides on barrel-bellied ponies, and even on barrels: these latter being casks in which fruit has been stored, upon which Bilbo floats down a stream to escape captivity.

Display 4h



12. The Philosophical and Literary Result

By this synthesis of story and philology Tolkien fulfilled the promise of his creative intuition, making it possible forever after to find out what hobbits are like through the etymology of their name. This achievement (which has only been briefly sketched here) is much more than a purely literary exercise carried out for the sake of a charming story. It is in addition a type of theoretical extrapolation in the science of philology. It suggests that the evaluation of cognate forms demands a deeper analysis of eidophonetic phenomena than heretofore suspected. It involves a critique of certain aspects of linguistics, and ranges from suggestions regarding the etymology of particular words to a general interpretation of the leading idea, the basis of eidophonetic pattern.

In this latter capacity Tolkien's work comes to bear upon philosophical cosmology and its relation to individual selfhood. The quality of eidophonetic pattern is to draw meanings together as the expression of a unifying world principle. The principle involved is nondualistic, conveying a constant sense of the unity of speech, thought, and action. Here Tolkien's work anticipates active strains in modern thought, including archetypal psycholinguistics, a Jungian-based theory of eidophonetic phenomena.

In my view it is just this philosophical, extrapolative aspect of Tolkien's "fiction," operating of course unconsciously behind the scene, that accounts for its magnetic and almost universal popular appeal. The complex web of Tolkien's thought reaches the reader through image rather than intellection, giving it a special sort of lasting impact.

One perceptive reviewer made the interesting comment that Tolkien's novels are not so much fantasy as they are "super science fiction." Although Tolkien is not working with the "hard" sciences that are the usual basis of science fiction, his speculative development of anomalies in philological theory places his work within that literary type. The framing of his works in the mode of fantasy or fairytale may be viewed as a result of its eidophonetic base: the extrapolation of the world from the science. For Tolkien, philology comes first, fantasy after.

Tolkien's hobbit-stories may constitute a pivotal point in the history of science fiction and fantasy, by establishing for them more firmly than ever a base in the symbol-forming activity of human consciousness. If so, Tolkien has indeed written super science fiction. And we are only beginning to discover how super it really is.





NOTES



1. Carpenter, Humphrey: Tolkien: The Authorized Biography, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1977, page 172. (return)

2. The account of Tolkien's creative process given in this and the previous paragraphs is from Carpenter, Op. Cit., pages 94, 126, 172. (return)

3. Tolkien, J. R. R.: The Return of the King, Geo. Allen & Unwin, London, 1955. Appendix E, page 487; Appendix F, pages 519-20. (return)

4. I have coined the expression eidophonetic (idea + sound) because I find no other general, or theory-neutral, term for this phenomenon. See Barfield, Owen: Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1964 (esp. Ch. IV, pages 86-89). (return)

5. Kugler, Paul: "Image and Sound: An Archetypal Approach to Language" Spring, 1978, p. 143. Kugler's view is based upon the results of actual experiments in word association carried out by Freud and Jung. (return)

6. I use the more general term "leading idea" rather than "archetypal image" so as to remain relatively neutral with regard to the perspectives of archetypal psychology. (return)

7. Carpenter, Humphrey, Op. Cit., page 48. (return)

8. In this and similar typographical displays the words are not presented in linear historical sequence but are arranged so as to give the best presentation of the topic. (return)

9. Here we see the hard p of caput softened to b in haubith, f in hufudh, and disappearing in head. Compare also Span. cabeza, "head." (return)

10. Etymological references include: The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1971), The Century Dictionary and Encyclopedia, ed. Wm. D. Whitney (Century Co., New York, 1899), A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, ed. Monier-Williams (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1970), An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, ed. Ernest Weekly (Dover Publications, New York, 1967), and similar reference works. (return)

11. Although Tolkien states in his "Guide to the Names in the Lord of the Rings" that Took is "of unknown origin," this refers to its fictional status. He has, to the contrary, given a clear statement that Took is to be associated with tuck by means of his map of The Shire, where, in the area settled by the Took clan of hobbits he places the villages of Tookbank and Tuckborough next to each other. He also names the large town in that area, from which the Tooks probably migrated across the Brandywine river into Buckland, Stock, which is the English synonym and cognate of tocco, stocco, and tuck. (return)

12. Pine resin was considered sacred, and has been called the Fluid of Life or the "Tears of Helen." Cf. Graves, Robert: The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 1948, page 190; and Allegro, John M.: The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, Doubleday & Co., New York, 1970, page 74. (return)

13. Tolkien, J. R. R.: The Hobbit, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1966. Page 235. (return)

14. Cp. Gu- cognates: Low German kutte "womb" and Old English kite "belly, stomach." (return)

15. Ibid., Chapter VI. (return)

16. Graves, op. cit., page 190. (return)

17. Allegro, op. cit., pages 72-74, page 250 endnote 60. According to Allegro, both Elate and Thuia appear in Greek names for the pine. Allegro cites the botanist Theophrastus as reporting that the prophets call the resin of the silver fir "the menses of Eileithyia." (return)

18. Tolkien, op. cit., page 116. (return)

19. Ibid. (return)

20. Ibid. (return)

21. Ibid., page 27. (return)

22. Graves, op. cit., page 189. (return)

23. Ibid., page 38. (return)

24. Ibid., pages 189-193. (return)

25. Ibid., page 24. (return)

26. Tolkien, J. R. R.: The Fellowship of the Ring, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, and Geo. Allen & Unwin, London, 1954, page 290. It may not be entirely coincidental that a bilbo is a type of Spanish sword (so named because of its manufacture at Bilbao, a city in Northern Spain). (return)

27. Old English attercoppe, "spider," is a combination of attor "poison" and coppe, cop "head." (Cf. Ryan, John S., "The Shaping of Middle-Earth's Maker," American Tolkien Society, 1992, page 37.) A spider seems to be "all head" and has a sting. Thus in the story one "poison-head" (the hobbit carrying a sting) is pitted against another (the attercop): Bilbo's vanquishing of the spiders marks a kind of self-overcoming. (return)