THE PHILOSOPHICAL ETYMOLOGY
By Stan McDaniel
Copyright ©& 1994, 2000 by Stan McDaniel all rights reserved
"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
This essay can be had as a printed chapbook published by the American Tolkien Society. Copies may be ordered from the author or from the Tolkien Society, Box 373, Highland, MI 48357-0373. 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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Informal Introductory Comments
J.R.R. Tolkien's tale of a brave little fellow called a "hobbit" in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, though patently one of the greatest literary achievements of the 20th century, has been given cavalier treatment by many critics and in many literary circles. Great literature, it seems, must be "serious" and that means it must not be fantasy. It must take place in the "real world," not a world of imagination (though on reflection we must admit that no fiction actually takes place in the "real world" but only in the world as imagined by this or that author). A similar affliction has, in recent years, also applied to films of the science fiction or fantasy genre, which may be allowed (at times) to win awards for "special effects" but are never taken seriously enough to earn "best picture" or "best actor" trophies. A side effect of this is the unfortunate tongue-in-cheek slant delivered to almost all fantasy films, the need to intrude a joking kind of ridiculousness as though the public has to be told "this is not serious stuff and should not be confused with real art." The downgrading of fantasy, in literature or in film, has had its effect not only on Tolkien but on the genre in general, particularly in the past year affecting the marvelous "Harry Potter" stories of J.K. Rowling, which were finally taken off the general best seller list and relegated to "children's stories" lists because they were so popular they were pushing "serious" literature off the list.
Yet this same affliction, or refusal to grant "seriousness" to fantasy, has also affected some of those who admire Tolkien. When the origin of the word "hobbit" is falsely argued to be a variation of "rabbit" or "hobby," as some authors have regrettably done, such foolish "explanations" seem to be found much more acceptable than the far more "serious" one I am about to present here. Why is this? Why is it that the obvious about Tolkien, namely that he was a genius in philology (the study of language forms, relationships and transformations) and a meticulous researcher, does not take precedence when considering what he almost certainly did when he began to develop the names, characters, and plots of his stories? The answer is not hard to find: most people simply are unfamiliar with the depths of the world of philology; with the perception of languages as living, evolving forms that shift and change according to certain general laws.
In recent decades, a number of scholars have begun to delve more seriously into the relationships between the sounds of words and the meanings of words. Such relationships were thought by the majority of linguists to be what they called "arbitrary" and therefore of little or no importance. However, other writers have begun to recognize what has been called "sound symbolism" or relations among sounds and meanings of certain clusters of words that suggest a common "symbol" or image about which they all revolve. Anthropologist Dell H. Hymes, for example, in an article "Phonological Aspects of Style: Some English Sonnets," states "Insistence on the arbitrary nature of the connection between sound and meaning simply cuts off inquiry into a very real aspect of speech and language." (Essays on the Language of Literature, ed. Chatman & Levin, Houghton Mifflin 1967.) For a more in-depth discussion see my article "The Philology of the Idea: A Note on Eidophonetics.)
It is, I submit, the unfamiliarity with this profound aspect of human consciousness that blinds many to the force of the argument found in the following essay. But Tolkien was familiar with it. He knew how meanings and their related sounds flow in and out of one another according to subtle forces by which languages have shaped our perception of the world. It is out of these depths of understanding that the delight and wonder of his stories have evolved. As he says in one place, "Deep roots are not reached by the frost." Were The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings not so deeply rooted, they would not last as they have and as they will as long as there are books to read, eyes to read them, and hearts to beat to their songs.
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).