September 22nd is Hobbit Day! Hobbit Day, first proclaimed by the American Tolkien Society in 1978, marks the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, characters from J. R. R. Tolkien’s books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s lore, Bilbo was born in the year 2890 and Frodo in the year 2968 of the Third Age.
When did “hobbit” become a word? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1710 “hobbit” was a variant spelling of the word “howitz” or “howitzer,” which was a piece of artillery. The first instance of the word “hobbit” meaning creature appeared in an English folklorist’s collection of pamphlets called the “Denham Tracts: A Classified Catalogue of Antiquarian Tomes, Tracts, and Trifles.” The pamphlet containing “hobbit” was printed in 1853 and is titled: “To all and singular The Ghosts, Hobgoblins, and Phantasms of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, these brief pages are fearlessly inscribed, in utter defiance of their power and influence, by their very humble servante to com’aund, M. A. D.” Some scholars theorize that hobbit could be a derivative of the word hobgoblin. Tolkien certainly would have had access to this pamphlet at Oxford University. In Middle-Earth, however, hobbits are hole-dwelling, easy-going people who are shorter than men, have hairier feet, and are the only species in Middle Earth humble enough for the wizard Gandalf to entrust with the task of carrying the One Ring to its annihilation.
Tolkien first published The Hobbit, or There and Back Again in England on September 21, 1937. The first edition has light green covers stamped in dark blue. Smaug, the dragon of the fantasy novel, can be seen lurking in the cover’s corners. Tolkien, a philologist and creator of languages, actually wrote the runic inscription around the edges of the dustjacket. Translated it reads: “The Hobbit or There and Back Again being the record of a year’s journey made by Bilbo Baggins of Hobbiton compiled from his memoirs by J. R. R. Tolkien and published by George Allen and Unwin Ltd.”
The Lilly Library’s first edition of The Hobbit can be seen until September 26th in the Main Gallery as part of the “One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature” exhibition. Hurry! You only have a few days left!
“howitz, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 16 September 2015.
“hobbit, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 16 September 2015.
Gilliver, Peter, and Jeremy Marshall. The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.
Hammond, Wayne G., and Douglas A. Anderson. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography. Winchester, UK: St. Paul’s Bibliographies, 1993. Print.
Graduate Student in Library Science and Lilly Library Public Services Intern