What's the enduring allure of Bilbo Baggins?
In an era of Twitter and text messaging, Old English can be a tough sell. But Stephen Yeager — an assistant professor in Concordia’s Department of English — takes an innovative angle on ancient Anglo-Saxon: he uses the work of Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien.
Today is Hobbit Day, the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Why are hobbits so appealing? What is their particular je ne sais quoi?
Stephen Yeager: When you study historical epochs before the advent of journalism, as Tolkien did, then you're stuck with the problem that no matter how much you read, you'll always have some very basic questions about the everyday lives of the people you're reading about.
We know that people in medieval England wrote about elves and dwarves and dragons, but we don't know what they thought those creatures were, or even if they thought they were real. Very little about Tolkien's Middle Earth is made up wholesale: most of the details are imaginatively extrapolated from Old English, Old Norse, Finnish, and other mythologies.
For example, Tolkien's elves are good at archery because the Old English word "ælfscot" ("elf-shot") suggested a popular belief among medieval people that sudden, stabbing pains in your side were caused by arrows shot at you by an elf. One way of reading The Lord of the Rings is to call it a fantasy of what history might look like if we had the whole story, and knew what elves and dwarves and dragons were thought to be like.
Hobbits are the big exception to this rule. Not only did Tolkien completely make them up, but he wrote into their development an explanation for why they aren't attested in any known mythology: they didn't want to be! Their whole purpose as a race is precisely to slip through the cracks of history, so that even the wisest and oldest dragons and ents of Middle Earth have never heard of them.
It's very charming, then, that Tolkien's stories put these regular, retiring and often literally invisible people at their centre and offer us a different view of history, where it isn't just the kings like Aragorn and Theoden who make things happen, but the sorts of "little" folks that history doesn't usually record.
What do hobbits teach us about Old English? And great writing?
SY: Many people don't know that even if Tolkien hadn't written any of his novels, he would be a major figure in 20th-century medieval studies.
He held a very prestigious chair at Oxford, he translated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into modern English, and he wrote important essays on Beowulf, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and early Middle English dialects. But while his scholarship is influential, it's also very personal in much the same way his novels are, and when you read between his Old English sources and his fiction you can really see his mind at work.
As for "great writing," it's funny to ask, because even though Tolkien is a widely beloved author who gets read by basically every North American child between the ages of 12 and 15, there's actually a big contingent of literary critics who think he isn't very good at all! And certainly it is tough to defend some of his choices; there could have been at least one decent orc out of the whole race, perhaps, and the women characters could have been given more to say and do.
But at the end of the day, it's less interesting to either attack or defend him for these sorts of problems than it is to fit them into the bigger picture of his highly original artistic vision, and to try to explain how that vision came to be shared and admired by so many people.
How does one apply hobbits to serious academic study — as you've done with your online Old English course?
SY: Tolkien wrote a preface to The Hobbit, where he explains that the plural of "dwarf" is "dwarves," not "dwarfs," and also the plural of "elf" is "elves." This was not a minor issue to him: when an editor changed them all to "elfs" and "dwarfs," he forced the publisher to redo the proofs to change it back!
Tolkien cared about this spelling because the "-ves" plural of a word ending "-f" is a sign of that word's antiquity; you'll note in the last sentence I wrote "proofs," and I did so because the word came into the language at a later point.
This attention to detail runs throughout all of Tolkien's fiction; from the riddles that Gollum exchanges with Bilbo to the cup that Bilbo steals from Smaug's lair, many of the most striking aspects of Tolkien's text were developed in conversation with the language and literature of Old English. The online course is designed to teach you this history of the English language, and to let you in on this whole additional level of his artistry.
Find out more about Stephen Yeager's Old English course at Concordia.