from The Uncharted Realms of Tolkien, by Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie

Oswestry: Medea Publishing, 2002, pp. 70-71

We would like to suggest that beside quasi-historical pygmies and folklore’s ‘small domestic fairies’ there is a third strand which may have entered into the make-up of hobbits, and that is the humanised animals of beast-fables. It has often been suggested that hobbits are like rabbits, and despite much earnest endeavor to the contrary by everyone from Tolkien himself on down, the link has stuck. For one writer, indeed (TJ Gasque), the hobbits’ consumption of rabbit in LotR (bk. 4, ch. 4, ‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit’) verged on cannibalism. Tolkien’s own comments on the matter are varied but seem overall to reflect a single attitude. Possibly the earliest comes from around 20th January 1938, when Tolkien wrote in a letter replying to one in ‘The Observer’ newspaper (Letters no. 25), ‘Nor indeed was he like a rabbit. He was a prosperous, well-fed young bachelor of independent means. Calling him a ‘nassty little rabbit’ was a piece of vulgar trollery . . .’ Then again we have a comment in one of the drafts for the Appendices of LotR: ‘For another, I must admit that its faint suggestion of rabbit appealed to me. Not that hobbits at all resembled rabbits, unless it be in burrowing. (Peoples of Middle-earth part 1, ch. 2, p. 49). Lastly, in Letters no. 319 we find ‘the trolls’ use of rabbit was merely an obvious insult, of no more etymological significance than Thorin’s insult to Bilbo ‘descendant of rats!’ ’ It seems clear to us that Tolkien liked the faintly humourous similarity in sound of the two words, hobbit and rabbit, but that the link went no deeper. His exasperated repetition of the point that hobbits are not, actually, like rabbits in any more substantial way ought to carry the argument.

This is reinforced if we turn to ‘reality’ and look at live rabbits whilst bearing in mind Tolkien’s hobbits. Rabbits are vegetarians whose bodies are so inefficient at handling plant material that they have to eat their own droppings and reprocess the half-digested material in order to extract enough nutrition to survive. Their temperament seems to be either timid (the wild ones) or near-psychotic (rather a lot of the domestic variety—and they bite). Rabbits burrow and live in warrens, networks of burrows, but unlike hobbit ‘smials’ these are not conspicuous or permanent landscape features. Other than breeding ‘nests’ rabbit-burrows are devoid of bedding. Lastly, rabbits live in groups, but their social structure is loose and polygamous. Far from being shy and inconspicuous, rabbits can be decidedly bold where they perceive no immediate threat, paying little attention to people, animals or machines nearby. Factual rabbits, then, are very unlike hobbits. Most fictional rabbits that Tolkien might have encountered (such as those of Beatrix Potter) are plain humanised animals, coexisting with full-size humans and other animals in the No-Place of nursery story.

The mere existence of the debate about hobbits and rabbits, however, may well be significant. Why should so many people, right from the start of the public career of hobbits, have felt that they are like small furry animals? It is a highly speculative argument, but it could be suggested that they have a point. Tolkien himself included untranslated examples of Elvish in his writings, because he believed that readers would still get something from the words, even if they made no sense. He was right at least in part; unless they dislike the whole book, readers of LotR never seem to complain of the ‘gibberish’ it contains, and a fair number find this strange language attractive enough to want to know more. Just perhaps, people who stubbornly insist on comparing hobbits with rabbits are picking up on a feel, an almost subliminal impression that hobbits ‘are’ in some way furry creatures, just as Elvish languages or for that matter British placenames have a definite ‘flavour’. Odd as such a notion may seem, it would at least account for the continuing hobbit-rabbit debate. There are in any case other reasons for suspecting that beast fable played a part in the make-up of hobbits, which will be discussed elsewhere in this chapter.

[proposes the native English badger as a more likely ‘animal’ model for the burrowing hobbit]

Following on from this, although there may be much truth in Shippey’s theory about Tolkien’s use of constructive anachronism, we beg leave to differ on the importance of rabbits with regard to hobbits for the reasons given above.

Return to Critics Discussion

Excerpted and reprinted without permission solely for purposes of discussion on TheOneRing.net.