I just finished re-reading The Hobbit in preparation for the upcoming movie. For anyone curious, it was the annotated edition with notes by Douglas Anderson. Honestly, I think the annotations are a bit sparse.
It took me a while to finish The Hobbit the first time, even though it’s pretty short; I think I kept forgetting where I left off. I do know I was eleven when I finished it, though. I took up Lord of the Rings not long after that, but it was a few years before I read all three volumes. While I can’t understand why they’re making multiple movies based on one not-very-long book, I am looking forward to seeing them.
I have to say that hobbits themselves are one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most successful creations. Looking largely like miniature humans with furry feet, they’re often more human than the actual humans in the books, who are often too busy being epic archetypes to take too much part in the simpler aspects of human life. The hobbits have their own society in the Shire, and tend to be fond of food, drink, and gossip. They also have a clear notion of respectability that involves staying where you belong. Bilbo Baggins starts out quite respectable and becomes much less so in the Shire after his epic adventure. The word “hobbit” itself appears to have been an old English word for a sort of fairy creature, but Tolkien doesn’t seem to have been aware of this. His hobbits are really not fairy creatures except in the sense of existing in fairy tales; they don’t possess any magical powers. It’s interesting that hobbits have become part of popular culture, but usually as “halflings,” due to “hobbit” itself being trademarked. There’s some discussion of this on Wikipedia, including a mention of Ultima’s Bobbits, which would become an unfortunate word choice with a certain incident in 1993.
I also recall the term “hobbit” being used in some versions of Dragon Quest III. I know the NES translation has a character called Norud the Dwarf, but I think he might have originally been Norud the Hobbit.
Of course, in Middle-Earth, dwarves are quite different from hobbits. They’re both small peoples, but the hobbits are smaller, and generally don’t have beards. In The Hobbit, all of the dwarves’ names are taken from the Norse poem of creation known as Voluspa. Well, all except for Balin, but that would still fit in quite well with the names in the poem. Actually, Gandalf is also a dwarf name in the Norse work. The name essentially means “wizard-elf,” and I’m pretty sure elves and dwarves were hardly as distinct in Norse mythology as they would later become in popular culture (largely through Tolkien’s own influence). Gandalf was originally Tolkien’s name for the dwarf who would become Thorin Oakenshield, with the wizard having the name Bladorthin. In the finished manuscript, however, Gandalf was neither elf nor dwarf. He appears to be a human magic-worker, but is later identified as essentially an angel in human form. Speaking of Norse names in Tolkien’s work, the name Gimli was originally given to the future home of the survivors of Ragnarok. In Lord of the Rings, it became the name of another dwarf, the son of Bilbo’s companion Gloin.
Also worth mentioning are the goblins, who kind of get the short shrift in Tolkien’s work, because it appears that it’s impossible to be a goblin (or Orc, as they’re called in Lord of the Rings) and NOT be evil. They’re just thoroughly bad creatures, described as clever workers but only making weapons and other unpleasant items. While I can’t say I thought about it as a kid, comments I’ve read as an adult make me feel this isn’t entirely fair. Tolkien’s goblins are heavily based on those in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, albeit without the soft feet. While Tolkien never decided on an official origin for the Orcs, the one I’ve seen cited the most often is that they were descended from corrupt elves. So if a goblin were to perform good deeds rather than evil, would it no longer be a goblin? I don’t think Tolkien ever went into that much detail, and he apparently came to dislike the corrupt elf origin in later years.