Study Guide

The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again What's Up With the Title?

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What's Up With the Title?

The first line of The Hobbit suddenly came to J.R.R. Tolkien as he was in the middle of grading English exam papers:

One of the candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it, which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner, and I wrote on it: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." Names always suggest a story in my mind; eventually I thought I'd better find out what hobbits are like. (source: Quoted in "Introduction," The Annotated Hobbit: Revised and Expanded Edition, pg. 8)

No, we aren't pointing this out to suggest that you leave your test papers blank to spur your teachers' creativity. Instead, we want to think a little bit more about the word "hobbit" as the title of J.R.R. Tolkien's first major novel. If the word "hobbit" was suggestive enough to make Tolkien want to write a whole darn book about it, what does the title The Hobbit make us want to do? Well, the title is an excellent way of marketing a book to a reader: it inspires us with suspense to know more. And because "hobbit" is an entirely made-up word, we want to discover what it could possibly mean. That's right – Tolkien is luring us into cracking open (and possibly buying) his funny-named novel. For more on the origins of hobbit-kind, check out "In a Nutshell" and our "Character Analysis" of Bilbo Baggins.

The Hobbit is also often accompanied by a subtitle: There and Back Again. At the end of the book, Bilbo is comfortably retired and is working on his memoirs: "There and Back Again, a Hobbit Holiday" (19.30). So by using the title of Bilbo's fictional memoirs in the actual title of the book about the guy, Tolkien is blurring the lines between our world and the world of the novel. There and Back Again is also reassuring, since we know just by looking at the cover that Bilbo is going to go somewhere, but will come back – he's not actually going to die in his adventures with goblins and dragons. Phew!

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