The opening line of The Hobbit firmly belongs to the treasury of best-known book openers in literature. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. This short sentence invites readers into a whole new world full of interesting places, charismatic characters and glorious deeds. Both in the world of Middle-earth and outside it this very hobbit-hole becomes the starting point of dangerous journeys and exciting adventures. So what exactly is this dwelling of a hobbit?
The hobbit in question here is Bilbo Baggins, and the place where this respectable gentlehobbit dwells is Bag End. Despite being called a hole, this residence is among the most comfortable and cosiest ones you are likely to find in Middle-earth. Tolkien readily equalled a hobbit-hole with comfort: even though different hobbits live differently, according to their means, in case of Bag End these two words are synonyms:
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats — the hobbit was fond of visitors.
(Hobbit, p. 3)
Full of rooms — all of them on one floor — and furnished in the nicest way possible, Bag End is the embodiment of snugness. It has everything hobbits love and value in their dwellings and, therefore, in their lives: comfort, warmth, simplicity, plenty of food, safety. Built by Bilbo’s father Bungo Baggins to live in with his wife Belladonna Took and occupying a large part of the inside of the Hill, Bag End is also the epitome of luxury and wealth.
The connection between the names of the dwelling and the dweller is no coincidence: the surname Baggins is meant to inspire (for hobbits, at least) associations with Bag End. In his famous conversation with Smaug in Erebor, Bilbo, in his long list of epithets meant to hide his real name, proclaims: “I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me” (Hobbit, p. 258). It is a very vivid, albeit cryptic, description of where Bilbo is from: Bag End.
The name of the hobbit residence is rooted in the real world. Tolkien’s aunt Jane Neave’s farm at Dormston, Worcestershire, was referred to by the locals as Bag End: it was situated at the end of a lane that led to the farm, but not further. Tolkien visited his aunt’s farm and, according to Humphrey Carpenter, might have chosen Bag End as the name of Baggins’ residence to emphasise a personal parallel between himself and hobbits. Bag end is a literal translation of the French term cul-de-sac, which has been in use in the English language since XVIII century, but in case of the Bag End of Middle-earth and its residents, this translation works in a fun and ironically witty way.
Cul-de-sac literally means ‘the bottom of a sack’. The term came into usage in the sphere of anatomy in around mid XVIII century, with the meaning being ‘a vessel, tube or sac open at one end only’. Later on, in about 1800s, the word began to be used about streets closed at one end and leading nowhere. Tolkien’s opting for the coined English term instead of the established French one is by no means an accident.
Tom Shippey sees Tolkien’s using bag end as a translation of cul-de-sac as a pun: the Professor was just making fun of the French terms used in English. After the Norman Conquest French became the language of aristocracy and court, so French words were more often than not chosen over purely English ones because they appeared to sound more high-brow and elite. When Tolkien was in the Sixth Grade at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, one of his teachers was George Brewerton, a medievalist, who fiercely encouraged his pupils to use plain English words instead of loan words or the ones originating in other languages. It was through Mr Brewerton that Tolkien heard The Canterbury Tales read in Middle English for the first time, and that inspired young Ronald to learn more about the history of his own language. Later on Tolkien often chose originally English words in his writings in favour of foreign terms or the ones of foreign origin. The Professor’s using Bag End and Baggins is an essentially English reaction to the abundance of French words in English, as Tom Shippey remarks.
This linguistic pun can be seen continued in the name Sackville-Baggins. Sounding more aristocratic than Baggins, Sackville is English in spite of looking very French. The meaning of the name, however, is very similar to that of Baggins. It is no wonder that Tolkien’s joke on numerous French words in English continues at the expense of some of the most annoying characters in Middle-earth. The fact that Sackville is joined with Baggins makes the whole thing even more humorous.
Being the starting point of many an adventure in the world of Middle-earth, Bag End is snug and cosy, but, even in its comfort and content, it manages to crack linguistic jokes with its name alone. That is definitely something to aspire to.
My sincerest thanks go out to the lovely folk of the Green Dragon for their helpful clarifications of some linguistic matters for this reflection.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012.
- H. Carpenter – J. R. R. Tolkien. A Biography; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2016.
- T. A. Shippey – The Road to Middle-earth: How J. R. R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology;HarperCollinsPublishers; HarperCollins E-Books; London; 2012.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Peoples of Middle-earth; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
- Oxford English Dictionary