Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Bad puns can be hobbit-forming

In a recent post to the Mythopoeic Society’s email listserv, John Rateliff shared an early reference to Tolkien in Robert Heinlein. John wrote (very slightly edited):
Recently I’ve been re-reading what I suppose is Robert Heinlein’s only fantasy novel, Glory Road. While it’s packed full of allusions to fantasy characters and titles and settings — e.g. John Carter and Dejah Thoris, Ettarre, Storisende and Poictesme, Barsoom, The Red Fairy Book, The Twilight Zone — I was surprised to find a passing Tolkien reference:

She: “. . . we come to a brick road, very nice.”
He: “A yellow brick road?”
She: “Yes. That’s the clay they have. Does it matter?”
He: “I guess not. Just don’t make a hobbit of it …” [1]

This passing pun does not of course mean Heinlein actually read the book […] but it does show his awareness of Tolkien, and his assumption that his audience would share than awareness, a full year before Tolkien went mainstream with the Ace Book controversy in 1965.
This pun — based on the idea of a hobbit = a habit, good or bad — has become so hackneyed in the fifty years since that I now cringe every time I see it, which is still very often. There’s another worn-out pun I see a lot. This one is based on the idea of Tolkien = talking — e.g., “that’s what I’m Tolkien ’bout!” I’m not sure which one has been the more abused of the two, and neither is particularly good. But I got to wondering about the earliest uses of the hobbit = habit.

The first usage to come close to this is the exchange of letters to the editor of The Observer in 1938. On 16 January 1938, The Observer published a letter, signed “Habit”, in which the reader inquired about Tolkien’s sources in The Hobbit [2]. Tolkien’s “jesting reply” (cf. Letters #26, 4 March 1938) was published four days later. I haven’t read the original letter. It’s available from The Observer’s digital archives, but not for free — does anyone have a copy they might share? Without the original at hand, I don’t know whether the original inquirer went beyond merely signing as “Habit”; if not, the tiresome old pun we know today is barely inchoate. The similarity of the words is played on, but the writer may never have gone so far as a pun. Even in his reply, Tolkien is not particularly explicit about it. He calls “the Habit […] more inquisitive than the Hobbit” (Letters #25), but he doesn’t actually go in for the pun either.

Tolkien never seems to stoop to such a low jest himself, in all the writings I can recall. He did connect the two words in another letter I know, but more coincidentally, I think, and not in jest — “The Hobbit was not intended to have anything to do with [‘the matter of the Elder Days’]. I had the habit while my children were still young of inventing and telling orally, sometimes of writing down, ‘children’s stories’ for their private amusement” (#257, 16 July 1964). And he acknowledged the pun again many, many years later: “A review appeared in The Observer 16 Jan 1938, signed ‘Habit’ (incidentally thus long anticipating Coghill’s perception of the similarity of the words in his humorous adj. ‘hobbit-forming’ applied to my books)” (#319, 8 January 1971). It seem likely that Nevill Coghill shared this pun with Tolkien directly at one of the many dinners they attended together, or during meetings of the Inklings; I’m not aware that he ever put in into writing. But Coghill was certainly among the earliest to make this joke; it may even predate publication of The Lord of the Rings. But we can’t be sure. Tolkien refers to Coghill’s pun in 1971, and we have no idea how far back he is looking. It could be five years or ten or more.

In writing, the pun became very common after 1965, with the Ace episode and the revised edition of The Lord of the Rings leading to an enormous growth in Tolkien’s popularity, especially in America. Perhaps the best-known of these early pieces is Henry Resnik’s “The Hobbit-Forming World of J.R.R. Tolkien”, published in The Saturday Evening Post (2 July 1966). Not long after, Joseph Mathewson got into the game with “The Hobbit Habit”, published the September 1966 issue of Esquire. The following winter, Charles Elliott published a peculiarly sour piece in Time called “Can America Kick the Hobbit? The Tolkien Caper” (24 February 1967). A few months after that, Matthew Hodgart reviewed The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Tolkien Reader in The New York Review of Books, captioning his review, “Kicking the Hobbit” (4 May 1967). And then there is Mary Lou Loper’s “Fun is Hobbit-Forming at Tolkien Party”, Los Angeles Times (19 September 1967). And Dainis Bisenieks’s “The Hobbit Habit in the Critic’s Eye”, in Tolkien Journal 3:4 (November 1969). And this is just a selection.

The pun continued to resurface in the years after Tolkien’s initial splash. For example, in connection with the Rankin/Bass animated version of The Hobbit — e.g., “Will the Video Version of Tolkien be Hobbit Forming?”, by John Culhane, in The New York Times (27 November 1972). Then with the publication of The Silmarillion — e.g., “Kicking the Hobbit” by Richard Brookhiser, in The National Review (9 December 1977); “Hobbit Forming”, by Anthony Burgess, in The Observer (18 September 1977); and “The Hobbit Habit”, by Robert M. Adams, in The New York Review of Books (24 November 1977). Carpenter’s biography attracted the same kinds of headlines — e.g., “Hobbit-forming”, by John Carey, in The Listener, Vol. 97 (12 May 1977); and again, “Hobbit Forming”, by Nick Totton, in The Spectator (14 May 1977). And now of course, with the advent of the Peter Jackson film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the pun has become ubiquitous and endless.

But that’s what was so interesting about the source in Robert Heinlein that John Rateliff discovered: it predates the earliest of these by a couple of years. In poking around the virtual stacks, I’ve actually found another reference in fiction that predates Heinlein. It’s in the June 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in a short story called “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: LXIII”, written by Reginald Bretnor, under the anagrammatic pseudonym Grendel Briarton. A feghoot is a short story ending in, and whose whole point is, a dreadful, groan-inducing pun; learn more about feghoots and their history here. So, this particular feghoot builds up to the pun we’ve been talking about here, though the pun was much younger at the time:
Scarcely ten minutes later, he was summoned back by a cry of great agitation.

“Mr. Feghoot!” the alarmed writer exclaimed. “Look — there’s a being! He — he’s only four feet tall, with red cheeks, and a brass-buttoned coat, and — and short breeches. And his feet are all furry! He’s telling me the most wonderful story. But — but he’s a hallucination. He simply took shape there! And you told me the drug would do me no harm!”

“My dear Tolkien,” said Ferdinand Feghoot. “I said it was harmless. I never said it was non-Hobbit-forming.” [3]
But even this isn’t the earliest printed use of this pun that I have found.

For that, you have to go back almost a decade further. On 24 April 1955, The Providence Journal published a very short review of The Two Towers, tersely entitled “Hobbit-Forming”, by Maurice Dolbier [4]. The review is just two paragraphs — the first alarmingly full of plot spoilers for a contemporary review! The review is accompanied by a drawing of Frodo by designer and artist Walter Lorraine, the art director at Houghton Mifflin at the time, and the illustrator of the first US edition dust jackets of The Lord of the Rings. You can sort of make out his illustration in the photo above — apologies for the poor quality, but it’s a sixty-year-old newspaper reproduced from microfiche. Lorraine himself would be an interesting subject for a future post!

A bit off the subject, but still à propos of word-play, isn’t the name Dolbier an interesting coincidence, considering Tolkien’s invention of Dolbear in The Notion Club Papers. I haven’t looked very deeply into the frequency and etymology of these surnames, though I do know there’s an attested variation, Dolbeer, which may be from Welsh Dolbyr “the short vale” or from Dalbyr, a town on the Jutland peninsula, where the family may have originated.

Anyway, to sum up. While it’s possible that Nevill Coghill used the pun earlier than this, I’ve seen no evidence of it in print. And there is the letter to The Observer in 1938, but its author not have gone all the way. I’d like to see that letter if I could. Can anyone antedate the pun to earlier than Dolbier’s use, published 24 April 1955? The pun would still have been pretty fresh and fairly clever in 1955. Unfortunately, it’s been used about a million times since (no exaggeration).

[1] Heinlein, Robert A. Glory Road. 1964, pp. 82–3.

[2] Letters to the Editor, The Observer (16 January, 1938), p. 8.

[3] Bretnor, Reginald [as Grendel Briarton]. “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot: LXIII.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 24:6 #145 (June 1963), p. 102.

[4] Dolbier, Maurice. “Hobbit-Forming (Review of The Two Towers).” The Providence Sunday Journal 24 April 1954, Section 6, p. 10. My enormous gratitude to Kate Wells and the Providence Public Library for this scan.


  1. A minor point worth noting: In newspapers, in particular, and also in general magazines, headlines are usually concocted by sub-editors, and are not the doings of the article's authors.

    1. Thanks, David. I didn't realize that. That's very interesting to learn!

  2. @JF - Dolbear's name was stated by Christopher Tolkien to be that of a well-known Oxford pharmacist, and in England a pharmacist is called a 'chemist' - and Dolbear's model ('Humphrey Havard) - had a degree in chemistry.


    Here is my fanciful etymology as to why Tolkien might have thought the name 'fitted' the character: