The Meaning of Names in "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

October 16, 2012
Custom User Avatar
More by this author
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit cannot be considered simply a rollicking story of fantasy. Though the tone of the book is notably lighter than that of the preceding Lord of the Rings saga, The Hobbit still holds as much allegorical depth as the books which follow it. Many of its characters are merely symbols or representatives of greater forces in the world. This is a fact that most educated scholars of Mr. Tolkien’s time would understand, as they noted the characteristics of each individual cleverly woven into their names. J.R.R Tolkien was not merely a writer, but also a specialist in Philogy, the study of the evolution and transformations of language. This mastery of linguistics is evidenced in the author’s careful attention to the naming of the characters in The Hobbit.

The protagonist, Bilbo Baggins, has a significant meaning behind both his name and the name of his kind. A Hobbit, the namesake of the Mr. Tolkien’s book, and the race of Bilbo himself, bares similarities to the word holbytla, and Old English word which can be translated as “hole-builder.” Incidentally, the opening sentence of the book begins “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” This introduction makes the naming of Bilbo’s species seem vastly appropriate, as the author’s first information about the strange creature known as a “Hobbit” is that it lives in a hole. As the J.R.R Tolkien continues to describe the natures of Hobbits in general, it becomes evident that living in holes is one of the creatures’ most distinguishing characteristics, making the name all the more fitting.

The name “Bilbo Baggins” itself is also much more than simply a “name.” The word “bilbo" refers to a sword from Bilboa, Spain, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. While Bilbo himself is hardly evocative, at first, of a sword, the word behind his name is no coincidence. Early in the story, the Hobbit comes across a small sword that he names Sting which aids him in many of his adventures. The finding of Sting is also a transformative moment for Bilbo. It is the beginning of his evolution from a mentality that is timid and fearful, to that of a more courageous, innovative one. As the story progresses, Bilbo is transformed by his adventure, changing from someone afraid to even leave his house to one that is able to defend his friends from giant spiders. His new persona is distinguished by the sword, incidentally the only thing that those around him can see when he uses the ring to become invisible. Bilbo’s name is not changed as the story progresses, indicating that the spark of courage and adventure was always somewhere inside of him, merely waiting to be kindled.

Baring two names, one from his old life as a Hobbit, and the second a result of the corruption of the Ring of Power, “Sméagol,” or “Gollum” bares insights into his character in both names. “Sméagol,” Gollum’s original name, means “creeping” or “sneaking” in Old English. This foreshadows the character’s ways to come. He will creep about in caves, hiding from the sunlight. “Gollum,” is the name that the former “Sméagol” is given for the terrible sounds he makes. But the name bares more meaning that Tolkien mentions in his book. This time, the author looks to Old Norse roots; the name “Gollum,” a derivative from the word “gull” can be translated as “something gold, or something precious.” It is impossible not to see the connections to the Ring of Power that Gollum possesses, which he literally calls “his Precious.” Gollum’s two sidedness is evidenced in his two names. When he speaks, he refers to the Ring as if it is another person. The side of him that is evil, that is the Ring, is Gollum. The Ring has taken over his life so entirely that even the name now defines him. But there is still a good side of the former Hobbit, though it is increasingly overshadowed by the Ring’s influence. This good side, which in later books is shown literally, as Gollum argues against himself, is “Sméagol,” a creature which sneaks about, but is not inherently evil.

Gandalf is a constantly intriguing character in the The Hobbit. Unlike others in the book, his identity is not clearly explained. The wizard leaves many of his friends in confusion, hinting at exploits they had no part in and knowledge he will not fully divulge. But readers are also perplexed by his mysterious nature. Gandalf appears and disappears suddenly, somehow always re-appearing at the nick of time, he possesses powers that are never clearly defined, has contacts that few have, and proves himself knowledgeable in the culture and mannerisms of many of the inhabitants of Middle Earth. Exploration into the etymology of the wizard’s name, however, can offer some enlightenment. Tolkien uses another pairing of Old Norse words, “gandr” which means “wand” or staff” and “álfr” which means “elf.” The name suggests a deeper meaning to Gandalf’s apparently old friendship with the Elves. Perhaps he was an Elf himself, or he adopted an Elven name after long contact with the Elves.

The ruler of the Elves, Elrond, also bares a meaning behind his name. In Sindarin, a complete language Tolkien developed himself, the name can mean “Star Dome” or “Vault of Stars.” In The Hobbit, Elrond’s first appearance, the name could suggest the Elven king’s grasp of astronomy, which he demonstrates when he reads the “moon letters” on the dwarves’ map. Later in the saga of Lord of the Rings and in the accompanying book, The Silmarillion, readers learn that culturally, stars bear a great importance to Elves, as when they were first created, the sun and moon did not exist, and they came into being under the stars.

Many more of Tolkien’s characters bare names, derived from an array of languages, both ancient and modern. To explore the meanings behind it offers a deeper understanding into each individual, and enriches both one’s understanding of the story in The Hobbit and the meaning behind it.

Join the Discussion

This article has 5 comments. Post your own now!

Sportygirlinlv said...
Mar. 20, 2016 at 2:31 pm
I look forward to reading more from this writer!!
QuetzalQueen said...
Oct. 25, 2015 at 6:23 pm
This is really interesting!
Katelyn J. said...
Aug. 17, 2013 at 11:53 am
Gandalf can be easily mistaken to mean: Wand-wolf. but Alf means Elf, and Ulf means Wolf. good job, by the way!
PhantomoftheBookstore This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Aug. 18, 2013 at 5:34 am
Interesting. And thanks
Katelyn J. replied...
Aug. 18, 2013 at 1:18 pm
your welcome, but sorry about my nerdiness. it's a hobby.
Site Feedback