Names in the Hobbit: In Depth

Even before writing ‘The Hobbit’ and the many other works connected to it, J.R.R.

Tolkien was a famous linguist. Proof of his genius can be seen in the seemingly insignificant names he assigns to his characters. An interesting example is in the name of his protagonist, Bilbo Baggins. His original name was ‘Bilba,’ a truly meaningless word with a pleasing sound. However, the author changed the final vowel to ‘o’ in order to create a more masculine sound and also to evoke the word ‘bilbo’ which can mean a finely crafted sword. The transition of walking stick to sword brings about the change in Bilbo’s character from a homebody who is repulsed by the very idea of adventure to a traveler and burglar who fights giant spiders and creeps into the lair of a dragon.

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In England, the name ‘Baggins’ was traditionally awarded to great travelers or adventurers suggesting that Bilbo’s family had had more than a few adventurers, though of course the more respectable hobbit relatives probably erased any rumors of such nonsense. The name helps us guess at Bilbo’s future adventures and the evolution of his character even before he meets Thorin and Co. A name that less subtly allows the reader to guess at the character’s history is Elrond. In the language Sindarian (the language invented by J.R.R.

Tolkien for Middle Earth) Elrond’s name has two meanings,‘elf of the cave’ and ‘dome of stars.’ The first meaning is a reference to when Elrond was found as an infant abandoned in a cave. The latter meaning references Elrond’s uncanny connection to the heavens, as shown in ‘The Hobbit’ when he reads the moon runes on Thorin’s map. Elrond’s name illustrates some of his strengths as do many of Tolkien’s character’s names particularly that of ‘Gandalf.’ In Old Norse, the word ‘gandr’ means ‘wand or staff’ and the word ‘alfr’means ‘elf.

‘ Combined the name becomes ‘staff-elf.’ The first part of the name refers to staff which the wizard uses to preform most of his magic. The second part can only refer to Gandalf’s long and amicable relationship with the elves, as he himself was a Maiar, who came wizard in Middle Earth. Gandalf’s other name,’Olrin,’gives readers an insight into his lesser known powers. In the language of Valinor, Olrin means ‘vision of the mind,’ hinting at Gandalf’s use of telekinesis, which while never called that, appears throughout later books. One of the more obvious examples of telekinesis is in his fight with Saruman when they using magic to throw each other.

Another interpretation of the name may explain Gandalf’s amazing ability of arriving just when his companions need him, such as when the dwarves were caught in the subterranean tunnels of the goblins, if the wizard can literally see a vision of what is happening to his friends. A final name that provides a view of character traits is that of the haughty Thorin. His name means ‘brave/ daring one.’ While an inspiring name for even the most lazy and disappointing of dwarven princes, Thorin more than lives up to his name, even if it means that bravery causes him to die defending the kingdom of his ancestors.