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A Field Guide to ‘The Rings of Power,’ Pt. 1: Concerning Hobbits

The furry-footed creatures of the Shire have always been the audience surrogate in ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ which is why their ancestors are being given a prominent role in Amazon’s upcoming series

Amazon Studios/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With each day we grow ever closer to the release of Amazon’s much-anticipated, billion-dollar-budgeted Lord of the Rings series, The Rings of Power. Posters have been released, a teaser dropped during the Super Bowl—but now it’s time to dive even deeper. Over the coming months, The Ringer’s Joanna Robinson will guide you through the mythology and lore of J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast world, bringing you up to speed on everything you need to know before the series premieres. Welcome to a Field Guide to The Power of the Rings.

When Amazon dropped its title reveal video for its lavish J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation The Rings of Power, audiences heard a very familiar kind of voice. Just as Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel narrated the opening of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, here was Morfydd Clark’s Galadriel melodically delivering some classic Tolkien lore about some of its boldest characters: “Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky, Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone, Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die, One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”

A different, smaller narrator took center stage in the short Rings teaser that premiered on Super Bowl Sunday. As the camera soars over exotic locations like the dazzling island kingdom of Númenor, Markella Kavenagh, who plays a hobbit-like creature named Nori Brandyfoot, asks: “Haven’t you ever wondered what else is out there? There’s wonders in this world beyond our wandering. … I can feel it..” The question invokes one of Tolkien’s most popular (and tattooed) lines from The Fellowship of the Ring: “Not all those who wander are lost.” The trailer then shows a starry-eyed Nori Brandyfoot gazing upward and, after a dizzying montage of elves and arrows and dwarves, closes with her grubby little hand reaching up to grab the much larger, even grubbier hand of a mystery man. It’s perfectly Tolkienian in every way. There’s just one problem: The hobbits aren’t even supposed to be here.

If the recent flurry of teasers and posters is your first introduction to Amazon’s The Rings of Power, then you might have missed the fact that the story is set during Middle Earth’s Second Age, which took place thousands of years before anyone named Baggins went on any kind of adventure. A lot of fun and exciting things happened during that era, including the rise and fall of civilization on that sun-drenched island Númenor and the forging of Sauron’s infamous ring. But Tolkien is very clear that the hobbits didn’t really enter the historical record until Bilbo in The Hobbit and then Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. “One of the very specific things the texts say is that hobbits never did anything historic or noteworthy before the Third Age,” showrunner Patrick McKay told Vanity Fair.

So if they’re not noteworthy, why are they here?

According to McKay and co-showrunner J.D. Payne, it just wouldn’t feel like Middle Earth without them. From a certain point of view, especially when it comes to creating a franchise that fans of the Jackson films can recognize, Payne and McKay may be right. Countless aficionados would surely disagree and wave their well-worn copies of The Silmarillion in the air as proof that Tolkien himself wrote at length about thousands of years of Middle Earth history without a single mention of a hairy foot or a cute curly head. The key word here is “history.” As engaging as the exploits in The Silmarillion may be, it’s neither a novel nor an adventure story, it’s Tolkien indulging in one of his favorite pastimes: mythology. For adventure, you need an audience surrogate. And in Tolkien’s mythologically dense world, that means hobbits.

We should clarify here that the small, furry-footed creatures in The Rings of Power are not technically hobbits. They’re what’s known as harfoots, and they’re an evolutionary predecessor to hobbits. While the folks from the Shire—with the exception of the adventurous Bagginses and friends—like to stay cozy in their holes in the ground, the harfoots in the Amazon series are nomadic. The more you move, the harder it is for any pesky Middle Earth historian to nail you down in the historical record.

That nomadic spirit is a show invention but, in truth, very little is known about the harfoots in Tolkien’s writing. The word “harfoot” translates to “one with hairy feet” and in the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring titled “Concerning Hobbits,” Tolkien wrote that of the three races of hobbits, the harfoots were: “browner of skin, smaller, and shorter, and they were beardless and bootless; their hands and feet were neat and nimble; and they preferred highlands and hillsides.” Contrary to The Rings of Power’s depiction of them as nomadic, Tolkien writes: “They were the most normal and representative variety of Hobbit, and far the most numerous. They were the most inclined to settle in one place, and longest preserved their ancestral habit of living in tunnels and holes.” Those tunneling harfoots eventually became the hobbits of the Shire, and so the difference between the two is mostly one of semantics—and a rather convenient loophole for Payne and McKay to be able to include the smallfolk in their world.

Whatever you want to call them, these curious childlike creatures are Tolkien’s most singular invention. Dragons, wizards, elves, dwarves, trolls and orcs (though they’re usually called goblins) are a dime a dozen in the world of fantasy literature, but hobbits? That’s Tolkien. These creatures have their own inspirations but, famously, this entire Middle Earth endeavor can be traced back to a sentence that Tolkien, then a bored professor and father of four, doodled on a student’s exam he was marking: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He made the rest up from there.

It’s easy to think of the childlike, innocent hobbits as a way for an inventive dad like Tolkien to draw his kids into the adventures of Middle Earth he started creating in 1930. The Hobbit, after all, flowered as part literary experiment and part bedtime story for young John, Michael, and Christopher (Priscilla was too young); Tolkien wove stories from the boys’ days into Bilbo’s otherworldly adventures. The Tolkien kids were an integral part of the eight years it took to complete The Hobbit. They typed up manuscripts for their father and even earned two pennies for any error they might find. So was Bilbo simply a stand-in for the Tolkien brood? A humble, innocent, unmagical, and unlikely hero that children can relate to and latch onto?

Well, yes and no. Despite having written one of the most famous books in all of children’s literature, Tolkien never liked to think of The Hobbit as “for kids.” For that matter, he hardly thought of children as all that different from adults. In a famous lecture and essay titled “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien wrote: “I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.”

Hobbits can be seen as the proxies for Tolkien’s children, but as with all things with the author, there’s also something much darker at play here. Tolkien abhorred any attempts to turn his Middle Earth books into simple allegories for the two world wars he lived and wrote through. Still it’s very hard not to see his hobbits as the “everyman” analogues for the pastoral Brits who were drawn into the horrors of the First World War and then the even greater terrors of WWII, as Tolkien and his sons were, respectively. In that way, Bilbo of The Hobbit—who is press-ganged into leaving his cozy hobbit hole by a wizard and a pack of dwarves—reminds us of the young J.R.R. Tolkien, who was so reluctant to go off to war at the tender age of 22 he used an academic deferral to delay enlisting. In a 1941 letter to his son Michael, Tolkien recalled: “In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.” A few years later Tolkien did, reluctantly, go to war. He wrote: “Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then ... it was like a death.”

Again, Tolkien discouraged any attempts to turn his stories into an allegory for just one thing, but on one rare occasion he did offer up an interpretation of the core meaning of his Middle Earth saga: “It is about Death and the desire for deathlessness.” It’s an unsurprising preoccupation for a man who reluctantly went to war and survived when so many of his friends and peers didn’t, but it’s not exactly the stuff bedtime stories were made of. That’s where the hobbits come in.

In 1910, Tolkien saw a hugely popular play as an impressionable teen that, at the time, he wrote was “indescribable but [I] shall never forget it as long as I live.” That play was Peter Pan, in which J.M Barrie’s hero, who clings to immortality by refusing to grow up, declares: “To die would be an awfully big adventure.” Tolkien would eventually decide that perpetual childhood was not the answer; in a draft of “On Fairy Stories” he wrote: “Children are meant to grow up and to die, and not become Peter Pans (a dreadful fate).”

Still, that idea of turning something feared into “an awfully big adventure” stuck with Tolkien. With the hobbits, he could imbue even his darkest fantasies with some light. Bilbo’s journey there and back again is a clear, if fantastical, reflection of Tokien’s own wartime experience. When Tolkien’s son Christopher, the one who he felt the most kinship to and his closest collaborator in writing The Hobbit, went off to fight in the World War II, Tolkien turned his “sequel” to The Hobbit—originally meant to be about Bilbo setting off to find new treasure—into the story that would eventually become The Lord of the Rings. He wrote it slowly, as was his way, sending chapters to Christopher as he served overseas with the Royal Air Force. This time it was Bilbo’s heir, Frodo, whose childlike innocence would be tested by war.

At its core, The Lord of the Rings, with the unlikely and unshakable bond forged by the upper-class hobbit Frodo and his gardener Sam, is an even more direct reflection of the ravages of war and how, in the trenches, Great Britain’s rigid class system crumbled. Again, it’s reductive—and against Tolkien’s wishes—to see Middle Earth and its players as a simple allegory for anything, but it is also impossible to entirely separate Tolkien from Bilbo and Christopher from Frodo, or the idea that the interplay between these two Bagginses stands in for a conversation between a WWI veteran father and a WWII soldier son.

In that way, the hobbits (or the harfoots) aren’t just a cute opportunity for humor or an audience proxy and convenient target for Gandalf’s long expository passages about the wider world. They are the beating heart of what is, at the end of the day, a very personal story of two generations sent off to die.

The funny thing about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is that they were never really the stories Tolkien most wanted to write. Remember The Silmarillion, that dense history of Middle Earth? That’s the story a Norse and Germanic saga obsessive like Tolkien most wanted to tell. Those intricately detailed mythological backstories of noble heroes, high kings, prophecies, and doomed romances are great fun, especially for those who have already spent some time in Middle Earth. But without that core concept of unlikely heroes awkwardly fumbling their way into the thick of a conflict, The Silmarillion just doesn’t have the same irresistible, widely appealing pull as those Baggins adventures.

In a much more superficial way, hobbits have simply always been the most relatable and identifiable part of Tolkien’s work. The connection between fan and hobbit long predates Peter Jackson and Elijah Wood. A 1967 New York Times article titled “The Prevalence of Hobbits” describes Tolkien’s most ardent fans: “There is a Tolkien Society of America and a Tolkien Journal. At meetings of the society it is usual to lie around eating fresh mushrooms, a favorite hobbit food, drinking cider and talking about family trees, which no hobbit can resist. … A popular greeting is, ‘May the hair on your toes never grow less.’”

If a Tolkien fan were to ever join in a Middle Earth adventure, they wouldn’t be a dashing Aragorn or a regal Galadriel. They probably wouldn’t even be fate-stricken Frodo. They might, however, be a loyal Samwise Gamgee who, similar to the curious harfoot in the Super Bowl teaser, once marveled at the beginning of his adventure in Jackson’s films: “If I take one more step, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” Amazon, McKay, and Payne are looking to take viewers on an adventure to new lands from Tolkien’s lore and show us those “wonders beyond our wandering.” What better guide than a hobbit—or, rather, a harfoot?