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Archetypology 101: Fact, Fiction, & Fallacies

Episode 4 - In a hole in the ground...

by Aeon
August 17, 2001  

On pages 32-33 of Entertainment Weekly's Summer Double Issue (#602/603), there's a two-page spread of the stars of the forthcoming Lord of the Rings trilogy: Dominic Monaghan, who plays Merry Brandybuck; Sean Astin, aka Samwise Gamgee; Elijah Wood, better known as Frodo Baggins; and Billy Boyd, who has the role of Pippin Took. The color blue dominates the spread, the mood is somber, threatening, dangerous, the four hobbits dressed in black and brown leather, deep blues and denim. The short, spiky hair atop their heads says the same thing that their squinty-eyed, tight-lipped facial expressions says: "Come near us, and we will kick your ass. The only hole in the ground around here is your grave."

This is not your father's Lord of the Rings, and these are not your grandfather's hobbits. These are slimmed-down, pumped-up, ready to rock halflings who have somehow become more pumped than plump, more hardy than hairy, more suave than soft. Merry wears a ring around his neck in plain view, daring you to touch it. Go on, I dare you. See what happens. Is Pippin wearing leather gloves, and if so, where is his Harley? And what is that Frodo's hiding under his leather jacket: a pipe for smoking, or a 9mm for smoking anyone who crosses him?

Where are the funny little halflings we used to know and love? All we've got here are the Goodhobbits: "What do you mean, I'm funny?... You mean my hairy feet? What?... Funny how? I mean, what's funny about 'em?... But I'm funny how? I mean, funny like I'm a halfling? I amuse you? I make you laugh?"

But it doesn't end there, either. Crack open the new Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition Player's Handbook, open it up to page 47 and you've got... whoa! What have you got? Pale face, rouged lips and nose, braided hair and enough leather and straps to open up a bondage shop. Lidda, lauded as "a great icon of halflings" in the July 2001 issue of Dragon Magazine (issue #285, which is, coincidentally, all about halflings), looks like she fell out of a nine inch nails video and landed on top of Marilyn Manson in the middle of a mosh pit at Woodstock '99. Page through the book, and it looks like the next Tomb Raider adventure, as the buxom, leather-strapped Lidda ducks spells, kills trolls, rolls around on the ground and generally puts Lara Croft to shame with her dungeon-crawling antics.

If Bilbo Baggins isn't rolling in his grave, he's certainly blushing. Because the modern, 21st century halfling is a far cry from the ball of pudge that the Rankin/Bass cartoon version of "The Hobbit" threw our way back in the 1970s. And it's certainly nowhere near how J.R.R. Tolkien meant for hobbits to be portrayed in his novels decades earlier.

Or is it?

Before we can answer that question, and discover exactly why hobbits went from "bumbling" to "badass," we have to start at the beginning. And as everyone is well aware, in the beginning there were only three things. A hole, the ground, and a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins.

Tolkien's Hobbits

In a 1955 letter to W.H. Auden, Tolkien wrote that while marking some school papers, evidently in the summer of the late 1920s, he had a flash of insight. He wrote: "On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' I did not and do not know why."

For those of you reading this who are not writers yourselves, it is difficult to explain how those little flashes of inspiration can strike from out of the blue. Even more difficult to get across is how insignificant they seem at the time, despite the fact that somehow, somewhen, every silly little concept has the chance to change everything.

On the face of it, Tolkien's "hobbits" were no more important or earth-shattering than C.S. Lewis' "eldils" (from his wonderful Perelandra series, which any Tolkien fan should pick up and read immediately if you already haven't). But whereas both types of creatures were fictional inventions based on mythology and history, the difference was that one of them (Lewis' eldils) represented something more than human: elven, angelic, even supernatural. And the other, Tolkien's hobbits, represented something that was quite the opposite -- and therefore quite human.

To be short (no pun intended): we can sympathize with Bilbo Baggins and his kin not because we are hobbits, but because they are human.

"I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly... They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs..." -- The Hobbit, Chapter I, J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien is nothing if not explicit about setting hobbits in their proper place: whereas the elves and dwarves were of older, more mythological, entirely nonhuman origins, the hobbits walked alongside mankind. From the beginning, Tolkien insisted that his hobbits were close relatives of their taller human cousins. They were not blessed with innate magical talents, nor could they see in the dark, nor were they skilled miners and metallurgists. They were, in essence, smaller, more earthy relatives of ourselves.

It's long been questioned whether or not Tolkien was actually being honest about coming up with the word "hobbit" on his own; some have even gone so far as to claim that he took the word from an early 20th century short story of the same name. The point is pretty much moot: trying to lessen the importance of hobbits by claiming that they were based on earlier examples would be like trying to dismiss Tolkien's elves and dwarves because they were based in part on Germanic myth. Everything is based on something else.

That said, it's pretty clear that hobbits are, unsurprisingly, based within the same legends of "little people" from which we derive elves, dwarves, brownies and pixies. The word "hob" means "sprite" or "little man", and there are many, many derivatives and variations on this theme throughout the expanse of real-world mythology: boggard, boggart, flibbertigibbet, goblin, hobgoblin, kobold, and, as pointed out by Tolkien in his own letters, "Hobberdy, Hobbidy and Hobberdy Dick."

What all of these particular words have in common is a "b" sound, and typically an internal double-b sound. Consider just a few from among the wide range of English words with similar sounds: babble, bobble, cobble, dabble, fibber, gobble, hubbub, jibber, jabber, kibble, nabber, nibble, pebble, rabbit, robber... Put them all together and I daresay you have a pretty good picture of your fat-bellied burrow-dwelling hobbit. The last two words are particularly appropriate: robber, since this is what Bilbo Baggins is hired for, and rabbit, for obvious reasons.

It's been claimed that Tolkien may have derived the word "hobbit" from a combination of "Homo," meaning man (as in Homo Sapiens), and "Rabbit," thus creating a man-who-is-like-a-rabbit: lazy, with big hairy feet, a propensity to eat a lot, and a tendency to sit around in a hole all day long. Tolkien himself, known for developing intricate, well-researched languages and histories, chose to explain the origins of the word a bit differently, compounding the Old English word "hol," meaning hole, and "bytlan," a variant on the Old English "byldan," meaning builder. Hence, holbytla, "hole-builder," which over the thousands of years of his world's history transformed itself into "hobbit."

Dungeons & Dragons' race selection is quite obviously rooted deeply in Tolkien-esque mythology, to the point where the first editions of the game actually included a race known as "hobbits." After some "friendly" discussion with the Tolkien estate about copyrights, the name, as everyone is now aware, was changed to "halflings." What many people forget is that Tolkien also referred to hobbits as halflings; or, more correctly, the other inhabitants of Middle Earth referred to them that way.

"'A strange name for a strange folk,' said Gimli. 'But these were very dear to us. it seems that you have heard in Rohan of the words that troubled Minas Tirith. They spoke of the Halfling. These hobbits are Halflings.'" -- The Two Towers, Chapter 2, J.R.R. Tolkien

I'll touch more closely on that statement, and similar ones from The Lord of the Rings, later on; for now, it's enough to note that just about everything there is to know about halflings came straight out of Tolkien's works, including their name.

The Rise of the Halfling

The early role-playing halfling (thanks again to Dungeons & Dragons) was divided up into three rough categories. First there were the most numerous group, called the Hairfeet (because of their most prominent feature, naturally); quite obviously derived from Tolkien's "Harfoots", they boasted dark brown skin and hair, preferred bright blues, greens and yellows, wandered around barefoot and lived in hilly areas and burrows where they were friendly with humans and dwarves alike.

The Tallfellows (Tolkien calls them Hallohides) are, as the name suggests, taller and thinner than other halflings, some reaching over 4 feet in height (as opposed to the 2-3 foot average for other halflings). Preferring to live in the woods instead of hills, they are known to be friendly with elves, and have adopted some of the same habits and capabilities, including wearing their hair long, hunting, having a talent for woodcarving, a longer lifespan and higher perception (the ever popular detecting secret doors, for example).

The third group are the Stouts (synonymous with Tolkien's Stoors), and as one might expect they tend to be stouter and sturdier than other halflings. Enjoying the company of dwarves, they are best known for their ability to grow facial hair, and like dwarves they re more skilled underground than other halflings (including the ability to detect sloping passages and find direction underground). Tolkien's Stoors had also mastered the arts of boating and swimming, and often wore boots, something other halflings had shunned.

Depending on who you talk to, some will align the Stoors/Stouts more closely with humans, and the Hairfeet/Harfoots with Dwarves; in the introduction to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien himself does just this. The point is moot, but the seeming disparity does point out the precise reason why there are three types of halflings: they are there to provide a balance with the three main fantasy races. Just as the plain, old vanilla halfling is a close relative of humans, so are the other two types more closely aligned with elves and dwarves. Each "big race" gets a smaller cousin, in other words. In most role-playing games since, this three-way split has been lost, although variants on the theme do creep in now and again when you least expect it (gully dwarves, anyone?)

Hobbits are (perhaps unjustly) renowned as thieves, due mostly to their small stature and propensity for disappearing quickly (obviously, the two go hand-in-hand). They are more dextrous and far weaker than other races (again, the determination based on their size), and thus tend to have an advantage in combat against larger creatures, who have a hard time hitting them. They are also known for being skilled with missile weapons (in particular, with slings and stones), something that's essential when you're little enough to get stepped on in the middle of a melee.

For about 10 years, halflings and hobbits ran amuck around the role-playing countryside, picking pockets, slinging stones, eating and drinking and smoking and showing off their big hairy feet.

And then came Tas.

The Halfling Goes Mainstream

"There was a faint rustle in the underbrush, then a small figure stood on the path. It was a kender, one of a race of people considered by many on Krynn to be as much a nuisance as mosquitoes. Small-boned, the kender rarely grew over four feet tall. This particular kender was about Flint's height, but his slight build and perpetually childlike face made him seem smaller... His brown eyes glinted with mischief and fun; his smile seemed to reach to the tips of his pointed ears." -- Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Chapter 1, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Many fans of the Dragonlance novels believe that Tasslehoff Burrfoot, arguably the world of Krynn's most important kender, was responsible for the reinvention of the halfling throughout the world of role-playing games. This is quite incorrect. In fact, as the authors point out in the afterward to the aforementioned novel, the Dragonlance world was already in development two years before the release of the Dragonlance Chronicles, and the series of events that take place in the books were actually derived from role-playing sessions set in that world. The kender was no doubt a part of that new world, and thus, part of the reinvention of the halfling.

Though widely derided as reducing halflings to silly, childish kleptomaniacs, the kender probably marks the first time that we truly see an original role-playing halfling. To this point, everyone and everything was merely recycling the same old pot-bellied hole-dweller stereotype, but here we get a halfling who's on the road, wandering the world and swinging a staff with the best of them. He's not in the shadows, playing a support role; he's in the front ranks, one of the heroes, and even if he is occasionally relegated to the role of comic relief, he's as important a character as Bilbo and Frodo Baggins were before him.

It was Tasslehoff who almost single-handedly carried the torch throughout the remainder of the 1980s, taking the halfling beyond its old stereotype and laying a foundation upon which other authors and other game designers could begin to reinterpret halflings in their own ways.

Yet it's important to realize that the halfling still stayed close to its roots; in R.A. Salvatore's late '80s/early '90s Icewind Dale trilogy, set in the world of the Forgotten Realms, we once again find many of the same themes and characters that were seen in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, not the least of which is the character of the halfling. Regis the halfling could easily have been lifted straight out of Lord of the Rings, and the triad of Drizzt Do'Urden, Bruenor Battlehammer and Wulfgar are dead ringers for Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn (respectively).

Salvatore is hardly to be criticized for following formula; not even Tolkien was wholly original in his selection of particular combinations of race and "class." In fact, just about the same time as The Hobbit was reaching its peak of popularity in the United States, another story featuring a similar combination of characters was hitting the theatres: 1938's The Wizard of Oz. The film, of course, was based on the series of popular Oz novels by Frank L. Baum and other authors, most notable of these being 1900's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum's second novel.

It would be foolish to think that Tolkien, in writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, had no knowledge of the land of Oz, of the young hero taken from a life of comfort and boredom and plunged into a dangerous adventure, accompanied by her friends The Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Cowardly Lion. One needn't look too hard at their faces to see Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn reflected there, just as it's not hard to see the kindly wizard Gandalf in the guise of Glinda, Good Witch of the North. And it's certainly not a tremendous leap to see that the Munchkins (like "hobbit," an invented word) are a sort of precursor to hobbits.

Of course, the relationship between the Literary world and Hollywood is a two-way street, and Hollywood's presentation of halflings in the fantasy films of the 1980s could hardly be seen as groundbreaking either.

Hollywood Halflings

Fantasy films grew in popularity throughout the 1980s, and it should come as no surprise that from one end of the decade to the other these films were filled with a wide assortment of halflings. Not the least of these were the trio of Tolkien-themed cartoon films which appeared at the start of the decade, including the two Rankin/Bass films (1977's The Hobbit, and 1980's Return of the King) and Bakshi's Lord of the Rings (which was released in 1978). Taken individually, each has flaws that Tolkien fans will be happy to parade in front of you, but as a whole the three went a long way towards helping to establish the halfling in the minds of fantasy fans of that era, in a time when role-playing was just starting to come into its own.

But the plump, friendly little hobbits didn't stay that way for long; even as early as 1981, halflings beginning to take halting, tentative steps away from their origins in Time Bandits. Here we get not one, not two, but a half dozen or so angry, rowdy, rude, crude little robbers out for adventure with a young human boy who gets dragged along for the ride. Obviously not dwarves (not an axe or mug of ale to be seen among the lot), these halfling thieves use a stolen map to cavort throughout space and time, fighting evil as they pick up trinkets and doodads along the way. When finally confronted by the wizardly fellow from whom they stole the map (i.e., God himself), they claim that they were just keeping it safe, that they didn't mean to take it, that they will gladly give it back, etc.

A comparison to the Dragonlance Saga's kender, and in particular Tasslehoff's relationship with Fizban/Paladine, would not be in error, to say the least. But which came first, the Tasslehoff or the Time Bandits? Who's to say? The real point is that Time Bandits was all about halflings, as was 1982's classic The Dark Crystal. As if the fact that Jen and Kira are called gelflings isn't enough of a giveaway, you've also got the fact that they're the last of a race of people who are bordering on the mythical, in a world that's going through a major change. Jen's carting around a magical artifact with the power of good or evil, powerful wizards are wielding magics all around, and the Garthim are doing a pretty good impression of the Nazgul as they wander around spreading terror. But the changes are noteworthy: the gelflings are thin, willowy, almost ethereal, Kira's back even sprouting fairy wings of a sort when it becomes necessary. These are not halflings of the earth, but halflings of air hearkening back to fairy roots that Tolkien may have denied but other writers were beginning to recognize.

This is perhaps most clear in 1985's Legend, which co-stars a whole slew of pint-sized elves, halflings and other fairy folk who help Tom Cruise defeat evil. Arguing about who's what is pointless; not only are their names halfling-like (Gump, Brown-Tom, Screwball), but their actions speak louder than their words do. Were these fairy folk modeled after dwarves, they would undoubtedly have strapped on armor and weapons and strode up to the gates of Hell to pick a fight; instead, they scrounge around in the forest and find their "human" companion a set of scale mail and a sword to wear into battle. Were they modeled after elves, they would have gathered up arrows, strung their bows, and sniped Evil from a mile away; as it stands, however, bows don't come into play until near the end. No, much of the journey of this band of halfling folk involves sneaking around dungeons, stealing keys, picking locks, playing tricks and generally running away whenever it looks like things are about to go bad. Not only is this fairy-like, but it's the spitting image of what Tolkien tells us halflings have evolved into, as they dodge out of sight whenever humans approach, giving us the impression that they all exist only in our dreams.

Which is precisely where we find them in 1986's Labyrinth. Certainly, most of the smaller creatures in this film are goblins and other nasties, but the character of Hoggle is almost certainly a halfling of sorts. He's about the right height, and bears the general build of a hobbit who doesn't get out of the house much, but more importantly he also has many of the same attributes and habits that halflings have gathered over the years. He's certainly a thief of sorts, more cowardly than courageous, and not the sort to rush right into battle when he can instead hide in the shadows. And despite the fact that he's tempted by his allegiance to the Goblin king, he somehow manages to do the right thing with the aid of his friends; no less could be said of Frodo's battles with the One Ring.

Of course, the fantasy film most people think of when they think of halflings is 1988's Willow, which called its little folk by the name of Nelwyns (with "Peck" used as an insult by the humans in the story). In the story, Willow Ufgood (played by Warwick Davis) is a halfling who finds a human baby, and is saddled with the task of delivering her to safety with the aid of a human warrior, some annoying pixie sidekicks, and an elderly sorceress. Along the way, Willow resorts to various sleight-of-hand tricks, a lot of running away, and some appropriately placed heroics in order to get the job done.

But much more important in the big picture we're painting of halflings was another role that Warwick Davis played -- as an Ewok in 1983's Return of the Jedi, and several made-for-TV Ewok specials that followed in the mid 1980s.

You won't find many people who will try to convince you that Ewoks are halflings, but I personally think that it's pretty obvious. Return of the Jedi presents us with our first habitable setting (Tattooine, Hoth and Dagobah were hardly comfortable environments), and it seems appropriate that on the surface of this, the first comfortable, primitive place we've yet come across, we should find a race of beings that also hearken back to an earlier, more primitive time.

Granted, the Ewoks are not nearly as sophisticated as Tolkien's hobbits are; they wear little clothing, speak in a primitive tongue, and are dazzled by C3PO's golden theatrics. But despite these things, and the fact that they live in trees, they're really nothing more than what you get when you strip away the trappings and get at the halfling underneath. They enjoy comfort and privacy; they're protective of the ones they love; they fight with extreme ferocity and cunning, employing an assortment of missile weapons to dispatch their foes; and they're ultimately the heroes of the story, saving the behinds of the much larger rebels when they are surrounded by stormtroopers.

The comparison between Star Wars and Lord of the Rings doesn't end there: for example, as with Tolkien's trilogy, the Star Wars saga killed off its Gandalf character (Obi-Wan) at a pivotal point in its first installment, resurrecting him in a more powerful form in time for the second part. But we're not here to debate story and plot elements; the simple fact of the matter is that despite the science-fiction trappings, Star Wars is as much a fantasy as Lord of the Rings, and the Ewoks were nothing more than an astute realization by Lucas that his fantasy needed halflings.

It's pretty much common knowledge that Lucas had originally planned to set Return of the Jedi on the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk; as we got to see in the brilliant Star Wars Christmas Special years earlier (sarcasm intended), Wookiees live in tree homes much like the Ewoks did, and since Chewbacca was an established character, it seemed to make sense. But Ewoks were ultimately chosen for several reasons. Some said that it was because it was easier to hire an army of midget actors than to find hundreds of 7-foot tall extras. I happen to think that it's because Lucas knew his Tolkien, and he realized that short people are easier to relate to than tall ones in fantasy settings.

In reality, however, the opposite has typically been the case, and the anti-Ewok sentiment that arose from the very first time the world laid its eyes on the little furballs is a clear indication of that.

The Historical Halfling

Perhaps the most oft-forgotten fact about halflings is that they live among us. Oh, sure, you won't find the hairy feet or the slightly-pointy ears, but there are certainly humans of about 3 to 4 feet in height who are a part of our society... at least when we deign to notice them (usually when we want them to play halflings in our films).

Dwarfism is defined as an adult height of 4'10" or shorter, as the result of a medical or genetic condition. It can result from a variety of over 100 types of defects, including achondroplasia, diastrophic dysplasia, hypochondroplasia, pseudoachondroplasia, spondylo-epiphyseal dysplasia, and osteogenesis imperfecta (this latter being the condition that Samuel L. Jackson's character suffers from in the recent film Unbreakable). Those who suffer from these conditions are certainly not referred to as halflings, though they are sometimes called dwarfs, or midgets, and have been referred to in this way since antiquity.

They've also been abused for just as long.

From the time of the Roman empire up until modern times, midgets and dwarfs were mistreated horribly. At best, they were seen as amusing sideshow freaks, worthy only of derision and laughter. At worst, they were subjected to horrific treatments and medical experimentation, treated as peculiarities and miscarriages. The Romans used midgets as sex toys and footstools; medieval kings and queens alike kept many dwarves as court jesters and servants, because their small size was amusing; King Richard III and his court loved to play games like Dwarf Tossing (in which midgets were thrown for distance), Dwarf Baiting (in which the victim was chained by one leg and forced to fight off rabid dogs), and Dwarf Bowling, (in which one midget was tied into a ball and hurled at nine others, the goal being to knock them all down); and even today, bars in less reputable areas of various countries will feature dwarf throwing competitions and midget mud wrestling.

In fact, until Hollywood saw fit to cast those of diminutive stature in roles such as that of the Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz, it was all but impossible for anyone of small size to make anything of themselves in the world. To be certain, there were exceptions to the rule: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, for example. Though perhaps not technically a "dwarf" by any medical definition (he was 4'11" tall), Lautrec certainly did not walk amongst most of humanity with his head held high. He struggled through life, battling his own ailment, alcoholism and drug addiction, and somehow managed to become one of the world's most renowned artists, painting brilliant depictions of cabaret life in a wild, bohemian era.

But for the most part, dwarfs and midgets were simply clustered in with all those who were odd because they were short, including the African Pygmies (who were almost certainly an influence on Tolkien as he developed the background for his hobbits). Discovered by George Schweinfurth in the mid-to-late 1800s, Pygmies rarely grow taller than 4'11" in height, live in communal tribes, and are well known for being addicted to smoking tobacco -- a prominent feature of Tolkien's halflings. Interestingly, the Pygmies were at the time considered to be proof that legends of fairies and dwarfs were based in reality, for if such short people could exist in this world, could others of similar size not have once shared the planet with us? Tolkien obviously thought so; this is particularly clear in the notion that halflings were closely related to man, since the discovery of evidence of Pygmy races throughout other areas of the world, including Europe, had led some to surmise that they were perhaps the result of "racial residue" of Cro-Magnon interbreeding.

It's interesting to note that Tolkien covered this exact same ground in Lord of the Rings, discussing not only the fact that hobbits were closely related to man, but that they were, to most of the world, considered mere mythical oddities:

"'So these are the lost ones of your company, Gandalf? The days are fated to be filled with marvels. Already I have seen many since I left my house; and now here before my eyes stand yet another of the folk of legend. Are not these the Halflings, that some among us call the Holbytlan?'

'Hobbits, if you please, lord,' said Pippin." -- The Two Towers, Chapter 8, J.R.R. Tolkien

Rethinking the Halfling

Though alluded to earlier in Lord of the Rings (and in my earlier quote), it only becomes clear here that there is a distinct difference between the word "Hobbit" and the word "Halfling." Not only does Pippin correct the person who calls him a "Halfling," but he does so in a context that suggests that the term "Halfling" is an insult.

Consider again the words of Gimli: "These hobbits are Halflings." This is somewhat akin to saying "All squares are rectangles" or "All apples are fruits." It's a means of defining one thing by its relation to another thing, fitting an unknown quantity inside a preconceived notion for the purposes of understanding it. When Gimli explains that hobbits are Halflings, he's not saying that "Halfling" is another word for "Hobbit." He is, in fact, saying that a Hobbit is a type of Halfling.

Which makes a HUGE difference.

Halfling, of course, is a compound word, composed of "half" and "ling." Half, aside from meaning "50% of something," also means "a part of a thing; falling short of the full or complete thing." The suffix "-ling," has a dual meaning; on one hand, it means "having the quality of," as in "hireling," and on the other hand it means "young, small, or inferior," as in "duckling." To call someone a halfling, then, is to basically throw a double diminutive in their face, to say that they are smaller and more inferior than something that's already fallen short of completion. They are less than human, subhuman, not worthy of attention.

Little wonder, then, that Pippin takes offense. Being called a "Halfling" in Tolkien's world is akin to being called a "Dwarf" in the Middle Ages, or a "Midget" nowadays, or a "Peck" in Willow's world.

But it's also much more than that, because as I mentioned, not all halflings are hobbits. A true "Halfling" is any being which somehow falls short of perfection (in the eyes of a human viewer, for the sake of argument). This is clear through the manipulation of the term "Halfling" itself, as in The Dark Crystal's "Gelfling," or Planescape's "Tiefling." The former we've already discussed, but the latter bears a closer look, as it brings us a bit closer to answering that question I asked way back at the beginning.

If a halfling cannot be truly defined as a hobbit, then what can it be defined as? The dictionary will gladly offer up "a Hobbit, in works of J. R. R. Tolkien" as a definition for "halfling," but it also offers up "a hybrid of human and elf or other supernatural being."

And there you have it.

Halflings are not half-sized humans; they are half-humans, and by that definition, a whole array of creatures and beings suddenly fall into place and make a lot more sense. Centaurs are halflings, being half-human, half-horse. Satyrs are halflings, being half-human, half-goat. Changelings (half-human, half-faerie babies swapped in the cradle) are halflings. Like it or not, Half-elves are halflings too. As are the Muls of the Dark Sun Setting (half-human, half-dwarf), and the Tieflings of the Planescape Setting (half-human, half-demon). As are a wide array of other creatures, from mermaids, to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to those damn dirty apes in Planet of the Apes. They fascinate us, frighten us, disgust us and enchant us all at the same time, not because they are so different, but because they are so like us.

And this, then, is precisely why halflings have transformed from fat little burglars into leather-wearing scoundrels. Because they are a reflection of humanity, a fun-house mirror if you will, showing us at once what we are, what we want to be and what we fear we have become.

It should be little wonder that the most recent incarnations of halflings in the mid-to-late 1990s came in the guise of the cannibalistic Athasian halflings from Dark Sun, who would probably have eaten Gandalf if he had knocked on their door, and the twisted, demonic tieflings from Planescape, who oozed sex and evil and danger from every pore on their twisted little bodies. Gone are the days when J.R.R. Tolkien walked a school campus puffing on his pipe; gone also are the days when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson wandered the vacant halls of their own school buildings playing with toy figurines. Open up a newspaper and you'll read stories of children shooting up their schools, of mothers dumping their babies in trash bins, of rape and murder and mayhem in places where once we all felt safe and secure. We have evolved, and halflings have evolved with us, for good and for evil.

Halflings have always been, and still are, exactly what J.R.R. Tolkien intended them to be. They are a smaller version of us, a reminder of innocence lost, of a time when a hobbit or a human could curl up in front of a warm, cozy fire with friends and enjoy a good smoke and a good book, all the while knowing that outside that door were lurking dangers and evils that nobody wanted to have to face. For every Frodo, there is a Gollum. For every dream, a nightmare.

Our evils have come home to live with us, as have our accomplishments. The halfling has become darker, more threatening, as we have ourselves become, but at the same time she has also become more acceptable. To be certain, there will always be those who will want to point a finger and laugh at the funny little person walking down the street, but both role-playing games and Hollywood have helped to turn what was once a bizarre medical oddity into something that, dare I say it, is to be praised and celebrated. Underneath the modern day halfling's leather jacket, spiky hair and grim facade beats a noble heart, a heart that's just as strong as that of his cousin, his brother, his sister, his father, his mother.

The halfling's secret? He is us. J.R.R. Tolkien knew that way back in 1937.

Maybe it's about time we remembered.

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All Archetypology 1010 columns by Aeon

  • Episode 11 - In Closing... April 30, 2002
  • Episode 10 - Human, All Too Human March 19, 2002
  • Episode 9 -- Death Before Dishonor January 31, 2002
  • Episode 8 - To Be Orc Not To Be December 21, 2001
  • Episode 7 - Roll up for the magical mystery tour November 27, 2001
  • Episode 6 - Kings under the mountain October 18, 2001
  • Episode 5 - Rebel without a CAWS September 18, 2001
  • Episode 4 - In a hole in the ground... August 17, 2001
  • Episode 3 - Thick as Thieves July 13, 2001
  • Episode 2 - Elves Have Left The Building June 15, 2001
  • Episode 1 - Holy Rollers May 23, 2001
  • Who Are You? April 20, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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