Hobbits first appeared in the novel The Hobbit, whose titular hobbit is the protagonist Bilbo Baggins. The novel The Lord of the Rings includes as major characters the hobbits Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Peregrin Took, and Meriadoc Brandybuck, as well as several additional minor hobbit characters. Hobbits are additionally briefly mentioned in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales.
According to the author in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings, hobbits are "relatives" of the race of Men. Elsewhere, Tolkien describes Hobbits as a "variety" or separate "branch" of humans. Within the story, hobbits and additional races seem aware of the similarities (hence the colloquial terms "Big People" and "Little People" used in Bree). Notwithstanding within the story, hobbits considered themselves a separate people. At the time of the events in The Lord of the Rings, hobbits lived in the Shire and in Bree in the north west of Middle-earth, though by the end, a few had moved out to the Tower Hills and to Gondor and Rohan.
Tolkien believed he had invented the word hobbit as a speculative derivation from Old English when he began writing The Hobbit (it was revealed years after his death that the word predated Tolkien's usage, though with a different meaning). Tolkien's concept of hobbits, in turn, seems to have been inspired by Edward Wyke Smith's 1927 children's book The Marvellous Land of Snergs, and by Sinclair Lewis's 1922 novel Babbitt. The Snergs were, in Tolkien's words, "a race of people only slightly taller than the average table but broad in the shoulders and have the strength of ten men." Tolkien wrote to W. H. Auden that The Marvellous Land of Snergs "was probably an unconscious source-book for the Hobbits" and he told an interviewer that the word hobbit "might have been associated with Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt" (like hobbits, George Babbitt enjoys the comforts of his home). Notwithstanding Tolkien claims that he started The Hobbit suddenly, without premeditation, in the midst of grading a set of student essay exams, writing on a blank piece of paper: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit". While The Hobbit introduced this comfortable race to the world, it is only in writing The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien developed details of their history and wider society.
He set out a fictional etymology for the name in an appendix to The Lord of the Rings, to the effect that it was ultimately derived from holbytla (plural holbytlan), meaning "hole-builder" (and corresponding to Old English), which survived in the language of the Rohirrim as kûd-dûkan and in that of the hobbits themselves as kuduk.
In the prologue to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes that hobbits are between two and four feet (0.61–1.22 m) tall, the average height being three feet six inches (107 cm). They dress in bright colours, favouring yellow and green. Nowadays (according to Tolkien's fiction), they're usually shy, but are nevertheless capable of great courage and amazing feats under the proper circumstances. They are adept with slings and throwing stones. For the most part, they can't grow beards, but a few of the race of Stoor can. Their feet are covered with curly hair (usually brown, as is the hair on their heads) with leathery soles, so most hobbits hardly ever wear shoes. The race's average life expectancy is 100 years. Two Hobbits, Bilbo Baggins and the Old Took, are described as living to the age of 130 or beyond, though Bilbo's long lifespan owes much to his possession of the One Ring. Hobbits are considered to "come of age" on their 33rd birthday, so a 50-year-old hobbit would be regarded as entering middle-age.
Hobbits aren't quite as stocky as the similarly-sized dwarves, but still tend to be stout, with slightly pointed ears. Tolkien doesn't describe hobbits' ears in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but in a 1938 letter to his American publisher, he described them as having "ears only slightly pointed and 'elvish'". Tolkien describes hobbits thus:
I picture a fairly human figure, not a kind of 'fairy' rabbit as a few of my British reviewers seem to fancy: fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg. A round, jovial face; ears only slightly pointed and 'elvish'; hair short and curling (brown). The feet from the ankles down, covered with brown hairy fur. Clothing: green velvet breeches; red or yellow waistcoat; brown or green jacket; gold (or brass) buttons; a dark green hood and cloak (belonging to a dwarf).
Hobbits and derivative Halflings are often depicted with unusually large feet for their size, perhaps to visually emphasise their unusualness. This is especially prominent in the influential illustrations by the Brothers Hildebrandt and the large prosthetic feet used in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Tolkien doesn't specifically mention foot size as a generic hobbit trait, but does make it the distinctive trait of the Proudfoot hobbit family.
In his writings, Tolkien depicted hobbits as fond of an unadventurous, bucolic and simple life of farming, eating, and socializing, although capable of defending their homes courageously if the need arises. They would enjoy six meals a day, if they could get them. They were often described as enjoying simple food, though this seems to be of an Oxfordshire style, such as cake, bread, meat, potatoes, ale and tea. They claim to have invented the art of smoking pipe-weed, and according to The Hobbit and The Return of The King it can be found all over Middle-earth.
The hobbits of the Shire developed the custom of giving away gifts on their birthdays, instead of receiving them, although this custom wasn't universally followed among additional hobbit cultures or communities. They use the term mathom for old and useless objects, which are invariably given as presents a large number of times over, or are stored in a museum (mathom-house).
Some Hobbits live in "hobbit-holes" or Smials, traditional underground homes found in hillsides, downs, and banks. Like all Hobbit architecture, they're notable for their round doors and windows.
The hobbits had a distinct calendar: every year started on a Saturday and ended on a Friday, with each of the twelve months consisting of thirty days. Some special days didn't belong to any month — Yule 1 and 2 (New Year's Eve & New Years Day) and three Lithedays in mid-summer. Every fourth year there was an additional Litheday, most likely as an adaptation, similar to a leap year, to ensure that the calendar remained in synch with the seasons.
In their earliest folk tales Hobbits appear to have inhabited the Valley of Anduin, between Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains. According to The Lord of the Rings, they have lost the genealogical details of how they're related to the Big People. At this time, there were three "breeds" of hobbits, with different physical characteristics and temperaments: Harfoots, Stoors and Fallohides. While situated in the valley of the Anduin River, the hobbits lived close by the Éothéod, the ancestors of the Rohirrim, and this led to a few contact between the two. As a result, a large number of old words and names in "Hobbitish" are derivatives of words in Rohirric.
The Harfoots, the most numerous, were almost identical to the Hobbits as they're described in The Hobbit. They lived on the lowest slopes of the Misty Mountains and lived in holes, or Smials, dug into the hillsides.
The Stoors, the second most numerous, were shorter and stockier and had an affinity for water, boats and swimming. They lived on the marshy Gladden Fields where the Gladden River met the Anduin (there is a similarity here to the hobbits of Buckland and the Marish in the Shire. It is possible that those hobbits were the descendants of Stoors). It was from these Hobbits that Déagol and Sméagol/Gollum were descended.
The Fallohides, the least numerous, were an adventurous people that preferred to live in the woods under the Misty Mountains and were said to be taller and fairer (all of these traits were much rarer in later days, and it has been implied that wealthy, eccentric families that tended to lead additional hobbits politically, like the Tooks and Brandybucks, were of Fallohide descent). Bilbo and three of the four principal hobbit characters in The Lord of the Rings (Frodo, Pippin and Merry) had Fallohide blood through their common ancestor, the Old Took.
About the year T.A. 1050, they undertook the arduous task of crossing the Misty Mountains. Reasons for this trek are unknown, but they possibly had to do with Sauron's growing power in nearby Greenwood, which later became known as Mirkwood as a result of the shadow that fell upon it throughout Sauron's search of the forest for the One Ring. The Hobbits took different routes in their journey westward, but as they began to settle together in Bree-land, Dunland, and the Angle formed by the rivers Mitheithel and Bruinen, the divisions between the Hobbit-kinds began to blur.
In the year 1601 of the Third Age (year 1 in the Shire Reckoning), two Fallohide brothers named Marcho and Blanco gained permission from the King of Arnor at Fornost to cross the River Brandywine and settle on the additional side. Many Hobbits followed them, and most of the territory they had settled in the Third Age was abandoned. Only Bree and a few surrounding villages lasted to the end of the Third Age. The new land that they founded on the west bank of the Brandywine was called the Shire.
Originally the hobbits of the Shire swore nominal allegiance to the last Kings of Arnor, being required only to acknowledge their lordship, speed their messengers, and keep the bridges and roads in repair. During the final fight against Angmar at the Battle of Fornost, the Hobbits maintain that they sent a company of archers to help but this is nowhere else recorded. After the battle, the kingdom of Arnor was destroyed, and in the absence of the king, the Hobbits elected a Thain of the Shire from among their own chieftains.
The first Thain of the Shire was Bucca of the Marish, who founded the Oldbuck family. Notwithstanding the Oldbuck family later crossed the Brandywine River to create the separate land of Buckland and the family name changed to the familiar "Brandybuck". Their patriarch then became Master of Buckland. With the departure of the Oldbucks/Brandybucks, a new family was selected to have its chieftains be Thain: the Took family (Pippin Took was son of the Thain and would later become Thain himself). The Thain was in charge of Shire Moot and Muster and the Hobbitry-in-Arms, but as the Hobbits of the Shire generally led entirely peaceful, uneventful lives the office of Thain came to be seen as something of a formality.
The Hobbits' numbers dwindled, and their stature became progressively smaller after the Fourth Age. Notwithstanding they're at times spoken of in the present tense, and the prologue "Concerning Hobbits" in The Lord of the Rings implies they had survived into Tolkien's day.
- Harfoots: The Harfoots were the most numerous group of hobbits and additionally the first to enter Eriador. They were the smallest in stature of all hobbits. They had closer relations with Dwarves than did additional Hobbits. Tolkien coined the term as analogous to "hairfoot".
- Fallohides: The Fallohides were the least numerous group and the second group to enter Eriador. They were generally fair-haired and tall (for hobbits). They were often found leading additional clans of hobbits as they were more adventurous than the additional races. They preferred the forests and had links with the Elves. Tolkien created the name from the archaic meanings of English words "fallow" and "hide", meaning "pale skin".
- Stoors: The Stoors were the second most numerous group of hobbits and the last to enter Eriador. They were broader than additional hobbits. They mostly dwelt beside rivers and were the only hobbits to use boats and swim. Males were able to grow beards. Tolkien says they were "less shy of Men". Sméagol and Déagol were Stoors. Tolkien used an archaic English word stor or stoor "strong".
Kocher notes that Tolkien's literary techniques require us to increasingly view hobbits as like us, especially when placed under moral pressure to survive a war that threatens to devastate their land. Frodo becomes in a few ways the symbolic representation of the conscience of hobbits, a point made explicitly in the storey "Leaf by Niggle" which Tolkien wrote at the same time as the first nine chapters of The Lord of the Rings. Niggle is a painter struggling against the summons of death to complete his one great canvas, a picture of a tree with a background of forest and distant mountains. He dies with the work incomplete, undone by his imperfectly generous heart: "it made him uncomfortable more often than it made him do anything". After discipline in Purgatory, however, Niggle finds himself in the quite landscape depicted by his painting which he's now able to finish with the assistance of a neighbour who obstructed him throughout life. The picture complete, Niggle is free to journey to the distant mountains which represent the highest stage of his spiritual development. Thus, upon recovery from the wound inflicted by Angmar on Weathertop, Gandalf speculates that the hobbit Frodo "may become like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can". Similarly, as Frodo nears Mount Doom he casts aside weapons and refuses to fight others with physical force: "For him struggles for the right must hereafter be waged only on the moral plane."
In popular culture
Originally, halfling comes from the Scots word hauflin, meaning an awkward rustic teenager, who's neither man nor boy, and so half of both. An Additional word for halfling is hobbledehoy or hobby. This usage of the word pre-dates both The Hobbit and Dungeons & Dragons. Dungeons & Dragons began using the name halfling as an alternative to hobbit for legal reasons.