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The fascinating history of the word “hobbit”

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

Hobbit still
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to the weekly Vox book link roundup, a curated collection of the best writing on the web about books and related subjects. Here’s the best the internet has to offer for the week of September 17, 2017.

Following the premiere of Carrie Pilby, it seems most people I talk to are still curious about the whole money aspect. The fact is, book authors rarely become wealthy from movie deals. When the screen rights are sold (or when the option is “exercised”), the writer often gets a sum equal to about 2.5 percent of the budget. Keep in mind indie films are only made for a few million dollars. There are sometimes monetary bonuses if a big studio signs on, but after 10 to 15 percent agent fees and then taxes, the resulting sum is often less than six figures. However, I am now quite rich in inspiration, which helps as I put the last touches on that teen novel and a funny memoir.

What’s fascinating to me about this lawsuit is that, essentially the accusation boils down to “he did it better* than me.” Which I realize is unfair and reductive, because there are real and legal definitions of intellectual property that I am not personally educated in, and it’s hard to say at what level a plot point is more “baseball novel cliché” than “stolen baseball novel cliché.” Plot points don’t usually make the book! Except when they do, of course. And reading the list of accusations feels fairly damning. When you read this lawsuit, you might think, as I did, “yeah, that sounds pretty bad!” But who in their right mind would lift elements from an unsuccessful manuscript in order to magically (yes, the claim uses the phrase “magic wand”) make a successful one?

  • J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit turned 80 this week! Here’s C.S. Lewis’s 1937 review:

For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.

Having as far as he knew invented the word, Tolkien provided an imaginary etymology for hobbit, in order to fit the word into the linguistic landscape of Middle-earth. This was a remarkable feat of reverse engineering, not quite like any of his other etymological exploits amongst the tongues of Middle-earth.

On encountering the Rohirrim, the hobbits notice that their speech contains many words that sound like Shire words but have a more archaic form. The prime example is their word for the hobbits themselves: holbytla. This is a well-formed Old English compound (because Tolkien represents the language of the Rohirrim as Old English). It is made up of hol ‘hole’ and bytla ‘builder’; it just happens, as far as we know, never to have existed in Old English, and if hobbit turned out to be a genuine word from folklore it is most unlikely that this would be its actual etymology.

But now I’ve avoided writing this piece long enough, so let me confess: At night, feeling I should be quiet because of aforementioned husband, I try to avoid writing in my favorite time period by assembling — is there any way I can make this sound more dignified? — tableaux of found objects from within my own house, so that something funny will await the unsuspecting. (We have guests, too — my life is not just a prolonged prank pulled on my husband.)

Happy reading!

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