Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
In the 1982 film E.T.,
a little girl, who is the younger sister of the hero, looks down the extraterrestrial and announces, “I don’t like his feet.”
I never had that particular reaction to E.T.’s anatomy and I admit that I haven’t canvassed a lot of other Tolkien readers about this, but I’ve never been happy with what is at the end of hobbits’ legs either.
We first read about them in Chapter One of The Hobbit:
“They…wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly)…” The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)
And I suppose that, for consistency’s sake, this detail is included in the subsequent The Lord of the Rings:
“…but they seldom wore shoes, since their feet had tough leather soles and were clad in a thick, curling hair, much like the hair on their heads, which was commonly brown…” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue 1 “Concerning Hobbits”)
But, once this has been revealed, I don’t have the sense that anything more is made of it in either work.
I haven’t combed the text (sorry), of The Hobbit, but, glancing through it and consulting my memory (in the last few years, I’ve taught it half-a-dozen times), I don’t have the impression that the subject of hirsute extremities is brought up again. As for The Lord of the Rings, when the Fellowship begins its journey and runs into a snowstorm, at the moment when such equipment might be mentioned, it isn’t. Although Gandalf hopes for warmer feet (“For myself I should like a pipe to smoke in comfort, and warmer feet.” The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”), the mentions of hobbit feet are:
1. Frodo’s feet “felt like lead” before
2. “He thought a fire was heating his toes…”
3. (Legolas scouting ahead reports about the snow) “..while further down it is no more than a coverlet to cool a hobbit’s toes.”
Even when crossing stony ground and then almost lost in a blizzard, neither the advantage of the thick hair nor the leathery soles is brought up.
So why are we told about their feet?
As far as I can tell, JRRT himself never explains, but I wonder about his own earlier associations with lower extremities.
We might begin with something which may seem obvious, his poem, “Goblin Feet”, first published in Oxford Poetry 1915–
(the cut-and-paste has evened out the lines—for the original see: https://ia800205.us.archive.org/16/items/oxfordpoetry1915oxfouoft/oxfordpoetry1915oxfouoft.pdf page 64)–
“J.R. R. TOLKIEN
I AM off down the road
Where the fairy lanterns glowed
And the little pretty flittermice are flying :
A slender band of grey
It runs creepily away
And the hedges and the grasses are a-sighing.
The air is full of wings,
And of blundering beetle- things
That warn you with their whirring and their humming.
O ! I hear the tiny horns
Of enchanted leprechauns
And the padding feet of many gnomes a-coming !
O ! the lights : O ! the gleams : O ! the little tinkly sound
O ! the rustle of their noiseless little robes :
O ! the echo of their feet—of their little happy feet :
O ! their swinging lamps in little starlit globes.
I must follow in their train
Down the crooked fairy lane
Where the coney-rabbits long ago have gone,
And where silverly they sing
In a moving moonlit ring
All a-twinkle with the jewels they have on.
They are fading round the turn
Where the glow-worms palely burn
And the echo of their padding feet is dying !
O ! it’s knocking at my heart–
Let me go ! O ! let me start !
For the little magic hours are all a-flying.
O ! the warmth ! O! the hum ! O ! the colours in the dark !
O ! the gauzy wings of golden honey-flies !
O ! the music of their feet—of their dancing goblin feet !
O ! the magic ! O ! the sorrow when it dies.”
(In 1920, the poem was first republished in A Book of Fairy Poetry, where we see the first illustration of Tolkien’s work—
and, if you’d like to see it in situ, here’s the volume: https://archive.org/details/bookfairypoetry00libg page177 )
Here there is no mention of shoes or boots, reminding us of Tolkien’s remark about the hobbits:
“Thus, the only craft not practiced among them was shoe-making.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue I “Concerning Hobbits”
and their tread is “padding”, suggesting a softness which would not be provided by footwear. This, in turn, takes us back to an early Tolkien favorite author, George Macdonald (1824-1905—see Carpenter, Tolkien, 24, for his early enthusiasm),
and his two goblin books, The Princess and the Goblin (1872)
and The Princess and Curdie (1883).
(And here they are, if you haven’t read them: https://archive.org/details/princessgoblin00macd
In The Princess and the Goblin, we are told about these goblin feet (a father and son goblin are overheard talking):
“ ‘But I could carry ten times as much if it wasn’t for my feet.’
‘That is your weakpoint, I confess, my boy.’
‘Ain’t it yours too, father?’
‘Well, to be honest, it is a goblin-weakness. Why they come so soft, I declare I haven’t an idea.’ “
(It’s later explained that humans must wear shoes because they’re ashamed of having toes.)
(The Princess and the Goblin, Chapter VIII, “The Goblins”—one of my favorite other facts about the goblins is that you can drive them off by reciting verse, which they can’t stand.)
In a letter to Naomi Mitchison from 1954, Tolkien admits that Macdonald’s work might provide a source for orcs:
“…but I owe, I suppose, a good deal to the goblin tradition…especially as it appears in George MacDonald…”
but then he continues:
“except for the soft feet which I never believed in.” (letter of 25 April, 1954, to Naomi Mitchison, Letters, 178)
So, in the matter of feet, Tolkien was influenced by goblins, but, as those feet’s vulnerability was not believable, perhaps we could imagine that he made hobbit feet tougher so that he could believe in them?
But as to why they’re hairy…
Thanks for reading, as ever,
Avoid anything described as “footling”,
And remember that, as always, there’s