What a Colorful Pair!

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Part IV: A Necessary Interlude

Due to its length, this essay is split into two distinct sections. The subject discussion is groundbreaking as are the revelations and conclusions. Once again many new matters are exposed for the first time. We are left to marvel at both Tolkien’s genius and surprising lifelong resolve to withhold intriguing secrets about his most famous works.


Part IVa: A Giant Step Forward 

As imparted at the beginning of this set of essays, approaching matters from an unfamiliar angle sometimes yields unexpected benefits. Much as I would like to continue the discussion on color symbolism – for the moment a short break is appropriate. The time is now ripe to further look into Jack and the Beanstalk and comprehend its deeper enmeshment within The Lord of the Rings as well as expose elements of its presence in other Tolkien works.


Jack Escaping from the Giant, The History of Jack and the Beanstalk, B. Tabart, 1807


‘Why would Tolkien have chosen Jack and the Beanstalk?’ – I can imagine the doubtful reader question.
‘Surely that would be the wrong kind of fairy tale. Isn’t it a nursery tale?’

Hmm … that would be speculative; and a pronouncement of a definitive prognosis would be quite wrong. Agreed – fairy tale qualities The Lord of the Rings undoubtedly had – and it certainly wasn’t for young children. Nevertheless in looking at the big picture – nursery tales are in some instances a mere subset of fairy tales, and Tolkien wasn’t altogether convinced that an adult link to them should be casually cast aside. Indeed this attitude is reflected by the inclusion of The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late in The Lord of the Rings. Echoed by our modern day Hey Diddle Diddle – even nursery rhymes could have links to long lost English lore!

Now the first known recording of Jack and the Beanstalk dates from 1734. Under the title of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean the story was printed in Round about our Coal Fire. Forming one of several ‘Jack tales’1 the hero is a quintessential part of traditional English folklore from whom many phrases, rhymes and sayings have sprung2. However the Professor knew that historically, elements of the Beanstalk narrative went back much further than the early 18th century. In remarking upon it in his famous Beowulf lecture, clearly he implied the tale preceded John Milton who died in 1674:

“Milton ‘might have done worse’ than retell Jack and the Beanstalk in heroic verse”.
– Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, 1936

Most likely the tale went back even further with the written connection being lost in all but traces from the Elizabethan/Jacobean eras – where the famous ‘fe-fi-fo-fum’ rhyme was imbued in the dramatic plays of George Peele, Thomas Nashe and William Shakespeare:

“Fee, fa, fum, here is the Englishman, …”.
– The Old Wives’ Tale, George Peele, 1595

“… Fy, fa, fum, I smell the blood of an English-man”.
– Have with you to Saffron-walden, Thomas Nashe, 1596

“Child Roland to the dark tower came,
His word was still, Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”
– King Lear, William Shakespeare, 1605

In more modern times it is the tale’s 1890 recital by Joseph Jacobs in English Fairy Tales that has established itself as the one closest to the original story-line. And so it is the one, for comparative purposes, that has been dwelt on most. To peel away Tolkien’s exterior literary facade and expose matching underlying structural patterns, the drafts of The Lord of the Rings will be examined first and then a step back further in time to The Hobbit will be seen to be extraordinarily fruitful.

So firstly I will turn to The History of Middle-earth series. To piece together a credible yarn, there is also factual matter to consider – namely Tolkien’s childhood experiences. It is the run-ins with the ‘Black and White Ogres’ of Sarehole, Birmingham that are most interesting. We need to be particularly mindful of these formative years, especially as Tolkien himself said:

“… it is the particular use in a particular situation of any motive, whether invented, deliberately borrowed, or unconsciously remembered that is the most interesting thing to consider.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #337

As young boys, both Ronald and his brother Hilary were fascinated by the mill at Sarehole and the nearby pond which they on and off frequented. Equally they were terrified by the miller who they nicknamed the ‘White Ogre’ and his father who ran a local farm – dubbed the ‘Black Ogre’. Once used to grind grain for flour, it appears that the mill’s trade in those times fell to pulverizing bones which subsequently found usage as farm fertilizer. The ordeals with the ‘White Ogre’ covered in bone dust and the more aggressive ‘Black Ogre’ were vivid childhood memories that remained solidified in Tolkien’s mind and thus one may rightfully hypothesize that such experiences carried through into his books.


Image result for sarehole mill black white

The Mill and Pond at Sarehole, Birmingham


What was the origin of the last two lines of the classic English rhyme? :

I smell the blood of an Englishman
Be he alive or however be dead
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.
– English Fairy Tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890   (my emphasis)

Tolkien probably knew that in medieval times, bone-meal was used as a nutritional supplement and was sometimes mixed in with bread. Perhaps he also knew of Shakespeare’s rather macabre recipe for a pastry based pie:

“Hark, villains! I will grind your bones to dust
And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear
And make two pasties of your shameful heads …

Receive the blood: and when that they are dead,
Let me go grind their bones to powder small
And with this hateful liquor temper it;
And in that paste let their vile heads be baked.”
– Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare, c. 1588-1593

What were the real origins of the ‘Jack tales’? Was there a simple explanation? These are the sort of questions that rattled around in a philologist’s mind. Could it possibly be that the sources of the ‘fe-fi-fo-fum’ rhyme and English ogres lay in the trades of farming and milling? Yes milling was a dangerous job; if by mishap an unlucky person got caught in machinery or trapped by a millstone – there was no escape. Even those alive would be ground to pieces. As for farming – what would the uneducated have thought of sacks of bone bits lying about in a farmer’s barn? 

Whatever the truth, the boys were certainly frightened by the black-bearded farmer and his son; and it’s this fragment of knowledge that leads to an insightful supposition that Farmer Maggot was intended as the original Jack and the Beanstalk linking ogre for The Lord of the Rings. Mark Hooker in The Hobbitonian Anthology has examined the etymological origin of ‘Maggot’ and offered ‘Goemagot’ as a possible source.

Goemagot (also known as Gogmagog and Goemagog) is a giant in the legend of the founding of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth (see Historia Regum Britanniae). Apart from etymological similarity, Hooker offers other evidence of the farmer being quite an ‘ogre’ from The Return of the Shadow, where in one draft variant Maggot was:

“… a violent and intransigent character …”
– The Return of the Shadow, A Short Cut to Mushrooms, The Second Phase

and possessed an appearance different to hobbits.

Piecing together another snippet leads to a credible idea that Tolkien intended the farmer’s lands, known as Bamfurlong, to be the legendary site of Jack’s beanstalk:

“… Bamfurlong … probably from ‘bean’ … + ‘furlong’3 …”.
– The Lord of the Rings, A Reader’s Companion, A Short Cut to Mushrooms, Hammond and Scull

Did Tolkien envision a long line of farmed beanstalks intertwining into each other giving rise from afar to one that looked singular and gigantic?


A Field of Runner Beans


In an area of the Shire where the micro-climate was particularly rainy – on an overcast day, when the clouds were low – would Jack (whoever he was) on a trek towards the Maggot residence have felt from a perspective standpoint that he was climbing alongside an endless beanstalk reaching into the sky? Was the path to Maggot’s high-walled residence seen as an approach to a forbidding mansion occupied by an ogre-like individual? One maddened by the theft of his treasure – his precious crops. So taken together, were these set of circumstances contrived ideas (adding to those discussed in Part III) to stitch in much of Jack and the Beanstalk?

The answers to all the above is – we can’t say for sure – but quite possibly: yes! Until of course Tolkien abandoned the idea of making:

“… Maggot not a hobbit, but some other kind of creature …”,
– The Return of the Shadow, Tom Bombadil The First Phase

and supplanted him by the Black Riders as the real ‘ogres’ in the final story. A story which in a way paralleled the ‘Jack tales’ in that little people lived in proximity to beings much larger than themselves. This was after all an attempt:

“… to restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own: …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #180

In the end Tolkien was left with little choice when it came to “epic tradition”. Some of the elements of the widespread stories about Jack had to be embedded within his mythology to obtain specific English fairy tale linkage. The path I have proposed, once again, is undeniably a guess – based of course on logically connecting disparate information. Out of more than curiosity, for it would be a dereliction of a researcher’s duty, the right thing to do now – is to take another look at The Hobbit. Had Jack been subtly buried in there too?

Funnily enough right at the beginning of the book the careful reader is alerted to a possible reference to the eponymous English hero through the unexplained background of:

“… tales … about … giants … and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons?”
– The Hobbit, An Unexpected Party

Though it’s insinuated the persons and events are within ‘The Hobbit mythology’, given how Tolkien desired to engage the young reader – the placement may have been made with the intent to get his audience to think about their own world’s fairy tales. As perhaps the insertion of: 

“Poor Bilbo sat in the dark thinking of all the horrible names of all the giants and ogres he had ever heard told of in tales, …”,
– The Hobbit, Riddles in the Dark

was to remind them of the likes of Blunderbore, Thunderdell and Cormoran. 

Thus ever so subtly, an undertone of Jack creeps in. Because Jack of course is a widows’ son in the Beanstalk tale and a multiple ogre/giant slayer of all the above. Which leads one automatically to think back about Bilbo himself. Why? Because Bilbo was once a widows’ son too. And so with that as a starting point, once we probe deeper – some further remarkable likenesses emerge.

As ‘simple’ (perhaps we can say naive) bachelors – both Bilbo and Jack embark on a quest with courage but no personal heroic pedigree behind them. Both have adventures, return home and then live happily ever after. More pointedly, endowed with extraordinary luck – both become highly successful burglars.

The purpose behind both tales was not to portray the heroes as common thieves or robbers – rather as something more acceptable, almost to the point of the dubious profession having a chivalrous side. Stealing from a house (The Ogre’s or Smaug’s lair) was really not that insidious a crime – because both Jack and Bilbo were taking back stuff that was rightfully a former owner’s who no doubt had been forcefully dispossessed. In each case there are three ‘significant’ thefts (or attempts):

Jack: Bag of gold, The Hen that lays golden eggs and a Magic Harp
Bilbo: Troll Purse, Gold Cup and the Arkenstone.

Remarkably bags of gold, magic harps and a jewel that is perhaps not too far off in size or shape to a hen’s egg, feature in The Hobbit thus resonating with Jack’s takings. And while the purse doesn’t show up in the Beanstalk tale, it does appear in another English fairy tale involving giant folk called Mollie Whuppie:

“… if ye would … steal the purse that lies below the giant’s pillow, …” And Molly said she would try. So she set out for the giant’s house, and slipped in, … and waited till the giant … was snoring sound asleep. She … slipped her hand below the pillow, and got out the purse; but just as she was going out the giant wakened, and ran after her …”.
– Mollie Whuppie, English Fairy Tales, Joe Jacobs 1890


Mollie Whuppy steals the Giant’s Sword, English Fairy Tales, J. Jacobs, 1890


Mollie is the female equivalent to Jack – who bit by bit similarly steals an ogre’s treasure and outwits him too. What we see then is a blended amalgamation for the ‘Troll scene’ in The Hobbit. Therein the purse acts like the harp from Jack and the Beanstalk in its vocal alert. Yes a talking harp and a talking purse. Both knew they were being stolen from their current owner!

Also noteworthy is that in both Jack and the Beanstalk and The Hobbit – the main monstrous denizens are at home and asleep when first burgled and that both become aware of the presence of foes through the act of sniffing. And if Tolkien had taken up his initial story-line – Bilbo, like Jack – would have been the one to directly slay the enemy.

Whether Tolkien shaped his plot intentionally to subtly give the young reader a sense of comforting familiarity is unknown. It is quite possible that this was all accidental or even subconsciously present. However the possibility also exists that the theme of The Hobbit has purposely woven in features reminiscent of classic English fairy tale. Whatever the truth – as near to certainty as one can reasonably be – what was deliberately contrived was Tolkien’s trolls.


Part IVb: Cheesy Trollery

If one peruses through John Rateliff’s The History of The Hobbit, it becomes abundantly plain that Tolkien included much which had an academic background for various aspects of the children’s tale. Perhaps missed is the most academic piece of all – namely a parodied scene involving a mixture of ‘Jack’ related fairy tale and native period history.

Now there are several ‘Jack stories’ and they are thought to have originated in Cornwall. Probably Celtic in origin they are interwoven in part with Arthurian tales and feature ogres/giants prominently. Trolls were not so abundant in English folklore but Tolkien himself lumped them together with ogres per their man-eating portrayal in The Hobbit:

“ ‘Never a blinking bit of manflesh have we had for long enough,’ …
‘You’ve et a village and a half between yer, since we come down from the mountains’.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Many readers have wondered about the discordant trolls. Not the trolls themselves – rather their names (and vulgar tone of speech). Given how carefully Tolkien selected the wizard and majority of dwarf names from the Norse Elder Edda, and how others would have been equally unfamiliar to the child reader – Beorn, Elrond and Bilbo being prime examples – the ones for the trolls seem distinctly out of place. When it came to Smaug, Tolkien confessed:

“The dragon bears as a name – a pseudonym – the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb Smugan, to squeeze through a hole: a low philological jest.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #25

What hasn’t been investigated is whether Tom, Bert and Bill were also named in jest. In fact I can find neither this angle being examined by scholars, or any credible proposals on why Tolkien opted for those particular names. However the answer I believe is actually quite simple. Indeed Tolkien chose them in fun – for they make up a Renaissance parody. It was one which ridiculed three English giants of the Elizabethan era – those being giants in the fields of English drama, poetry and classical acting. Bill (William) satirically represented William Shakespeare, Tom spoofed Thomas Nashe and Bert parodied Robert Greene.

The fracas involving Shakespeare and Greene is a well-known part of Elizabethan history. It culminates in a posthumously published play of Robert Greene’s called a Groats-worth of Witte. Within he purportedly attacked a young and increasingly successful Shakespeare through the following lines:

“Yes trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tigers hart wrapped in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”
– Groats-worth of Witte, bought with a million of Repentance, 1592


Robert Greene, from the title page of the pamphlet Greene in Conceipt, 1598.

Robert Greene, from the title page of the pamphlet Greene in Conceipt, 1598


Robert Greene’s friend, Thomas Nashe, denied involvement in the affair. Nevertheless it is fairly well established that these three were part of a handful of great Elizabethan playwrights who at times collaborated with one another but were also intense rivals. Indeed the literary jealousy is quite famous among historians. Famous enough that the BBC aired a comedic six part television series titled Upstart Crow in 2016.

The history lesson will not be repeated here for there are several interpretations of what actually took place and how the evidence can be read. Nonetheless within the correspondences and play pamphlets there are subtle allegations of plagiarism and sneerings at Shakespeare’s lack of university education and his currying of favors through underhand dealings with the aristocracy. Tolkien no doubt thought such shenanigans were hilarious. Indeed he showed no particular deference to the Bard. Actually quite the opposite. For some of his documented thoughts actively voice criticism.

So if we look carefully at The Hobbit, it is quite obvious that the main antagonism is between Bill and Bert. Having already started the needling:

“ ‘Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrer,’ …”,
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

it is Bert that continues to escalate matters and then lands the first blow – just as Robert Greene historically lashed out at Shakespeare:

“ ‘You’re a fat fool, William,’ said Bert, ‘as I’ve said afore this evening.’ … ‘And I won’t take that from you. Bill Huggins,’ says Bert, and puts his fist in William’s eye.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

And if we look even more carefully – Tom seems to be much more aligned with Bert than William, mirroring the actual relationship between the playwrights:


A crudely printed, full-length picture of a standing man. He is in Elizabethan-style clothing and chains are around his ankles

Thomas Nashe, Wood-cut (Source: Wikipedia)


“ ‘Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrer,’ said one of the trolls. ‘Never a blinking bit of manflesh have we had for long enough,’ said a second. ‘What the ‘ell William was a-thinkin’ of to bring us into these parts …’ …

Bert and Tom went off to the barrel. …

‘There’s more to come yet,’ said Tom … ‘I reckon you’re right,’ said Bert, …

‘Now stop it!’ said Tom and Bert together.”

– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Bill clearly thought that there was plenty of tasty fare for them all – and this might echo a sentiment that the Elizabethan Renaissance era was more than rich enough to accommodate a small bunch of decent playwrights. The rivalry was laughable and fully deserving of caricaturist mockery. To the point that these three rural born men – now earning their fortunes in London – could be made fun of by being endowed with buffoonish cockney4 accents. Indeed the whole situation was positively farcical as the question of who plagiarized who was made part of the parody:

“ ‘Who’s a-arguing?’ said William, who thought it was. Bert that had spoken. ‘You are,’ said Bert. ‘You’re a liar,’ said William; …

‘No good boiling ’em! We ain’t got no water, and it’s a long way to the well and all,’ said a voice. Bert and William thought it was Tom’s. …

‘I made sure it was yellow,’ said Bert. ‘Yellow it was,’ said William. ‘Then what did yer say it was grey for?’ said Bert. ‘I never did. Tom said it.’ ‘That I never did!’ said Tom. ‘It was you.’ ”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Though the ‘borrowing’ of literary writings from others had become common-day practice, it still should be seen for it was. In Elrond’s wise words, these dramatists were no different to others:

“… your trolls had plundered, other plunderers, …”.
– The Hobbit, A Short Rest

Even more incriminating is a readily recognizable association of the Troll encounter to Robert Greene’s famed ‘Conny-catching’ pamphlets. Issued between 1591 and 1592 the articles provide detailed examples of the cunning methods used by vagabonds, thieves and petty criminals (termed Conny-catchers and Cross-biters) in preying on the innocent public of Elizabethan London. A hierarchy and rivalry within and between gangs sometimes even led to the ‘catchers’ becoming victims.

A ‘conny’of course is another name for rabbit, and most interestingly Greene’s pamphlets had both the criminals and victims drawn as such. While the ‘catchers’ were sometimes dressed in human attire, the victim was always stripped. Our novice burglar Bilbo, in Elizabethan terms, would have been identified as a pickpocket and similarly caricatured pictorially in the manner Greene devised. For Bilbo in this parody had been caught by his own sort:


A discourse, or rather discouery of a Nip and the 
Foist, laying open the nature of the Cutpurse 
and Pickpocket

From The Second and Last Part of Conny-catching, Pamphlet by Robert Greene, 1592


When asked by William what he was, Bilbo’s blurted out in fright: “bur-a hobbit”. Although it appears Mr. Baggins managed to stop himself from saying ‘burglar’ – the cockney accented trolls likely took ‘bur-a’ as slang for ‘burrow’; at least that seems a sensible way of interpreting Tolkien’s intent. Because indeed this would then match well with Bert calling Bilbo a:

“ ‘… nassty little rabbit, …” as he looked down at our hero’s “… furry feet; …”.
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

In other words the trolls mistook Mr. Baggins for some kind of burrowing rabbit. Leaving us to laugh at how Tolkien’s literary genius portrayed the villainous trolls as ‘Conny-catchers’ – quite literally!

Thus satirically melded into the tale was a lampooning of Greene’s work. And though Tolkien artfully punned:

“Calling him a ‘nassty little rabbit’ was a piece of vulgar trollery.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25

There was likely more to the matter than just:

“… the trolls’ use of rabbit was merely an obvious insult …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #319

The successful ‘catch’ and subsequent asset stripping by ‘cut-throats’ and the like was known in the underworld as ‘skinning’ and ‘boning’ – again satirized by The Hobbit lines:

“ ‘I don’t want to have me throat cut in me sleep! …’ ”
“ ‘He wouldn’t’ make above a mouthful … not after he was skinned and boned.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Yet even more telling is the how Tolkien had Bert hold Bilbo the ‘rabbit’ upside down. A scene that was symbolically mirrored from an illustration in one of his pamphlets.


The Third and Last Part of Conny-catching, Pamphlet by Robert Greene, 1592


From all of this – it is evident that the term ‘conny’ – had evolved by Elizabethan times to represent ‘con-men’. The words’ actual etymological roots are uncertain – but there is some evidence it was introduced into England from Wales. Caught up in the mix is the Welsh love for a delicacy they call ‘Caws pobi’ – funnily enough known to them as ‘Welsh rarebit’. But to Englishmen it’s best known as ‘Welsh rabbit’. The dish is actually toasted cheese and Tolkien’s awareness of St. Peter ‘conning’ the Welsh out of place in heaven through an enticement of ‘caws pobi’ is an old joke brought up in his lecture: English and Welsh. So subtly included in The Hobbit was his own punning jest about the scarcity of ‘rabbit’ (via the motif of ‘rarebit’) when confusing the trolls:

“ ‘… lots and none at all,’ ”.
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Tolkien was well aware of the influence of Welsh in Elizabethan literature:

“… Welsh rabbit, pobi is the Welsh word for ‘cook, roast, toast’, and (if Andrew Boorde got it right) it has changed p- to b- because pobi is used as an adjective, after a noun. London was for a while very Welsh-conscious at the time (as seen in Shakespeare), and bits of Welsh crop up in plays and tales.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #241

And we can see this arising in a parody of some famous lyrics originally written by Ben Jonson (another renowned Elizabethan dramatist):

“Have you smelt Cauf-bobby tosted
Or a shipskin roasted”.
– Bodleian MS Harley 6917, fol. 41

So who knows? Perhaps Tolkien thought there was a close enough association of ‘shipskin’ (meaning sheep skin) to warrant both the ‘Roast Mutton’ chapter title as well as ‘bobby’ with ‘hobbit’ (I will comment further on this connection in a later essay) to lampoon Renaissance playwrights using Bilbo and the trolls. Because of course the trolls liked to ‘cook’, ‘roast’ and ‘toast’ their meat. Which neatly ties in the scene with Tolkien’s Letter #241 alternate definition:

“… pobi is the Welsh word for ‘cook, roast, toast’, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #241

And so both definitions were encapsulated in Mr. Baggins, as the ‘rabbit’, for he also offered to be a cook:

“ ‘… I am a good cook myself, and cook better than I cook, …’ ”,
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Last of all is the powerful imagery that Tolkien left behind. There at ‘curtain call’ it was Shakespeare that took the final bow6:

“William never spoke for he stood turned to stone as he stooped; …”.
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton



William Shakespeare (Source: Wikipedia)


The other two ‘trolls’: Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe were left to forever stare at the Bard’s much greater success.

“… Bert and Tom were stuck like rocks as they looked at him.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Immortally symbolized were three giants in the same field with their corpus’ set in stone! And also symbolically – it was the troll Bill that literally held the key. Expanding his name to William was the clue that would allow the reader to solve the puzzle. For once we correctly expand the other two troll names – it’s a ‘giant’ step forward to unraveling the whole mystery!

The jest was now complete. But at that time, Tolkien had no idea that a sequel would happen. Linking the world of The Hobbit to that of The Lord of the Rings would obviously become problematic. No wonder he admitted that he:

“… should not have called the troll William.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153 

Nevertheless Tolkien couldn’t help but continue the prank by mockingly assigning a bird’s nest to one of the trolls. He left it to us to deduce the nest was a crow’s and the accusing culprit was Bert. Not extractable from the final version – but from the drafts, it’s confirmed:

“ ‘… Bert has got a bird’s nest behind his ear.’ ”
– The Return of the Shadow, From Weathertop to the Ford, The First Phase

Which by no coincidence lines up exceedingly well with The Hobbit witticism left by the Professor. Because it was Robert Greene that titled Shakespeare: ‘Shake-scene’ – which of course is literally acted out by Bert (with Bilbo) when the troll:

“… picked him up by the toes and shook him.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Now the other connection of these playwrights (at least two out of the three) to the world of The Hobbit as well as Jack and the Beanstalk was that inbred English verse. Nashe’s and Shakespeare’s inclusion of variants of the rhyme into their plays are practically two of the most ancient written records existing:

“… Fy, fa, fum, I smell the blood of an English-man”.
Have with you to Saffron-walden, Thomas Nashe, 1596

“Child Roland to the dark tower came,
His word was still, Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”
King Lear, William Shakespeare, 1605

The most ancient known reference is a year earlier than Nashe’s and was made by fellow dramatist George Peele. It was spoken by the character Huanebango (roughly translated from Spanish as ‘Jack the Braggart’) to the character ‘Booby’!

“Fee, fa, fum, here is the Englishman, …”.
– The Old Wives’ Tale, George Peele, 1595


Image result for george peele the old wives tale text

Title page of the Old Wives’ Tale, George Peele, 1595


One cannot help but make a connection to the troll Bill who accused Tom of being a sore loser:

“You’re a booby,”.
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

For a ‘booby’7, as well as being a clown, of course is a losing player; and a ‘player’, for those working in dramatic circles, can be taken as either an actor or writer of a play’!

Now one of the last known incorporations of the ogre-verse into an English fairy story (separate to a ‘Jack tale’) was possibly why Tolkien chose the surname ‘Huggins’ for Bill. Puss-cat Mew was a firmly favorite fairy tale of the Professor’s. As a very young child pre-1900:

“… one story I was then very fond of called ‘Puss Cat Mew’.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #319

In it was once again English ogres and that spine-shivering phrase:

“Spiflicate those Fairies!” again said the Ogre in an angry tone … And he then moved sulkily off, muttering the well-known “Fe-fi-fo-fum,” which is so popular a song among Ogres.”
– Stories for my Children, E.F. Knatchbull-Hugessen, 1869

Written by Hugessen, it would not be at all surprising if Tolkien in mock appreciation took a corrupted form of that Teutonic rooted name to transpose it into an English ‘Huggins’ instead. Doubly appropriate it might have felt because of the implication of ‘huge’ within its make-up.

So now in reflection, since the overall ‘Elizabethan playwrights’ solution fits like a glove8, it may help us in understanding more about Tolkien’s own character. If he could do this once – then why not again? Peering forward to The Lord of the Rings it is noteworthy that Sam sings a song about a troll and includes a ‘Tom’ and a ‘Tim’ too. Could Tolkien have taken his jest further?

But that is material for another time. To come in a future essay will be the connection of The Root of the Boot characters to William Shakespeare and Thomas and John Heywood. We’ll take another look at the origin of the names ‘Bilbo’ and ‘Baggins’ – for the possibility exists that there was a little more to the matter than Tolkien disclosed, or that other scholars have guessed!


For the next article in the series click below

Part V



1  Other well-known ‘Jack tales’ include: Jack the Giant-Killer, The House that Jack Built and Lazy Jack.

2  For example: Jack be Nimble, Jack and Jill, Jack of all trades, Jack-o-napes, Jack-in-the Box, Jack the lad, All play and no work makes Jack a dull boy … and many more.

3  A furlong is a unit of length based on a standard furrow in a farm field. One furlong = 660 feet.

4  Tolkien himself read out aloud Roast Mutton and impersonated the Troll voices in a rural English country accent (The Hobbit – E-book, 75th Anniversary Edition). Possibly Tolkien could not put out a decent cockney accent. Alternatively he may have felt The Hobbit employed slang was applicable to country-folk.

With regards to Tolkien’s employment of slang and its connection to the playwright proposal, Renaissance drama constituted some of the earliest known uses of the term ‘cockney’. Notably for:


King Lear, “… as the cockney did to the eels, …”, 
Twelfth Night, “I am afraid this great lubber, the world, will prove a cockney …”.

Robert Nashe:

Pierce Penilesse, “A yoong Heyre or Cockney, …”.

5  Also spelled : Cony, Conie and Coney. Even though Tolkien knew that coney was the more correct term for ancient times – he deliberately avoided using it in The Hobbit – apart from, as John Rateliff comments in The History of The Hobbit, with the view of the “innate crookedness of fur-traders”. For a children’s book, perhaps Tolkien avoided its use throughout as a protest against its debasement by the Elizabethans. In that era, non-drawing room talk arose in literature/plays as the word was pronounced ‘cunny’ – which found dual usage as a vulgar term for a sexual zone of the female anatomy.

6  The Hobbit text nor The Lord of The Rings text matches well with Picture 100 in J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator, Hammond & Scull. The text describes William as stood turned to stone” while stooping. Here only one troll is on his feet but he doesn’t appear to be stooping. Neither can the troll on the right be reasonably attributed as William – for most young readers would ascribe his posture as kneeling. These may have been the reasons for Tolkien removing it from consideration in the set of illustrations he put forward to the publishers.

7  As in ‘booby-prize’.

8  Another rather telling clue that Nashe, Greene and Shakespeare were indeed the intended targets of a Tolkien spoof, is the manner in which the first few phrases uttered by each troll bear similarity to lines/scenes in the corresponding playwright’s work. Notably there is no case of cross-matching.

Thomas Nashe:

“… neither is there anything to be consumed, save ‘one single, single kilderkin of small beer,’ served out in ‘little farthing ounce-boxes …’ ”.
– Pierce Pennilesse His Supplication to the Devil, 1592

Compare with The Hobbit where the drink is stated to be beer:

Tom: “… and the drink runnin’ short, what’s more,”.


Robert Greene:

“Enter a woman with a shoulder of mutton on a spit, and a devil.”
– Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, c. 1589

Compare with The Hobbit, where the trolls were toasting mutton on long spits:

Bert: Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrer,”.


William Shakespeare :

“Shut your mouth, …”.
– King Lear, 1605

Compare with The Hobbit cockney accented utterance:

Bill: “Shut yer mouth!”


6/2/17 – Added introductory paragraph. Split essay into two parts – Parts IVa & IVb.

Added quote: ‘Now stop it!’ said Tom and Bert together.”

Added section from “Even more incriminating …” to quote “ ‘ … I am a good cook myself, and cook better than I cook, …’ ”,
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton.

Added new Footnote 5 and re-ordered others.