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While searching for J.R.R. Tolkien information online, I came across one photograph taken in September 1961 by leading London-based photographer Pamela Chandler of Tolkien relaxing in his study at his home in 76 Sandfield Road, Headington, Oxford. A Toby jug with the shape of a man can be seen in the near right background.

J.R.R. Tolkien (1961)

Tolkien's Toby jug at the 2018 exhibition "Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth" by the Bodleian library of the University of Oxford.

Tolkien's Toby jug at the 2018 exhibition "Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth"

A closer look at Tolkien's Toby Jug.

Tolkien's Toby Jug

In the issue No. 1 of Volume 63 of the Journal of English and Germanic Philology (1964), Alfred David, Associate Professor of English at Indiana University, says of the aforementioned Tolkien photograph:

A review of this book would be incomplete without mention of Pamela Chandler's delightful portrait of Professor Tolkien. He is photographed sitting in front of a case of battered-looking books, a faint smile playing about his lips, while a troll-like little Toby-jug glares from his desk. For one who has never met him, the portrait fulfills all expectations of how the author of The Lord of the Rings should look.

John & Priscilla Tolkien in their book The Tolkien Family Album (1992) make reference to the Toby Jug:

...“The study was very much the center of Ronald’s home life, and the center of his study was his desk. Over the years the top of his desk continued to show familiar landscapes: his dark brown wooden tobacco jar, a Toby jug containing pipes and a large bowl into which the ash from his pipe was regularly knocked out."

In Tolkien's 1982 posthumous children's picture book Mr. Bliss, a Toby jug is depicted on page 31 in an untitled Tolkien's illustration of the Party at the Bears' House (bottom right).

Tolkien's drawing from Mr. Bliss

I made some fragments of research and found that the Toby jug owned by Tolkien is from the Devon region of the United Kingdom. Given the line around the base, it's a Devonmoor Art Pottery. That type of ordinary jug was manufactured between 1922-1935. Let's remember that Tolkien used to escape in his old Morris with his family for a holiday to a favorite location: A town of Devon called Sidmouth (1936, 1937, 1938).

Since the 1760s a large variety of Toby jug figures and characters have inspired artists like painter Paul Gauguin and had been in existence before Tolkien wrote his works, I ask if, the Tolkien's Toby jug character, sitting with a tankard of beer, holding a stemmed pipe and wearing a dark-green long coat inspired him to create one of his characters.

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    Your only reason for thinking he might is that there was once one in a background photo?
    – OrangeDog
    Feb 27, 2023 at 17:37
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    @OrangeDog - The photo was the beginning; then the name Toby happens to be a contraction of the hobbit name "Tobold" or "Old Toby" used as a name for a type of tobacco.
    – Bingo
    Feb 27, 2023 at 18:02
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    Well, I don't think anyone can fault this question for 'lack of research'!
    – Basya
    Feb 27, 2023 at 18:37
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    What part of the revised quotes is claiming that the use of the name "Toby" in LOTR is based on Toby jugs, rather than just the name? Why would you think it is? Mar 1, 2023 at 1:17
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    "Toby" is a common English name and has been for centuries before Toby jugs. Mar 1, 2023 at 14:40

2 Answers 2

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I suspect that "Old Toby" is mainly present in order to supply a fictional etymology for the word "tobacco".

We know that Tolkien dedicated effort to multilingual explanations for things like the Brandywine River being a Westron pun ("Bralda-him" versus Sindarin "baran-duin"), golf coming from the name of the orc Golfimbul, and so forth. Some of what he does is "serious play", like Eowyn's alias Dernhelm deriving from Old English dyrne, a secret; she is literally hiding under a helmet. Much of it is more lighthearted. The internal etymology and herb-lore of tobacco is remarkably extensive, which if nothing else shows that Tolkien was personally engaged by the linguistic and world-building games around it.

Overall, I think it's fair to conclude from the evidence presented below that:

  • Tolkien thought a lot about fictional etymologies,
  • was bothered by words like "tobacco",
  • had already put the word in Middle-Earth due to The Hobbit,
  • wanted to include a tob- element in the name of the first hobbit to cultivate tobacco, but
  • was not committed to "Toby" specifically.

Although he does not appear to complete the riddle by giving an internal explanation for "tobacco", the digression on pipe-weed already being so long that he had to remove it from the main text, I think it is plausible that he planted Old Toby as part of his thinking through the language problems. The name of the character is a backformation from wanting to use Old Toby as the name of the product, which itself is more readily explainable in terms of Tolkien's interest in language than his interest in pottery.

He may have been additionally inspired by the Toby jug but as far as I know there is no trace of this in his writing, which suggests that even if this was something that triggered the idea, it wasn't something he considered to be important in the end. If he cared about the connection then he could have made it more explicit in all sorts of ways in-text. For example, we see various barrels, pouches and jars to hold tobacco, but none of them are associated with the word Toby or are head-shaped. When Merry says (in the chapter Flotsam and Jetsam), "It is Longbottom Leaf! There were the Hornblower brandmarks on the barrels, as plain as plain", Tolkien might have had him say that Old Toby's face was the brandmark - but he didn't. He could also have asked translators to preserve "Old Toby" as an exact phrase, but he didn't do that.

There is no harm in the thought that Tolkien might have been reaching for a spare pipe out of his Toby jug at a key moment of writing through all this, but in my view that doesn't really explain anything about the fictional character or his place in the legendarium.

The Problem of Tob-

In the published The Lord of the Rings, "Old Toby" is mentioned in the prologue as both a brand of tobacco, and the nickname of its hobbit cultivator, Tobold Hornblower. This passage, originally part of Merry's narration at the destruction of Isengard, was transposed to the Prologue in 1948 (estimated by Christopher Tolkien in The Peoples of Middle-Earth, 1996). The character's name appeared in various drafts as Elias Tobiasson, Tobias Smygrave, and Tobias Hornblower (ibid.), as Tolkien experimented with different names that might be abbreviated to Toby. He moved to Tobold because of the distracting collision with the Hebrew name Tobias, as with using Samwise rather than Samuel.

The tob- sound was therefore something which Tolkien considered essential, even as everything else about the name changed. Internally, Tolkien associated it with a "real Hobbit-name", Tobi or Zara-tobi. His note to translators instructs them to replace the brand name Old Toby with "whatever equivalent of Toby is used for the personal name", which I think means that he is not requiring them to use precisely "Toby". But given that the English name comes from Hebrew, also received into other European languages, Tolkien is probably expecting that "whatever equivalent" will be the local version of Tobias, and something starting with those same syllables. From all of this, I conclude that Tolkien was keen on the sound, but not fixed on the exact word. He could have insisted upon it, but didn't.

Concerning Pipe-weed

Tobacco as such is only named once in the book - it's called "pipe-weed" and has various names in the invented languages of the legendarium - owing to Tolkien's discomfort with importing a word of non-European etymology. The precise etymology is contested but he would have regarded it as coming from the New World, in an era that's more modern than what he wanted to evoke (see its entry in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, where it's seen as "quite naturalized" into modern English, after appearing in the 17th century). Similar doubts afflicted the appearance of potatoes, usually called "taters" in-text, as well as tomatoes, tea, and coffee.

Unfortunately for Tolkien, he had accidentally committed to tobacco in Middle-Earth by naming it in The Hobbit. He considered revising this in later editions but did not ultimately feel able (see The History of the Hobbit, John Rateliff, 2007).

"Good morning!" said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat. "What do you mean?" be said. "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"
"All of them at once," said Bilbo. "And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain. If you have a pipe about you, sit down and have a fill of mine! There's no hurry, we have all the day before us!"

There are a few other spots where it occurs in the narrator's voice as opposed to character dialogue, which are less problematic. The one instance in the main text of The Lord of the Rings is for Merry, again at the ruin of Isengard, with "He produced a small leather bag full of tobacco."

Tolkien certainly gave thought to why the plant would be found in his version of the Old World, being conscious that it was an anomaly. Merry's presented theory is that galenas came from Númenor, and was brought northwards from Gondor after the time of Elendil. Notably, we hear the name westmansweed for it, and of course a "Man of the West" is a Dúnadan or Númenórean. So there is a vivid internal history for the plant and its names, albeit stopping short of hanging a lampshade on the word "tobacco".

Riddles in the Dark

If we wanted to follow this etymological puzzle, we could say that the internal etymology of tobacco is from the name Tobi, plus the adjectival suffix -cund. In Old English, which is identified with the language of Rohan and akin to the hobbits' language, -cund denotes origin, derivation or likeness to the root-word. For example, godcund means god-like or sacred, and feorrancund means of foreign-kind. Then a plant that is tobicund means "coming from Tobi", "of Tobi-kind", and tobacco might be its evolved nominal form. (This actually doesn't quite work in OE, but there are plenty of compounds of this type in Germanic languages generally.)

Alternatively, Tolkien also presented "Tomacca" as the original name of Tom Cotton (Sam's father-in-law) in draft - it was "Tolma" in the published Appendix F - indicating some toying with an "-acca" element, which would give another avenue for that sound-combination to appear in Hobbit nomenclature.

This is all speculative but I think it is in the spirit of Tolkien's language-thinking, and roughly consistent with the traces we do have of him working through the language issues. His invention and revision of hobbit names is indicative of trying to reconcile these multiple factors, and represented a major focus of his effort - just look at those hobbit genealogies! Ultimately, I think that any analysis of why "Toby" arises in the text has to be grounded primarily in linguistic considerations of this kind: this is what he was mainly playing around with.

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  • I'm awarding the bounty for the research effort and because this is a plausible guess although I'm not accepting until a more definite answer appears.
    – Bingo
    Mar 17, 2023 at 2:24
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Tolkien's Toby jug character, underneath the glaze, echoes that of Peter Jackson's Strider in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).

Strider in a dark corner of the big common-room of the Prancing Pony inn and the Toby jug character are sitting. Both have a tankard of beer. Both are holding a stemmed pipe, and both have dark-green long coats.

In the first volume of The Lord of the Rings "The fellowship of the Ring" Chapter IX "At the Sign of The Prancing Pony" on page 156, Tolkien describes Strider as follows:

"Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved....A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him...".

Apparently, a Ranger and a Toby character don't look too much alike, right? But let us remember that in Tolkien's initial draft, there was an earlier incarnation of Strider: A Hobbit named Trotter.

In the first volume of The Story of the Lord of the Rings "The return of the shadow" (1988) by Christopher Tolkien, in the Chapter VIII "Arrival at Bree" on page 137, Tolkien describes Trotter as:

"... a queer-looking, brown-faced hobbit, sitting in the shadows behind the others, was also listening intently. He had an enormous mug (more like a jug) in front of him and was smoking a broken-stemmed pipe...".

Now, a Hobbit and a Toby character look a bit more alike, right?

In his Prologue of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote that the hobbits were...

"...notably fond of yellow and green."

Interestingly, Tolkien's Toby jug wears those exact colors. Also, Frodo has red cheeks like the Toby jug character.

Now, let us say for a moment that Tolkien patterned Trotter appearance after the Toby jug character. Thus, how Tolkien got his Toby jug?

Humphrey Carpenter wrote in his same book that, by the time of the writing of The Lord of the Rings in the late 30s, Tolkien used to escape in his old Morris with his family for a holyday to a favorite location. A town of Devon called Sidmouth. (1936, 37 & 38). Tolkien in his letter 373 to Christopher mentions shops in Sidmouth as Frisby, Trump, and Potbury which indicates that Tolkien was not only walking the hills in the countryside or building sandcastles with his children at the seaside but also visited the town and shops. Also, since 1923, Herford Hope had started The Devonmoor Art Pottery Co. in Ilsington, near Newton Abbot, selling Toby jugs. From the question, the Toby jug owned by Tolkien is from the Devonmoor Pottery and it was produced since the 30s, thus, it could have happened that Tolkien purchased (or received as a gift) the jug from Devon. Also, it was at Sidmouth in the late Summer of 1938 where Tolkien scribbled down some notes with his thoughts for the next stages of the story, including the question 'Who is Trotter?'. Now, why may he have wanted to use it as a character?

When The Hobbit turned out to be a success, Allen & Unwin suggested Tolkien to write a sequel. Then in 1937 Tolkien started writing "The Lord of the Rings" which he had not planned to write. Obviously, Tolkien needed new characters, and according to Tolkien own words, he didn't consciously invent most of his characters. They just appeared and he reported them!

Humphrey Carpenter, in his book "J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977), points out the following about Trotter:

"There he did a good deal of work on the story, bringing the hobbits to a village inn at 'Bree' where they meet a strange character, another unpremeditated element in the narrative. In the first drafts Tolkien described this person as 'a queer-looking, brown-faced hobbit', and named him 'Trotter'. Later he was to be recast as a man of heroic stature, the king whose return to power gives the third volume of the book its title; but as yet Tolkien had no more idea than the hobbits who he was."

In his letter to the poet, W. H. Auden, 7 Jun 1955, Tolkien wrote: "Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo."

Given all the above, it stands to reason that at some point of the time, the Toby jug from Devon, made in the early 30s, that Tolkien owned and kept on top of his desk for many years, it could have ceased to be a mere pipe container and became the embodiment of a hobbit named Trotter.

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