Monday, December 12, 2022

The Hobyahs: A Reconsideration

In the 16 January 1938 issue of the London newspaper The Observer, there was a query, signed "Habit", from Queensway, asking whether J.R.R. Tolkien might be persuaded to discuss more about his book The Hobbit, published four months earlier. Habit also noted:

On mentioning the hairy-footed hobbit, rather like a rabbit, to one of my contemporaries, I was amazed to hear her shudder. She said she remembered an old fairy tale called "The Hobbit" in a collection read about 1904. This creature, she said, was definitely frightening, unlike Professor Tolkien's.

Tolkien's reply, published in the 20 February 1938 issue of The Observer,  is justly famous (it appears as Letter 25 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien) as an early and delightful commentary by Tolkien of his own works.  He noted that he didn't know of "any Hobbit bogey in print by 1904" and stated in a footnote that "I should like, if possible, to learn more about the fairy-tale collection, c. 1904." 

In the first edition of my Annotated Hobbit (1988), I identified this story as very probably "The Hobyahs" and the fairy tale collection as More English Fairy Tales (dated 1894, but published in October 1893 to catch the Christmas market) edited by Joseph Jacobs, where the Hobyahs are given juvenile but scary illustrations by John D. Batten. (See at right the first page of the story with a few of the recurrent illustrations of Hobyahs.)

In the "Notes and References" section at the rear of the book, Jacobs notes the source of his story. It came not from England but from America, in "American Folk-Lore Journal, iii., 173, contributed by Mr. S.V. Proudfit as current in a family deriving of Perth" (p. 255). But this isn't entirely correct, and with the full context we can better place the origins of this tale. 

The tale actually appeared in The Journal of American Folk-Lore (to give it its correct title), in the issue for April-June 1891,  under the title "The Hobyahs: A Scotch Nursery Tale" contributed by S.V. Proudfit of Washington D.C, who notes that "When I was a child, I used to hear the following story told in a Scotch family that came from the vicinity of Perth. Whether the story came from the family I am unable to say. I have spelled the word "Hobyah" as it was pronounced" (p. 173).

Some of this information can be researched further. S.V. Proudfit was Samuel Victor Proudfit (1846-1934) who worked as a lawyer for the U.S. government for many years. He did not publish much, but a lecture titled "The Lodge Dwellers" given before the Anthropological Society in Washington in April 1886 duly appeared in the July 1886 issue of The American Antiquarian. It concerns prehistoric earthworks in southwestern Ohio. Proudfit was involved for years with the editing a serial, Decisions of the Department of the Interior and General Land Office in Cases Relating to the Public Lands, and he published one book also related to his work: Public Land System of the United States: Historical Outline (1924).

In 1891, when he published "The Hobyahs" (incidentally only two years before Joseph Jacobs appropriated it for his book), Proudfit was forty-five years old. (He had married in 1874, and had three children, the right age to have been told "The Hobyahs". After Proudfit's wife died in 1895, he remarried in 1899, but had no further children.) He had been born in  Edinboro, a small town just south of Erie, Pennsylvania. But by 1860 he and his family had moved to Illinois,  so if Proudfit heard the Hobyahs story as a child, it would have been during his childhood years near Erie, Pennsylvania. 

Interestingly, the US Census confirms one single Scotch family who lived close to the Proudfit family in the 1850s. This family was headed by Robert Allison (1801-1885) and his wife Barbara Scouller Allison (1807-1846), who emigrated from Scotland with three children (a daughter and two sons) around 1838, and had two more sons born in Pennsylvania, the youngest being Joseph, who was about the same age as Samuel Proudfit and they were likely playmates. Genealogical sources confirm this family came from Renfrewshire, not Perth. So perhaps by 1891 when Proudfit was recalling the Hobyahs story, he misremembered where the family he had known thirty-some years earlier were actually from in Scotland. 

The story of the Hobyahs was unknown to the world before Proudfit told it in 1891, so its provenance, and even details of the story itself (like the spelling of Hobyahs) are murky. It is remarkable to consider how quickly it became accepted as a authentic fairy tale, which leaves us to wonder how many other famous fairy tales (like those of Grimm) are constructs put together and codified by later tellers. 

My current ruminations on the Hobyahs began after I watched an Australian horror film, Celia (1989), set in Melbourne in the 1950s, written and directed by Ann Turner. The film was marketed in North America as "horror", but it's really more of a disturbing and unclassifiable coming-of-age film, about a disturbed young girl. The Hobyahs play a central role. Some digging revealed that in the 1920s the Hobyahs story was included in Australian government readers for young students, and within a few years it was re-written to give it an Australian context. For more than two decades the Hobyahs story thrilled second grade students as one of the most popular stories in their school reader. It was later removed as a group of concerned and meddlesome mothers objected to it, but the story itself lived on, and appeared in other printed and illustrated editions.

What an unexpected life the tale of the Hobyahs took on! For all we know it may have been only a tale of household bogies among the Allison family (from Scotland) living in Pennsylvania in the 1850s, codified into print from the memories of a neighbor-boy decades later, and now it is acclaimed and recognized as an enduring fairy tale in England, the United States, and Australia.

The 1891 publication was less than two pages long.  I copy the story below.


  1. I can only marvel at the closeness of "Proudfit" to Tolkien's hobbit surname "Proudfoot." (I'm forced to consider the possibility that Proudfit was himself a hobbit and that "The Hobyahs" was a cautionary tale from the Shire, not Scotland.)

  2. I did a little search on, and found by 1904, the Hobyahs had became so popular that a writer naturally listed them among giants, orges, trolls and other fairy-story creatures: