Our Own Dear John Ronald: 1066 and the Sackville-Bagginses

There is in fact a word which sums Bilbo up, often used of the English middle-class to which he so obviously belongs: ‘bourgeois’.  This is not an English word but a French one, and Tolkien does not use it – he regretted, again for professional reasons, the medieval takeover of the English language by Norman French, and always tried to reverse it as far as he could.  But he may well have been thinking of just that word, as is indicated by a couple of running private jokes.  Later on, in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, it will be disclosed that the road Bilbo’s hole is on is called Bag End: very appropriate for someone called Baggins, perhaps, but an odd name for a road.  And yet in a sense a very familiar one.  As part of the ongoing and French-oriented snobbery of English society in Tolkien’s day (and later), municipal councils were (and still are) in the habit of indicating a street with no outlet as a ‘cul-de-sac’.  This is French, of course, for ‘bag end’, though the French actually call such a thing an IMPASSE, while the native English is ‘dead end’.  ‘Cul-de-sac’ is a silly phrase, and it is to the Baggins’ family’s credit that they will not use it.  The Tolkien family’s, too, for his Aunt Jane Neave’s house was down a lane with no exit, also defiantly called ‘Bag End’ (see Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R.TOLKIEN: A BIOGRAPHY, p. 106).  It is a very bad mark for the socially aspiring branch of the Baggins family that they have tried to Frenchify themselves and disguise their origins: they call themselves the Sackville-Bagginses, as if they came from a VILLE (or villa?) in a CUL-DE-SAC(K) (Bag End).  They, then, are real BOURGEOIS.  Bilbo is just heading that way.

Gandalf means, however, to turn him back, and that is why he makes him a ‘burglar’. (…)  The root of ‘burglar’ is in fact the same as that of ‘bourgeois’, Old English (and probably Old Frankish too) BURH, ‘borough, town, fort, stockaded mansion’.  A BURGULATOR, as the OED points out, is someone who break into mansions, a BOURGEOIS lives in one.  They are connected opposites, like Sackvilles and Bagginses.  Gandalf means to move Bilbo from the one side, the snobbish side, to the other.  In doing so, Bilbo will not become less English, but more so.  (…)

We should note, in view of the bad press which ‘Englishness’ has had for most of the twentieth century, that Tolkien was quick to point out some of Bilbo’s native virtues (…).  The narrator comments, once Bilbo has recognized Gandalf and responded with genuine excitement and interest, ‘You will notice already that Mr. Baggins was not as prosy as he liked to believe, also that he was very fond of flowers’.  Hobbits, then, like the English middle class to which they so clearly belong, may aspire to be bourgeois and boring, but it is not natural to them.

Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.

Incidentally, the German “Sackgasse” is quite close to ‘bag end’, with ‘Sack’ being a sack or bag, and ‘Gasse’ a lane.



Featured: Bayeux Tapestry, scene 51: Battle of Hastings; Norman knights and archers


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