Tolkien explained the genesis of the hobbit in a letter to W.H. Auden in 1955, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” (Tolkien 2000) He didn’t know why he wrote it, but he did. And with that random thought, hobbits were born.
Hobbits are a particular rural breed of a long tradition of little people in mythology. Short, pudgy, with hairy feet and fond of smoking pipes, hobbits aren’t the first race anyone thinks of when they consider an adventuring companion. Thanks to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings they are now indelibly linked to fantasy literature (Aeon 2001).
In Middle-earth, hobbits are a short people, measuring between two and four feet in height. They were long-fingered, often portly, with curly hair and oversized feet. They were fond of food and smoking pipe-weed, and had a penchant for hills and dales, where they farmed (Day 2001).
Tolkien translated “hobbit” from “holbytla” (hole-builder) and explained that the term “hobbit” was a worn-down form of the original. It is interesting to note that “hobbit” actually appeared in folklorist Michael Aislabie Denham’s Tracts when he listed folkloric supernatural creatures in the late 1800s, well before Tolkien wrote The Hobbit (Denham 1967).
Originally, “halflin” was the Scots word “hauflin,” pre-dating The Hobbit and Dungeons & Dragons. It was used to describe a rustic teenager, neither man nor boy and thus a bit of both. Another word for “halflin” is “hobbledehoy” or “hobby.” The word halfling was used by Shakespeare to mean a boy-sized man (Bevington 1992).
If elves are the upper class and dwarves the middle-class, hobbits are the agrarian culture that Tolkien feared would be overwhelmed by industrial progress. The farmers of the fields, hobbits have a deep connection and love of their rustic roots. In The Hobbit the small stature of Bilbo also served as a proxy for children reading the novel.
Early editions of Dungeons & Dragons used the word hobbit to describe its race of short folk until Tolkien Enterprises protested (Kuntz 1978). Tactial Studies Rules (TSR), then publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, switched to the more common word “halfling.” This term is also used in The Lord of the Rings to denote Hobbits, so the transition seemed natural.
The notion of a hobbit’s propensity for thieving ways is firmly established in The Hobbit, where both Gollum and Smaug accuse Bilbo of theft. And Bilbo is, after all, out to steal treasure from someone, even if it is from a dragon.
In Chainmail, Gygax explained that “these little chaps have small place in the wargame,” but were included for the recreation of certain battles (presumably battles inspired by Tolkien’s Middle-earth). They were able to blend into the background and thus made excellent scouts. They could also fire a stone as far as an archer shoots (Gygax 1975). In Dungeons & Dragons, halflings were limited to the fighting-man class of 4th level, possessing magic resistance and deadly accuracy with missiles.
A particularly challenging issue for players role-playing halflings was their size. In earlier editions, halflings could weigh as little as 30 pounds, an issue that the designers felt was an obstacle in making them heroic (Carter 2007). 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons increased their size to an average of four feet, shades of Merry and Pippin drinking “Ent-draught.”
This description is a rough draft from my upcoming book, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games.