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Uncertain, but predated the first historical records of Hobbits in III 1050
Especially associated with the Shire, and other regions occupied by Hobbits
Numerous, but important examples include Bag End, Brandy Hall, Great Smials and the Town Hole of Michel Delving
Other names


About this entry:

  • Updated 11 July 2022
  • This entry is complete


The Hobbits’ name for their holes

From time beyond memory, Hobbits had preferred to dwell in underground burrows. In ancient times, these were simple holes excavated in banks or hillsides, and even at the end of the Third Age, Hobbits living outside the Shire would still commonly occupy basic Hobbit-holes of this kind. Within the Shire, however, and especially among the more prosperous families, Hobbit-holes developed to become more elaborate and comfortable. In the Hobbit-speech of the Shire, these holes were known as smials.2

The practice of dwelling in more comfortable holes was by no means unique to the Shire-folk: there were such holes in the Bree-land, and historically Sméagol's people had lived in riverside burrows. Within the Shire, among the poorer Hobbits, smials typically remained relatively simple, containing just one or two rooms. Such basic smials were often arranged in rows, such as Bagshot Row beneath Hobbiton Hill, or the row that ran along the northern banks of Bywater Pool. Hobbit-holes were especially common in the hilly lands around Tuckborough in the Tookland, or in the chalk downs surrounding Michel Delving in the Westfarthing.

By no means all of the Shire-hobbits lived in smials. After settling in the Shire, Hobbits learned the art of building above ground, but the designs of their houses and cottages were often influenced by the preference of their builders for dwelling in holes. Buildings in the Shire were often long and low and, like most smials, they commonly had round doors and round windows. The house that Frodo bought in Crickhollow followed a hole-like form of this kind, to the extent of being roofed with turves of earth, another common feature of Hobbit buildings.

The wealthier Hobbits tended to favour smials rather than houses, with Bag End in Hobbiton being an example of a more elaborate Hobbit-hole. This smial was excavated into Hobbiton Hill by Bungo Baggins for his wife Belladonna Took, and would later be inherited in turn by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. It was constructed so that its main tunnel ran parallel to the side of the Hill, meaning that it had round-windowed rooms arranged along the hillside looking out onto its garden. Bag End was well furnished and appointed, with wooden panelling on its walls and carpets on its floors, and many inner rooms to be used as sitting-rooms or pantries or wardrobes by its inhabitants. All the rooms of Bag End were noted as being on a single level, with no stairs leading up or down within the Hill, but whether this was a common feature of all smials is unclear.

Grander still than Bag End were the smials of the great families of the Shire. Notable among these were Great Smials, the ancestral home of the Tooks, and Brandy Hall within Buck Hill, where the Masters of Buckland had their residence. These greater family smials consisted of networks of tunnels and rooms burrowed into the hillside, occupied by many generations of the family concerned. The Masters of Buckland, for example, were said to house up to two hundred Hobbits of the Brandybuck clan within Brandy Hall, and while this may be an exaggeration, it shows just how huge these family smials could be.



The intended pronunciation of the word smial is unclear, and there are two possible approaches. Etymologically, the word represents a modernisation of the two-syllable Old English word smygel. That, and the fact that ia is not usually a diphthong in either Old English or modern English, could be taken to imply that smial should be pronounced with two separate vowel sounds as something like 'smy-al'.

On the other hand, we have an alternative spelling in unpublished material written for Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien discusses his coinage of the word '...smial (or smile if you prefer it so)...' (from The History of Middle-earth volume XII, Part One, II The Appendix on Languages) and a briefer version of the same point also appears in the published Appendix F II to The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, in some early versions of the text smial is actually spelt smile, implying that it should be pronounced with a single vowel sound like the English word 'smile'.

On the whole, the latter option (that is, a pronunciation like the English word 'smile') seems to be the better supported, but an argument could be at least offered for using either approach.


More accurately, smial is an invention by Tolkien intended to reflect the true word used by the Shire-hobbits, which was tran. Historically, the Hobbits had occupied lands inhabited by the people who would later settle in Rohan, and in their language the word trahan meant 'burrow'. Tolkien represented the tongue of these Northmen with Old English, in which the equivalent of trahan would be smygel. The word smial represents the word that smygel might have evolved into, if it still existed in modern English, just as the Hobbits' tran evolved from older trahan.

The similarity of Old English smygel to Gollum's original name Sméagol is not coincidental. Sméagol is from the Old English for 'burrowing', so the Old English name Sméagol ('burrowing') is an adaptation of archaic Trahald just as smygel ('burrow') adapts the old word trahan.

We have other words from the Hobbit-speech that also applied to Hobbit-holes. One of these was hloth, a small two-roomed hole (or a small cottage), and in the drafts for Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien also considered gluva for any inhabited hole (though this latter example was an experimental equivalent of smial, and was probably not intended to stand).


About this entry:

  • Updated 11 July 2022
  • This entry is complete

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