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“…Hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes…” from M.A. Denham Tracts (1895)

I extracted hell-hounds from yesterday’s quote above because I didn’t have an H-word. So, heck, why not? I’d find out about an unfamiliar author, his unfamiliar book and an H-word I might use some day.

I had no idea that I’d end up with the speculative idea that M. A. Denham’s book was the source for J. R. R. Tolkien’s word hobbit.

Hell-hounds has two meanings: “a demon in the form of a dog,” as Shelley used it in Prometheus Unbound: “But hard, the hell-hounds clamor.” In 1991, the Washington Post referred to Mike Tyson in this way: “He’s had hell-hounds on his trail since birth.”

The other meaning, “a bad or evil person,” is illustrated nicely in a 1926 fragment in American Mercury: “All the fears and hatred that the evangelical hell-hounds had been instilling in the faithful for so long.”

So why did hell-hounds end up in Denham Tracts? And, who was M. A. Denham?

Michael Aislabie Denham, born at the beginning of the 19th century, was a merchant in Piercebridge, Durham. Along with coins and Roman antiquaries, Denham collected folk tales of Northern England, the Isle of Man, and Scotland. He died in 1859 “before,” the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore says, “the new movement [interest in folklore] had become fashionable.” He issued his rhymes, proverbs, prophecies, slogans, etc. in a series of newspapers, circulars, booklets, and other limited circulation publications. A portion of these were assembled into one 1895 publication, years after his death.

In the introduction to Denham Tracts, S.N. Denham is described in stiff, complimentary prose:

 In domestic life Mr. Denham was a kind and amiable man. Though somewhat formal in manner, which his intercourse with the world did not wear off, he was blameless and inoffensive, ever candid and upright in his dealing. His ruling passion influenced him to the last; for the Catalogue of his Tracts, already alluded to, is dated August 1859, when he was subject to much suffering, and his correspondence was maintained to within a few days of his decease.

Now back to hell-hounds and hobbits.

In December of 2013, the blog at addressed the question “Where does the word hobbit come from?” by announcing a “fascinating and slightly spooky detail:”

There are no references to hobbits before Tolkien’s publication, except for one. In 1895, the folklorist Michael Aislabie Denham published a long list of supernatural creatures: “…nixies, Jinny-birnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers boogleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits…”

Tolkien created his own etymology of hobbit, related to the Old English word holbytia, a hole dweller. Tolkien had a longtime interest in words; his first job after World War I was at the Oxford English Dictionary. He researched the etymological history of Germanic words that began with W. concluded that there was no evidence to assume that Tolkien had read Denham’s list, but wondered was it “Synchronicity, coincidence, or serendipity?” What do you think?

Note: Denham Tracts are available on the Internet Archive and in book form. Warning, the digital version is clunky and difficult to read.