In her preface to The Vanishing People Katherine M. Briggs writes:
Theological differences sometimes entered into fairylore. For instance, the word Hobgoblin may puzzle many people. Goblins are generally taken to be evil and malicious spirits, hostile to mankind. Hobs [...] are on the whole friendly towards men and ready to be kind to those who treat them civilly. The prefix Hob suggests a helpful spirit. Thus Hobthrust is a North Country Brownie and Hobgoblins are the great class of spirits who perform helpful labours for the country people. To most of the Puritans, however, all fairies were evil creatures, servants of the Devil, and Bunyan's 'Hobgoblin nor foul Fiend' has made a deep impression on our vocabulary.(Briggs, 8)
As I was reading this, aside from the obvious reflections to be made on the word hobbit, another stood out, which was to me more interesting and amusing. For I think Tolkien may once again be having a bit of fun as he shapes the story. Who is the first hobbit Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin meet on their return to The Shire? Hob Hayward, whose very name sounds like that of a spirit who helps the country people with their labors (Hay-Ward). But here he is on the wrong side, helping the enemies of the Shire among whom we might expect to find a goblin rather than a hob; and though he seems quite glad to learn that 'Master Merry' isn't dead, he will not help Merry and his friends at all until they have driven off Bill Ferny. Thereupon he becomes a source of information, though he still has to fear that some of his fellow gatekeepers will inform on him (RK 6.viii.998-1,000).
Another hobbit in a similar position, and likewise bearing a suggestive name, is Robin Smallburrow, one of the Shirriffs who 'arrest' Frodo and his party the evening after they arrive in the Shire (RK 6.viii.1,001-1,003). His name is reminiscent of another spirit or fairy sometimes identified as a hobgoblin, the inimitable Robin Goodfellow. And while Robin Goodfellow was often mischievous, he can also be helpful, for which he is commonly repaid in food and drink. We may well see these traits combined in Robin Smallburrow's habit of stopping at inns for a pint whether on duty or not, Indeed a significant motive of his for becoming a Shirriff in the first place was 'knowing where the good beer was'. The position as he described it when he took it made it seem a bit of a lark. Sam also addresses him as 'Cock-robin', a name recalling a nursery rhyme which goes back to the eighteenth century and is perhaps derived from material that is much older.
The changes that have come to the Shire since Frodo and the others left are first made real in these two hobbits, whose jobs have been redefined in troubling ways. Beforehand, Robin Smallburrow travelled about the countryside visiting inns and hearing the 'news' of the Shire, much of which we would likely consider gossip if the pub conversations we witnessed in A Long-expected Party (FR 1.i.22-24) and The Shadow of the Past (FR 1.ii.44-45) are any guide. Hob Hayward worked at the Hay Gate, precisely the gate of which Merry says 'it is possible that in the morning even a Black Rider that rode up and asked for Mr Baggins would be let through' (FR 1.v.107). Which raises the question unasked at the beginning of A Knife in the Dark (FR 1.xi.176-77): just how did the Black Riders get into Buckland? And, now that we know of Hob Hayward, was he one of the guards ridden down by the Black Riders when they reached the gate?
Less than a week before the Black Riders attacked the house at Crickhollow Frodo met Gildor Inglorion, and expressed his dismay at hobbits finding themselves unsafe 'in their own Shire.' While sympathetic, Gildor tells him an important truth:
'But it is not your own Shire,’ said Gildor. ‘Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.’(FR 1.iii.83)
While it may be tempting to see prophecy in Gildor's words, especially in view of what Sam sees in Galadriel's mirror (FR 2.vii.362-363)), the reality is that no one knew better than the Elves did the transience of the mortal world around them. His words simply anticipate what will happen, because it is what has always happened. The fact that Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, raise the Shire against its enemies and drive them out, does not change what will happen in the end, as we shall see if we recall the Prologue and its long perspective on Hobbits. According to the narrator of the Prologue, who expects that his audience will know little or nothing of them, they are rare in his day, even smaller now than they once were, and elusive to the point of seeming magical because they possessed the 'art of disappearing swiftly and silently' (FR Pr. 1-2). Can it be an accident then that the names Hob Hayward and Robin Smallburrow are suggestive of fairies? The end of The Lord of the Rings of course marks the beginning of the Fourth Age, the time of the Dominion of Men (RK 6.v.971). Thus even the names of these two passing, minor characters signal the changes to the Shire and the world that have already begun.