before continuing into a very small lecture about Anglo-Saxon runes.
This, I think, serves to tell us several things about Tolkien and his approach to writing. Clearly, Tolkien was enthusiastic about language: particularly his beloved Anglo-Saxon. In the first edition of the text, he was content to use Anglo-Saxon runes for Dwarvish writing. But when the opportunity to expand on the book presented itself, he couldn’t help but tell us all about those runes! Many writers would leave that sort of thing out of a children’s book; but Tolkien would have seen no reason to think that children couldn’t delight in such things as much as he did.
Additionally, as an Anglo-Saxon philologist at Oxford, he was particularly fussy about language. Though “dwarves” is not a standard English spelling (and my spellchecker even now refuses to recognize it), he had historical, linguistic, and stylistic choices for preferring it. He felt compelled to let the reader know that it was a deliberate choice on his part and not a silly mistake3.
Finally, we can see Tolkien’s approach to his stories peek out a little. Tolkien was heavily interested in the ideas of world-building: to quote Tolkien Gateway on the matter of secondary world-building:
Tolkien claimed that the author should respect his creation and grant it internal consistency, and let it obtain ‘life’ of its own. The tales should have several dimensions: geography, characters, languages, timeline, all being inter-dependent. The “scenery” should seem able to sustain the events and characters it hosts, and this would make the effect credible to the reader.
Tolkien created elaborate back-stories and histories for Arda, his world. He created entire languages and paid attention to the history of each piece of vocabulary. To aid his world in having a life of its own, Tolkien employed the conceit that he had found his stories and was merely translating them into modern English.
And that’s how I like to think of Middle-earth: an ancient version of our own world whose existence has passed almost entirely beyond memory with the exception for a handful of manuscripts which a kindly and slightly eccentric Oxford don went to the effort of translating.
And that’s the perspective I can’t help but take as I read The Hobbit now. With every character, town, and throw-away line, I know that there’s an entire book’s worth of back-story there. Sometimes we’ll find out more later (such as, in this chapter, when Gandalf mentions that Thror was killed in Moria — we learn about the history of Moria, or Khazad-dûm, in The Fellowship of the Ring). Other times, we’re left to guess about things on our own. But, in all cases, I have a hard time not geeking out a bit with each line since there’s just so much to geek out over.
Which, admittedly, might make this re-read somewhat ponderous. So while I’ll certainly dive in to some of this stuff when I think it’s particularly important (like the “Author’s Note” above) or interesting (like the diamond studs which I’ll come to in a moment), I’ll try to avoid doing so excessively.
Which, finally, brings me to the first line of the book — one of my favorite sentences in literature: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”. It doesn’t sound terribly inviting, does it? A “hole in the ground” sounds dank and gross. And a hobbit? Well, whoever heard of a hobbit?!
I wonder if there’s any deeper meaning behind Tolkien’s first instict being to assuage our doubts about the hobbit hole. It is, he insists, an extremely comfortable place: well apportioned and filled with food4. As for hobbits, he largely tells us all about the race by focusing on a single individual: Mr. Bilbo Baggins, the prototypical hobbit5.
And here, we mostly find out about Bilbo by what he isn’t — well, at least not yet. He’s got some Took blood in him, but he’s never explored the Tookish side of his personality. He likes quiet days and well-tilled earth. And he’s most certainly never had an adventure! And, that’s basically all you need to know to understand hobbits and Bilbo: they don’t have adventures. Except…
Well, this book (and The Lord of the Rings) is all about that “except”. And, in both cases, it starts with Gandalf. I might have something to say about Gandalf later, but in this chapter, he really exists just to push the plot together. But, his introduction to the story does lend me an opportunity into a discussion of magic in Middle-earth.
The short description of hobbits includes the sentence “There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along…”. When introducing Gandalf, Bilbo remarks that Gandalf once gave as a gift “a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered”. Later, we’ll meet the Elves who don’t claim to have any magic of their own but certainly appear magic to the mortals of the world. And, of course, there’s Gandalf himself: a wizard.
From the point of view of the person performing it, magic in Middle-earth overwhelmingly tends toward “the ordinary everyday sort” and suddenly the definition of magic changes depending on who’s talking about it. To you or me (or a hobbit), teaching trees to talk would be magical indeed; to an elf, it’s just their craft well executed. Similarly, singing and making music might seem magical to someone who lacked that creative spark; but for most of us, it’s as trivial as moving air through our throats.
Tolkien’s view of magic in his universe seems to mostly be less about the supernatural and more about using innate (he might say “Creator-given”) talents to the fullest. Thus, I think the diamond studs that Gandalf gave the Old Took were probably not magical but, (I’m guessing) were simply highly-crafted pieces of dwarven jewelry.
Gandalf himself is another matter altogether. As a devout Catholic, Tolkien was absolutely comfortable with the supernatural. And though it doesn’t really filter into The Hobbit, Middle-earth features a Creator-God and a whole host of lesser spirits. Gandalf, as it happens, is one of those lesser spirits and his power is well beyond the ken of mortal races of Arda (or even the elves).
Thus, magic in Middle-earth occupies a spot somewhere between a fantasy version of Clarke’s third law and true supernatural power. I’m not familiar with any other work that moves so easily between the two which is why I thought it warranted a brief discussion. As far as I know, this treatment of magic is unique (but if you know of something I’m missing out on, please let me know!).
Now that I’ve got that digression along the way, we can finally get started with the adventure. And, in this first chapter, adventure arrives in the forms of a whole heap of dwarves6.
I have a confession: I’ve never actually learned all of the dwarves’ names. Sure, I know Thorin. And Gloin is Gimli’s dad so I remember him. And then I remember his brother Oin because their names rhyme. And Fili and Kili are sort of the WilyKit and WilyKat of the bunch. And then there’s old Fatty Bombour who is often the comic relief character and is therefore memorable. But Bifur? Bofur? Balin? Dwalin? Nope. Not a chance. The rest are all sort of interchangeable in my head.
There was probably a reason (aside from comic effect) that Tolkien wanted to have so many dwarves. My best guess is that it was so they would have a reason to recruit Bilbo (since their number, thirteen, was considered unlucky). But it seems to me that he could have just declared that dwarves find the number five unlucky and left it at that. But, Tolkien is a celebrated writer beloved by millions. I’m a guy with a blog that no one really reads. I guess he knew what he was doing. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to learn the rest of the dwarves.
Still, all thirteen (and Gandalf) eventually show up and there are charming and amusing scenes and some dwarvish songs7. Then Bilbo bullies Thorin into providing the exposition8 and the stage is set for the rest of the book. They talk about the Lonely Mountain and Smaug and the quest to reclaim Thorin’s kingdom and where Bilbo will fit in as the professional Burglar. They mention Moria and the Necromancer, both of which will reappear in The Lord of the Rings. And then everyone goes to bed.
This chapter is largely a character piece. We are introduced to Bilbo and Gandalf and the dwarves, but we aren’t really told much about any of them. Instead, Tolkien shows us their characters in how they interact: the dwarves are confident, self-assured, and just a little bit arrogant. Bilbo is bewildered, terrified, and a proper English host no matter about the rest of it. And Gandalf? Well, Gandalf is a wizard.
As part of the larger story, it’s never been entirely clear to me why Gandalf is involved with Thorin’s company to start with.
In the original context of The Hobbit, of course, he was just the wizard who got things going because every good fairy story needs a wizard.
But The Hobbit starts a much larger story. I can believe that Gandalf was in the Necromancer’s dungeons on Very Serious Business when he met Thrain and was entrusted with the map. Beyond that, though, was he helping Thorin because he’d incurred a debt to Thrain during that adventure? Was it because he knew what a menace Smaug was and wanted the worm to finally be dealt with?
Personally, I think Gandalf was guided by divine providence to this quest. This quest, essentially a treasure hunt, would prove to be immeasurably important in eventually ridding the world of a great evil. And I don’t think Tolkien would see that as an accident. As a Catholic, he fully believed in a divine plan to save the world via divine grace. And he wrote similar plans and grace into his secondary world because he couldn’t conceive of a world — even an imaginary one — without it.
I should really grab a copy of his Letters. He probably either explicitly confirms or denies my thoughts on the matter. But, as long as I don’t actually verify it, I can just assume I’m correct. Which is more satisfying. In a way.
Finally, I think I will end these write-ups with a small collection of quotes that I find particularly delightful, charming, well-written, or that illuminates the larger world. In this case, those quotes are:
I believe this is the third edition, first published in 1966. This is the final edition which Tolkien edited to bring the work in-line with The Lord of the Rings. ↩
The Author’s Note was added for the second edition in 1951 which brought the text more in-line with The Lord of the Rings than the first edition had been (though The Lord of the Rings itself wouldn’t be published until 1954, it was largely complete by 1949. I was particularly confused about the use of the word “Goblin” in The Hobbit and “Orc” in The Lord of the Rings as a child: I guess I never read this note, since Tolkien made it quite clear! ↩
Bag End, in particular, contains many pantries filled with food (which continues to be an important characteristic for both Bilbo and all hobbit-kind) and many wardrobes filled with clothes (an affection which I don’t think really shows up again). I suppose a love of food is funnier and more charming than a love for sweaters. ↩
The Lord of the Rings, by contrast, begins with a long prologue section entitled “Concerning Hobbits” which goes into detail on the hobbit people and some of their history. ↩
What’s the collective noun for “dwarves”? I like “heap”, but something tells me that Thorin would find it a bit insulting. ↩
As far as I can remember, this is the only place in Tolkien’s work where someone has to be talked into giving exposition. I’m sure many readers wish that it were more common. ↩