This chapter is far more straightforward than the first one. In the first chapter, Tolkien had to set up the world, explain what hobbits are, introduce a heap of dwarves, explain the back story, and slyly hoodwink Mr. Bilbo Baggins into going along with the whole thing.
With that out of the way, Tolkien can get on with the business at hand: Bilbo gets to have his first real adventure.
I love Bilbo at the beginning of this book. He starts off as an extremely sheltered and pampered individual: undoubtedly, the closest he’s ever been to “roughing it” is being caught out in a rain shower without his umbrella. He’s certainly never skipped meals or tried to camp in the rain without a fire. He doesn’t even like to leave the house without his pocket handkerchiefs! Yet, with all of that, he still has the courage and curiosity to start on this fool quest. You’ve got to respect that in a hobbit.
Shortly at the start of their journey, our heroes have had a pleasant time of things, marching and singing under the May sunshine and Bilbo “began to feel that adventures were not so bad after all.”. I feel so sorry for Bilbo here. He has no idea what he’s gotten himself in to. It almost seems like a defense mechanism: he’s blocked out all the thoughts of a dangerous journey with a dragon at the end of it and condensed his entire adventure down to not having second breakfast.
Fortunately, I suppose, he’s going to start finding out the real nature of adventures very quickly. Bilbo’s path almost follows the learning curve in a video game, where challenges ramp up in difficulty as you dispense with easier ones. It starts with having regular meals spaced out a bit farther than he would like, moves to trudging through the rain, to fishing a horse out of the river, and eventually to the mishap with the trolls.
I love this scene. I love the trolls being confused about Bilbo’s being a “burrahobbit”. I love the dwarves wandering up one-by-one to be sacked. I love the trolls’ arguments about how best to cook and eat the dwarves. I love Gandalf’s outside-of-the-box problem solving and the comedy that ensues. And I love their names: William, Tom, and Bert. Bert the Troll? I love it.
There are lots of great things going on in this chapter, but here’s what I love most of all: the dwarves, for all of their swagger and bravado, are no better at all of this adventure stuff than Bilbo. They’re just as unhappy about skipping meals as he is. They’re just as desperate for a warm fire as he is. They’re far less stealthy than he is. And they had just as much trouble with the trolls as Bilbo did. More, in fact, since Bilbo was the only member of the party who didn’t end up in a sack! Of course, Bilbo would have been in far more dire straits had Balin not wandered up. But still: the fact remains that Bilbo never found his way into a sack.
And, what, exactly were the dwarves thinking? Bilbo’s attempt to pick William’s pocket certainly stemmed from an ill-conceived notion but I think we can forgive dear Mr. Baggins for giving in to his Tookish impulses at this moment (the first real danger he’s ever faced in his life). But the dwarves are dwarves of the world! They’ve fought in great battles! They’ve made their way from a broken kingdom from town to town and place to place working odd jobs (and even mining coal when nothing else was available). They should really have known better to just wander up to a strange campfire one-by-one when their preceding compatriots never reported back.
Story-telling wise, it’s obvious: this is a children’s book so things are exaggerated a little. And the dwarves are made particularly incompetent to allow them to be saved, first by Gandalf here, and eventually by the hero of the story. But in-universe, I think we’re supposed to see that, for all of their talk and dismissals of Bilbo (“He looks more like a grocer than a burglar!”), they’re just as ill-equipped to go on this quest as Bilbo.
Is there a deeper reason for that beyond “It makes a better story. No one would want to read about a hobbit carried past danger by a group of stalwart and capable dwarves.”? I’m not sure. It feels like there is, but I can’t really name it right now. But this will definitely be something to keep in mind as I read the rest of the book.
This chapter ends with the the troupe finding one of the more celebrated artifacts of Middle-earth: Bilbo’s as-of-yet-unnamed sword. I had forgotten that he found it in the troll den. I don’t believe we’re ever told how three elven blades from the first age ended up in the positions of three filthy trolls. I guess that’s one of those unwritten back-stories I talked about in the post for the first chapter. There’s some history there, though, and it’s fun to imagine it.
But I’ll spare you what would essentially amount to fan-fiction and let you make up your own topic.
Instead, I think I need to talk about magic a little more. There were two events in this chapter that I had completely forgotten that throw my entire discussion of magic (in the last post) into disarray: William’s purse starts talking when Bilbo grabs it and the dwarves put “a great many spells over” the treasure that they bury.
It seems that a talking purse would go far beyond even the most magical of skilled craftsmen and it’s hard to fathom the elves being able to teach a purse to talk. And I was originally going to dismiss the dwarves’ protective spells as mere superstition; but they were doing it while Gandalf was with them and it’s hard to imagine him sitting quietly while they wasted their time with foolish chanting.
So I think I was wrong last week. Especially when I consider that Gandalf himself tried opening the troll cave with various incantations (and later, in The Fellowship of the Ring, he’ll again try various incantations to open the doors to Moria; he’ll also summon a firestorm with “words of power”), I think there is something like traditional magic in Middle-earth that is different from extremely refined craft or spirit-beings.
I’m not sure what that is, though. And, honestly, I don’t like it as much. I preferred the explanation I gave about magic last week: it seemed more about people being the best they could be and not about them having learned secret words. But, Middle-earth is what it is and I’m not going to try to change it.
I’ll start researching and see if I can find a comprehensive article about magic in Middle-earth. Maybe I’ll have something truly intelligent to say about it by the end of this series.