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.

Quotes

  • His only comfort was he couldn’t be mistaken for a dwarf, as he had no beard.
  • They have seldom even heard of the king round here…” — I’ve always been thrilled by this foreshadowing of The Return of the King.
  • Others more practical but with less professional pride would perhaps have stuck a dagger into each of them before they observed it.

My edition1 of The Hobbit begins with an “Author’s Note”2 where Professor Tolkien makes several major points:

  • The English used in the book is merely a translation of the older languages that were actually spoken.
  • His copy-editors were mistaken when they replaced “dwarves” with “dwarfs” and would they please stop doing that.
  • The Orcs in The Lord of the Rings and and the Goblins in The Hobbit are the same creatures.

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.

Quotes

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:

  • It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife.” — This quote is an opportunity to link to Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories” which provides vital insight into how he views human myths and stories.
  • Bless me, life used to be quite inter—I mean, you used to upset things badly in these parts once upon a time.” — I believe that this is the moment in their first conversation when Gandalf decides that he had found his Burglar.
  • Confusticate and bebother these dwarves!” — I challenge you to find a better exclamation ever written in the English language.
  • ‘That would be no good,’ said the wizard, ‘not without a mighty Warrior, even a Hero. I tried to find one; but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighbourhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found.’” — I find this interesting because “Heroes” of that sort (Warriors for hire, or Heroes who simply move from adventure to adventure just because) are rather thin on the ground in Middle-earth. The Dúnedain are the closest I can think of. And, while they’re certainly heroes, they downplay their heroics as much as possible. And it’s all in service of protecting those who might not be able to protect themselves. In the Primary World, this line was almost certainly included because it fit perfectly into the book that is The Hobbit. But I like to think that, in the Secondary World, Gandalf is poking fun at the dwarves and their entire notion of going on a quest to kill a dragon.
  • Indeed they [dragons] hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the current market value…

  1. 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. ↩

  2. 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! ↩

  3. I’ll allow Wikipedia to go into more detail on such matters. ↩

  4. 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.  ↩

  5. 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. ↩

  6. What’s the collective noun for “dwarves”? I like “heap”, but something tells me that Thorin would find it a bit insulting.  ↩

  7. With some modifications in the lyrics, the song that the company sings before looking at the map in this chapter is used in the trailer. It gave me chills. I cannot wait to buy the soundtrack. ↩

  8. 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. ↩

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

In my Goodreads review of The Hobbit, I said “In short: if it weren’t for reading The Hobbit back in the fifth grade, I would be a completely different person than I am today. A worse person, I think. So it should not surprise you that I do not have a bad word to say about it.”. And that’s entirely true.

The Hobbit is a a very special book. It’s a children’s book that, as an unintentional prequel, leads into a much larger and more adult world. It was written by an academic who invented languages for fun and had a strong intellectual understanding of fantasy world-building. It’s a small window into an enormous fictional world that Tolkien spent his entire life creating. And, of course, it’s a delight to read.

I like returning to Middle-earth every once in a while: in my schoolboy days, I would read The Lord of the Rings once a year. These days, I don’t visit quite that often. But it’s still nice to make the trip on occasion.

This year, of course, Peter Jackson is expanding on his excellent film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings with the first of his films based on The Hobbit. Though his films are excellent, Mr. Jackson has been known to take certain liberties with his adaptations. In The Lord of the Rings, some of these changes were necessary to make the story work on screen while others were malicious mischaracterizations that served to show that Mr. Jackson didn’t actually understand or appreciate the source material.

Thus, it is necessary to know the content of the book before seeing the movie so you can have the proper context to decide if Mr. Jackson is a brilliant filmmaker or an insipid hack — or, as it turned out in The Lord of the Rings, if he alternates between being both and neither every few seconds.

That’s why I’ve decided to refresh The Hobbit in my mind in advance of the film’s December 13, 2012 release date. There’s about half a year to go which should offer plenty of time for reflection on the work without too much opportunity for things read to fall back into the uncertain mists of memory.

And, because I felt the need for a project, I’ve decided to really pay attention as I read it and write about the book chapter-by-chapter. This project is clearly inspired by the great re-reads hosted on Tor.com. It works well there and I think it will work well here as well.

If you’d like to read along (and I really hope you do! We can all exchange links on our blogs and it will be just like a mid-nineties webring!), I’ll be reading “An Unexpected Party” this week with the post for that chapter to appear either Sunday night (June 10) or Monday morning (June 11). I’ll read a chapter a week after that with new posts appearing on Sunday or Monday (depending entirely on how long it takes me to think of something to say).

I’ll assume that everyone has some familiarity with The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Middle-earth in general, so I’m not going to worry about spoilers if it seems useful to link something in an earlier chapter to something that comes later (or earlier in the case of things from The Silmarillion).

I’m looking forward to this. If nothing else, I’ll end it by having read The Hobbit again. And I’ve never regretted that before.

Adventure was promised after our party’s short rest and Adventure is now here! This chapter really serves to get things moving again after the respite of chapter 3: while I was certainly ready for this change, I don’t think our shorter friends quite were. The previous chapter ended with “Now they rode away amid songs of farewell and good speed, with their hearts ready for more more adventure…”. Something tells me that they are regretting those thoughts by the end of this chapter.

Things seem to start off well enough for them. Thanks to Elrond and Gandalf, they find the right paths and are making good progress. But, as the days pass, their road doesn’t seem to be getting any shorter.

And then the storms come.

I really love Tolkien’s description of the thunderstorm, or “thunder-battle”, in the mountains. It’s easy to imagine the lightning flashing from all directions while the thunder cracks echo endlessly off of the rock walls around you, all the while being drenched by cold, hard rain from which you can find no shelter. This is sort of how I imagine camping to be in general so I wonder why people don’t understand why I prefer to avoid that whole thing. It sounds truly horrendous.

And then, as if more troubles were needed, the stone giants show up and start tossing boulders around for sport. I wish I had more to say on the subject of stone giants, but this is the only place that Tolkien mentions them. The well-regarded Encyclopedia of Arda notes the difficulty of fitting the stone giants (and indeed, other giants that crop up on occasion) into the larger universe of Middle-earth. It’s not entirely clear where they came from or what they are. I suppose they have to remain one of the mysteries in Tolkien’s world. But that’s a little unsatisfying.

Still, the giants do not cause much trouble for our friends, though they do provide the final impetus to seek out a nice, dry, safe cave. So perhaps we can blame the giants for the rest of the troubles1.

And then we meet the Great Goblin.

I don’t really know much about the Great Goblin (at least, no more than I know about any other orcs or goblins) but I adore this painting by John Howe. That is not a fellow you would be happy to meet. Goblins are mean. Goblins are nasty. And this is the guy that is so mean and so nasty that the other goblins do what he says. Frightful stuff.

It’s at this point that we learn that goblins have the uncanny ability to immediately identify enchanted swords which were used in a war thousands of years ago and have undoubtedly laid in buried treasure hordes for centuries if not millennia. Gandalf himself needed to get Elrond to carefully examine the blades to identify them but this horde of goblins recognizes them immediately. It’s a bit weird2.

Still, however they managed to identify it, the presence of Biter was enough to incite them to real nastiness. It’s a good thing Gandalf was around to bail them out again! There are definite advantages to paling around with a walking (and almost — but not quite — literal) deus ex machina. I think this is another shining example of how ill-prepared the dwarves really were for this adventure: though they’ve been grumbling about and making fun of Bilbo, they’re not any better at this than he is. The one thing they did was bring a wizard along. And that’s really adventuring 101 (just ask anyone who’s ever played D&D).

Fortunately, they did bring a wizard along and he saves their bacon again. Which leads to one of my favorite comical bits in the book: everyone running for their lives with the dwarves passing Bilbo back and forth to ride on their backs. I really hope this scene makes it into Peter Jackson’s movie. I’d really like to see Martin Freeman tossed around like a sack of potatoes.

Finally, as the chapter ends, divine providence rears her head again and Bilbo is separated from the party. And on such things are worlds changed.

As we close this chapter, let us have a brief moment of silence for the ponies. They deserved better.


  1. As it happens, it turns out that our band’s abduction by Goblins is the trigger that leads to eventually ridding the world of a great evil. So rather than blame the stone giants, this might be another situation where the blame really sits upon divine providence. I think Tolkien would agree that what happens here was never really an accident. ↩

  2. There is some debate about the life-span of goblins (or orcs as they’re called in more serious works). It’s possible that, barring violent deaths, they share immortatlity with the elves. If so, I suppose it’s possible that some of these goblins were present at battles where these swords were first used. Still, though, it’s one thing to watch your brother be hacked down by an elf wielding a magic blade. It’s quite another to be able to name it and know its history. It’s still weird. ↩