The Hobbit 8 | Flies and Spiders

by Glenn on September 18, 2019

1 | An Unexpected Party

Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, is approached by Gandalf, a wizard, to participate in an adventure. He attempts to refuse, politely as you must with a wizard, but is lured into the enterprise when, the next day, thirteen dwarves show up to his home with Gandalf and begin to speak and sing of gold, which they want to retake from a dragon, Smaug, who stole it from them. The whole company stays in his home that night with the plan to set out the next morning.

2 | Roast Mutton

The next morning, Bilbo oversleeps and thinks that the adventurers have left without him, which suits Bilbo just fine. He wasn’t really interested in an adventure thank you very much. Gandalf shows up to push Bilbo out the door just in time for him to rush down the road with the dwarves who have been arranging for supplies along with horses and a pony (for Bilbo). Bilbo sets out for this journey totally unprepared, but Gandalf later brings along some comfort items for him—tobacco and handkerchiefs. There are two difficulties that the company encounter right away. One of them is natural—the weather. Rain dampens their spirits and makes the travel more difficult. Then the group encounters three large trolls who capture them. Somewhere along the way, Gandalf had slipped away to take care of other business. This would have ended the book but Gandalf, sensing that the group needed his presence, returned just in time to save the company from being eaten.

3 | A Short Rest

The party takes a diversion to the Last Homely House, the home of Elrond the Elf Lord. Here they each rest up, acquire supplies, gain some information about the map they are carrying as well as the weapons they took from the trolls, and learn the best way over the Misty Mountains.

4 | Over Hill and Under Hill

It turns out the way over the Misty Mountains is not easy. The company encounters bad weather, again, and the narrow mountain pass they are on doesn’t have a lot of shelter. Two of the dwarves go to find a cave for shelter. There is a lot of concern about the potential danger lurking in mountain caves, but everyone believes it is safe enough. It isn’t. When the company sleeps, Goblins come into the cave through a crack. The situation was bad, but fortunately Bilbo had a nightmare that woke up him and he shouted in time for Gandalf to save himself. The pack animals are killed. Everyone else is carried to the Great Goblin.  Negotiations seem like they might have a chance until one of the swords that was stolen from the trolls is revealed to be a famous “goblin killer” from a war. The dwarves are identified as enemies and things could have gone downhill quickly, except that Gandalf kills the Great Goblin and, through some pyrotechnics, creates enough chaos for the dwarves to run away, with one of them carrying Bilbo. Unfortunately, the goblins catch up to the party and in the process, Bilbo is dropped and he knocks his head on a rock rendering him unconscious.

5 | Riddles in the Dark

Bilbo wakes up in the dark of the goblin tunnel and, crawling around finds a ring, which he pockets. Bilbo follows a path and comes to water, which turns out to be a large underground lake and which impedes his progress. On an island in the middle of the lake is Smeagol, a creature of uncertain origins. Smeagol, who has developed keen senses in the dark of the tunnel sees and hears the hobbit and paddles over to kill him. Bilbo produces a blade which holds off Smeagol and buys him some time. Bilbo and Smeagol decide to play a game of riddles. If Bilbo wins, Smeagol has to show him the way out. If Smeagol wins, he will kill Bilbo. The contest ends on what turns out to be a not very fair riddle—Bilbo asks what he has in his pocket. The ring of course, but Smeagol can’t guess. The ring belongs to Smeagol who is unaware that he has lost it. He believes it is out on his island. The ring renders its wearer invisible. Bilbo puts it on which saves him from being killed by Smeagol. When Smeagol heads for the exit, thinking that’s where Bilbo has gone. Bilbo follows him. Smeagol stops when he comes across goblins guarding an exit but Bilbo takes the opportunity to escape from Smeagol and the golbins and heads out into the light of day.

6 | Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire

Bilbo, wearing his new-found ring, comes across his companions who had escaped from under the mountain. They are engaged in a discussion of what to do about the missing hobbit. Gandalf wants to go back and search for him while the dwarves are irritated that they even brought him. Everyone seems happy to have the Hobbit back but they realize while it’s light the company now needs to put some distance between themselves and the goblins, who are known to come out at night. The group barely survives a landslide. Then they are discovered by evil wolves, or Wargs as they are called. The company members climb trees to escape and Gandalf sends down fire onto the Wargs. When goblins show up, they place fires underneath the trees in which the company is hiding. Things would have been very bad except the company is rescued by the Lord of the Eagles and some of his fellow eagles who take them away to their cliff dwelling.

7 | Queer Lodgings

The next morning, the company is flown by the eagles to a large outcropping where Gandalf reveals he will soon be leaving them to take care of other pressing business he has. But first he will get them to the home of Someone who lives in the area, Beorn, who has the ability to change from a man into a bear. He is a little dangerous, but Gandalf is able to ingratiate himself and the company to him and he provides food and lodging for them. Beorn is a formidable ally. Once he learns, after reconnaissance, that the company was part of action that killed the Great Goblin, he shows more respect for them. He provides supplies and some animals to carry them part-way. The way forward for the company is through the Forest of Mirkwood. Around it would take too long and be too dangerous. They are told to follow the path through the forest and not to eat any food they find or drink any water. Gandalf takes his leave stressing the importance of not leaving the path.

8 | Flies and Spiders

Things go well for a while. They don’t leave the path. But it’s a big forest and the trip through it is taking a long time. The narrator tells us that “days followed days, and still the forest seemed just the same, they began to get anxious.” Supplies are running short. And then there’s a stream to cross and they remember not to go in. They find a small boat that happens to be there and rig up some lines so they can cross and return the boat to the other side. The company is all across except for Bombur, the biggest of them. At that moment a deer came flying down the path knocking everyone over and knocking Bombur into the stream as he tried to get into the boat. The deer leaped across the stream and Thorin took a shot at it with his bow. It found its mark and somewhere in the forest they heard the sound of hooves go still. Bilbo shouted that Bombur had fallen into the water during the incident creating several problems. First, the boat was now lost downstream in the process; second, the deer was now on the wrong side of the stream and they couldn’t go and look for it; and third, Bombur was out cold because of the enchanted water.

What to do? They decide to continue on their way, low on food and now having to carry Bombur. Four days later there was a change in the forest, which might have been a hopeful sign, but Thorin said, “Is there no end to this accursed forest?” Bilbo was sent to climb a tree and look above to see how much farther the forest went on, but he couldn’t see the edge of the forest. The kindly narrator informs us,

“Actually . . . they were not far off the edge of the forest and if Bilbo had had the sense to see it, the tree that he had climbed, though it was tall in itself, was standing hear the bottom of a wider valley, so that from its top the trees seemed to sell up all round like the edges of a great bowl, and he could not expect to see how far the forest lasted. Still he did not see this, and he climbed down full of despair.”

Bilbo’s despair became the company’s despair. That night they ate the last of their food. The good news is that Bombur finally woke up. Dreams are significant in this book and relate to the future or the near future. Bombur recounts,

“I dreamed I was walking in a forest rather like this one, only lite with torches on the trees and lamps swinging from the branches and fires burning on the ground and there was a great feast going on, going on for ever. A woodland king was there with a crown of leaves, and there was a merry singing, and I could not count or describe the things there were to eat and drink.”

Of course, a dream like this was pretty annoying to a group of dwarves who had no food. But in the same way that Bilbo’s dream of a crack in the wall related directly to their experience, Bombur’s dream was a picture of reality. And now things go south. The company sees a light in the forest and so they decide to head toward it (for the record: leaving the path). When they get close to the light they see it is actually a number of lights and they find a group of wood elves who are “eating and drinking and laughing merrily.” But as soon as one of the dwarves approaches, all the lights go out “as if by magic” and all the elves disappear. At this point the company has no idea where the path was to head back to. And then they see more lights in the distance and try to sneak up on the elves better than they did the last time. But the same thing happens—all the lights go out. A third time this happens. And now everyone was thoroughly lost and Bilbo was separated from the rest of the group.

Bilbo decides to take a snooze but woke up when he felt something sticky on his hand. It was a spider web. A great spider was trying to wrap him up. He woke up in time and before the spider could sting him to “keep him quiet” Bilbo pulled out his sword and attacked the spider. Knowing The Lord of the Rings, this is an interesting bit of foreshadowing. Bilbo kills the spider and then sets out to try and find the rest of the group. All of the dwarves had been captured but Bilbo manages to free them using his ring and sword. A battle ensues and the dwarves and the hobbit manage to get away from the spiders and find themselves in one of the rings where the elves had been the previous night. The dwarves demand an explanation of how it is that Bilbo was able to go invisible, and so Bilbo explains how he came across the ring. The dwarves think much more of Bilbo now and the narrator adds “as Gandalf had said they would,” and one wonders, again just where Gandalf’s limits of knowledge are. And then the company makes an important realization: Thorin, their leader, is gone.

And the story now shifts to what has happened to Thorin. It turns out he was captured by wood elves. He actually had no part of the battle with the spiders. When he approached the light of the wood-elves, he was enchanted and fell unconscious. He had been carried to the king of the wood-elves. Thorin refused to say why the dwarves were passing through the kingdom of the wood-elves and so he was thrown into the dungeon.

And the chapter ends.

On the list of creatures we meet in this book, we must add spiders and wood-elves. But the narrator tells us there are all sorts of elves: Light-elves, Deep-elves, Sea-elves.

The Hobbit 7 | Queer Lodgings

by Glenn on September 10, 2019

Poor Bilbo. He wakes up “with the early sun in his eyes” and being a creature of routine expects to get up, check the time, and “put his kettle on” just like at home, except he’s not at home. He’s still up with the eagles who help the company by carrying them a good part of the way on their journey. It’s an indication of just how long this journey is that “air travel” hardly makes a dent in the overall length of the trip.

The eagles have a culture, of which Gandalf has some understanding. When you say goodbye to an eagle, there’s a way to do it. The eagles set the company down on a large stone cropping and said,

“Farewell! wherever you fare, till your eyries receive you at the journey’s end.”

The narrator tells us that Gandalf “knew the correct reply” and said,

“May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks.”

We are told that the company would never see the eagles again except at a distance “in the battle of Five Armies.” This is some foreshadowing and the conversational tone of the narrator comes through, again, when he tells us, “But as that comes in at the end of this tale we will say no more about it just now.” Our narrator is very much present with us in the retelling of this adventure.

Gandalf has some bad news for everyone. He is about to leave the group. His hope was to get the group safely “over the mountains” (which ended up being under the mountain as well). Thanks to the eagles, he is now further east than he meant to go and “this is not my adventure.” This is a great line. Our adventures are our adventures. Others are attending to (or should be encouraged to attend to) their own adventures. While companionship on a journey sure makes things easier, particular when your companion is a wizard, ultimately we all have our own adventures to pursue. In others words, we don’t all live the same life and it’s not realistic to assume others will share it with us.

The thought of Gandalf’s departure is dispiriting for the company, but the word from Gandalf is open-ended. Regarding their adventure he says,

“I may look in on it again before it is all over, but in the meanwhile I have some other pressing business to attend to.”

Gandalf stresses that he’s “not going to disappear this very instant.” He is going to help them and himself with their current plight, which consists of no food, no supplies, and no animals to transport them. But Gandalf knows somebody who may be able to help them. And it’s interesting that anytime he refers to this somebody, it’s actually “Somebody,” with a capital S. That Somebody’s name is Beorn, and he is a singular character, with the ability to change his skin from a “strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard” to “a huge black bear.”

Gandalf seems to know a lot about Beorn and tells the company,

“As a bear he ranges far and wide. I once saw him sitting all alone on the top of the Carrock [where the eagles had dropped them off] at night watching the moon sinking towards the Misty Mountains, and I heard him growl in the tongue of bears: ‘The day will come when they will perish and I shall go back!'”

Again, it’s interesting to consider what Gandalf knows and doesn’t know and how he knows it.

The main thing about Beorn is that he must be approached carefully. You certainly don’t want him to find you out in the open when he is in his bear shape. And so Gandalf takes the company to his house. We’re used to talking creatures by now, but the animals at Beorn’s house don’t communicate with the company, but they are able to communicate with each other and Beorn is able to communicate with them.

It’s funny how Tolkien balances danger and lightness in this chapter. Beorn can’t be messed with, but Gandalf has a plan for how to get a rather solitary Beorn to welcome a company of 15. They will arrive in groups of two five minutes apart. Gandalf will get Beorn interested in the story about how he got there, but as he tells the story, the number of participants will change as others arrive. Because Beorn is so interested in the story, he tolerates this growing number of people that ultimately he will provide hospitality to.

Gandalf does appear to tell one lie (or at least doesn’t tell the whole truth). He tells Beorn that “it is entirely by accident that we are in your lands at all.” He mentions the “evil goblins” they encountered on the way, which is true enough, but what was accidental about where the eagles dropped them off?

There is a theme of hospitality in this chapter. The idea is that out of your abundance you care for travelers who are in need. This hospitality is a little scary, though. You are told that overnight, there are no circumstances where you should leave Beorn’s house. It’s safe in the house(!?), but not outside. Bilbo wakes up in the middle of the night and hears the sound of bears. He remains safely in bed.

There is this growing sense of good versus evil. Which side is Beorn on? Well, he is no lover of goblins for sure. But he doesn’t entirely trust what Gandalf has said about their encounter with goblins and Wargs. (For some reason, goblins are common nouns, but Wargs are proper. I don’t understand why.) Beorn likes the story Gandalf told, but he decides to check it out for himself. Beorn captured a goblin and a Warg and learned that goblin and Warg raiding parties are out looking for this company. Beorn tells the company that he likes dwarves a lot better now that he knows the Great Goblin was killed. Bilbo wonders what happened to the goblin and the Warg that Beorn had captured. This is quite a passage if you’re considering reading this to children:

“‘Come and see!’ said Beorn, and they followed round the house. A goblin’s head was stuck outside the gate and a warg-skin [not capitalized for some reason] was nailed to a tree just beyond. Beorn was a fierce enemy.” [Emphasis added on what is quite an understatement.]

The good news, though, was this meant Beorn “was their friend, and Gandalf thought it wise to tell him their whole story and the reason of their journey, so that they could get the most help he could offer.”

If the trip hasn’t been dangerous enough, it is about to get more dangerous. Beorn will help the company by providing food and supplies and ponies to carry them, but they will only go so far as the Forest of Mirkwood, which is “dark, dangerous, and difficult.” At that point the ponies need to be sent back. The company is told that there is a path through Mirkwood that under no circumstances should they leave, or they will be lost forever. And they should not eat or drink anything in the forest. Unfortunately, the only way is the way through. They can’t circle around Mirkwood because it will take too long and those goblin and Warg raiding parties will be able to find them. The company

“all felt that the adventure was far more dangerous than they had thought, while all the time even if they passed all the perils of the road, the dragon was waiting at the end.”

At the Forest of Mirkwood, the company sends the ponies back, which is a good thing because Beorn, in his form as a bear, had been shadowing the party. This was observed by both Gandalf and Bilbo, but not by the dwarves. Gandalf was not returning his horse quite yet as he was going elsewhere which got the rest of the company pleading with him, again, to stay. But Gandalf says,

“‘It is no use arguing. I have, as I told you, some pressing business away south; and I am already late through bothering with you people. We may meet again before all is over, and then again of course we may not. That depends on your luck and on your courage and sense.'”

But then, here is this curious line:

“I am sending Mr. Baggins with you. I have told you before that he has more about him than you guess, and you will find that out before long.”

That has to be as confusing as it is exhilarating for Bilbo.

As the chapter closes, Gandalf reminds the party not to stray from the path as they journey through the forest, which prompts Bilbo to groan,

“‘Do we really have to go through?’ . . .

“‘Yes, you do!’ said the wizard, ‘if you want to get to the other side. You must either go through or give up your quest. And I am not going to allow you to back out now, Mr. Baggins. I am ashamed of you for thinking of it. You have got to look after all these dwarves for me,’ he laughed.”

Bilbo says that Gandalf misunderstood him. What he meant was could they not really go around the forest? We are told of more dangerous creatures. We know of the goblins and the orcs. But Gandalf mentions hobgoblins and, if they were to travel in the South, the company would come across the Necromancer, which no one thinks is a good idea.

Gandalf’s final words are,

“‘Good-bye! Be good, take care of yourselves—and DON’T LEAVE THE PATH!'”

That’s sure a lot of emphasis on staying on the path.

The Hobbit 6 | Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire

by Glenn on September 6, 2019

This is the story of a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. Two chapters previous, his journey took him underground (not by choice) when he and his companions were captured by goblins. That chapter ended with him falling off the dwarf who was carrying him and knocking his head on a rock and going unconscious as the rest of his companions ran to escape goblins. In the last chapter Bilbo woke up and came across a ring that made its wearer invisible. Because of this he was able to escape from an encounter with a creature named Gollum who had lost the ring. Bilbo eventually found his way to an exit from under the mountain.

As it turns out, Bilbo had found the same exit that his companions had found, but he doesn’t know this, yet. He does realize he has come out the other side of the mountain. Believing that he is safe, Bilbo’s thoughts turn to his companions. He wonders how they are faring. Then he hears voices. With his ring of invisibility on, Bilbo makes his way toward them when he realizes the voices belong to his companions. The lookout, Balin, couldn’t see him and he sneaks in to the circle.

Bilbo arrives upon an argument. Gandalf was saying that they couldn’t go on without trying to find Bilbo or at least find out what happened to him. The dwarves are a little miffed, complaining about why they had brought such an obviously unsuitable traveling companion. Gandalf has great loyalty for Bilbo and gets angry:

“I brought him, and I don’t bring things that are of no use. Either you help me to look for him, or I go and leave you here to get out of the mess as best you can yourselves. If we can only find him again, you will thank me before all is over.”

Aside: One of the mysteries of this book is how much Gandalf knows. There are times it appears he has a kind of omniscience. He will slip away from the group and then realize that he needs to be back with the group. He also has this foreknowledge and/or confidence that Bilbo will be of great use and esteemed by the group. But he didn’t know that the cave they used as shelter was a trap. I don’t mean this as criticism. Like I said, it’s a mystery.

When Gandalf complains that Nori shouldn’t have dropped Bilbo, I had a question on the narrative: How long Bilbo was passed out? Clearly some time had gone by and then Bilbo had the riddle contest with Gollum and then had to sneak out of the tunnel past the goblins and make his way over to where the company was hiding. Time has elapsed. How long have they been discussing this issue? How is it that the dwarves and Gandalf are just having this conversation now, conveniently and coincidentally as Bilbo walks up? Or, perhaps they are having this conversation again?

I don’t want to wreck the story for myself, but this issue of the passing of time comes up again. Gandalf notes that while it’s daylight at this point the group will need to put some distance between themselves and the hundreds of goblins who are known to come out from under the mountain at night. Bilbo has more questions for Gandalf who says that the group was captured late Monday night or early Tuesday morning. They passed miles and miles underground, which was a shortcut. And now it’s Thursday afternoon. They are not where they wanted to be had they manged to go through the pass so they do have a little travel to get back to the path. So, when did the group get out from under the mountain? I assume that Bilbo wasn’t unconscious that long, that while I take it from the narrative that Bilbo was out for some time, perhaps it was just minutes so that, ultimately, Bilbo wasn’t that far behind.

We obviously are getting the perspective of the hobbit in this story. If we’re not always seeing the story through his eyes, at least we are watching it as it occurs in his presence. We wouldn’t know how Gandalf and the dwarves had escaped except Bilbo asks. The narrator tells us how the encounter with goblins happened in the first place:

“The wizard, to tell the truth, never minded explaining his cleverness more than once, so now he told Bilbo that both he and Elrond had been well aware of the presence of evil goblins in that part of the mountains. But their main gate used to come out on a different pass, one more easy to travel by, so that they often caught people benighted near their gates. Evidently people had given up going that way, and the goblins must have opened their new entrance at the top of the pass the dwarves had taken, quite recently, because it had been found quite safe up to now.”

At any rate, the group is on the move again. They survive a landslide and continue to make their way. Then the sound of howling makes us realize there’s another enemy that the group will have to deal with—wolves, or wargs as evil wolves are called here in Middle-Earth. And then the light touch of the narrator comes out again.

“‘What shall we do, what shall we do?'” [Bilbo] cried. ‘Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!’ he said, and it became a proverb, though we now say, ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.”

To protect themselves from the wolves, the company climbs trees. And the narrator is really enjoying himself:

“You would have laughed (from a safe distance), if you had seen the dwarves sitting up in the trees with their beards dangling down, like old gentlemen gone cracked and playing at being boys.”

But then things get difficult. Gandalf has an idea to send down flames onto the wargs, which keeps them occupied. But then the goblins arrive and they decide to stack up underbrush beneath the trees where the company has climbed and set it all on fire.

Things didn’t look good, except that we are introduced to another creature, the Lord of the Eagles, who hears this racket in the forest, summons other eagles, and decides to check it all out. Just at the moment when it appeared that Gandalf might, in an act of self-sacrifice, leap from the tree down onto the goblins, the Lord of the Eagles swooped down and grabbed him with his talons and took off. Other eagles took the rest of the company. Bilbo almost was left behind, but he grabbed the legs of Dori.

Aside: This feels a bit like a deus ex machina kind of moment. I’m not trying to be critical of J.R.R. Tolkien and ruin the book for myself, but I do recall going back to The Hobbit thinking that it is more problematic than The Lord of the Rings.

Another old saying is appropriate in this chapter: What goes around comes around. It turns out that the Lord of the Eagles had once been injured by a spear and Gandalf had healed him. The company enjoys meat provided by the eagles and an exhausted hobbit falls asleep on a shelf of rock on the side of the cliff. This, we are told by the narrator, is the end of “the adventures of the Misty Mountains.”

*  *  *

1 | Gandalf, a wizard, recruits Bilbo, a hobbit, to join Thoren Oakenshield and twelve other dwarves on an adventure to retrieve gold taken and held by a dragon.

2 | The adventure doesn’t have an easy start with inclement and discouraging rain and an encounter with three trolls that would have taken the group out had Gandalf not come to the rescue.

3 | The company takes a pause at “the last homely house,” where the elf lord Elrond lives, to replenish stores and find a good path forward.

4 | On the path through the Misty Mountains, the company encounters bad weather (again) and when they take shelter they are captured by goblins who take the party underground and Gandalf (also again) rescues all but Bilbo who is knocked unconscious and left behind in the dark tunnel.

5 | Bilbo comes to, finds a ring that he discovers will make him invisible, meets a creature named Gollum who had been the owner of the ring, and through a riddle contest finds his way past the goblins and out from under the mountain.

6 | Time has elapsed, but Bilbo finds his fellow adventurers who have been trying to figure out what to do about his absence and when they try to put some distance between themselves and the goblins they find themselves trapped by wolves (called wargs, here) up in trees until they are rescued by eagles, who are friends of Gandalf’s.

The Hobbit 5 | Riddles in the Dark

by Glenn on September 2, 2019

The previous chapter was a cliff-hanger. In an escape from goblins, Bilbo fell and bumped his head. Now Bilbo wakes up.

“When Bilbo opened his eyes, he wondered if he had; for it was just as dark as with them shut. No one was anywhere near him. Just imagine his fright!”

The narrator’s voice is interesting to me in this chapter. First of all, the narrator knows what’s going on inside the mind of Bilbo. The narrator is also very friendly to his readers and wants those readers to have empathy for Bilbo. And he already has the big contours of this story, though later I will come to understand that I can no longer think of him as omniscient.

Bilbo crawling around discovers a ring. The narrator tells us, “It was a turning point in [Bilbo’s] career, but he did not know it.”

I like the playful quality in the writing:

“[Bilbo] did not go much further, but sat down on the cold floor and gave himself up to complete miserableness, for a long while. He  thought of himself frying bacon and eggs in his own kitchen at home—for he could feel inside that it was high time for some meal or other; but that only made him miserabler.”

The narrator tells us that “Bilbo was in what is called a tight place.” But we learn that hobbits have some advantages in tunnels that the humans reading this story don’t, especially keeping a sense of direction while underground. But then the narrator confesses, “I should not have liked to have been in Mr. Baggins’ place, all the same.”

Bilbo heads down and down until he comes to water. Since it’s dark, Bilbo has no way of knowing if this is a puddle or a lake. (It’s a lake.) And this is where he meets Gollum, for whom the lake is his home, with an island in the middle. And this is where our narrator declares some gaps in his knowledge. Concerning Gollum, he writes, “I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was.”

So, the narrator knows a lot, but not everything. But this is a little confusing because after he tells us that Gollum, to be friendly with Bilbo, decides to play a game of riddles, he writes,

“Riddles were all he could think of. Asking them, and sometimes guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago, before he lost all his friends and was driven away, alone, and crept down, down, into the dark under the mountains.”

So what does the narrator know and not know?

Gollum is interested in eating Bilbo and is only held off by the blade that Bilbo has in his hand. Gollum seems to know some things about the blade—that it was a blade from Gondolin. He’s been around. Gollum and Bilbo agree to play a game of guessing the riddle. If Gollum wins, he kills Bilbo. If Bilbo wins, Gollum has to show him the way out of the tunnel.

The dialogue here with Gollum is just great. Gollum refers to himself as “my precious.” But there’s something else that he will refer to in this way. It’s a ring. Bilbo wins the riddle contest in what might be thought of as an unfair way. His mind went blank for a new riddle and he asked, “What do I have in my pocket?” The answer is the ring that he found quite by accident. Gollum is given three guesses but can’t figure it out. He agrees to show Bilbo the way out. But first he paddles back to his island in the middle of the lake to find his ring. He screams when he finds out that is gone.

The narrator tells us,

“[Gollum] wanted it because it was a ring of power, and if you slipped that ring on your finger, you were invisible; only in the full sunlight could you be seen, and then only by your shadow, and that would be shaky and faint.”

Somehow the ring finds its way onto the finger of Bilbo. In this way, Gollum goes right past him and heads for an exit full of murderous pronouncements about Bilbo. He has concluded, correctly, that Bilbo has his ring. Following a muttering Gollum, Bilbo learns that the ring makes its wearer invisible. When Gollum sees goblins, he makes a hasty retreat, but Bilbo makes an escape from under the mountain.

*   *   *

I am reading The Hobbit and trying to remember better the outlines of the story. The only way I can think to do this is by rehearsing that story.

1 | In “An Unexpected Party”, a wizard named Gandalf contacts a hobbit named Bilbo and invites him to be part of an adventure. Bilbo doesn’t seem particularly interested in or well-suited for adventure and dismisses Gandalf. The next day thirteen dwarves and Gandalf show up to Bilbo’s house where they talk of retrieving gold that was taken away from their people by a dragon. A sense of adventure is awakened in Bilbo.

2 | It’s a challenging start to the adventure which begins in “Roast Mutton”. Bilbo awakens late and is shoved out on his way totally unprepared by Gandalf. The dwarves and Gandalf will travel on horseback; Bilbo on a pony. Rain makes the journey miserable. At some point the company discovers that Gandalf has slipped away. And then the party come across three trolls. The trolls capture the dwarves and hobbit, but before they kill them, Gandalf returns to save everyone.

3 | The company have to travel through The Misty Mountains, but they don’t know the way. So they make a detour to “the last homely house,” aka the home of the elf lord, Elrond. This chapter is called “A Short Rest.” The company is re-supplied and receives information about weapons they took from the trolls. Additionally, Elrond discovers secret writing on the map that the company is carrying. Finally, they are given a reliable path through the Misty Mountains.

4 | The company makes a journey “Over Hill and Under Hill”. It’s a difficult climb up and up. Then they encounter bad weather, again. This time with thunder and lightning. When the company finds a cave for shelter, they are feeling pretty good, but the cave turns out to be a trap. Goblins take their animals (which, we are told, is the last time we will see these animals) and capture  everyone except Gandalf. They are carried down and down to meet the Great Goblin. They try to talk their way out of a confrontation, but the sword that Thorin is carrying has killed hundreds of goblins. Just when things look really bad, Gandalf appears. He kills the Great Goblin and sends the other goblins into chaos. The company attempts to make an escape with the hobbit being carried by one of the dwarves, but as they do goblins catch up. Bilbo is knocked to the ground and goes unconscious.

5 | When Bilbo wakes up after a while, it’s dark and he is alone. As he feels around, he finds a ring which he puts in his pocket. He makes his way along a tunnel until he comes to water. This is a lake where on an island in the middle a creature names Gollum lives. Gollum wants to kill Bilbo, but Bilbo has his elf-made blade to keep Gollum temporarily at bay. “Riddles in the Dark” is the way it will be determined if Gollum gets to kill Bilbo or Gollum has to show Bilbo the way out. Bilbo ultimately wins with a dubious riddle, “What do I have in my pocket?” Gollum is going to show Bilbo out but first he goes to find a ring which makes him invisible. When he can’t find the ring, he comes unglued and worries that what Bilbo has in his pocket is the ring. The ring finds its way onto Bilbo’s finger which saves Bilbo from being killed. A muttering Gollum heads toward an exit trying to find Bilbo. Bilbo follows him and learns that he has a ring that makes him invisible. Goblins are hiding at the exit, so Gollum returns to the lake but Bilbo is able to make his escape.

 

In Middle-Earth, we’ve met
a hobbit
a wizard
dwarves
trolls
elves
goblins

and we are told, though we haven’t come across them, that large goblins are called orcs.

The Hobbit 4 | Over Hill And Under Hill

by Glenn on August 31, 2019

1 | An Unexpected Party A group of thirteen dwarves including their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, have, somehow, gained an association with a wizard, Gandalf, who has agreed to help them in their quest to take back a large pile of gold that was stolen from them and is being held captive by a dragon. It’s not clear at this point what Gandalf’s interest in all of this is or why he associates with whom he associates, but the dwarves show great deference to him and the respect appears to be mutual. Apparently, part of the services Gandalf said he would provide was to secure the help of a burglar to help with the mission. Gandalf chooses a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, who has no experience as a burglar and will leave a rather comfortable life to take on this dangerous assignment in the pursuit of gold.

2 | Roast Mutton It’s a rather frantic beginning to the adventure for the hobbit, Bilbo. Everyone else has been preparing for it for some time, but the adventure is sprung on Bilbo, who rises late and is shoved out on his way thoroughly unprepared by Gandalf.

Adventures are, almost by definition, problem-solving, or at least problem-facing exercises. The nature of life is that when we go off in the pursuit of things, we will encounter some form of opposition. At the same time, it’s not like sitting around not pursuing things is a way to avoid problems. Perhaps the problems we face in the pursuit of things are better than the problems that come with passivity.

As our group sets out, they encounter three problems. First, is rainy weather, which makes the journey harder and dampens (no pun intended) the mood. Second, are predators. In this case it’s three large trolls, who are quite dangerous. They capture the dwarves and the hobbit and seem intent on eating them. Their deliberations suggest that the dwarves may be tasty but the hobbit may be too small to warrant much attention. Third, Gandalf is not present with the travelers at just the time when it would be helpful to have a wizard around. He slipped away from the party without telling anyone. He returns in the nick of time to deal with the trolls and save the day. Later he explains he had a sense that he was needed back. Gandalf’s awareness is fascinating. He can’t be everywhere at once in a physical sense, but he has a feel for what is going on in different places at the same time. The company get some plunder from the trolls, including swords for Gandalf and Thorin and a small dagger which is proportionately like a sword for Bilbo.

3 | A Short Rest The company needs to cross the Misty Mountains, but no one seems to know the way and it’s bad if you get lost. So the group diverts to the home of Elrond, an elf lord, who lives in the “Last Homely House,” which is completely understated in name. A number of good things come out of this. First, the group is able to replenish supplies and get some rest.

Second, the group is able to gain some information from the map they carry. It turns out it has an ingenious secret code, with words only visible when the map is lit by the same kind of moon under which the words were written. Which makes me wonder how many other messages might be on this map? How many cycles of the moon are there? And what are the odds that the company would show up at Elrond’s at the same cycle of the moon? Maybe I shouldn’t overthink this.

Third, Elrond explains that the swords that Gandalf and Thorin took from the trolls were created by elves in ancient days for goblin wars. The blades have names—Thorin has Orcrist, the Goblin-Cleaver and Gandalf has Glamdring, the Foe-hammer, which belonged to the king of Gondor. As a narrator, Tolkien is funny, because that mention of the king of Gondor makes no sense if you haven’t read The Lord of the Rings. You wonder how much of The Lord of the Rings he had in his mind as he was telling this story. As a reader, details like this are both really impressive and somewhat confusing. It doesn’t seem like a requirement that you track these details, but perhaps it will enhance your enjoyment when you can piece together an understanding of this world that Tolkien has created. Otherwise, I think the feeling is one of immersion in an unknown world. The narrator takes it for granted that we will know things or expects that we will pick them up in due time.

Finally, Elrond tells the group how to get onto the correct path through the Misty Mountains.

4 | Over Hill and Under Hill The chapter begins

“There were many paths that led up into those mountains, and many passes over them. But most of the paths were cheats and deceptions and led nowhere or to bad ends; and most of the passes were infested by evil things and dreadful dangers. The dwarves and the hobbit, helped by the wise advice of Elrond and the knowledge and memory of Gandalf, took the right road to the right pass.”

I love how Tolkien raises the stakes here. First, there is a bit of deception in the narration. He’s setting us up a bit. It sounds like things could easily go badly for anyone crossing the Misty Mountains, so you’re automatically worried about our little company. And you realize that things could have gone really badly except that Gandalf and company were smart enough to have consulted Elrond in the previous chapter.

Perhaps a rule for going on an adventure is to consult someone wise enough to help you with some direction to avoid pitfalls.

This use of the word “evil” is interesting, here. I’m sure it’s not the first use of the word in the book, but it seems like a new dynamic for this company of adventurers. We’ve seen that the natural world is not always comfortable and at times can be unpleasant. Further, it includes dangers of all sorts. But now there’s something much more ominous—the presence of evil which needs to be considered. At the mention of evil we don’t question that the company is on the right side of the good vs. evil conflict.

Our group is heading along the right road up, up, up into the mountains. Tolkien speaks of “long days” and so we get the understanding of the passing of time on a long arduous journey. In our modern world, you can be anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. We think of plane travel as some sort of journey, but in Middle Earth, it can take a bit of time and some extraordinary effort to get places because you can only go as fast as your feet or the feet of the animal beneath you can go. This is not necessarily an anti-technology book, but it is certainly pre-modern and pre-technology.

Tolkien gives us a psychological aspect of this journey through the mind of Bilbo. Explaining that it won’t be for the last time, we learn that Bilbo is thinking about his comfortable home and wondering what other people are doing with their summer while he is on this journey. This is the nature of adventure—we often find ourselves thinking of what life might have been for us and what others might be experiencing at any given moment.

Our narrator wants us to understand some things about journeys. The group had hopes for what would transpire, but Gandalf

“knew how evil and danger had grown and thriven in the Wild, since the dragons had driven men from the lands, and the goblins had spread in secret after the battle of the Mines of Moria. Even the good plans of wise wizards like Gandalf and of good friends like Elrond go astray sometimes when you are off on dangerous adventures over the Edge of the Wild; and Gandalf was a wise enough wizard to know it.”

So, it’s not just that the journey will have physical demands and you will meet specific opponents along the way, but there is this general sense that evil will affect you as well.

The group is looking for a door that will take them into the Lonely Mountains, but they won’t find it. A pattern now emerges in this story. I don’t mean this as a critique of Tolkien—the man was a genius—but it occurs to me that this chapter invokes a pattern that we had two chapters previously. Our group encounters some weather. And then the group gets into mortal danger without Gandalf present. But then Gandalf comes back at the last moment to save the day. Well, a variation this time is that at the end of the chapter we’re not quite sure if he has saved the day. The end of this chapter is a cliff-hanger.

The weather our group encounters is much more severe this time. It’s rain plus thunder and lighting and because they are on a narrow path, there’s not much shelter. One thing I’ve always wondered: While they were hanging on in inadequate shelter, Bilbo

“peeped out in the lightning flashes … saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang.”

These stone giants, are they metaphorical or actual? There’s not a lot of explanation offered as far as where they fit into Middle Earth. Are they good or evil? They’re certainly dangerous. But their hurling about of stones, seems to be the least of the company’s worries.

The group needs better shelter, so Fili and Kili, the youngest dwarves with the best eyesight, are tasked to go find shelter. They find a cave, but we are given hints that this cave could be a problem. There’s a lot of concern about caves in general and this cave in particular. The voice of the narrator is friendly toward our group, but there’s a kind of remove, too. The narrator is not enmeshed with his characters and with some detachment, he explains,

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something (Or so Thorin said to the young dwarvers). You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after. So it proved on this occasion.”

And so our narrator knows things that the characters in the story don’t and doesn’t mind cluing us in.

“That, of course, is the dangerous part about caves: you don’t know how far they go back, sometimes, or where a passage behind may lead to, or what is waiting for you inside.”

It’s like Tolkien/the narrator is trying to educate us. The tone is conversational and friendly and he wants to impart wisdom for those of us reading in case we ever go on an adventure.

Well, the cave starts off like a good idea and then it turns into a nightmare. A crack in the back of the cave opens after everyone has gone to sleep and goblins rush in. We’re told it didn’t go well for the ponies and that we’ll never see them again. If trolls were bad, goblins are worse if only because there are so many of them. The only good thing is that Bilbo was having a dream about the crack that woke him up and that was enough warning for Gandalf to do some damage and escape while the goblins take everyone else hostage and the crack in the cave is sealed up again.

We know that dwarves and elves sing. Goblins sing, too, but the poetry that Tolkien offers (in English translation) is not mellifluous. It’s very percussive and largely mono-syllabic:

Clap! Snap! the black crack!
Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!
And down down to Goblin-town
     You go, my lad!

The dwarves and the hobbit are carried down to meet the Great Goblin. The dwarves try to be friendly and negotiate but Thorin’s sword is shown to the goblin leader, the Great Goblin, who is very unhappy to see this particular weapon—it had killed hundreds of goblins in the past. This would have been the end of the company except that Gandalf showed up again in the nick of time. It’s quite dramatic:

“Just at that moment all the lights in the cavern went out, and the great fire went off poof! into a tower of blue glowing smoke, right up to the roof, that scattered piercing white sparks all among the goblins.”

This is the value of a wizard. The narrator pours it on,

“The yells and yammering, croaking, jibbering and jabbering; howls, growls and curses; shrieking and shriking, that followed were beyond description. Several hundred wild cats and wolves being roasted slowly alive together would not have compared with it. The sparks were burning holes in the goblins, and the smoke that now fell from the roof made the air too thick for even their eyes to see through. Soon they were falling over one another and rolling in heaps on the floor, biting and kicking and fighting as if they had all gone mad.

“Suddenly a sword flashed in its own light. Bilbo saw it go right through the Great Goblin as he stood dumbfounded in the middle of his rage. He fell dead, and the goblin soldiers fled before the sword shrieking into the darkness.”

Gandalf is powerful. As a wizard he can do things with light and make things explode. But he can also fight.

Aside: It occurs to me that J.R.R. Tolkien is not a fan of the Oxford Comma.

In the confusion, Gandalf and company begin to make their escape (the hobbit is carried by Dori because he is too small to keep up), but the dim light that Gandalf provides so they can see their path is enough for goblins to see them. The chapter ends with Dori being grabbed from behind by a goblin and Bilbo falling, hitting his head on a rock, and going unconscious. Interesting that the narrator, who was more detached before, is so entwined with Bilbo that his unconsciousness provides an end to the chapter.

The Hobbit 3 | A Short Rest

by Glenn on August 23, 2019

Where we are:

1. A wizard, Gandalf, recruited a hobbit, Bilbo, to be part of an adventure involving thirteen dwarves who seek gold taken from their people by a dragon. Bilbo is both repulsed by and attracted to the idea of an adventure. His role in the group will be that of a burglar, a job that is quite remote from anything he has ever done in life. In fact, he hasn’t really done anything in life, except be comfortable, although he does keep a tidy and meticulous house.

2. The adventure begins with Bilbo joining the group at the last minute. As the fifteen travelers set out on horseback (a pony for the diminutive hobbit), they are confronted by a couple of challenges. The first is inclement weather, which can make traveling outside unpleasant. The second is a group of three trolls—very large and very dangerous. At this point Gandalf has left the group. Gandalf is both part of the adventure but separate from the group. He seems to come and go as he pleases and as the need arises. In the nick of time because of the sense that he was needed, Gandalf returns to save the group from the trolls. It’s helpful to have a wizard around. They get some plunder from the trolls, including swords (a dagger is just like a sword for the hobbit).

The next chapter is a short one, both in name (“A Short Rest”) and page count. Following the troll incident, the mood of the group has darkened. Chapter 3 begins,

“They did not sing or tell stories that day, even though the weather improved; nor the next day, nor the day after.”

The group slept out under the stars. There was plenty to eat for the horses and pony and they fattened up nicely, but things were more challenging for our adventurers. But they were making progress and had come to a set of mountains (“the Misty Mountains”) they needed to pass through or over or under. The problem is knowing the way. No one seems to know it, including Gandalf.

The reality of the journey hits Bilbo. Our narrator allows us to know what is going on inside the head of this one adventurer. Bilbo remembers “his comfortable chair before the fire in his favourite sitting-room in his hobbit hole, and of the kettle singing. Not for the last time!” This is the thing that happens to us when we set out on adventures. When an adventure becomes challenging, especially when we get a sense of the scale for how long and hard the road is going to be, your mind naturally wanders back to easier times and places—the comforts of home.

The problem at this point is that you need to take the correct path through the Misty Mountains or you will get lost and need to start over, if you ever find the starting place again. Gandalf is leading the way at this point and we realize that he is not God—certainly he is not omniscient—although the narrator tells us that he “seemed to know his way about pretty well.” Gandalf is taking them on a short detour, to the ironically-named (or at least modestly-named) “Last Homely House” where his friend, Elrond lives.

They are a little off the path at this point, but elves set them right, although they have a sense of mischief about them teasing, especially, the dwarves. They seem to respect Gandalf.

This is a strange world. We’ve met:
a wizard
a hobbit
dwarves
trolls
elves

Our narrator is quite conversational and sometimes takes an aside as he does here:

“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”

This explains why he merely says that the adventurers spent the next fourteen days (at least) in the home of Elrond, who we discover has an ancient and noble history. He is an elf-lord who will play only a small, but important role in this story “if we ever get to the end of it.” (There is that warmth of the narrator’s voice, again.)

Two things to know from this chapter. First, about the home of Elrond. It’s wonderful. Tolkien writes,

“His house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Evil things did not come into that valley.”

Fun to think about that.

Second, is that Elrond is a font of knowledge. He tells them about the swords that they took from the trolls. They are very fine and the weapons have inscriptions that Elrond can read. Further, he gives them some information about their journey. A funny thing about the map that the dwarves are carrying. It has “moon-letters.” These are letters you can’t see if you look at them. You need to have the moon behind the map. But there’s more. You need to have the same kind of moon that the letters were written under. It occurs to me that you will never fully understand this map unless you look at it under every night and season. And, further, how lucky that it just so happens that the adventurers have arrived at Elrond’s house at just the right season to see what had been written.

The party sets back out on their adventure rested, re-stocked, and with knowledge of the correct way to get through the Misty Mountains.

Adventure Lesson

I didn’t mention it in the previous two parts, but a map is an essential part of the journey. The interesting thing, here, is that the dwarves have this map, but they aren’t able to understand it completely. They need help reading and interpreting it.

The Hobbit 2 | Roast Mutton

by Glenn on August 22, 2019

When chapter 2 opens, it’s the morning after thirteen dwarves and the wizard, Gandalf, had invaded the home of Bilbo Baggins and recruited him to be a burglar on their gold-seeking adventure. This is a job for which Bilbo seems totally unsuited, but when a wizard tells you are going to do something, it’s hard to argue. It had been a trying night for Bilbo and when he woke up, everyone had left the house which was left a mess, so Bilbo went about bringing order back to his world. But here is a telling line:

“[H]e was really relieved after all to think that they had all gone without him, and without bothering to wake him up (‘but with never a thank -you’ he thought); and yet in a way he could not help feeling just a trifle disappointed. The feeling surprised him.”

Suddenly Gandalf burst in to tell Bilbo that he had just ten minutes to meet the others. Before Bilbo could raise objections, he was pushed out the door by Gandalf. Bilbo wanted to do more things around the house and take some personal items on the journey, but Gandalf said there was no time. Bilbo had to run, totally unprepared for his adventure.

I am reading The Hobbit through the lens of adventure. Some adventures are sought and planned for. Others come at us, ready or not. The adventure to which the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, has been called was more or less thrown at him and he would have been happy had it gone to someone else. But inside Bilbo are two tendencies, the desire to pursue comfort and an openness to adventure.

The character of Gandalf is complicated. On the one hand, he has a tough love policy toward Bilbo. He pushes him out the door and sends him on the way rather breathless and out of sorts. On the other hand, when Gandalf joins up with the party later, he has brought pocket-handkerchiefs and a pipe and tobacco for Bilbo. Bilbo is not allowed to take comforts of home on this journey, but some of the comforts of home are brought to him once he has set out.

As the group sets out on horseback (with a pony for Bilbo), one of the features of their journey is that “they told stories or sang songs as they rode forward all day”. With no knowledge of what the film is like, I can imagine a soundtrack accompanies the group as they set out. But there is no soundtrack in the book. We will see that the group is either talking, singing, or silent.

Weather is part of this adventure. The seasons correspond to the Northern Hemisphere and perhaps Northern England is an appropriate analog. It’s not pleasant traveling like this. As it gets dark, the group notices that Gandalf has disappeared. This is part of Gandalf’s character. He isn’t always with the group, but not because he’s a flake, but because he is sometimes attending to other sorts of business. You take Gandalf when you can have him, but you don’t control Gandalf. He attends to whatever he attends to. When he’s present, he’s fully present, but simply can’t always be present. In this case he is scouting the way. But this is unknown to the party of adventurers as he doesn’t really tell anyone when he leaves or where he’s going.

The group camps out under a tree. The wind and the rain mean they can’t light a fire. And then the unexpected happens: one of the ponies gets spooked for no reason and runs into a river. Two of the dwarves rescue the pony out of the river but lose a considerable amount of food in process and nearly drown. When dinner finally arrives, it is not how Bilbo normally experiences it. Then someone sees a light . . .

The balance of this chapter is an incident with three trolls. Things for a while look rather bleak for the adventurers who find themselves in quite a mess. What could have ended badly is turned around when Gandalf rejoins the party and saves the day in a very clever way. (Apparently wizards are cautious about how they take on trolls.)

The party questions Gandalf on his whereabouts. The mystery that is Gandalf is deepened when after explaining what he had been doing, he says, “I immediately had a feeling that I was wanted back.” And Gandalf seems to scold the group: “Please be more careful, next time, or we shall never get anywhere.” But they are in trouble because they won’t be making good time, not because they had placed themselves in the way of potential harm.

Story Summation

1 | A group of dwarves are on a mission to reclaim gold that has been stolen from their people by a dragon. A wizard, Gandalf, is a consultant on this adventure and  has recruited (nearly against his will) a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to serve as a burglar.

2 | Bilbo is sent off to this adventure at the last minute with no time to prepare. Gandalf later brings some personal items to make the journey more comfortable for Bilbo. Gandalf leaves the group for a time. In the meantime, the party runs into some darkness and rain, which is trying enough, but then they encounter three trolls who would have made this a very short book if Gandalf had not understood he needed to come back and save the day, which he did in an ingenious way.

Adventure Lessons

Some adventures are dropped on us and we don’t really have enough time to prepare for them. But maybe it’s better this way. We don’t always know what we want or need in life. When we are called to an adventure, we go, and trust that we will get what we need along the way.

There’s nothing easy about adventures. Even things you might predict, like darkness or rain, make things more difficult. The pursuit of adventure and comfort are not necessarily compatible.

The summons to adventure comes from Gandalf. The dwarves wouldn’t attempt this without him. The hobbit is summoned by him. Gandalf is accompanying them on this journey, but that presence can’t always be counted on, although we see that Gandalf is aware when his presence is needed.

The Hobbit 1 | An Unexpected Party

by Glenn on August 21, 2019

I haven’t read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien for a number of years. My last time was twelve or more years ago when I was teaching an English class at a boarding school and my students and I read it out loud together. One young lady read the role of Gollum in character and to perfection. So much fun.

I’ve read The Lord of the Rings at least twice in the intervening years and obsessed with the films including attending midnight showings. I haven’t seen the film version of The Hobbit. Somehow it felt like it would be anti-climactic after the epic nature of TLOTR. I am going to try and forget about TLOTR as I re-read The Hobbit and perhaps I’ll watch that trilogy as a reward. My memory is that the tone of the two printed works is quite a bit different and it will be interesting to compare the visual storytelling.

My goal is to read The Hobbit with fresh eyes and to pay attention, especially, to the idea of adventure as the primary theme.

I love the opening sentences of The Hobbit:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

The hobbit referenced here is one Bilbo Baggins, who is living a comfortable life in his comfortable home, located in “The Hill.” Baggins appears to be independently wealthy, having inherited his wealth from his parents. His father’s side of the family, the Bagginses, are traditional and conservative. His mother, though, was a Took, a family which was less respectable because of their propensity to go on adventures. The Took side was also wealthier. Maybe there’s some correlation and causation there.

When we meet Bilbo, he is alone in the world. No parents, no spouse, no children. One day Bilbo is smoking a pipe outside his front door when Gandalf shows up. Gandalf “had a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which his long white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots.” Bilbo knew of Gandalf from his childhood, but didn’t recognize him. Gandalf had come to summon Bilbo to an adventure, but Bilbo wanted nothing to do with adventures of any sort and tried to dismiss Gandalf. Gandalf isn’t easy to dismiss, though, and then Bilbo suddenly remembered:

“Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered? Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons? Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those! Old Took used to have them on Midsummer’s Eve. Splendid! They used to go up like great lilies and snapdragons and laburnums of fire and hang in the twilight all evening! … Dear me! … Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures? Anything from climbing trees to visiting elves—or sailing in ships, sailing to other shores! Bless me, life used to be quite inter—I mean, you used to upset things badly in these parts once upon a time. I beg your pardon, but I had no idea you were still in business.”

I love the way Tolkien has Bilbo catch himself. He was going to say that things were interesting when Gandalf was around but quickly changed tack back toward attempting to dismiss Gandalf.

Where are we? Hobbits and wizards and “dragons and goblins and giants” and princesses? We are in Middle-Earth, a land that Tolkien imagined. And the question you have to ask is: Is this real? What do we do with fantasy stories?

I have been challenged in recent months to think about what “real” means. Obviously this story isn’t real in the sense of this being a report of things that actually happened in this world. There is no Middle-Earth. There are no hobbits and wizards. All that was a product of Tolkien’s imagination. But not so fast.

While Middle Earth is nothing like our world, it is just like our world. Physical laws seem to apply. So it’s not so mysterious. Not any more mysterious than places we’ve never visited in this world. There are emotions that we recognize, too, realities that are all too familiar as they are described in this “made-up” story. We are all summoned to an adventure in this life in the sense that we have to step out into the unknown at some point.

So what are we to make of this story (and ones like it)? The point is not that these stories are true, but that truth is embedded in these stories, which makes them, in a sense, true stories. In spite of the fact that this story belongs to the world of fantasy literature it is a true story because in important and profound ways it represents reality. It’s possible there is as much, if not more, truth in The Hobbit than a story you might read in the newspaper or see on television.

Bilbo is being summoned to an adventure. His choice/dilemma is ours. We can try to make the goal of our lives to live comfortably. In fact, the world of advertising would suggest that comfort is somehow the highest value in life. We are encouraged to buy things to make our lives comfortable. It’s suggested that that is the way to happiness.

And yet we know that the pursuit of comfort is not the only consideration in life. Perhaps it should be a fairly low consideration. It’s not that comfort is bad in and of itself, making the pursuit of comfort a bad approach in life. It’s just that comfort is an empty pursuit. There is nothing wrong with experiencing some comfort. But as soon as you make comfort your goal, you may, in an ironic way, be made uncomfortable. For example, a comfortable life might be to sit on a soft couch watching easy television shows and eating candy. But how much of that can you take before you actually become uncomfortable—overweight with an aching back? Comfort can, in a way, kill you. Comfort is fine, but the purpose of your life is not to be comfortable. The adventure is a much more worthy goal, although it’s definitely uncomfortable. But it may be the thing that keeps you alive. You have to do something in life. You can’t just sit there blowing smoke rings from your pipe.

There are a number of features that emerge quickly in this story that I really enjoy.

First is the storyteller. The narrator, Tolkien I presume and not a persona, is very involved in the story-telling and has an interesting relationship with Bilbo. The narrator knows what is in the mind of Bilbo but also is somewhat critical of him. When describing the fact that Bilbo’s house was on one level, he writes, “No going upstairs for the hobbit.”

Sometimes the narrator refers to what “the hobbit” does, other times he gives us some indication of what is or might be going on inside of Bilbo: “Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick.”

There is an enthusiasm in the narrator’s voice that is intriguing, for example this line about Gandalf:

“Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale.”

The second thing that emerges in the story is the humor. Some of it is slightly absurd or whimsical, for example this passage:

“Old Took’s great-grand-uncle Bullroarer … was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfimbul’s head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment.”

Some of the humor is situational. There’s not a lot about Bilbo to admire at first. He’s a bit of a snob and represents what me might call the idle rich. And yet we quickly feel sorry for him as events beyond his control seem to pile up around him and he unravels as a parade of uninvited guests show up at his house and he valiantly tries to be a good host. You can only sympathize with the awkwardness (unfairness?) of the whole thing. The writing is quite visual.

A third thing that emerges in the story is the music of the dwarves. You don’t hear it as we’re only given the poetry, so you have to imagine it, but there are songs, apparently, for and about everything, including playful cleaning-up songs and songs for the pursuit of riches.

Finally, there’s Gandalf. Gandalf, of course, is a complex character. Bilbo tries to get rid of him, but he has to be cautious about this: “With that the hobbit turned and scuttled inside his round green door, and shut it as quickly as he dared, not to seem rude. Wizards are, after all, wizards.” Gandalf is somewhat autocratic at times. When the dwarves express concerns about Bilbo as a burglar for their adventure, Gandalf says,

“Let’s have no more argument. I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you. If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself. You may (possibly) all live to thank me yet.”

So there is this deference to Gandalf, who is the one summoning Bilbo to the adventure: “I will go so far as to send you on this adventure. Very amusing for me, very good for you—and profitable, too, very likely, if you ever get over it.”

Some other things I’ve noticed in the story:

There are allusions but not to things in this world, but to other things in Middle-Earth, for example “the mines of Moria” and “the dungeons of the Necromancer.” To say that Tolkien has a rich imagination isn’t adequate.

Middle-Earth is a pastoral world that lacks technology. “By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green …” Middle-earth perhaps is something like the Middle Ages, a pre-modern world.

To sum up, there is a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins who is visited by a wizard, Gandalf, who summons him to an adventure. Bilbo says he is not interested, but Gandalf won’t take no for an answer. The next day, thirteen dwarves show up at his house in a succession of arrivals: Dwalin, Balin, Kili and Fili, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, and Gloin, and Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, and Thorin. Thorin, the most important of the dwarves sets out the nature of the adventure, to take back gold that was taken from the dwarves and held captive by a dragon named Smaug. The destination is known (The Lonely Mountain), a possible path is set, and the journey will begin the next morning. Bilbo is being hired as a burglar. Gandalf will accompany them to some extent on the journey.

How to be funny with Charles Duhigg featuring Gary Gulman

by Glenn on August 20, 2019

I came across a podcast called “How to! with Charles Duhigg”. The premise is that someone asks Duhigg how to do something and he finds someone who can explain how to do it.

In the episode titled, “How To Be Funny,” Duhigg wants to help a pastor, Aaron Kirkpatrick, be better at telling jokes. Kirkpatrick wants to use humor to engage his congregation better when he preaches. Duhigg knows that “being funny is really hard to do well” so he goes to a New York comedian, Gary Gulman, for advice. I had never heard of him previously, but he has this really funny comedy routine which he performed on Late Night with Conan O’Brien:

This was a great routine (albeit with an expletive).

The podcast offers some insights. You get a bit of Gulman’s story and Duhigg does a great job narrating. It’s a long path to become a proficient comedian primarily because it’s a hard road to develop material and “to get a new joke to work”. Gulman says that none of the material he used in the early years of his stand-up routines made it into his first television special. He said a great thing about that early material: “It was useless except that it was so useful.” He suggested a metaphor of a musician who has to spend his early years practicing scales.

The thing I enjoyed the most about this podcast, though, was hearing Duhigg analyze the above routine and Gulman explain how he developed it. It took twenty years. Twenty years! Comedy routines need structure and an ending and, in this case, it was difficult to come by. Along the way, Gulman learned that it was okay to lie in the pursuit of comedy—it’s called “artistic license”—and, inspired by the documentary, Helvetica, he created a mythical documentary and dragged in a story from his past about an omelette bar. And now this routine sings, even though Gulman remains critical of it.

The comedian Patton Oswalt was asked if there was a routine that he wishes he could take from another comedian. He referenced this one by Gulman. Someone said that Patton believed doing a routine “on just one idea” was “akin to tightrope-walking without a net.” Patton says:

“Do you know how terrifying that is to risk? As a comedian? If you start down this road and it’s NOT clicking? There’s no ripcord. No bolt-hole to safety. You’ve chosen this track and you better hope it brings you to the next station instead of suddenly ending in warped rails over a crevasse. I’ve only seen a few people pull something like this off. Jake Johannsen did a spot on Letterman back in the 90s where all he talked about was the Midwest kid who got his arms torn off by a thresher and called 9-11 with his nose and teeth. That was the whole routine. And it destroyed.”

The problem for pastors and humor is two-fold: you need new material every week and you are a truth-teller. You’re not developing a routine to take on the road and do over and over. If you tell a story, you have to wait a long time before you can tell it again. And while truth is not that important in comedy, you need to be careful to separate truth from fiction. It’s no problem if people find you entertaining, but you are not an entertainer.

Stanford Women’s Volleyball | Looking Back and Forward

by Glenn on August 15, 2019

The NCAA Women’s Volleyball season begins soon. It’s a three-act play:

Act I: Pre-Conference. Figuring things out with your team and setting the stage for the main action that follows.*
Act II: The Conference Season. League play, the goal of which is to be one of the 64 teams that earn a place into Act III.**
Act III: Post-Season Tournament. Win or you’re out (single elimination) and just one team wins it all.

I am a fan of the Stanford Cardinal.

Last year was a phenomenal season for them, ending with the National Championship, the second in three years. They lost only one match last year, a 5-set battle with Brigham Young University in pre-season play. There was both symmetry and redemption to the season as Stanford met BYU again in the tournament and this time it was a three-set blow-out for Stanford, although you are tempted to place an “*” next to this win because one of BYU’s best players suffered a season-ending injury near the end of league play. You certainly don’t wish ill for other players. While you want your team to win, the more satisfactory win is against a great and not an ailing team.

Last December’s National Championship match is (currently) available online:

There is a kind of unwarranted triumphalism that can be associated with “the defending national champions”, whoever they might be.

One of the hard things about sports is that that it doesn’t matter what kind of victory you have, at the end of the day it’s all binary—there’s a winner and a loser, no matter how close the contest. In the case of NCAA Division I volleyball, there is one National Champion and (in 2018) more than three hundred losers. This is the nature of sports.

The problem is the championship match was very close. When I watched it again, recently, I was impressed by how perilous the whole things was. In the end, one point overall separated these two teams.

Stanford Nebraska
Game 1 28 26
Game 2 22 25
Game 3 25 16
Game 4 15 25
Game 5 15 12
Total 105 104

What was intriguing about the match was the pattern of the five games. We had two competitive games (1 and 2), two blow-outs (3 and 4), and then the final edge to Stanford.

I’ve found two assessments of the match which were helpful: one by Alan Reifman and another by Joe Trinsey.

A couple of factors helped Stanford overcome Nebraska. One, Stanford exhibits a preternatural calm on the court. You can see some anxiety in individual players from moment to moment, but you don’t see it as a team. As far as on-court emotion, the approach seems to be not too high, not too low. And their coach, Kevin Hambly, is not a screamer.

Second, Stanford appeared to be the better team that night. Arguably, the best player on the court that night did not play for Stanford. It was Michaela Foecke from Nebraska, who was unbelievable. But while Stanford may not have had the best player on the court that night (Stanford’s two-time National Player-of-the-year, Kathryn Plummer, had a very slow start and never dominated the match the way she can) they didn’t appear to have the weakest player on the court that night. This was, in my opinion, Nebraska’s Lexi Sun, who struggled on both offense and defense.

I don’t know if this a true maxim, but based on this match, you might say that to win a volleyball match you don’t necessarily have to have the best player, but you don’t want the worst player, either. Or perhaps another way to think about it was that Stanford was simply the better team that night. But you can’t get too carried away with any of this. They won, but as noted just barely.

There was one close call near the end of the fifth set. A Stanford serve was called out. Stanford challenged the call and after review it was ruled in giving Stanford match point. I thought the ball was in, but it may be that I was influenced by being a Stanford fan.

In the aftermath of Deflategate, I remember hearing studies that said that you thought Tom Brady was guilty or not based on whether or not you were a Patriots fan. As I recall, it was roughly an inverse relationship. In other words, most non-Patriots fans think Brady cheated where most Patriots fans think he didn’t. The conclusion was that our perceptions are biased.

This could be possible, here. The one thing we know for certain is that volleyballs do flatten when they hit the ground. And if any part of the volleyball touches the line, it’s considered in. It appeared to me that the ball flattened and hit the line. What I see in the still image is that the white leather of the ball is blending in with the line. Therefore, the ball is in. Still, that was just one point, although it certainly would have tightened things up at the end of the deciding game for the match.

You might have been tempted to think that Nebraska, with its six losses heading into this match, was an inferior team. During the season they had lost to teams that were ranked higher than them, but then they faced and prevailed against two of them—Minnesota and Illinois—during the tournament. When you compare the seasons of the two teams, Stanford obviously had the better record and, similarly, was more efficient with more three-game matches.

Stanford Nebraska
3-game matches 22 17
4-game matches 10 13
5-game matches 3 6
season record 34-1 29-7

It’s only fair to say that in 2018, the B1G Conference appeared to be more competitive than the Pac-12. Nebraska finished fourth in their conference, tied with Wisconsin with five conference losses. Two other teams, Minnesota and Illinois, had better conference records. Meanwhile, Stanford dominated their competition in the Pac-12, finishing the season with a perfect conference record of 20-0. Their nearest competitors were Oregon and USC, both with seven conference losses.

The question for this championship match was which team was more prepared. Was it better to have faced more longer matches during the season or do those longer matches begin to wear on you? I’m not sure this is an easy question to answer. I think the fear for Stanford was that since they hadn’t been tested as much as Nebraska, would they fold under the pressure.

For me, the championship match was won on service aces and Holly Campbell. Both teams had eight service errors, but Stanford had nine aces to Nebraska’s two. That seemed to make the difference in the first set. Campbell had a good freshman season, hitting .292, but she was an attacking machine in this match  with a .483 efficiency. Perhaps Nebraska was so focused on Kathryn Plummer that they allowed this freshman to have a spectacular night.

There was a hunger in Stanford to get back to the finals. Their final four loss to Florida in 2017 was disappointing, to say the least. For the players it stung enough to drive them not to let it happen again. I wonder if Plummer’s less-than-stellar performance in this year’s final will push her to want to get back to the championship, not for the team glory so much as for personal redemption?

Stanford is the odds-on favorite to win again this year. Of the nine players who played in last year’s final, eight are back this year:

Jenna Gray | Setter
Audriana Fitzmorris | Opposite
Kathryn Plummer | Outside Hitter
Meghan McClure | Outside Hitter
Tami Alade | Middle Blocker
Holly Campbell | Middle Blocker
Morgan Hentz | Libero

Kate Formico | Defensive Specialist
Sidney Wilson | Serving Specialist

Tami Alade was graduated and will not be back with the team this fall. In the meantime, Stanford has picked up some remarkable new students. Madeleine Gates, a graduate student who transferred from UCLA with one year of eligibility remaining, could easily replace Tammy Alade, who was an excellent blocker but was less of an offensive threat because she didn’t have a slide attack. Gates was very solid with UCLA last year averaging almost 9 kills per match at .313 and nearly 4 blocks per match.

It gets better. Stanford may have the number one recruiting class this fall.

This means that there will be plenty of competition for playing time as well as game preparation. I feel hopeful and am hoping that this remarkable group, including the four seniors (Gray, Plummer, Fitzmorris, and Hentz) who in 2016, as freshman, also won the National Championship, will do it again this year. 3 out of 4 wouldn’t be bad?

But it’s not that easy, is it? You won, but it wasn’t like the other teams didn’t try. And the problem about being king of the hill is that everyone is trying to take you out.

The thing I love about Stanford athletes is that they are not just superb players but they are bright students. The greatest athlete in high school can’t get into Stanford without a solid academic performance. I suspect there may be some allowances for Stanford athletes in terms of academic performance as compared to the general student population at Stanford, but not so much. Here are these athletes who are in the top percentile in both athleticism and intelligence (or, at least academic work ethic). That’s something worth seeing and celebrating.

Much will be made of the fact that Stanford is the reigning National Champion. But there’s enough parity in sports that there is no guarantee that Stanford will outlast the others again. On the one hand it does seem possible that they can. If they don’t, it does appear that it’s a highly finite number of teams that could.

Over the last fifteen years only six teams have won the National Championship (source: here): Penn State (6 times), Stanford (3), Nebraska (3), Texas (1), UCLA (1), Washington (1). Here are the top four teams (based on tournament results) from the last fifteen years:

Year Champion 2nd Place Semi-Finalist Semi-Finalist
2018 Stanford Nebraska BYU Illinois
2017 Nebraska Florida Penn State Stanford
2016 Stanford Texas Minnesota Nebraska
2015 Nebraska Texas Kansas Minnesota
2014 Penn State BYU Stanford Texas
2013 Penn State Wisconsin Texas Washington
2012 Texas Oregon Michigan Penn State
2011 UCLA Illinois Florida State USC
2010 Penn State California Texas USC
2009 Penn State Texas Hawa'i Minnesota
2008 Penn State Stanford Nebraska Texas
2007 Penn State Stanford California USC
2006 Nebraska Stanford UCLA Washington
2005 Washington Nebraska Santa Clara Tennessee
2004 Stanford Minnesota USC Washington

These are elite programs in college volleyball.

There is intense competition to win it all, but for the most part this competition has been limited to a handful of teams. In the last fifteen years, out of 336 teams in NCAA Division I volleyball, only 1.8% have won the National Championship. Penn State, Nebraska, or Stanford have won 80% of the time.

Thirteen teams have played for the National Championship. That is 3.9% of the total teams. In the last fifteen years, Penn State, Nebraska, or Stanford have competed 70% of the time. Just 20 of the 336 teams, or 6% have made it to the Final Four.

Which is why we celebrate winning from two perspectives: first, the odds of winning are so small; but second, a handful of teams routinely do it.

I do like Stanford’s opportunities this fall. They are in a great position to repeat. But injuries can happen. God forbid. And every other team in the nation would like to bump Stanford off their throne.

The Stanford Volleyball Season begins on the road, Friday, 30 August 2019 at 4pm (PT) at College of Charleston.

____________________

*There seem to be a couple of ideas about pre-conference play. One idea is that teams from distinguished programs (stronger teams) will often play teams of less renown (weaker teams). This, arguably, helps both teams. The stronger team benefits from an easier opponent early on. They can ease into their season and not have to expend as much energy while still assessing their ability to perform under pressure. The weaker team benefits by seeing really strong competition early in the year and gaining valuable help to their Rating Percentage Index (RPI). See here and here regarding RPI in Volleyball. But these contests can be lop-sided.

The other idea for pre-season is that you find opponents who will challenge you. What do you do if you are a team from a distinguished program? You attempt to find other distinguished teams.

This year, Stanford is looking to challenge themselves with elite teams. Their opening two matches are against weaker, but not weak opponents. Though unranked, they are according to RPI, top 20% teams. And the rest of their pre-season contests are against the best 5%, including the No. 2, 3, and 4 teams according to the AVCA pre-season poll. This will be trial by fire.

Stanford Pre-Season Contests
College of Charleston (63 RPI for 2018)
Duke (44 RPI for 2018)
Florida (18 RPI for 2018 | No. 10 in AVCA poll)
Texas (3 RPI for 2018 | No. 4 in AVCA poll)
Penn St. (12 RPI for 2018 | No. 8 in AVCA poll)
Minnesota (4 RPI for 2018 | No. 3 in AVCA poll)
Nebraska (11 RPI for 2018 | No. 2 in AVCA poll)
Brigham Young University (5 RPI for 2018 | No. 9 in AVCA poll)

 

**64 teams participate in the post-season tournament. There are two ways to get in. The winners of each of the 32 leagues enter the tournament automatically. Depending on the league this is accomplished either by league record or a tournament at the end of league play. The remaining 32 spots are “at-large” teams chosen by the tournament committee to participate in the tournament.

ACC | Pitt, Duke, Syracuse, Florida St., Louisville
America East | Stony Brook
American | UCF, Cincinnati
Atlantic Sun | Florida Gulf Coast
Atlantic 10 | Dayton
Big 12 | Texas, Baylor
Big East | Creighton, Marquette
Big Ten (B1G) | Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn St., Purdue, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin
Big Sky | Northern Arizona
Big South | High Point
Big West | Cal Poly, Hawaii
CAA | Hofstra
C-USA | Rice
Horizon | Green Bay
Ivy League | Yale
MAC | Eastern Michigan
MAAC | Iona
MEAC | Howard
MVC |Northern Iowa, Illinois State
MWC | Colorado St.
NEC | Bryant
OVC | Murray St.
Pac-12 | Stanford, Washington St., Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, USC
Patriot | Navy
SEC |Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, South Carolina, Florida
SoCon | Samford, East Tennessee State
Southland | Stephen F. Austin
Summit League | South Dakota, Denver
Sun Belt | Texas St.
SWAC | Alabama St.
WAC | New Mexico State
WCC | BYU, Loyola Marymount, Saint Mary’s, San Diego, Pepperdine

A Month of Reflection | 9 | The Role of Women in the Church

by Glenn on November 21, 2018

Not exactly a reflection on a book. I have read (once) and listened to (twice) Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, but I think I’ve spent an equal amount of time listening to Dr. Peterson talk via the abundance of videos available on YouTube and his podcast. Among his gifts is an ability to frame things well. Read the rest of this entry »

A Month of Reflection | 8 | The Bourne Identity

by Glenn on November 16, 2018

I finished listening to The Bourne Identity one morning last week while making the spaghetti sauce for the evening’s dinner. I think I’ve read this novel more (this is at least the fourth time) than any other.

This was the first time I listened to it. My one complaint: not all voice artists are the same. And accents are difficult. As an audio book this isn’t as fine an aesthetic experience as the Harry Potter books were. But it’s still a great story.

Robert Ludlum. The Bourne Identity. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.

https://i1.wp.com/i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1279905749i/873753._UY475_SS475_.jpg?w=500&ssl=1

As I was reading (listening) this time, I got to thinking about how fiction writers craft their stories. Tom Clancy, for example, would drop a few rocks in a body of water and we as readers would watch the concentric rings around each entry point expand until these rings began touching one other. In essence, what seem like a few small disconnected stories over the course of the book become one large, interconnected story.

Ludlum’s approach is different. He tells a story along the lines of an Ezekielian vision: wheels within wheels that all interact with each other.

The Bourne Identity remains my favorite Ludlum novel. Were there any I didn’t like? I remember reading The Scarlatti Inheritance, The Osterman Weekend, and others, although I couldn’t tell you what they were about beyond spies, intrigue, and ghosts from wars past (World War 2, especially) and present (The Cold War). All of them go under the category of escapist reading.

Part of the joy of reading Ludlum novels is that there’s so much at stake but none of this is real. I think if I had the idea that any of these things were actually going on in real life, I’d be wearing a hat made of aluminum foil. I do have a memory of one Ludlum novel where the central issue, as I recall, is some sort of biological agent meant to extend or clone life and at one point the protagonist enters a room to find . . . (wait for it) . . . Adolf Hitler. Really? But that’s Ludlum. All in good fun. Believability is both essential in these novels and, apparently, easily thrown out the window.

I think I go back to a novel like this because the Post-9/11 world is scarier. It’s not like the threat of nuclear war wasn’t scary, but when the Berlin Wall came down, we breathed a sigh of relief. When Tom Clancy (presciently) wrote a novel that included an attack on The United States, including a jet liner flying into the U.S. Capitol, who knew that events like this would be our reality in not so many years. When will this war end? (Especially considering that this is a war against a tactic—terrorism—and not an easily identifiable enemy.)

*   *   *

After I finished listening to the Harry Potter books, I heard a podcast where someone was critical of the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. His criticism was around the idea that since films and books are different, a film based on a book shouldn’t simply try to recreate the book, which was interesting because that is the very thing I love about the first Harry Potter movie. It wasn’t exactly clear to me what the reviewer wanted. My thought about the Harry Potter films is that they get progressively worse, which is to say that as the books get longer, they become harder to render in film. The longer any book, I imagine, the more difficult it will be to render the story for the screen.

I think the film adaptation (the Matt Damon version) of The Bourne Identity did more of what this critic wanted. Beyond the basic premise of a highly trained U.S. operative suffering from amnesia, it bears little in common with the book. (One major example is the romantic interest. In the book, it’s a brilliant Canadian economist, in the film, it’s a down-on-her-luck working class girl. In the book, the love interest survives. In the films, she is killed.) Some of the changes from the book to the film I’m sure have to be. The world changed dramatically over the years since The Bourne Identity was written. There are some things in the novel that are anachronistic—phone booths, for example, which go away in the film—and other things, cell phones for example, that didn’t exist.

As we still never judge a book by its movie, it’s probably good in this case not to associate the the book with the movie to any extent. (Whereas at least the first Harry Potter film seemed like it was just as I imagined it.)

It’s been years since I read the rest of the trilogy—The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum (the order is alphabetical as I recall)—and I don’t know if I’ll go back and re-read (or listen to) them. I note that the character of Jason Bourne was extended beyond the trilogy by other writers, but I doubt if I will attempt them.

*   *   *

Let’s agree that a lot of work goes into both writing a book and making a film. A book is a solitary pursuit—an author, showing up every day to a writing desk and putting words on paper. Film-making is a team sport. We praise the director as the one who makes the film, but it’s a long list of people who work with a director (see end titles for any film).

What is funny to me is considering the demands that books and films make on their respective audiences. There is more actual work involved in making a film (based on the number of people working on the film x the hours worked), but a film makes little demands on our time. It simply asks that we sit for a couple of hours and watch.

Reading a book requires effort. You can’t really be doing anything else (although listening to a book certainly opens up some possibilities). The film is imagined and the book requires imagination. It’s not that films are easier. They are complicated enterprises. But the compelling novel is impressive to me.

The thing that I appreciate so much about the Ludlum novel (or the Clancy or …) is the way it can focus my attention for such a long period of time. It grabs me and urges me to continue to find out how it will all end.