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.