Bilbo begins his journey with a contract from Thorin, a funny contract about expenses and funerals, and a little push from Gandalf. Bilbo tries to make excuses, though we never get to hear what they are, and Gandalf cuts him off and gets him out the door. Sometimes people need a little push to get out of their comfort zone, or in this case, the Baggins side of Bilbo needed a push to the Took side.
Bilbo is to meet the dwarves at the Green Dragon Inn. This is a little inside joke for Tolkien because as a boy he always liked green dragons. In fact one of his first stories was about a dragon.
I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon’ but had to say ‘a great green dragon.’ I wondered why, and still do.
-Letters, No. 163
As they begin, the group gets soaked by rain and all Bilbo wants is to go back to his warm, dry, hobbit hole. The struggle of his two sides continues. They cross over an ancient stone bridge (a revision in later editions to coincide with LOTR) and notice that Gandalf is missing. Clearly this is a narrative device to place the dwarves and hobbit in peril, so that they have to get out of it of their own accord. But rather than simply just have Gandalf disappear, Tolkien has the characters mention it. They wonder if he’s along for the long haul, or the short term, and we as the audience don’t even know the answer. This is a storytelling trick; if you have a need to do something that is so obviously necessary to set up a plot point, and it doesn’t feel quite natural in how you did it, have the characters mention it. This lets the audience know that you know that there is a weak point in your story, but you don’t insult their intelligence by trying to ignore it. Of course in this story, Tolkien is even more skilled about what he is saying when Gandalf leaves, and we’ll get to that shortly.
Fili and Kili almost drown trying to save some ponies that almost drowned themselves. They lose quite a bit of provisions too. And two expert fire starters can’t start a fire. All bad omens and it appears this adventure has gotten off to a horrible start. Or has it?
The group sees a light in the distance, and as is clarified later in the chapter, they send Bilbo to investigate to possibly find some food. He does so and finds three trolls. Bilbo decides to play the part for which he was brought along: the burglar. He fails and is caught.
The trolls depicted here have common folk names (Bert, Tom, and William/Bill) and speak in a cockney accent, thus illustrating an urban lower class of English society. Tolkien depicts the trolls as slow, but I don’t think he is saying people with common names who speak in cockney are stupid. Rather, he’s writing to his audience, his kids, and the accent is almost an absurd joke on their ignorance of other dialects and forms of speech. And his kids would recognize the accent, thus the comical nature of it. This is contrasted by Bilbo’s ‘proper’ English as he speaks to the dumb trolls. His line about being a good cook, and that he cooks better than he cooks is particularly humorous.
It has been noted that the trolls in The Hobbit behave nothing like the trolls in the LOTR. The trolls in the LOTR are pure evil, whereas the trolls here are funny, and one of them even wants to let Bilbo go.
Again, The Hobbit was written as a children’s story long before the LOTR was ever conceived. There are going to be some inconsistencies here because of the nature of the two works, but Tolkien attempted to rectify this in his complete rewrite of The Hobbit that he began, but abandoned.
Another oddity about this scene is the talking purse. It only receives two lines and that’s it. I don’t think any such object like it is ever mentioned again anywhere else in the legendarium. The point of it is for comic effect, just another layer added to the funny accents, the funny dialogue, and the almost slapstick way in which all the dwarves get ‘sacked.’
The trolls’ downfall of being turned into stone by daylight is non-existent in English literature before this story. Tolkien is drawing on Norse and Icelandic tales and applies this motif to his own English story.
The trolls are defeated by their own nature. They are argumentative from the first time we meet them. Gandalf returns and tricks the trolls into arguing with each other until daylight comes, and their doom is sealed. A hall-mark of fairy stories are lessons contained within the story itself; in this case your own downfall can come about by your own hand.
How convenient that Gandalf returns just in time to save the day. However, as I’ve alluded to before, something more is going on here. At the end of the chapter Gandalf tells Thorin he left the company to “look ahead” and came back because he “immediately had a feeling he was wanted back.” We have to understand, that throughout all of Tolkien’s legendarium, that divine Providence is present. The divine hand of Ilúvatar (God), though never seen nor mentioned (except in the Silmarillion) is orchestrating or overseeing events. Much is said in The Hobbit about Bilbo’s ‘luck.’ Gandalf says in chapter one, that “there is a lot more of him than you can guess.” Even after the trolls are defeated, the group finds the troll hoard containing lots of provisions, gold, and very old Elvish blades, which will come in handy later on. The group only dared to venture after the light in the unknown night earlier in the chapter, because of their disastrous loss of supplies. Because of this, in the end, they come out richer, better equipped, and better armed. Divine providence lies underneath the entire chapter. And, as if Tolkien overplayed his hand with respect to this theme and pulled it back, in an earlier draft of this chapter, the dwarves also find the key to the hidden door of the mountain in the troll hoard. This is key that allows them to get back into the mountain safely and secretly, and they find it all because they lost some supplies and couldn’t start a fire. I think it was wise of Tolkien to not make this theme so obvious so early on. Tolkien’s Catholic faith informs his writing, as God controls all events for His end, though it is never heavy handed and you might miss it if you don’t pay attention. I will write more on this during a key moment of the book.
The problem of Christian books and movies today is no problem in Tolkien’s works. Tolkien’s work is not Christian, rather it is created by a Christian and its foundations and worldview are informed by Christianity. It’s all over the work, but never in your face. It is never presented in such a way that detracts from the story. If it were thrown in for the sake of being thrown in, it wold take the audience completely out of the story and the audience would reject everything that you want to tell them, mainly because you’ve written a bad story. That is what “Christian” stories, for the most part, do wrong today. They don’t tell good stories. They try to fit sermons into stories, and therefore the sermon suffers, and the story suffers, because the form that a story is presented in, is just as important as the story itself. It’s not wrong to have a Christian story, but it is wrong to have a bad story. Write a good story first, and if Christianity informs your worldview, it will come out in your story naturally.
“What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent.” -C.S. Lewis