Lake Town and The Lonely Mountain

The following shall cover chapters ten and eleven.

As the company hilariously exits their waterlogged barrels and are deposited at the mouth of the river, Tolkien informs us that despite their capture by the elves, it was good that the company came the way they did to the lake. The eastern road that they were told to stay on and travel to the eastern end of the wood, had become impassible. A greater good came out of the hardships the company endured. Shall we remember this when we are amidst trials?

When the dwarves and Bilbo enter Lake Town I am a bit surprised at the change that comes over Thorin. He introduces himself as the King Under the Mountain, making no pretense or mystery about who he is or what his intentions are, unlike when the Elvenking asked about his journey. The townspeople seem to respond well to this, remembering the songs that portrayed the days of old. I love how cultures and stories are preserved through song in Tolkien’s works, a lost art in today’s society.
Thorin’s pronouncement at his title and intentions are a bit arrogant, shortsighted, and prideful. Tolkien says as much when he calls attention to the attitude Thorin takes in this chapter as almost already having conquered the dragon and reclaimed his realm. In the next chapter however, he is basically cowering at the desolation he and the dwarves encounter on the mountainside and the thought of facing the dragon. In fact the dwarves suggest to send Bilbo to the front gate when they can’t find the side door. Thorin, to me, is a well rounded character with strengths and weaknesses, but all in all, sometimes it is difficult to like him.

In the next chapter the company departs Lake Town having been well fed and nourished. They are given supplies, including ponies. In fact, they seem quite cheerful, that is, until they reach the mountain. At this point in the story, the book begins a turn to a darker, more serious tale. We will see this more clearly in later chapters, but the descriptions of the wasted mountainside are foreboding, dark, and sad.

Once again it is Bilbo whom the dwarves must rely upon. He’s the one that finds the path to the door, and he’s the one that doesn’t give up, leading to the discovery of the key hole that opens the side door. And he’s the one, who will have to face the dragon. Alone.


Flies and Spiders

Enter Mirkwood. The company enters the ominous forest and they encounter nothing but suffocating darkness, enchanted waters, and vanishing elves. The waters that run black, cause deep sleep and odd dreams. The breaking of the circle of elves, causes all the elves to vanish. The forest has a goal to smother all light that enters it. The path the company is not supposed to leave, seems to keep giant spiders away, for the company sees only their eyes, and their webs never cross the path. But of course the company does eventually run into them.

Mirkwood is a forest that contains a combination of smothering evil and of faerie. Faerie is that world, or that aspect of wonder, that mere men cannot understand or even be comfortable in. It is so wondrous that it’s almost scary and too much to bear. We learn at the end of the chapter that the elves were having a feast in the woods, and the company’s intrusions into their circle was misunderstood as an attack. We learn that the elves are good people, and while their actions and the feelings that Tolkien conveys of them in the chapter evoke a sense of wickedness, it would be better to describe all of this as “other-worldliness.” The enchanted streams put its swimmers to sleep, but the dreams they impart are enjoyable. And the sleeper eventually wakes up. The elves do not attack the company despite their intrusions, but eventually they do get fed up and drag Thorin away for questioning. The sounds of hunting, and the odd descriptions of deer, say nothing about evil or good, but the feeling they evoke is just odd (and I must admit, evoke stories of pagan rituals of old). Tolkien describes these elves as somewhat different than the ones at Rivendell, who wish to stay among this world and in the woods, but are those who like stars, like their high elven kin. I think Tolkien has done a good job of creating a feeling of “other-worldliness” here that makes the reader feel uncomfortable. All of this cannot be attributed to the elves and their influence though, as the spiders seem to also be a reason why we feel so uncomfortable.

The company is captured by the spiders, and Bilbo must save them. Before his does, he saves himself from being eaten by a spider, and the narrator tells us that Bilbo felt like a different person after defending himself from a spider. And the rest of the chapter demonstrates this. Bilbo single handedly saves the dwarves from the spiders by thrashing Sting to and thro. Bilbo is the fly that fights back against the spiders, hence the chapter title. With his wit, cunning, and a little bit of luck, he’s able to rescue them all (speaking of luck, I think this is the chapter so far, that uses that word the most). After being rescued, the dwarves thank him multiple times and even bow down to him in respect, despite now knowing that he has a magic ring. In fact, the dwarves look to Bilbo to come up with a plan to get them out of their mess. Truly the relationship between the dwarves and Bilbo has changed from one of contempt to one of following a leader.

Chapters Six and Seven

This time I will comment on Chapters Six and Seven. In Chapter Six, Bilbo meets up with the company and they flee the goblins and wargs. They get trapped up in trees by the wargs, and helplessly have to wait until the goblins show up to finish them off. In the middle of this narrative, Tolkien suddenly diverts to other characters not previously seen or mentioned and at first have nothing to do with the current story. These are the eagles and they end up saving Bilbo and company in a deus ex machina fashion, with the eagles swooping down from above to solve the problem, much like the gods in Greek plays would descend from above to solve the current narrative. Some weaker writers would not be able to pull this off like Tolkien does here, and I must admit the introduction of the eagles is very abrupt, but what Tolkien is doing here is what he calls a eucatastrophe. In an essay titled “On Faerie Stories he writes:

But the ‘consolation’ of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite — I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.

A eucatastrophe is the opposite of a catastrophe. Instead of utter destruction, there is utter hope. At the moment when all seems helpless, all seems lost, hope appears which springs joy. In the circumstance in which Bilbo and company find themselves in amongst the trees, there is no way out until the eagles come and rescue the company. Some may call this bad writing, but as mentioned before, divine providence is laced throughout the entire book, and I believe it’s best to call this moment a sort of divine grace. Without this grace, the adventure would end in tragedy at this moment, and not in happiness. This is far too much darkness in storytelling today, and I believe those stories will fade in the night, a mere few years after they have been told. But the stories that will last are the ones that end happily.

In Chapter Seven, we meet yet another species, a skin-changer named Beorn. Gandalf and the company meet Beorn amidst a funny mixture of the telling of their tale and stumbling into his house two by two. Not much really happens in this chapter, though it is a bit long. We get a lot of mentions about other places and things in middle earth, such as large bees, hobgoblins in the mountains of the north, bear meetings, and of course Mirkwood forest. The company arrives at the edge of the forest and here Gandalf departs from them with “business in the south.” Really, this is just a narrative device to get Gandalf out of the story so that Bilbo and the dwarves will have to solve their problems on their own. And oh, the problems they will have inside Mirkwood.

Riddles in the Dark

Bilbo stumbles upon a metal ring while flailing around in the dark. The finding of the ring is a “turning point in his career” an odd phrase, I think, for this book. As it will turn out, the finding of the ring will be the turning point of all of Middle Earth. But that is a tale for another time. For now, the ring as described in The Hobbit is just a simple magic ring, that makes its wearer invisible. Bilbo slips it in his pocket almost without thinking about it.

He wants to light his pipe, but is prevented from doing so because he has no matches. But he remembers his small sword that was found in the troll hoard, which is glowing a pale blue, since goblins are around. Bilbo decides to press on in the dark, because what else is he going to do. And then he meets Gollum.

Gollum is described as “dark as darkness.” What a way to say Gollum was evil, without using the word evil. Tolkien is so good at using poetic descriptions. Notice again he introduces a character by describing personality traits or alluding to the nature of a character rather than using physical descriptions. In Gollum’s case, Tolkien uses limited physical descriptions, so much so that illustrators could never draw Gollum the way Tolkien envisioned him. This prompted Tolkien to write a short essay on what Gollum should look like.

Gollum’s escapades and his going-abouts are mentioned, and we find out that he is a sinister little creature, throttling goblin’s throats and then eating them, but only in such a way that won’t endanger Gollum’s own life. In short, he is like the goblins who snatch sleeping parties away in the dark, but he is worse than they are. Fortunately for Bilbo, Gollum is not quite hungry right now, he is only curious about Bilbo.

He announces himself to Bilbo (something he regrets later in the chapter- “otherwise he would have grabbed first and whispered afterwards”) with snake like hisses, that put Bilbo at great unease, as well as ourselves. Gollum has no clue what Bilbo is, and Bilbo likewise hasn’t a clue what Gollum is. Gollum proposes a game of riddles to find out more about Bilbo. The riddles then turn into a competition. If Bilbo wins, Gollum shows him the way out; if Gollum wins, well, he eats Bilbo. Much has been written elsewhere on the riddles themselves, and where Tolkien got his inspiration from for them. I cannot improve upon those observations, except to say that the riddles one asks correspond to the asking character in some way. For example, Bilbo asks about “sun on the daisies” something Gollum would not know much about since he lives in the dark, but that Bilbo would be quite acquainted with back at Bag End. In fact, Gollum struggles a bit to answer that riddle. Gollum asks a riddle about the dark, something Gollum is all too familiar with.The point is, that the riddles are not just a plot point, but are an exploration or perhaps a commentary on the respective characters. Gollum initiated the game to find out more about Bilbo, and Bilbo agreed to it to find out more about Gollum.

As the riddle game progresses and nears its end, Bilbo realizes that Gollum is quite dangerous, and Gollum realizes that he is hungry after all. Gollum poses a riddle that Bilbo has trouble answering. Gollum thinks he’s got him, steps out of his boat to get at Bilbo, and a fish jumps out of the water, which turns out to be the answer. Gollum’s next riddle almost stumps Bilbo, but as Bilbo pleads for more time, he inadvertently says the answer and is “saved by pure luck.” If you’ve been paying attention these last few chapters, there is no luck in Tolkien’s world. Is this another example of divine providence in the book? If it is, and you realize what this incident with Gollum and the ring means for the future of Middle-Earth, I think it’s safe to say that we have the best evidence of a helping hand at work here.

The riddle game ends with Bilbo’s question, “What have I got in my pocket?” The rest of this chapter after this question is significantly different than how Tolkien originally wrote it. In the final version, Gollum goes back to his lake island to get his ring, which would make him invisible, to kill Bilbo. After finding out it is lost, and realizing Bilbo has it, he chases him down to kill him. In Tolkien’s original version, Gollum goes to his island to give Bilbo a present, not to be sinister, but to be honorable, because those were the agreements to the game. Gollum lost, so he would give Bilbo a present, i.e. the ring. Unbeknownst to Gollum, Bilbo already has the ring and when Gollum can’t find it, Bilbo asks for another present, the way out. Bilbo extracts two prizes from Gollum despite the agreed upon terms. In fact, originally Gollum was very apologetic at not being able to give Bilbo the ring, so he offers him fish.  In this original version, Gollum is more honorable than Bilbo! Clearly, none of this squared with what would be later written in LOTR about Gollum and the ring, so Tolkien had to go back and revise it all. It is clever how Tolkien does so though, stating that the latest version is what truly happened, but the original version is what Bilbo told everyone initially, so as to keep knowledge of the ring hidden from others, thereby showing the sinister corrupting work that the ring has begun upon Bilbo. A very clever retcon.

Bilbo runs for his life as he realizes Gollum is out to murder him and he trips and falls, but not before he has slipped the ring upon his own finger. Gollum runs right past him, and Bilbo learns of the ring’s invisibility powers. Very convenient for a burglar.

Gollum, always talking with and to himself, reasons that Bilbo does know the way out, and he unwittingly leads Bilbo to an exit. Gollum goes as far as he safely can (there are goblins about), with Bilbo following behind. He stops, leaving Bilbo trapped with Gollum blocking the way to the exit. Gollum can’t see Bilbo, because he’s still invisible. Now Bilbo has a choice, and his mind begins to sort it out. He can easily kill Gollum, thereby essentially gaining his freedom.

But in another act that will have far reaching consequences, Bilbo “suddenly” takes pity on Gollum, decides not to kill him, and leaps over him.

Why does Bilbo take pity on him? I think the text tells us why. First because, if Bilbo were to do so, he would become like Gollum, sneaking about in the dark, killing unsuspectedly. But also because he saw how miserable, lost, and lonely Gollum was. Bilbo’s heart probably, though not fully, went out to Gollum, wishing he could help him. In other circumstances Bilbo might have tried to do so. To see those in a miserable state, even if brought upon their own self, or thrust upon them from outside influences, (as we learn later that this is what the ring has done to Gollum) invites opportunity for compassion. To bring the suffering to a state of joy is the right thing to do and it is the loving thing to do. Bilbo has these thoughts in a split second, and ultimately, it saves the world. Is this not what Jesus did for sinners?

Bilbo makes it past Gollum safely and contends with some goblins, dodging invisibly past them to the partially opened door. He gets stuck in the door and the goblins see his shadow. He squirms and thrusts hard to get out. He gets away, bursting the brass buttons off his coat. These brass buttons are a symbol of his Baggins side, the side that wants to sit in his comfortable hobbit hole and enjoy food and drink. They have now been stripped away, and the Tookish side has finally come out. The old Bilbo, though not completely gone, has been squeezed out amidst turmoil and adventure, and a new buttonless Bilbo emerges from here on.


Over Hill & Under Hill

Leaving the Last Homely House, the company now enters the Wild. Despite trolls, the company has relatively been at ease, facing no serious danger in lands west of the Misty Mountains.

Up the mountains they go, when they are met by a “thunder-battle.” This battle consists of stone giants battling each other, tossing rocks and stones, and smashing them in the mountains below, raining rocks upon the company. Thus, they are required to seek shelter lest they perish, and “luckily” Fili and Kili find a cave nearby. They all rush into it despite Gandalf’s consternation. This incident was inspired by Tolkien’s travels through Switzerland in 1911. In a mountain pass, rocks the sizes of oranges came tumbling down, one crashing down between himself and the companion in front of him. The experience described in this chapter was personal. As is usual, the best fiction is grounded in truth.

The company settles down in the cave and they all fall asleep. Bilbo dreams of a crack appearing in the wall and opening, and as it turns out, his dream becomes reality. This is Bilbo’s second dream in the book, but this one is almost prophetic. Other occurrences of prophetic dreams will show up in Tolkien’s legendarium. In this case, Bilbo wakes up just in time to shout, waking Gandalf who destroys the six goblins attempting to capture him and is not captured himself, thus enabling him to save the company later. But here, for the first time Bilbo is responsible for saving the company because of a dream. Or shall we say, more evidence of divine providence?

The goblins (another term for orcs which is used in LOTR) capture the company and they too sing a song. This is the third consecutive chapter in which we meet a new race. The goblin’s song is harsh, quick, but yet rhythmic. It speaks of work and slavery. In fact, after the song is sung, Tolkien describes the goblins as those that live under ground and work. They almost sound like dwarves, except the dwarves themselves enjoy working and creating, whereas the goblins “make no beautiful things” and “get other people to make their design.” In LOTR and the Silmarillion it is learned that the goblins or orcs, were once elves or elf-like but corrupted by the evil Morgoth. In keeping with his theology, and as expressed by Augustine of Hippo, Tolkien portrayed evil and corruption as no inherent thing in itself, but rather a distortion of good. Evil cannot create anything, but it only corrupts and bends the good and true away from itself for wicked ends.

During the description of the goblins, Tolkien tells us these goblins have a special hatred for Thorin’s people “because of the war which you have heard mentioned.” This was the battle of Moria. Again we get a reference to something outside our immediate story which helps our story feel a part of something larger. This is re-inforced when a goblin holds up Thorin’s sword Orcrist, whom the goblins have named ‘Biter.’ The Great Goblin is enraged at its sight and the other goblins gnash their teeth at it, suggesting it has caused great hurt to their people in the past, and stories of its escapades have been told and passed down. Gandalf shows up with Glamdring and smites the Great Goblin and the company flees.

In these few pages, a few threads established in earlier chapters have now come together. The swords found “accidentally” in the troll hoard are able to be used as a means of rescue because Bilbo had a dream that enabled him to keep their savior (Gandalf) from getting captured. And the swords themselves, hinted at as ancient by Elrond in the previous chapter, are used against the very peoples that have come to despise them. Divine providence and ancient history combine to shape and inform our current narrative.

The story continues as the company flees from the goblins, but not before Bilbo is knocked unconscious. What comes next is perhaps one of, if not the most important chapter in all of The Hobbit and LOTR, though Tolkien didn’t know it at the time.


A Short Rest

Bilbo and company come upon the Last Homely House, Rivendell. It is hidden in the valley, and when they find it, they are greeted by a song. It is the third song so far in the book. The song is playful and merry, and some members of the company, including Bilbo, are mentioned by name. Clearly, the Elves, who are singing this song, knew the company was coming, because Gandalf told them. The song itself invites the company to stay, because it would be foolish for them to continue on their journey in the dark. And so the company comes upon their short rest, fourteen days to be exact.

We meet Elrond. The description of him is regal, but notice the description does not focus on his physical features, but rather upon comparisons of him to other things, such as a king, or a wizard, or as “kind as summer.” We get a feeling of this character, a sense of his personality, which is far more important than what the character looks like. Tolkien knew this and allowed his readers to use their imaginations to craft their own images of his characters. Modern books are so fixated on describing what characters look like, sometimes the authors forget or don’t know how to describe who their characters are.

We also get, I believe, our first explicit reference to Tolkien’s Silmarillion, which at this point in time is not codified, but some of it has already been written. In fact, after the success of The Hobbit, the publisher wanted a sequel and Tolkien submitted the Silmarillion. Thankfully, the publisher wanted more hobbits, so in the long run we got both LOTR and the Silmarillion.

Elrond reads the Thorin’s map. Moon runes are revealed to be written upon it. Moon runes can only be read by the same moonlight in which they were written. The dwarves just happen to show up at a place where someone can read those runes and while that same type of moonlight is shining. But they don’t “just happen” to show up. Here again is another example of divine Providence. There are no coincidences in Tolkien’s world; the dwarves were meant to be at Rivendell at this exact moment.

This chapter is extremely short, but we get glimpses of an ancient past, magic, and prophecies amidst some much needed rest. There are also hints of Bilbo’s fascination with Rivendell and its Elves.  It is fitting that Bilbo decides to come back here at the beginning of LOTR. 

For being such a short chapter, it is a pivotal one. It’s also the last time for quite awhile that the company will have any peaceful respite.



Roast Mutton

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


Review of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

Rating 4/5

Who should read it and why?

Fans of Middle-Earth or fans of great writers will come away with a deep appreciation for the process of writing and all the influences and hardships it entails. Furthermore, there is a gold mine of background information to Lord of the Rings and all of Middle-Earth that even a casual fan will find fascinating.


Well, I have got over 2 thousand words onto this little flimsy airletter; and I will forgive the Mordor-gadgets some of their sins, if they will bring it quickly to you…

Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honour; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy; his failure was redressed.

His final line four days before his death:

It is stuffy, sticky, and rainy here at present- but forecasts are more favorable.


The Letters of Tolkien is a window into the famous philologist, for he was a philologist before he was a prolific writer. From his study and love for words, came the fantasy world of Middle-Earth, with all its races, customs, history and unique names. The Letters provide valuable insights into Tolkien’s writing processes of the Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion, and his other short works. Such insights are usually responses to fan questions, or clarifications on certain items to his publisher. Some hilarity ensues when he lampoons attempted translations of Lord of the Rings, and when he harshly criticizes an animated film treatment sent to him.
But perhaps his best letters are those in which he discusses the divine force in Rings that is never seen, but ever present. The work is no Christian allegory, nor does it parallel Christianity one to one, but Tolkien’s faith informs his writing, even his personal letters, and he explains and exemplifies a wonderful Christian imagination.

Letters is a simple read, though long, and audiences can get into Tolkien’s personal world directly from his pen, instead of secondary critics who usually try to make up things about the author for the sake of publishing a paper. There are a few letters that are quite long and dry because they delve deeply into word studies of elvish names or dwarf history. But they reveal the intricacy and attention to detail that Tolkien had for his work. Something we should all strive for in our own works.

Surprisingly, there are only a few references to his wife Edith, (whom he called Luthien) and no letters to her at all. Whether this is an editorial choice or a telling aspect of the private nature of Tolkien, I am not sure. Regardless, I am grateful for this collection, primarily as a writer, and a Middle-Earth fan.


An Unexpected Party

In which I begin my commentary and analysis of the Hobbit. But first, some quick background.

I first read The Hobbit when I was in seventh or eighth grade. My teacher told us to pick a book and read it. So I picked The Hobbit. I don’t remember why I picked it, maybe it was from a list I was given or maybe I liked the cover design. That in itself is absolutely horrible, because there was a chance I may never have read it. What a shame that would have been, and to me that’s a symptom of the poor quality of public school education in relation to literature. That’s another story.

The Hobbit is a children’s book and written for children, but it is also a fairy story. More on that later. It was begun in 1930 as almost a scribble on the back of an exam paper that Tolkien was grading. The tone of the beginning of the book is playful, witty, and bordering on childishness unbecoming of the Tolkien widely known for the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien would later make several revisions, mostly minor, to bring the tone of the book more in line with the Lord of the Rings. He even at one point, began rewriting the entire book to make it more “adult”, a project he wisely abandoned. The current revision, that most people will read today, is from 1966, and it provides notes on specific edits made. The most significant, of course, is the change of  Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum, re-written to better sync up with the Lord of the Rings. The revision of this encounter is quite significant from a character and thematic standpoint which I will touch upon later. For now, let us dive into the story.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

This opening is famous, I think, because its economy of words invites the reader into an odd sort of world. What is a hobbit? Why does it live in a hole?  The sentence instantly grabs our attention with unfamiliar and yet familiar elements. All good stories do this.

The story then proceeds to tell us who this hobbit who lives at Bag End is. But we are interrupted by the Narrator, who responds to a question that comes out of nowhere, a question we as the reader probably had ourselves. This gives us a little clue about this peculiar book. What is written here seems quite awkward written down, but not so awkward if the story was read aloud, especially read aloud to children, since children like to interrupt and ask all sorts of questions. Tolkien did read his stories to his children, and I think Tolkien wants us to read his story aloud to our own children.

We are finally introduced to this hobbit’s name, Bilbo Baggins. And Tolkien tells us about this hobbit through his ancestry. His father was a Baggins, a family of quiet non-adventurous types whom were well respected among other hobbits. But his mother was a Took, a family who took adventures and therefore was not well respected among other hobbits. (The line about a ‘fairy’ in the family tree doesn’t mean a Tinkerbell was part of the family. Rather, fairy is another word for elf.) Tolkien was deft in crafting genealogies for varying races, creating rich histories and backstories. Here he uses that skill to describe and give competing motivations for the central character. These two family traits will serve as the internal struggle that Bilbo has to deal with throughout the entire book, whether to go on adventures, or live a quiet normal life.

Then for the first time we meet Gandalf the Grey, though he is not called that here, nor is he all in grey. His first words to Bilbo are a bit shocking and comical I think, and set up a joke a few paragraphs down in which the same words can have the exact opposite meaning depending on the context. At first, Bilbo said “good morning” to greet Gandalf, then later he says “good morning” to get rid of him!

A little later in the conversation we see Bilbo’s internal struggle come out just a little bit, when he gets excited about all the uncommon things Gandalf can do, but then he calms himself down and blames Gandalf for all the havoc he has caused, echoing the label “disturber of the peace” that Frodo would later call him. Gandalf then solicits Bilbo on going on an adventure. Bilbo rushes inside saying no thanks, but not before he invites him to tea. That little act right there is common in fairy stories: good manners. Remember C, this is a book for kids, so the main character should have good manners. But Bilbo even asks himself, “Why did I invite him for tea?” I think there is something else going on within the story and I will touch on it in the next chapter. We see polite manners from Bilbo again when he lets the multitude of dwarves into his home, though he is not quite happy about it. In fact, we get an explicit reference of minding your manners when Kili and Fili show up. The manners, the odd narrator, the playful comedy (notice the joke about golf later on), and the songs later in the chapter, immediately set the tone of the book, a tone that would drastically change by its end and already hints at this change in this chapter.

We are introduced to all of the dwarves and all of their names sound alike except for one, Thorin. It is interesting that his name is completely different from the rest of the dwarves. Three times Tolkien shows or tells us that Thorin is “someone important.” Later we find out that he is a King, (though at the moment with no realm to reign). Thorin is almost portrayed as a jerk, and sometimes he is, but to Americans, I think it is difficult for us to understand that monarchy holds a special place in British society. Not that kings and queens are better than other people, but that their position and authority is set apart, regal, majestic, and something to be respected. This is very important to Tolkien as an Englishman, and perhaps more so as a Christian, knowing that king and queens are just reflections of the King of Kings, the one that deserves all reverence. This theme will be explored more fully with Aragon in LOTR.

The dwarves sing two songs in this chapter. The first is playful and kind of corny. After they eat, they sing a second song, and this time it gets a bit dark, with descriptions of dragon fire decimating a mountain and a town. The verse here is wonderful, very descriptive and yet suitable for singing. During the song, Bilbo’s Tookishness comes out briefly before his Baggins side returns and squashes all desires of adventure. But also another desire in Bilbo begins to stir, the “desire of the hearts of dwarves.” While not explicit, I think this may be a veiled reference to “the dragon sickness” that sickness of greed that has already gripped the dragon, and I think, has already begun to grip the dwarves, especially Thorin. We learn of the dwarf’s desire to reclaim their home from the dragon, but also to reclaim their stolen treasure. So in one sense, their entire quest is motivated by greed. And we will see what consequences that will have.

Thorin begins to tell everyone (including us the reader) what the purpose of their visit is. He begins with describing a perilous journey in which none may return from, which sends Bilbo into a fearsome shriek. Here Tolkien prolongs the explanation of the dwarf’s visit by interjecting a character moment with a trait of Bilbo’s he has already established, in order to keep us the reader in suspense which forces us to keep reading. It really is masterful at pulling the reader into the story, instead of pushing the story at the reader.

After Bilbo recovers from his shriek and “puts his foot in it” the plan to get to the mountain is described. Lots of locations are mentioned and you have to marvel a little bit at how Tolkien crafts a world with just names (he was a philologist after all). Tolkien would frequently drop a name in the middle of a conversation between two of his characters, knowing full well its backstory and history, but we the audience may never learn about it, unless we read his other works. These name drops would create the feeling of a world and a history outside the immediate context of the characters we are following, and generate a sense of scale, wonder, and intrigue that would help the reader to feel like they are experiencing a real live place. With the assistance of maps, and consistent descriptions of places in relation to other places, a reader can know the geography and terrain of a fictional location as well as they know the streets to their own neighborhood. When geography is combined with the history that occurred at that geographical location, a culture is created, and the foundations of world building have begun. Tolkien was one of the first, if not the first, to build a fictional world at an incredible level of detail and sophistication. All modern world building, such as comic books and other fantasy series, take their cues from Tolkien.

Finally we hear the story about Thorin and his father and grandfather, the dragon, the gold, how the mountain was lost, how the dwarves were defeated and why they have not decided to go back to the mountain until now. We also get a quick reference to the Necromancer. And the chapter ends with Bilbo once again, struggling with his Took and Baggins sides, and whether he will stay home, or go on an adventure.