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.