“- it is a long tale.” The Hobbit [illustrated edition, c1966: 3rd printing] p.129.
I first read Tolkien’s little book around 1974, the paperback edition, prior to buying this handsome Houghton Mifflin hardbound. Though I have frequently dipped into random sections of The Lord of the Rings – enthralled anywhere I land – his delightful prequel of a tale becomes the first full length literary book I have read through a second time. (I do not count rereads of the Bible in my youth when the Revised Standard Version updated the King James or the favorites among the Oz books I read again in 2000 upon the centennial of The Wizard.)
Tolkien held a strange attraction for me at the start. The Ballantine paperbacks appeared in the racks of even the smallest bookstores along University Avenue when I was a grad student at UW-Madison. I bought the three-part LotR out of sheer curiosity, but the immensity of it daunted me and I could not start. Then I found The Hobbit, read it quickly and that little adventure propelled me into the rest.
The memory of my first enjoyable read more than a third of a century ago has gaps in detail. In fact, I had misremembered the Battle of the Five Armies as a debacle of concentric circles far from the case. The details of Bilbo’s discovery of the ring and encounter with the riddling Gollum stuck with me in far greater impact. Likely, the clever vividness of the characters’ interchange in that scene made the difference. I had to savor the life and death game at once and immediately read it over, the second time aloud, catching even the diction of “what has it got in its pocketses.”
[Bilbo] knew, of course, that the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it’ (VI, p.90).
Mostly, I remember this peculiar adventure as the setting that reflected that overarching greater imagined world of grace, menace and sense of longevity in the midst of ages past and ages to come. The mysteries of myth had caught me since I began to read expansively for myself in the third grade. Yet not until my early thirties, had I found any author who could script the imagined world better than J.R.R. Tolkien. He proved better than Pyle, Grahame, Colum, Graves and all the rest of the fantasists I had read in my childhood and youth.
Tolkien reels out language in The Hobbit at the start as if he is talking to you directly, telling the privileged tale he knows as if you are having a relaxing, but intimate conversation. It seems both prosaic and modest for awhile, and befuddled. Suddenly the word “wuthered” pops up, “Bilbo rushed along the passage, very angry and altogether bewildered and bewuthered …” (I, p. 18). Has Tolkien revived some archaism or added a Hobbit word of his own? Without stopping to look it up, I think I know what it means. Never mind, I am in Hobbit land, and there are many more deft expressions to come – lade, leant, throve, gammers, drear, gledes – only to be outdone by grand staples of song and formal salutation. “His harp shall be restrung” (X, p.210). “May your shadow never grow less” (XVIII, p.306).
By such dressing in words and phrases, but mostly in Tolkien’s cadences, the place of dwarves and dragons seduces us and enchants us. We are with him in the imagined place.
[The dwarves] saw that he had some wits, as well as luck and a magic ring – and all three are very useful possessions (VII, p.177).
Re-reading this tale awakens me to appreciate Tolkien’s craft consciously this time that by his deceptive simplicity so completely absorbed me at the first. He intrigued me then, but enlightens me now. What seemed to have so little verisimilitude almost four decades ago stands today as marvelously prescient and continually timely.
I am no Hobbit with furry feet, yet I resonate with Bilbo. The Tookish side of me centers in the honed practice of questions. Just as with Bilbo, I remain cautious of adventure and aim to minimize risks. Yet challenges and conflicts happen, unavoidably and despite wishing otherwise, and when they threaten life with dire consequences, I as anyone must try to meet them. The prominent evils of Middle Earth – dragons, the Necromancer, black wizards – I take as metaphors for all discord that daunts us today – the very self lost to greed, the duplicitous flight from reason and conversation, every breakdown in the association that composes our essential humanity.
I recall being disappointed all those years ago that Bilbo does not receive his just recognition and rewards, but that is never the case and far from it as this tale unfolds. Bilbo has lapses, often when passed out and events flow over him. However, everything intended of and by him he does accomplish. He defeats trolls, goblins, and the ruinous dragon Smaug. Still the preeminent triumph comes at the end.
After more than six decades of reading wide and deep, I have found all those plots that hinge on stupidity and deficient characters who fail their potential unworthy of further notice. From Vanity Fair, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Kitty Foyle and onwards, I cannot bear them. Thanks to Kate Wilhelm’s comments in Storyteller, I have found the dramatic use of tension preferable to contentious conflict and resolution within the reader as more satisfactory than the story itself.
So: what is The Hobbit really about?
It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations … (XII, p. 229).
The dwarves led by Thorin co-opt Bilbo to join them in the recovery of their treasure: the wizard Gandalf has told them that such a burglar as Bilbo will secure their success. Bilbo, while irresistibly intrigued, remains reluctant as his habit, so intrinsically a homebody who prefers his routine comforts. Nevertheless, the company rushes Bilbo along into their midst even as he often regrets it, suffers cold and hunger, and wishes fervently to be back home.
Accidents of events advance the telling due to the overarching issues of the menacing dragon and his storied displacement of the King under the Mountain – Thorin’s grandfather – two generations before. Smaug acquired their gold and other baubles and devastated the neighboring lands that included destruction of the community of Dale. Smaug, once in possession of the treasure, seems to retire to an ominous slumber coiled upon the mound of precious metals and jewels. His foul presence penetrates the whole environment so even the water out of Lonely Mountain runs black.
In due time, Bilbo begins to steal from the dragon, wakes Smaug and so riles him that he smashes the secret second gate where the dwarves gained entrance. Smaug goes on to wreck the lake town of Esgaroth whose boatmen had aided the dwarves to reach Lonely Mountain. The archers of Esgaroth resist Smaug’s attack as best they can. Captain Bard, informed by a knowing thrush as to Smaug’s weak spot, hits that mark with his last arrow and brings the worm to its death, sunk forever into the lake.
Thus, Bilbo brought about, albeit indirectly, both the end of the slimy dragon and the ruin of an innocent town with its many citizens – women and children included. Thereby the dwarves reclaim their gold. Alas, the survivors of Esgaroth led by Bard also claim recompense and are ready to do battle for it.
And so this tale, drawn out by circumstance and misadventure, falls to one more necessary encounter. From the Misty Mountains and foreboding Mirkwood, trolls, goblins and wargs (dark ravenous wolves) advance in enmity on the dwarves and filled with lust for their gold. On the other side princely Elrond brings his levies of elfin bowmen in sympathy with the lake men as does Dain of the Iron Hills and his dwarves in alliance to their beleagured kin. In the face of mutual enemies, elves, men, and dwarves join as allies though the dwarf Thorin previously refused to share any treasure. Battle joins between the good and evil sides accounting for many losses all around. At last the tide turns when the golden eagles arrive and cast down the goblin forces.
Amidst this tumult, Bilbo as resident burglar accounts for a pivotal twist in the essential story. He had taken for himself the Arkenstone, the brilliant gem of all gems, long before mined by the dwarves from the center of the Mountain. Given the disagreement over sharing the treasure, Bilbo gave the precious stone, most treasured by Thorin over all else, to Bard as his due. When reported to Thorin, the King rejects Bilbo from the dwarves midst with no other reward than the armor on his back. Relationships turn again, as Thorin lies dying from his deep battle wounds.
“Farewell, good thief,” he said. “I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed. Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friendship from you, and would take back my words and deeds at the Gate.” (XVIII, p.300)
With Thorin dead, and his two nephews, Fili and Kili, with him, all previous agreements for sharing the treasure expire. Dain now becomes King under the Mountain. Bard returns the Arkenstone to Thorin’s body as it rests in state, and Dain gives Bard a fourteenth share of the treasure as well as sharing out other portions. To Bilbo, he gives a chest of silver and a chest of gold plus the ponies to carry them.
Now the northern world would be merrier for many a long day (XVIII, p.305).
Bilbo makes a slow and restful return home arriving more than a year after his departure. He finds his house crowded with bargain hunters at an auction sale of his possessions since Hobbitland presumed him dead and his cousins are ready to take over the property. Years must pass before he is able to prove his identity – though not convincingly to all – and to buy back his household goods. He is ever generous to his nephews and nieces.
Afterward, Gandalf and the friendly dwarf Balin visit Bilbo to reminisce over old times and hear how things are going in the lands of the Mountain.
“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.
“Of course!” said Gandalf. … “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?” (XVIII, p.317)
“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!” (XVIII, p.301)
Copyright © 2011 by Roger Sween.
I welcome comments on this review. Send personal notes to me at my email address.