The nature of the blogs I’m going to be doing as part of my Tolkien quest will not be a review in the traditional sense. I feel the need to state that up front for those who’ll read this. Rather, these will be about my engagement with the story, what I see, what I get out of it, what I’ve assimilated from the likes of Corey Olsen and Michael D.C. Drout, that sort of thing. My thoughts here will be largely disconnected and maybe a bit stream of consciousness in an effort to merely get them out there and solidified for further consideration.
The first thing I’m always aware of when I read The Hobbit is that the narrator in the story is Bilbo himself, revealed at the end of the book to be writing down the tale in his Red Book of Westmarch. It makes for a curious interpretation of the whole story, but it also means the narrator is more or less reliable. It also explains the Bilbo-centric point of view throughout.
Most of the story where Bilbo is concerned can be portrayed as a struggle between his Baggins side and his Took side, the two aspects of his family heritage being very different. As we see in this first chapter, the Took side is winning, which is what sets him out on the adventure.
There has to be a distinction made up front between an adventure and a quest. The Hobbit is an adventure. Bilbo’s participation in it, though chosen and coerced, is ultimately voluntary, and he will return from it largely unchanged. Conversely, The Lord of the Rings is a quest. Frodo will be called to do something he very much does not want a part of, and how he answers the call will change him forever. So with The Hobbit, Bilbo’s adventure is more about seeing the world and interacting with it rather than saving it. To the dwarves in his party… it’s a quest, and they are reclaiming and saving that which they hold most dear.
The Arkenstone, the object of their quest, is sometimes considered by fans and scholars to be one of the Silmarils. Tolkien never made that connection, but Tolkien left a great many things vague and open-ended. Once I learned of the connection, I’ve been hard-pressed not to see it. That kind of connection is what I will be looking for throughout this reading of the book.
The Arkenstone is also a correlation to the Ark, aka the Lost Ark of the Covenant. The dwarves in this story are synonymous with the Jewish people, who are exiled from their homeland and seek to reclaim their treasure and their heritage in their travels. By this logic, the dragon Smaug could be seen as Pharaoh or the entire nation of Egypt, hoarding riches and wielding great and terrible power. This would, of course, make Thorin Oakenshield a Moses figure of sorts. As the dwarves are not created by Eru, they are secondary creations to elves and men. I blogged before that this could be seen as anti-semitic on Tolkien’s part, but Tolkien himself acknowledges the struggles of the Jewish people as part of the road to Christianity. Their quest, led by their Moses, organized and directed by an angel (Gandalf), will incorporate the underdog as the last member of their company. Bilbo as an allegory for David? That would seem to make Smaug into Goliath. We know Tolkien doesn’t do 1:1 correlation, so that’s not an unreasonable assumption, but it doesn’t feel right to me either. I tend to think of Bard the Bowman as the more likely David, striking down Goliath and leading his people to a better life. Perhaps that’s a too literal translation for Tolkien. And geez it is difficult for me to focus on just the first chapter. I wonder why that is?
The poem “Far over the misty mountains cold” is our first poetic bit of worldbuildng. I don’t think I ever fully appreciated this before, but after Peter Jackson’s version, I also can’t get out of my mind just how freakin’ cool it sounds in that version. That extra layer of cultural texture really makes a difference. I’m making a concerted effort to really explore these poems throughout Tolkien’s text for this entire read. This one repeats the first stanza, which is a statement of purpose and obstacles that need to be overcome. Not being people accustomed to seeing the heavens as they live underground, their light comes from the gold and jewels they mine and that which they craft from these riches. It’s why the Arkenstone is their prized possession. If it is a silmaril, then it fell from heaven, and it becomes the standard to which they aspire in their efforts. The modern equivalent, one could claim, is perhaps in people who try to create artificial intelligence using the divinely-constructed biological human mind as the standard. The point is to emulate that higher resource as much as possible, even though in both cases neither the human mind nor the Arkenstone can truly be fully comprehended. So in mining and crafting with gold and jewels, they recreate the jewels and light of the heavens in the materials at hand. The difference is that the heavens are there for everyone to admire. Being underground and denied heaven, the dwarves are possessive and secretive. Their creations are for them alone, hidden away from the eyes of others. That a dragon has claimed it all for himself is the equivalent of a demon laying claim to heaven and booting out the angels.
Smaug is not depicted in this poem. He is depersonalized and made into a faceless evil. The focus is on the desolation and the victims. That the poem also spells out that the dwarves want vengeance lends an air of darkness to this mission. Thorin will at some point succumb to the dragon-sickness, as it’s called, his greed and ambition rivaling that of Smaug himself. Of course we can’t know that in chapter 1, but we can see the writing on the wall. As Carrie Fisher once said, seeking vengeance is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. So in many ways, to redeem the company of dwarves and to keep their quest righteous they will need an outside influence to anchor them. Who better than Gandalf to find such an anchor for them?
Continuing with the connections, I want to look at Gandalf for just a moment to really fix his origins in my mind for this. Gandalf is the mover and shaker of Middle-Earth to my mind, and there are fundamental truths that surround him. Knowing his identity is itself a truth of sorts. As this is all about connecting back to The Silmarillion, gathering his identity together is all-important. His original name is Olorin, and he has been known variously as Mithrandir, the grey wanderer, the white pilgrim, and a few other names. He is one of the Istari (wizards), the second of five to be exact, a Maiar (or angel) sent to council the peoples of Middle-Earth against the forces of Sauron. He was afraid of Sauron, and part of his original purpose was to overcome that fear. We know from the “Rhyme of the Ring” there are “Three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky.” Upon coming to Middle-Earth, Olorin took the name Gandalf and became keeper of the ring of fire, called Narya, from Cirdan the Shipwright. He learned from the elves, who walked Arda before the formation of the sun and the moon, and they from him in turn. So to the mortal races, Gandalf appears as old as he looks, but to the immortal elves, Gandalf is perhaps the young upstart, at least where matters of the physical realm are concerned.
As I’ve grown up, one of my many deep-seated fascinations has become Angelology. My study of Tolkien, and Gandalf in particular, has really changed as a result of making that connection some years back. Knowing Tolkien to have rooted this world deep within his faith and traditions, I am forced to wonder how far into the angelic studies the professor might have gone. We know he translated many religious texts, but Angelology is subversive like that. What we know about angels largely comes from secular fiction, not from religious texts. Religious texts are the absolute worst possible sources for angelic lore, aside from The Books of Enoch. Then again, it really doesn’t take much to fuel the idea, does it? I don’t suppose that would matter much to a storyteller like Tolkien, so long as the inspiration was there.
By the time we make it into the Third Age where this story begins, Gandalf is well-known even among the hobbits as a troublemaker. Gandalf and Bilbo could not be more polar opposite in stature and nature, right down to their smoke rings. The opening scene where the two meet and discuss the meaning of “Good morning” is the scene I first fell in love with Middle-Earth. To this day, it’s one of those scenes that burns in my mind and makes me smile. This scene and indeed the entire opening chapter set the tone for the entire book, which for its time was written as a children’s book. It was only while writing The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien’s fairy tale turned into something far darker and more adult. This being the case, it’s important while drawing connections to everything else in the canon, it’s also important to keep The Hobbit‘s separate identity and enjoy it on its own merits, with those connections I’m looking for being secondary to the overall intent.
Have I already defeated that idea? Maybe, but we’ll see.
I’ve certainly defeated the idea of taking one chapter at a time here. That could be beginning of quest overwhelm too. I always approach Tolkien with the idea that I’ve bitten off far more than I can chew. Once I settle into this, it’ll work out. It always does.
I think the biggest takeaway in this first chapter, above and beyond the setup of the story and the mission to Erebor is the establishment of exactly what Bilbo represents as a hobbit. Tolkien has referred to himself as a hobbit many times, and in a lot of ways I see Tolkien in Bilbo’s Baggins side. There’s no real wish to travel because all you need is abundant right where you are. There’s an enjoyment in the simple things of life, such as food, drink, pipes, and friends. Family is important, though Bilbo struggles to enjoy them as such. The politics of the Shire is simply that they elect a mayor whose chief function is to organize festivals. Bilbo himself, however, is prone to the call of his Tookish side. He has mapped out his favorite walks, and he envisions the idea of trading his walking stick with a sword. I see a lot of myself in that idea, in the days before I actually held a sword and learned to use it. The reality is always considerably different than the idea of it. For Bilbo, it’s not about actually engaging in a battle, but rather just the excitement of adventure. He doesn’t consider goblins, wargs, or dragons. When he does think of danger, he shrieks like a little girl and retreats back to the idea of a mundane hobbit life and all that implies. Pride is what eventually pushes his Tookish side into the adventure. He wants to be taken seriously as a fierce individual. But it’s not the idea of being a coward that spurs him on. It’s the comparisons drawn between himself, a hobbit of means, and those of the lower class, such as a grocer.
To me, this is fascinating. Nobility, it’s said, is a state of heart and of mind, not a state of birth. The dwarves have very little in this world, for all of it was taken from them, but Thorin Oakenshield is a noble leader. Bilbo is clearly rich, but he’s now in a position to need to prove his nobility to those outside of his known realm who do not see his personal majesty or cannot for whatever reason. Bilbo has no reckoning of the kind of wealth the dwarves have known, and his measure of the dwarves is skewed by such assessment. That Bilbo actually cares about the opinions of outsiders is curious. That he thinks he needs to live up to Gandalf’s recommendation of his expertise as a burglar is ludicrous. And that Gandalf used Bilbo’s family line as a point of comparison to get under his skin is sheer genius. Gandalf is making Bilbo question his very identity, which as a middle-aged hobbit, he thought he understood well.
In some ways, as naïve as Bilbo is, he is very much like the children for whom this book is written. The idea is not to burden kids with darkness and to snuff out their wonder. Rather, it is to introduce them to the darker elements of life that they may grow in their wonder with wisdom and dignity. That’s a profound message from a man who faced the darkness of World War I head-on and lost so many friends to it.