Even though it’s not Middle-Earth, there’s another famous opening line that I always think about when embarking on anything of time or substance. Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece Dune tells us:
“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.”
I think it can be said that there is nothing delicate or balanced about how this adventure begins, and that lack of foundation will affect the party, and Bilbo especially, all the way to the end. That’s just the nature of the beast. The big push to getting Bilbo out the door and on the road should logically come down to his Took side overwhelming or overriding his Baggins side. It’s curious that Bilbo doesn’t know how it happened, even looking back on the event to the end of his days. It’s like he just snapped. As a result, he’s unprepared, and neither side of him is satisfied. He has no hat, no handkerchief, no clothes, no coat or cloak… nothing. Before he steps out, he cleans up, and it’s like he’s forgotten the reality of the night before completely. But Gandalf has a way of turning history on a pin just by showing up. His very presence moves subtle pieces in big ways. And so, Bilbo finds himself on the road with the dwarves, and he’s actually looking forward to it.
The dwarves help to outfit Bilbo, and with everything outsized and mismatched, Bilbo is trying to dress as one of them, and yet sticks out like a sore thumb. He’ll never be one of them. The same holds true in regards to the adventure itself. He’s on an adventure, they’re on a quest. He’s an outsider, so they don’t respect him, and yet he will prove his mettle at nearly every turn and surprise even himself. And yet, how can we take them seriously? They’re the smiths and metal workers, and not one of them has a weapon? Where are their swords and hammers? By Gandalf’s recommendation, Bilbo’s the only professional adventurer in the party. The rest of them prove even more unprepared when night rolls around. They can’t even get a fire started. Everyone’s miserable.
Speaking of beginnings, this is also the chapter where we see Bilbo’s first attempt at being a burglar. He’s actually successful at it too, mostly. It’s hardly his fault the purse he swipes alerts on him. Who expects that to happen, ever? Then when the dwarves move in and get captured, who rescues them? Bilbo does, of course – “the greatest little hobbit of them all,” according to Leonard Nimoy. I used to wonder all the time where Gandalf kept going, but since learning about his background as an angel, I’ve come to understand it’s not that he’s gone, it’s that he’s simply watching over and letting the heroes rise to the occasion where they must. As a wizard, he could do all of this himself. That would defeat the point, which I’ll explain later.
The trolls are of interest to me. Tolkien could use them to be as scary as hell if he so chose. But the narrator goes on to point out how comical they are, citing that, yes, he’s afraid trolls really do behave that way. Pay no attention to how bloodthirsty and vicious they are. Their manners are atrocious! Even Bilbo plays along the entire time, and that stall for time proves to be their undoing. If this isn’t the most kid-friendly introduction to a menace of death ever, I don’t know what is. It’s a device he’ll use time and again in this book. Related, the trolls exhibit the dichotomy of light and dark in Middle-Earth. The beings of good and evil play on this dichotomy. The trolls turn to stone if the daylight hits them. The goblins/orcs are mockeries of the elves who cannot operate by daylight (contrary to the film depictions). Gollum is driven to the darkness. Smaug dwells in the deep darkness of Erebor. Sauron himself, the Dark Lord of the Rings, covers the land in darkness. In light, there is knowledge, there is hope, there is life itself. And this is where the dwarves are caught in that weird limbo by virtue of their lesser creation status. They can be in the light, they prefer the dark, and they try to recreate light in their workings. The symbolism is thick enough to chew.
Likewise, as pointed out, the trolls are undone by their own nature. Greed and their argumentative nature stalls for time as they are consumed by daylight. Greed will factor big into every major fall in Middle-Earth. Smaug’s greed knows no bounds, and chasing after that tiny bit that was “stolen” from him will be his undoing. Gollum will overreach himself in desperate greed of the ring, and the same goes for Boromir for entirely different reasons. Saruman and Sauron will both be betrayed by the greed of power poured into their own creations. It’s all part of the Tolkienesque concept of “eucatastophe.” It’s the idea that there are unseen forces at work that conspire to undo wickedness at its source and helping heroes along in the process, and I think this is what Gandalf is a part of when he steps back to let Bilbo take center stage. For the greater good to work out, all beings at all levels must have a hand in it. Gandalf just sets the pieces into motion and lets them do what they do best. This point above all is why I love Tolkien. It speaks to the better part of us all, a higher faith, and the promise of brighter days. Who can’t use that in abundance?