An Unexpected Party
It’s probably one of the most famous opening lines in literary history. It has been covered and dissected endlessly. ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit’. It is arresting because it poses so many questions. The reader wants to know what a Hobbit is, and the first page of the book does an excellent job satisfying the initial curiosity.
It is interesting that the ‘in’ on this invented species is where it lives. Its home, a ‘hole in the ground’. There are a few riffs here that I think are noteworthy. The establishment of the usual perception of what a hole in the ground is like ‘dirty, smelly etc. Followed by the explanation that it in fact means quite the opposite, it is comfortable and really rather decadent. In the first page of the book the theme of duality is present. How one thing can have many sides (or at least two) and that things might be a lot more than they seem or than people could assume from initial impressions.
The role of ‘home’ is hugely pivotal. It’s mentioned endlessly throughout, usually when our hero is uncomfortable, home is always used as the benchmark for comfort and safety.
As part of the description of the hallway lots of pegs are mentioned and the hobbit’s liking for guests is commented upon, something that will be sorely tested later in the chapter.
We are told that ‘this hobbit’, is ‘very well to do’. Which by the description of his home should be quite obvious. Especially the comment about him having rooms full of clothes and that ‘the hill’ HIS hill was known to people for many miles around. It is like a rural village that knows where the local manor house is. It is very easy to assume that ‘very well to do’ in fact means ‘vastly wealthy’. Another nod in support of this supposition is that everyone deemed them ‘very respectable’ but not just because they were rich, because they were stable and never did anything unexpected. Never went on adventures.
The narrator then defines the story as one that goes against this general expectation. That it is about a Baggins that DOES go on an adventure. There is an interesting switch up in the narrative, it is where the narrator speaks directly to the reader and breaks the fourth wall. This happens a few times along the way and is part of what gives the book its lighthearted tone. It also reflects the story’s original conception, a tale to be told aloud to children.
We get a short family history that is pivotal to the duality of Bilbo. It is explained that his mother was a ‘Took’ from another well known family from across the water. But this family had a different reputation, they did go on adventures, there was something odd about them. The mention of an ancestor taking a ‘fairy wife’ is notable. It’s most likely a turn of phrase rather than a suggestion that hobbits and elves ever mated.
So in the first few pages Bilbo is defined as a Baggins and a Took. One side respectable and boring, the other adventurous and strange (at least to most hobbits with the same mind as the Bagginses). These are the two sides of his personality that battle each other throughout his adventure.
Then ‘Gandalf came by’. There is a lot of suggestion that he has a varied career but there is no immediate mention of his true nature, you might think he is simply a wanderer of some sort. The most telling clue is the intimation that he was a friend with Bilbo’s Father-in-law the Old Took… This comment is made shortly after defining the Tooks as the most adventurous and strange of Hobbits.
One of my favourite parts in this first chapter is Tolkien making his linguistic and philological jests. It’s the ‘Good Morning’ passage where Gandalf questions what the Hobbit’s meaning is beyond the simple greeting it most likely was. This is another case of something that is assumed upon the surface to be a nicety, or an automatic function being questioned and probed for depth. Gandalf is telling us here, right at the beginning that assumptions and ‘how things generally are’ might not be so if you take the time to look closer and think. To broaden that out you could say it is a statement of intent for the story itself, to not simply be another ‘fairy tale’ even though on first impressions it is presented as such.
Gandalf offers that he is looking for someone to share in an adventure. Bilbo comments that they are ‘nasty disturbing uncomfortable things,’ once again drawing the comparison to the comforts he is enjoying at the time outside his opulent home while smoking a big pipe of tobacco. And the text actually SAYS it’s tobacco, although the thought of a community of perpetually stoned Hobbits is fun, it is never truly suggested that ‘pipe-weed’ is anything else. It’s also funny to see how much this dates the text, as smoking is heavily prevalent throughout, in what is a story aimed at children. How things move on! Of course at the time it was simply a part of life, children would have seen their parents smoking and thought nothing of the characters in their stories doing likewise.
We get to the revelation of precisely who Gandalf is after Bilbo gets uncomfortable and cross with him. He begins to list all sorts of tales he has stored away in his memory connected to the name, he quite runs away with himself. It is revealing that he has such stories so close to the surface of his mind. He ends by cutting himself off just as he’s about to call all this adventuring ‘interesting’. The first little suggestion that the Tookish part of Bilbo’s makeup is alive and well under all his pomp and propriety.
Gandalf makes the decision that Bilbo will do very well for his adventure and frightens the Hobbit back into his house where he runs to the pantry for solace, as Hobbits are apt to do. Bilbo is betrayed by his politeness though. He automatically invites the wizard to tea after refusing the offer of an adventure. I wonder if Gandalf would have turned up regardless of the invitation?
I love the little note in the text that Bilbo ‘didn’t remember things very well’ in reference to the tea invitation to Gandalf. I can’t recall if it comes up again in general, but I’ll be keeping an eye out on this read through. It’s possible it is simply a throw away turn of phrase rather than a seriously intended character trait.
Of course when the door bell does sound it is not Gandalf at all, but a Dwarf. Even though the hobbit is surprised his social sensibilities remain intact and he plays the good host.
And the scene begins to unroll as more Dwarves arrive (and yes that is the correct spelling, Tolkien was rather particular on its plural).
A short note about the Dwarves here that I always missed on my original readings and it is mostly to do with outside interpretations and adaptations. If you focus on the descriptions of the Dwarves in the text they are described much differently to how they have been rendered in other media. The most striking differences would be in the modern films I suppose. But in the fantasy genre in general, Dwarves are warlike, armed and armoured, violent and short tempered.
Here we have the Dwarves being described by certain physical characteristics, notably the colours of their beards (it seems assumed that they all HAVE beards) which range from blue to yellow with a mention of white, and the colours of their hoods.
They also bring luggage with them. Spades and tools are noted specifically. Once the party is in full swing, the Dwarves have had their first meal and helped Bilbo tidy up (with the help of a mean-spirited song) they suddenly draw instruments from somewhere? Fiddles, flutes, clarinets, a drum, ‘viols as big as themselves’ and Thorin’s golden harp.
There are a few points to make here. These Dwarves are not soldiers. They are not fighters and adventurers. There is no mention of weaponry, there is plenty of references to food, and music. They are cultured and have a liking for comfort, not unlike the Hobbit.
The other point is that these instruments are not mentioned again in the story (I think) and I find it difficult to imagine that Dwalin and Balin (The oldest) would carry viols as large as themselves all the way across the wild on an adventure.
It is, of course, a story and Tolkien wanted music and song at his party. It is a loophole that only pedants like myself will happily pull at.
The song the Dwarves sing, and Tolkien transcribes, is a perfect scene setter for the story, it is very classy exposition. It was tempting when I was younger to skip parts of the poetry in these books, but if you stick with it, most of them are present for very good reason, it isn’t window dressing.
This one tells of the Dwarves former lives of peace and of craft. It explains their displacement from their home by by a dragon. It tells of their hope to return and reclaim their land.
The Dwarves are refugees. They are making a living wherever they can however they can. Their skills and their culture are all they have of their former home.
Bilbo was lost in the song, ‘something Tookish woke up inside him’. The fascinating thing I find about this side of Bilbo is how it is stirred in him by stories. There is a romanticism about it, a love of narrative and legend. In this world stories are more than entertainment, they are history. They are how cultures remember their past, stories, poetry and song. Much like the middle ages where most people could not write or read. Learning was through speech and interaction.
Thorin is given his moment to be rather pompous and important. The part I like most about this scene is that the Dwarves and Gandalf have obviously conspired in the recruitment of Mr. Baggins. Or more likely Gandalf has told the Dwarves that he has already agreed to go with them. They refer to him as such. There is a chapter later on where this exact trick is used again by Gandalf to curry favour with another, more dangerous character.
The Baggins side reasserts itself quite firmly as soon as the realities and danger of any possible adventure trumps the romanticised version he conjures in his head. The Dwarves pick up on this and it is clear they have doubts about him being suitable.
We get a little bit of Hobbit history with the fun invention of golf. This seems to be one of those little threads that go nowhere or do nothing apart from expand the depth of the fictional world.
Another interesting prompt to bring out Bilbo’s Took side is when others chose to underestimate him. When Gloin questions his suitability ‘the Took side had won’ and he gives a very good and bold account of himself. Something he would regret many times later on.
In the end Gandalf gets on his high horse. It is clear he has chosen Bilbo and dares the dwarves to disagree with his judgement. This is the first instance we see that the Dwarves, in general, are excellent complainers but very low on actual action or decision making. They are like a group of middle-managers. This is underlined with Gandalf’s threat that they can ‘go back to digging coal’. They really aren’t a group of fearsome adventurers, possibly as unsuited to the quest as Mr. Baggins is himself!
Gandalf shows great belief in Bilbo, saying there is much more to him than appearances would suggest, more than he might know himself. He has faith in potential. It has already been suggested in the text earlier that Gandalf has been around for a long time, he has visited Bilbo’s land before, knew his Grandfather. He knows something of Hobbits and his lineage. He trusts there is something hidden there.
There is a lot of ‘quest talk’ for the rest of the chapter. Bilbo begins to get a bit of a measure on the Dwarves. He takes his ‘business manner’ which is ‘usually reserved for when people asked him for money’, which supports the idea that he is rather wealthy.
He prompts Thorin into a little more detailed exposition that recounts what has already been suggested in the first song.
A detail that caught me on this reading was about the nature of dragons, how they cannot ‘make a thing for themselves’. This is not a sweeping trait in the evil races of the world, as we will see later, but it can be said that evil beings are unable to create beautiful things.
The sacking of the Mountain and of Dale is recounted in brief with a few snippets to the nature of dragons. Thorin confirms that they are homeless and ply what ‘low’ trades they can to get by. He even admits that they are by no means paupers. This suggests that the drive to reclaim the gold is not all about riches. It is about preserving their lost Dwarven culture. I doesn’t seem to be a quest to kill a dragon and get back the entire kingdom. They are looking to hire a burglar, there is something specific that they are searching for.
When talking of Thorin’s Grandfather and Father we get the first mention of ‘The Necromancer’, he will be mentioned briefly later, but just going on what is in this text it is a bit of a narrative ruin. More world building loose ends. It’s an excellent storytelling technique. It makes the reader wonder about what else there is beyond the confines of the story they are currently concerned with. Of course in most cases Tolkien had ideas for them, his Necromancer certainly became something I’m sure at the time of writing he couldn’t have planned. Though there are suggestions here that the beginnings of who the Necromancer might become were there. Gandalf tells Thorin that he was a greater foe than all the Dwarves could handle if they could be collected together. And with the impression of Gandalf that has been built through the chapter, even he only just escaped the Necromancers clutches. That might actually give more credence to Gandalf’s powers, as those two facts suggest Gandalf might be as powerful as all the dwarves put together!
The chapter ends with breakfast orders, Bilbo playing the good host and his Baggins side returning as he gets weary. He makes up his mind that he will not cook them breakfast and he doubts that he will be going on an adventure.
He hears Thorin still singing the Dwarves song about reclaiming their gold and it is said it give the Hobbit ‘uncomfortable dreams’. Tolkien developed a penchant for using dream imagery to aid his stories. And a sense of discomfort is an excellent cast forward to the next chapter when Mr. Baggins leaves his home, and comfort behind.
All in all it isn’t an action packed opening to a story. There is a lot of exposition, the narrative devices are cute and well handled but the one truly stand out thing is does is characterisation. The dynamics of each individual and how they spark off each other are sublime. All done very smoothly, without it hitting you over the head. The biggest achievement is that you learn to like Bilbo. He is a bit stuffy to begin with but you feel for him as Gandalf and the Dwarves heap duty upon him, and you like him more when he gets up the gumption to stand up for himself.
After all, the book is called ‘The Hobbit’, you really do have to get behind little Bilbo for the story to carry you along. You have to like him, care about him. Early on the Dwarves are actually his first adversaries. They are the first step to him finding his Tookish side, finding his inner strength. He doesn’t want to be shown up, he has an inner sense of honour to live up to his Grandfather’s name and reputation.
So much ground work is laid in this first chapter, and it is the most solid of foundations for the story to grow and flourish.