This blog is the result of my self-initiated Tolkien studies. I’ve loved these books since I was a child and have an up and down relationship with them. All in all I find myself now ready to tackle the entire Legendarium once again but with a critical eye.
I don’t want to pick apart the works, I want to analyse in an effort to enhance my enjoyment. My essays will not be presented in a particularly scholarly fashion. They will simply be points of interest I wish to explore or questions I want to try and answer to my own satisfaction or interpretation.
All of these writings will stay ‘live’. Nothing will be locked in a state of completion. As I read, research and hopefully learn more I hope to revisit each essay to make corrections, amendments and expansions.
I hope what follows will be a decent representation of my deepening understanding of, and affection for, Professor Tolkien’s work.
Bilbo has been in considerable peril for quite a while now. I keep casting my mind back to the wonderful descriptions of the journey out of Rivendell, dripping with syrupy foreshadowing of great dangers. Even with that in mind the most astute of readers probably couldn’t have guessed what was to come, or expected Mr. Baggins to find his own way though it all.
As one danger passes it’s easy to forget that all is still not well. Bilbo is back in the daylight, away from Gollum, away from goblins, but utterly alone and with no clue as to where his company of dwarves and the wizard might have got to. This is actually the stomach clench-er for me, escaping immediate terror then realising that it only presents more mundane but just as threatening difficulties. Life threatening situations usually present very simple choices, being lost and alone presents a world of fear and indecision. We know how the chapter rolls out and why it might be titled ‘Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire’ but it is this moment at the very beginning that justifies it for me.
We are dealing with quite a different Hobbit now. He is fixed upon finding his friends and even considers going back into the goblin tunnels to look for them; the fact he now has a magic ring lends a lot of weight to this new found bravery. In fact, it seems that he decides he must BECAUSE he has the ring, as though the advantage it gives him lays a certain responsibility upon him. It is hit ‘duty’. Though the old Bilbo is still in there somewhere because he ‘felt very miserable’ about it!
We’ve all played guessing games, some people detest them! But guessing games come down to knowledge. One party knows something the other doesn’t. Guesses are not approached blindly, you always venture a guess based on the available information. It’s always informed. Sometimes you can deduce.
Gollum’s poser, of course, was ‘what is in Bilbo’s pockets?’ I adore his first guess: ‘Handses’. Almost as much as I love Bilbo for feeling relieved that he had only just taken his hand out of his pocket. The idea being if his hand had still been there he would have lost and been eaten!
The whole riddle game is a pretence. Gollum wants to kill and eat Bilbo, the only reason he didn’t do it by stealth, like he usually would, is curiosity. Or it is fate, you could suggest that the ring has protected Bilbo in some way. Guarding its new owner, its ride out of obscurity? The game is a stall. Bilbo is dealing with a being intent upon violence. Bilbo himself does not want to strike, he might be pushed to defend himself, but he will not instigate violence. These facts speak to the nature of each character. All of this places the advantage squarely with Gollum. He will turn to violence eventually, he cannot be trusted to keep his word even if he loses. Bilbo plays a risky game hoping against hope Gollum will keep his word or he can delay the inevitable long enough that he can get some guidance before the turn comes.
This chapter is always the one that sticks in my head. It had the most profound affect on me in the first reading, mostly because it was tough to measure the rest of the book against. There is a real danger that this story peaks far too soon, and it’s a wonderful incident of an author not realising how important a fringe creation would become.
As I’ve stated before, I’m only dealing with the text I have in front of me. I’m not going to delve back into past editions and changes. That essay is for another day. This series is a commentary to compliment the reading of the narrative before us without too many sidebars and outside references.
The beginning of the chapter is terrifying! Imagine waking up in utter pitch black darkness, just the sensation of rock beneath you but not knowing what might be close to you as soon as you dare move a muscle. We’ve already been told of the keen eyes of a Hobbit and their skill for moving quietly. This situation is a testament to both traits. Bilbo could see nothing, the darkness was complete, however he began to move around in the still silence without attracting immediate attention.
After an entire chapter of safety, comfort and good cheer the very first paragraph of this chapter firmly sets the reader back into the appropriate mindset for where this adventure is going, where it was always going to go. It should be remembered that up until now our travellers have been traversing relatively safe lands. It is only from this point that they properly enter ‘Wilderland’ and all the dangers and trails it holds.
The mood is suggested perfectly by the description of the mountain paths where ‘most were cheats and deceptions leading to bad ends’ and ‘infested with evil things and dreadful dangers’.
As the road leads upwards Bilbo casts an eye behind, viewing the land rolling out from his feet, knowing that beyond the horizon is his home, safety and comfort. The author reverts straight back to this motif even though Bilbo has just enjoyed the hospitality of Rivendell. It is interesting that home is still his touchstone.
As they climb the weather changes, it becomes cold and the party’s spirits are dampened, characterised by not being able to sing or talk too loud ‘for the echoes were uncanny, and the silence seemed to dislike being broken.’ Which is a wonderful turn of phase. I think there is something primal in all of us that understand that quality of silence.
With the ordeal of the trolls behind them, the party carries on, though ‘they did not sing or tell stories’ as they went. The mood was rather low which seems to have a correlation with the amount of food they have.
It reads that they forded a river ‘they saw that the great mountains had marched down very near to them’. It’s a lovely turn of phrase that gives the land itself character and agency. As though the travellers stay still and the landscape moves around them. The land would go on being and doing quite well without our band of heroes, thank you very much!
Bilbo mistakes this mountain for their final destination and upon being corrected feels weary and thinks (again) of the comforts of home.
The description of the land between the river and the mountain is rather detailed and fascinating. Valleys and culverts seem to open up and almost creep up on the party. Again lending the landscape an uncertainty and oddly sentient vibe. Gandalf comments that this is the ‘Edge of the Wild’, which would put me on my guard, as if this seemingly dangerous land full of surprises and paths to oblivion or nowhere is the edge, surely it will get harder the further in you go. I believe this would be the authors intention, that river crossing being a moment when they properly begin to travel into danger. However, because of their brush with the trolls, the effect seems lessened.
Bilbo wakes to find his home in an utter mess, the results of a ‘hurried breakfast’. It seems the Dwarves have used the facilities without tidying up after themselves. To my mind this can only be read as an insult as they had proved the night before how effortlessly they helped clear things away. The hobbit felt a few things, first relief, then disappointment that he had been left behind.
He got on with the job of tidying up, re-ordering his life back into its safe and familiar state after its short sojourn into uncertainty and possible adventure. In fact he’d reverted back to his ‘normal’ so well that he began to forget about the prospect of adventures until Gandalf stepped back into the pristine hallway with his big wizard boots.
Gandalf takes great pleasure pointing out that Bilbo had neglected to dust his mantlepiece where he would have discovered a letter from the Dwarves. It seems that the quest party assumed that the hobbit would be as good as his word from the previous evening. Though I’d suggest that it is no accident that Gandalf is the one to go back and fetch Bilbo.
The note explains that the Dwarves had left early to make preparations for the journey and they confirm the offer of employing Bilbo as their burglar. They also set a time to depart. A time only ten minutes from when Gandalf intrudes upon Bilbo’s domestic idyll.
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.
A short primer before diving into the book itself.
I’m about to embark on a critical (but fun) reading of The Hobbit. To do that there is a bit of background I want to get out of the way, in the form of an introduction, or primer. That way I won’t feel the need to keep covering the same ground or making the same references over and over when I get into the meat of the thing.
It’s very probable you know of The Hobbit, it’s a tent pole in fantasy and children’s literature. It became the precursor to The Lord of the Rings and has somewhat lived in its shadow, but it retains an enduring charm as an accessible entry point to the works of Tolkien. It is the book I always recommend as the first one to read if anyone is interested. If you are totally new to the book you might be staggered to find that it’s quite short; certainly nowhere near long enough to spin three feature films from it. HA!
This year I completed my collection of ‘The History of Middle-Earth’ books. They are huge and dense and give an unprecedented look into the writing process behind the world Tolkien created. There are drafts and manuscripts, fragments and scraps that when assembled really gives a unique insight. Sometimes that’s too much. That level will be too forensic for what I have in mind for my read-throughs. Though it did interest me to find that in those three volumes The Hobbit is not included. I hadn’t realised it before so I looked into why.
Music of the Ainur & Valaquenta- Tolkien’s Creation Myth
Before I take a formal approach on any of the long form Tolkien books, I feel there is one more text that should be tackled to give a bit of context. That is Ainulindalë, The Music of the Ainur. Technically it’s an introduction, of sorts to the Silmarillion but it sets the scene and rules for Tolkien’s secondary world in its entirety. There are themes and events that happen in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that are strengthened by a deeper understanding while never being dependent upon having read it.
Ainulindalë is Tolkien’s creation myth. It is a legend that describes how Middle-Earth was made by an all powerful deity, and populated by elemental forces of creation and stewardship. These forces are present in the Third Age tales in various ways and explain most of the issues and perceived ‘plot holes’ or skewed character motivations that some readers commonly take issue with. A prime example would be the use of Eagles to save the day.
The legend begins as an abstract description of celestial beings. Eru, or Illuvatar is the supreme creator in this made up universe. It is an absolute monotheistic representation, hardly surprising as Tolkien was a staunch Catholic. Though this theology does have some very vital and interesting differences that I’ll try to delve in to later, it is far from an allegory of Catholicism, though there are, inevitably, clear parallels.
Iluvatar first created the Ainur, they could be called the choir of angels. They are celestial beings, second only to the ultimate creator, first thing He devised. Illuvatar asked the Ainur to make music for Him. Through their song they began to know one another, to realise the aspect of the creator they were made to represent. They also began to harmonise with one another, and learn about their brethren. They would gather together into a choir and Illuvatar provided a theme for them to behold, a grand plan of sorts.
A few weeks ago I shared the results of months of work to create a display/game board of Balin’s tomb for the Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game produced by Games Workshop. I’ve decided to write a little about this branch of Tolkien licensing to discuss its merits as an extension of the source material that is so beloved.
This battle game started with the release of the original Lord of the Rings films back in 2001. Games Workshop (GW) obtained the license to make a skirmish war-game at 25mm scale for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. This covered both books and films. They do not have any rights over The Silmarillion, however, part of their agreement includes some latitude to develop it’s own derivative IP to fill in gaps or extend the world portrayed in LotR and The Hobbit. THIS is where it all get particularly interesting from a Tolkien fan’s point of view.
There is always a trepidation that goes with attempting to find out more about the people behind things that you love. You can love a painting without knowing about the artist. We rarely know about the people that make our favourite TV shows. Chances are if you do take the time to look behind that curtain you might find something you don’t like. Mostly because art is made by people and people are eminently fallible.
Considering the Roles of Women in The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings.
My daughter has noticed that I’ve been reading a lot of Tolkien books. She is almost 6, her own reading is beginning to develop well and she has been observant regarding what I’m doing with my own books. I’ve showed her The Hobbit and began reading a bit of it to her (the attention span is still a little way from putting up with long prose stories), in general she is interested. If only because I’m interested in it. When I began thinking about sharing The Hobbit with my her I realised there isn’t a single female character in the entire book. At least not an active participant. If any females are mentioned they are done so in their roles as mothers and in reference to lineage.
There is something vital in the ability for people to be able to see themselves in mass-market media. It makes a difference. If you spend your entire life never seeing anyone that looks like you doing anything, the idea might never enter your head that you could do that too. It sounds simplistic, but the truth is I grew up always seeing boys and men, like me, doing everything, I never for a moment considered I might not be able to do the same. It’s difficult to imagine not having that mind-set and it’s sad to imagine generations of girls growing up believing their lives and opportunities were in some way limited… The reality of which might actually be an even sadder truth.
There is a very simplistic cross-over for this theme that applies to all societal minorities and media representation. I plan to write a follow-up article tackling diversity and race in Tolkien’s work. For now I’m going to concentrate on how women are included.
Shortly after completing my own essay I felt unwell (not related to the effort of writing!) and relaxed by trying to rewatch one of the most complex films to be released in the last decade. It had been a long time since I watched Inception. It thrilled me when it was released and always fascinated me upon subsequent viewings. Life changes over the years and my available time and interest in films has become quite limited. My usual rule is to try and see something new over rewatching a film. On this occasion something lured me back in.
My brain was in a different state this time. I noticed new details, picked up on nuance and suggestion I had missed previously. New questions presented themselves, new ideas needed attention. I had to stop the movie and watch it over a few nights, just to make notes on the things my brain wouldn’t let go of.
You could argue this is fundamental proof that the movie doesn’t reach Tolkien’s high bar of ‘Enchantment’. I might argue the opposite. According to Tolkien there are two feats that should be achieved for a work of fantasy fiction to be considered as art.
Understanding Tolkien’s approach to writing and creation.
Tolkien gave a lecture in 1938 to present his thoughts on defining what ‘Fairy-Stories’ are, their validity and importance as a creative pursuit. Since that time it has been labelled as his ‘manifesto’ as a justification of his life’s work. His ‘Legendarium’.
In 1938 Tolkien was a prominent Professor of Anglo Saxon. He had already produced his seminal essay on Beowulf in 1936. Many academics have stated that without any of his fantasy writing Tolkien would have been famous in academia for this treatise alone. In fact those same academics spend rather a lot of time wishing Tolkien had put more of his energy into his scholarly writing rather than ‘waste’ his time with fanciful fictions. Perhaps this essay was a reaction? Or maybe he simply wanted to lay a foundation so his work could be better understood?
There are so many themes and ideas in this essay that can be seen though the world Tolkien creates. That is the reason I’ve decided to start by giving it a careful read. It gives an insight into how an author set about, not only, ‘world-building’ but how he gave deep thought into why this creative effort is not only important but vital to his life and the lives of others. I’m interested in what drove him to stick with his creation for decades despite it not reaching the critical acclaim it enjoys today. It must be noted his ‘larger’ works were not published until after his death and he always split opinion of the literary critics of his time (more of which later).
Why I find myself diving deeper into the mythology I love.
I’m a bit of a philomath. Though some might say I have a short attention span. I have fads where I’ll get obsessed with something; entertainment, creators, literature, art or specific subjects. I consume as much as I can and eventually the fire is quelled and the initial intensity of that interest is reduced to lukewarm embers. I still hold a fondness for whatever it was that so held my attention. I’m glad to have experienced it, but it soon becomes clear there is no longevity to my intense scrutiny. There is not enough depth to keep me returning in an obsessive fashion.
I’m sure you see where this is going.
I wasn’t always obsessed with Tolkien’s work. I have a relatively long history with his books and I had to be romanced before I fell all the way in love. I believe I was 10 or 11 when I first read The Hobbit. I recall the exact design of the book I borrowed from the school library. I have been trying my hardest to find it again now to add it to my collection. It had the famous green, blue and white mountainous landscape illustration, drawn by Tolkien himself. I remember that it was printed on a hardback cover, but I’ve only ever seen it as a dustcover. I may well be mistaken. I know there is a version of that book that was recently released as a first edition facsimile. I cannot recall if that initial encounter with The Hobbit was the first edition text, but at the time I didn’t particularly care for the storied and fascinating evolution of Chapter 5.