Feb 3, 2014

Let's Read Tolkien 5: Riddles in the Dark

When Bilbo opened his eyes, he wondered if he had; for it was just as dark with them shut.

We left Bilbo lying out cold on the floor of one of the goblins' tunnels. It has to be said that one possible reason for the complete lack of female characters in the story is that in traditional patriarchal and heterosexist terms, Bilbo has been playing the female lead: so far, his accomplishments are pretty much limited to screaming, fainting and being carried around. When he wakes up alone in a dark underground tunnel, however, Tolkien reminds us that this isn't quite as terrifying a situation for Bilbo as it might be for us. After all, hobbits live in tunnels, and eventually, cheered up a bit by the thought of having a blade from fabled Gondolin with him, Bilbo gathers his wits and gets moving. Oh, and incidentally, happens to accidentally come across the One Ring to Rule Them All. You know, ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul and so on.

Of course, at this point we have no idea that that's what Bilbo just found lying around on the floor of the tunnel. As far as I know, neither did Tolkien. Later, in the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien develops a sort of theology of the finding of the Ring, which I'll go into when I get to it. it involves questions of what, exactly, luck and things that happen "by accident" are. But it's interesting to consider whether any notion of these things can be found in the Hobbit, especially in this chapter. I do use the word "theology" quite deliberately, as it bears reminding that Tolkien was a devout Catholic and expressed his faith in his writing. Ultimately the questions of luck and accident that Tolkien comes to deal with in this context later are so fundamental to faith that I don't think it's unreasonable to look for some unformed notions of his later ideas, as it were, here.

So Bilbo decides, quite reasonably, that the only way out is forward and sets off. And onward and downward along the tunnel he goes, past a plethora of side passages until he walks right into an underground lake. I love the way Tolkien sets the scene here as Bilbo makes his way further down, into the mountain. All the stuff about the "original owners" of the caves the goblins inhabit and the things "that have sneaked in from outside to lie up in the dark" is as good as anything by Lovecraft. Especially when one of those things comes paddling across the underground lake, its eyes glowing like witchfires in the dark: Gollum.

In terms of the larger story, especially the Lord of the Rings, this is a pretty heavy chapter: Bilbo gets his hands on the One Ring and meets Gollum. This basically sets the scene for everything that happens in the Lord of the Rings, so much so that in the context of the later work, everything else up to and including Smaug himself is a footnote. The Hobbit really suffers from this kind of hindsight, and for that reason I'll leave any discussion of Gollum or the Ring beyond what happens in this chapter for later, barring a few notes.

For now, here's who we meet:

Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don't know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum - as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face. He had a little boat, and he rowed about quite quietly on the lake; for lake it was, wide and deep and deadly cold. He paddled it with large feet dangling over the side, but never a ripple did he make. Not he. He was looking out of his pale lamp-like eyes for blind fish, which he grabbed with his long fingers as quick as thinking. He liked meat too. Goblin he thought good, when he could get it; but he took care they never found him out. He just throttled them from behind, if they ever came down alone anywhere near the edge of the water, while he was prowling about. They very seldom did, for they had a feeling that something unpleasant was lurking down there, down at the very roots of the mountain. They had come on the lake, when they were tunneling down long ago, and they found they could go no further; so there their road ended in that direction, and there was no reason to go that way - unless the Great Goblin sent them. Sometimes he took a fancy for fish from the lake, and sometimes neither goblin nor fish came back.

If I said in the previous chapter that the goblins are hardly introduced to us as pure videogame villains, here that notion is completely subverted: how can you not feel a little bad for the goblin sent to fish in Gollum's cold lake at his master's whim? Here's something the previous chapter's villains are scared of.

The description of Gollum is just excellent. Really, there's almost a horror aspect to this, especially as Gollum spots Bilbo and glides out from his island on a little boat, in complete silence, curious as to who Bilbo is and anticipating that he'll make a very tasty meal. Having said this, though, when Bilo finally spots Gollum, what breaks out is a conversation. It's interesting that as dangerous as we've seen the world Bilbo travels through is, it's remarkably civilized in that so far, everyone but the storm giants has at least had the courtesy of talking to people they meet, no matter what their ultimate intentions may have been. The giants, we can imagine, just didn't notice the poor shivering dwarves. So it isn't really surprising at all that Gollum and Bilbo should have a reasonably civil conversation; unless, that is, one has subscribed to the vulgar interpretation of Tolkien's stories as morally unambiguous orc-murdering epics. I realize I keep going on about that, but frankly, it's always annoyed me.

A startled Bilbo quite politely introduces himself to Gollum, blade prudently in hand, and a combination of curiosity and unease with the elven dagger makes Gollum positively convivial. He suggests a game of riddles:

Riddles were all he could think of. Asking them, and sometimes guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago, before he lost all his friends and was driven away, alone, and crept down, down, into the dark under the mountains.

There's characterization in a sentence for you.

The two of them riddle away, with high stakes: if Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out, but if Bilbo loses, Gollum eats him. They both exchange fairly similar riddles, with Gollum's usually having rather darker themes than Bilbo's. A few times Bilbo is saved by what seems to be pure luck: when he can't guess that the answer is fish, one jumps out of the lake at him, and when he tries to beg for more time he inadvertently gives the correct answer. Lastly Bilbo wins the entire contest by muttering "What have I got in my pockets" out loud, which Gollum can't guess. Defeated, he agrees to show Bilbo the way out, only he just has to pop back to his little island for a bit.

Of course, Gollum's plan is to fetch his magical invisibility ring, murder Bilbo and eat him. He doesn't find "his precious", though, and has a bit of a fit over it. Bilbo hears Gollum screaming about what it has in its pocketses and decides to slip the ring onto his finger. He's rather surprised when Gollum charges right past him, and realizes the ring he picked up earlier is indeed Gollum's magical ring of invisibility. He then follows the enraged Gollum to the exit of the cave, and after a tight squeeze makes it out into the sunlight. So in the end, Gollum did do what he promised!

**

Let's sum up. First Bilbo falls down and knocks his head, both basically by chance; they were being pursued but no-one was making an effort to knock him out. He's then left behind in the fighting and missed by the goblins, purely by luck as he's unconscious at the time. As he's recovering his wits, he tries to light his pipe, which the narrator points out really doesn't seem like a good idea, but luckily he's lost his matches. He then sets off further into the caves, and luckily doesn't get eaten by anything until he runs into Gollum. He gets lucky three times with the riddles, and the ring he lucked into finding saves him from Gollum and eventually gets him out of the caves altogether.

In the context of the story, this string of lucky coincidences is believable and makes an amount of sense, even. Tolkien will return to this theme of luck in the Lord of the Rings, so I'm leaving this summary here for later reference. But to answer my question: is there some notion present here that maybe this sequence of events is more than a fairy-story telling of a hero's customary luck? I have to say no. I didn't really see any signs of Tolkien's later "theology of luck" here.

In more general terms this underground escapade is the first time we see Bilbo venturing out on his own for a longer stint as something other than baggage for the dwarves, and through luck he in fact does quite well. I'm sure psychoanalytical types would make much of this journey deep underground and all it signifies, but I'd really rather not. Certainly it marks an important step in Bilbo's personal story. And at this point that's really all it is. On re-reading this chapter, there's very little to hint at any of this being any more than an interlude in Bilbo's story: he's met adversity, prevailed and been rewarded with a magic item. Certainly the item and its origins are a mystery, and the history of its previous owner even more so. Said previous owner is also left screaming Bilbo's last name in a vengeful rage, so certainly there's something there to hang a sequel on. Having said that, though, this si definitely a part of the Hobbit that's very much worth reading on its own merits, not just as a "prequel" to later events.

Jan 20, 2014

XCOM: Hidden Potential and Not Created Equally

We got ourselves XCOM: Enemy Within, and we've been enjoying it. I really like the new options for "modifying" your soldiers, and the Exalt missions are an interesting change of pace; what I'm disappointed in is that the main story still centers on the hugely boring alien base and the frankly appallingly tedious final mission. Would it really have been too much to ask for those to be improved? Preferably improved a lot?

I do also have to mention one particular gripe: the random soldier specializations. I'm currently playing a game where I have two heavies, one support and ten snipers. Ten. It's fucking ridiculous, and makes the game much more difficult than it should be. XCOM snipers are exactly like wizards in most tabletop RPGs: they're useless and vulnerable at low levels, but once you get them going they're incredibly powerful. Only how do you fight with a squad that consists entirely of low-level snipers and rookies? It's not impossible, but it is frustrating, especially when the rookies level up...into snipers. Which, by the way, makes it really hard to get your hands on enough Meld to turn them into mechs, too.

Surely it wouldn't be impossible to weigh the odds of a given class being rolled up based on your existing roster. It would stop complete stupidity like my current lineup from happening.

**

One of the things we really liked in the new Enemy Unknown were the Second Wave options. I never got around to really giving Not Created Equally and Hidden Potential a proper shot, but now that I'm playing Enemy Within, I was considering whether they're worth it or not. I have to admit that Not Created Equally scared me, because the average XCOM rookie is so completely useless as it is, and I had visions of getting soldiers with even worse stats. So I did a little math, and because I couldn't find these numbers with a quick Google search, I thought I'd share.

Not Created Equally

The basic rookie has an Aim of 65 and a Will of 40. With Not Created Equally, these values are rolled randomly, with Aim being somewhere between 50 and 80, in five-point increments, and Will between 25 and 59. So basically your average Not Created Equally rookie will have an Aim of 65 and a Will of 42, meaning they're ever so slightly better than the cookie cutter guys. There's also a 1/3 chance they'll have slightly lower movement, and a 1/6 chance it'll be one point higher and another 1/6 for two more points, so that also averages out better than normal.

So based on that, Not Created Equally is theoretically worth taking, if only for the slightly higher Will and Movement. The real benefit, obviously, is the chance of getting rookies with a significantly higher Aim than normal, which is really the only way you're ever going to get a heavy who can hit anything smaller than a building. So I guess I'll have to start picking this option.

Hidden Potential

This one I'm a lot less sold on, to be honest. Hidden Potential replaces the normal stat progression with a random increase per level, so I calculated the average increases for Aim and Health per class and level in the defsult system and Hidden Potential. Will increases are unaffected.

For the assault class, their average Aim and Health increase per level are normally 3.4 and 0.6 points, respectively. With Hidden Potential these change to +3 and +0.5, so the assault class guys get screwed.

Heavies have a dismal average Aim increase of +1.4 per level, which drops to an average of +1 with Hidden Potential, while health progression is unchanged. So heavies get screwed too.

Snipers benefit slightly, replacing an average Aim increase of +5.7 with +6 and bringing their health progression in line with the non-heavy classes at +0.5 rather than the default +0.4.

Support soldiers get better Aim (+4 vs +3.6) at the expense of lower health (+0.5 vs +0.6). MEC troopers clearly benefit, getting +3 Aim per level rather than the old +1.4, but their health progression has dropped as well.

What makes this slightly more complicated is that Hidden Potential also gives each soldier a 20% chance of increasing their Movement stat by 1 per level (10% for heavies). So the average soldier will have gotten an additional point of movement by the time they make Captain. Without Hidden Potential, movement never increases.

So to sum up, Hidden Potential gives you faster troops and better snipers, at the expense of your heavies and assault guys. In my opinion, this comes down to playing style and the vagaries of class generation. Personally, I don't like it. Although my current game would be better off for it!

**

One area where I think XCOM could do with some more depth is injuries. Right now, being wounded just takes your soldiers off missions for a while, unless it's a critical wound, in which case they lose Will permanently. I'd prefer a more nuanced injury system, where badly hurt or critically wounded soldiers would get a randomly assigned injury rather than the automatic Will penalty. Arm injuries could affect Aim, leg injuries Movement, head injuries Will and torso injuries Health, for instance. This would tie in excellently with MEC troopers, as augmenting a soldier would obviously remove any limb injuries, and in my opinion could remove most other injuries as well. The idea of MEC suits as a badly injured veteran's way of getting back into combat would make them much more interesting.

**

As I was writing this, I kept on at my campaign, and now have two heavies and a support soldier, and will get a cybernetics lab next month, so maybe some MEC troopers are on the cards. When trying to play with a lopsided roster like mine, two particular problems stand out. First of all, recovering any Meld at all starts to get unreasonably tricky as the game goes on. One is simply not inclined to dash off into the scenery to find the Meld containers, what with Mutons and Cyberdiscs lurking around.

Also, some of the maps are still just inhuman, especially when trying to get your rookies some experience. I took three of them along to raid a landed small scout, and we ended up on the river valley map, smack in the middle of a river with no high cover anywhere. As we were deploying on the first turn, we spot a Mechtoid. Thanks to a timely Disabling shot, we didn't lose anyone there, but we were barely done with the Mechtoid when along come three Mutons and a Cyberdisc. With all three rookies dead and my best sniper badly injured, we had to get the fuck out of there. Maybe if everyone had dashed into the trees on the left on the very first turn, we could have dealt with the situation. Or maybe we would have run smack into the Cyberdisc. Note that the reason I had three rookies was that I desperately needed other classes than snipers. No way am I assaulting the alien base without a medic. But with only low cover available, we just got slaughtered.

In the situation I find myself in, with the RNG constantly sticking me with snipers (I lost a bunch, only to get new ones instead of classes I'd actually need) and little or no Meld to go around, even without excessive gene modding, it's incredibly difficult to level up rookies. Thank Yog-Sothoth for EXALT. I'm in no hurry to raid their base.

**

Anyway, there's a bunch of random XCOM thoughts for you. Remember: pick Not Created Equally but give Hidden Potential a miss, and give your covert operative Mimetic Skin. If not for how incredibly boring both the alien base and especially the final mission are, this would be an incredibly good game. At least they've got things to fix for the sequel.

Dec 16, 2013

The 2013 Brooks Orpik Hypocrisy Award

Well this one is easy. Just click here.

**

The Brooks Orpik Hypocrisy Award is given by the writers of this blog to the sportsperson responsible for the most preposterously hypocritical comment or action of the year. Previous winners:

2012 - Brendan Shanahan, Department of Player Safety, NHL
2011 - Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL
2010 - Lewis Hamilton, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, F1
2009 - Brooks Orpik, Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL

Dec 2, 2013

Let's Read Tolkien 4: Over Hill and Under Hill

There were many paths that led up into those mountains, and many passes over them.

The Last Homely House is well behind Thorin & Company; Bilbo muses on what's going on in the Shire as they wind their way through the foothills of the Misty Mountains, and everyone is cold and properly miserable.

One thing I haven't really talked about that deserves more attention is the way Tolkien writes about geography. He simply does a wonderful job of conveying a feel of the land, of terrain, space and history, so that the reader feels they're traveling through a rich and living landscape. Tolkien excels at creating a world the reader can really feel immersed in. One particularly striking way this comes up is the way he describes the Company's ascent into the Misty Mountains. Having given us a pretty good notion of the mountains, he gives the most wonderful description of a ferocious thunderstorm raging in the mountains. The detail I remembered best from my previous readings was the stone-giants throwing boulders at each other for fun in the storm, but what I didn't remember was how vividly he describes the storm and the company's utter misery in trying to weather it. You really feel like you're there with Bilbo and the dwarves, trying to snuggle under a rock overhang amidst an awesome display of nature's power.

It's this misery that drives the story forward, as young Fili and Kili are sent to look for a better shelter. They soon return, having found a cave big enough for the party to take cover in. They do their best to take care, exploring the cave thoroughly and refraining from lighting a fire so as not to draw attention to themselves. Finally satisfied that the cave is safe, they settle down for a smoke and go to sleep.

Of course, it isn't safe. After the party falls asleep, goblins emerge from deep inside the cave and surprise the sleeping dwarves. The only bit of luck is that Bilbo was having trouble falling asleep, and his scream of terror wakes Gandalf, just in time for the goblins trying to grab him to get a nasty surprise. The dwarves, hobbit and ponies, however, are captured by the goblins and driven into their deep tunnels, the goblins singing a song that creates a wonderful onomatopoetic effect with the swish and smack of the whip cracks driving them round and round underground.

Things don't look too good for the dwarves as they're hauled into Goblin-Town's great hall and paraded before the Great Goblin himself. Thorin puts on his best pompous manner to talk to him, and they learn that the safe cave they took shelter in was, in fact, the goblins' Front Porch. They're quite understandably suspicious of a party of dwarves at their front door, and the elven sword found on Thorin clinches the case. Just as the goblins are about to put Thorin and Company to death, Gandalf makes his expected reappearance, dousing the lights, creating general chaos and introducing the Great Goblin to the sword Glamdring of Gondolin - a fatal encounter.

Quickly, the company make their getaway, the dwarves taking turns carrying poor terrified Bilbo, stopping once so that Gandalf and Thorin can ambush the pursuing goblins. This buys them some time, but stealthy goblin runners set off in pursuit instead, and as they fall on the dwarves Bilbo is knocked off Dori's back, hits his head and loses consciousness.

**

After the previous chapter's pit stop, this one has plenty of action and leaves us very much in the thick of things. I'd be remiss, however, if I didn't take a moment to document our first meeting with the goblins, later known as orcs. Here's the description Tolkien gives us:

Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, though they are usually untidy and dirty. Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light.

There's really no two ways about it: that's a pretty miserable account to give of an entire people, let alone a whole race. But even here, the story we're told is actually quite a bit more complicated than the Always Chaotic Evil trope: the goblins actually have no particular malice against dwarves as such, and Tolkien mentions that "wicked dwarves" have even made alliances with them. Thorin and Company are brought before the Great Goblin who interrogates them, and Thorin has a civilized, if brief, dialogue with him, quite clearly proving that they're intelligent creatures one can have a conversation with. So even these goblins aren't latter-day video game villains who can't be interacted with in any way except through violence.

Obviously this is a major question that I'll be returning to as this project gets further along, but for now, I just want to note that in our first encounter with what will pretty much become the stock Always Chaotic Evil villain of fantasy, the picture is already more complicated than it will later be seen to be.

Nov 27, 2013

Let's Read Tolkien 3: A Short Rest

Previous part here.

**

They did not sing or tell stories that day, even though the weather improved; nor the next day, nor the day after.

Having recovered from their ordeal by troll, Bilbo and the dwarves continue their trip with Gandalf at their head and less of a picnic atmosphere in general. They trek over difficult and desolate wilderness, and when the Misty Mountains loom in the distance, Bilbo imagines they've nearly reached the Lonely Mountain already. He's corrected, and the enormity of the voyage really starts to sink in. This is definitely not a picnic any more.

Eventually Gandalf leads them to Rivendell, where the elves welcome the weary party. They hang out with the elves for a fortnight and meet Elrond, who provides a loremaster service by identifying the swords found in the trolls' lair as elven blades from Gondolin, and spotting some moon-letters on Thorin's map that reveal the time the secret door to Smaug's lair can be opened.

That's it, really: this chapter is a pit stop in Rivendell. Given that this is the first time we meet Tolkien's elves, they're really not all that impressive: they're mellow, childish dudes who like to hang out in trees, sing songs and shout whimsical jokes at passers-by. You might be forgiven for thinking they're stoners. Me, I like to think that Thorin & Co. got completely zonked with them for a week, stuffed themselves with food and finally got kicked out by Gandalf so the damn expedition would get somewhere for a change. Can you imagine a hobbit with the munchies? What were they thinking when they said "all expenses guaranteed"?

We get a glimpse of the wider mythos again with the mention of Gondolin, and it's worthy of note is that we also meet Elrond for the first time:

The master of the house was an elf-friend - one of those people whose fathers came into the strange stories before the beginnings of History, the wars of the evil goblins and the elves and the first men in the North. In those days of our tale there were still some people who had both elves and heroes of the North for their ancestors, and Elrond the master of the house was their chief.

In the first part, I talked about how Bilbo's personality is defined in terms of his heritage: his Took side and his Baggins side. Here Elrond is introduced in the same terms, by his parentage, even if readers familiar with the Lord of the Rings will notice it hasn't quite taken its final form.

The importance of heredity in Tolkien's works is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable themes for the 21st century reader, and is often referred to whenever someone wants to argue that he was a crazy racist. I don't think that's quite fair, mostly for other reasons that I'll point out as we come across them, but the fact remains that Tolkien talks about things like "pure blood" in a way that is, frankly, troubling, and while I don't agree with much of the political criticism levelled at him, I don't want to shy away from the difficult issues with his works either. So this is a theme we will have to return to.

For now, I do want to point out that while this kind of language is clearly objectionable to us, it wasn't to a man of Tolkien's background. Talking about the importance of inherited characteristics, even national ones, and notions of pure and mixed blood, will have been quite normal in his day, especially to conservatives. Much of that thinking is still with us today in the form of racism. Having said that, I do think that Tolkien doesn't regard blood as destiny: whatever a person's heritage is imagined to be, it's what they do with it that counts. Tolkien, I maintain, does not create a fantasy world straight out of the fevered dreams of a modern racist, where people are reduced to biological automata. It's also worth noting that in contrast to racist fantasies of "pure blood", nearly all of Tolkien's heroes are somehow of mixed heritage, and even multi-cultural. Observe, so far, Bilbo's dual nature and unhobbitlike craving for adventure, and Elrond as a sort of heroic mixture of races, to adapt the lingo. This theme of race and blood will have to be explored further as we go along.

Having now mentioned both class and race, I must also mention gender, and honestly, the Bechdel test ain't in it: a grand total of three women have been as much as mentioned in the text. Namely Bilbo's mother, Belladonna Took, and her two sisters, the latter two identified only as daughters of Old Took. There has not been a single female character in the story itself. In that sense at least, this is literally a Boys' Own adventure.

Next time, the homosocial caravan hits the Misty Mountains and stays dead butch.

Nov 18, 2013

Let's Read Tolkien 2: Roast Mutton

Previous part here.

**

Up jumped Bilbo, and putting on his dressing-gown went into the dining-room.

Bilbo finds himself amidst the detritus of last night, wondering as one does after any good party whether there really was a wizard and thirteen dwarves, and did he really scream like a locomotive whistle at some point. The dwarves and wizard are long gone, so he washes up the mountain of dishes left over from last night, cleans and has breakfast, convincing himself that "dragons and all that outlandish nonsense" are well and truly gone, and that he isn't at all disappointed. Only for Gandalf to show up and direct his attention to the letter left on his mantelpiece, officially engaging his services to Thorin & Co. Thorin's letter is a masterpiece of inappropriate business language, setting out the division of any potential loot, travelling expenses guaranteed, and best of all:

funeral expenses to be defrayed by us or our representatives, if occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for.

In other words, if Bilbo is killed, the dwarves will pay for his funeral, unless the dragon eats him, in which case a funeral won't be necessary. "If occasion arises" is the most wonderfully chilling way of putting death into business language.

So off Bilbo goes, sans pocket-handkerchief, hat or money, rushing to his rendez-vous with the dwarves, where he gets on his pony and rides off with them. Once again, Tolkien plays with our expectations: Bilbo finds adventuring great fun, trotting along on a pony and listening to the dwarves tell stories and sing songs, even if there isn't quite as much eating as a hobbit would like. Eventually Gandalf catches up on horseback and brings Bilbo his pipe and handkerchief, and Bilbo's definitely enjoying this adventuring business. The reader may be forgiven for thinking that they're taking this dragon-robbing business awfully easy. Again I think that many of Tolkien's critics read him in such a cursory and hostile manner that they only come away with this Boy's Own adventure atmosphere, and miss the fact that throughout, Tolkien very deliberately subverts it.

What actually happens is that the trip is a fun picnic in the country only until it starts raining. The road gets harder as it works up into the hill country, and when they finally stop at a subpar campsite, the dwarves can't get a fire going, one of the ponies bolts and the provisions it was carrying are lost in the river, and on top of it all Gandalf is gone. So when the miserable party spots the light of a fire in the distance, they send the burglar to investigate.

Although Bilbo may not be much of an adventurer, he is a hobbit, and moving silently comes naturally to them, so he sneaks up to the campfire and sees three trolls gathered around it, eating mutton and moaning about how few people they've eaten lately. As he watches them, it becomes obvious to us that Bilbo really does know quite a bit more about adventuring than his Baggins side is willing to let on, because the narrator shares with us the general notion of what a burglar is expected to do in a situation like this, a notion clearly shared by Bilbo. The burglar ideal will be quite familiar to anyone who's played the later Elder Scrolls games:

A really first-class and legendary burglar would at this point have picked the trolls' pockets - it is nearly always worth while, if you can manage it -, pinched the very mutton off the spits, purloined the beer, and walked off without their noticing him.

It's obvious that Bilbo shares this ideal, because he tries to live up to it by stealing one of the trolls' money bag. Unfortunately it turns out to be the talking kind, and alerts its owner, who promptly picks up Bilbo and interrogates him. The terrified hobbit lets slip that he's part of a larger party, and the trolls set a trap: as the dwarves come to investigate in ones or twos (apparently it's a thing), the trolls trap them all in sacks. Only Thorin manages to make any real effort to defend himself, and that with a burning branch from the trolls' fire. It's to no avail, and Thorin joins his company in bags, ready to become a hobbit-seasoned dwarf stew, until Gandalf arrives and uses a clever bit of ventriloquism to keep the trolls arguing until sunrise, when the light of the sun turns them to stone.

**

This kind of deus ex machina is obviously one of the weaknesses of the fairytale form for adult readers; I suppose that as children we're less likely to realize that the story probably doesn't end in Chapter 2 with "And then they were eaten by trolls. The end." So this particular part of the story doesn't necessarily read all that well for us grown-ups. The trolls speak in what has been characterized as an English lower-class or working-class accent, but class analysis really isn't my thing and, well, I'm not English, so those particular politics of representation are frankly beyond me. I leave them to those more competent in these matters.

What I did find interesting in this chapter was the other duality of expectation and reality, namely, the dwarves. In the previous chapter, they were set up as tough, uncompromising men on an epic mission of vengeance; in this one, they stumble into a trap laid by trolls and would have ended up as dinner, if not for Gandalf. I mean, seriously: of all the creatures on the face of Arda with the crude wit to lay an ambush, trolls. Incidentally, we also discover that none of the dwarves are even armed. Even Thorin has to resort to an improvised weapon. What the hell kind of a nickel-and-dime dragon-robbing operation is this? The dwarves don't strike the reader as the kind of people to go for sensible planning, at least when it comes to avenging their kin. As it turns out, this is very much the case. So after this episode with the trolls, one wonders whether the dwarves, some of whom were so scathing of Bilbo's abilities back in Bag End, are really any more suited to undertake this journey than he is.

Nov 15, 2013

Let's Read Tolkien 1: An Unexpected Party

If anyone still follows this blog, you may have noticed it's gone a bit quiet. This is largely because most of my writing energy has been taken up by academic things, but also because I've increasingly come to feel that I have nothing to contribute on the subjects I've written about before. So for a while now I've wanted to do something completely different, namely, a reading diary. Now that an online friend of mine has started one on Facebook on Ayn Rand, I decided it's high time I follow suit and finally start my close reading of J.R.R. Tolkien. I'm almost a lifelong fan, so I've been meaning to do this for quite a while; in fact, the first text I can remember ever reading was the back of one of the three volumes of the Lord of the Rings. It took a bit longer for me to get to the books themselves, but I've been reading and re-reading them for twenty years now, and there are so many different memories wrapped up in them for me that I wouldn't even know where to start.

But I have no intention of writing about my personal relationship with these books. Besides, some of that stuff isn't fit to write about in public... What I will be doing is a close reading of at least the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. And it starts right now.

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"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."

This is the sentence J.R.R. Tolkien wrote on a blank leaf of paper while correcting exams in the late 1920's, and it grew into the story I've just started reading again. In the preface, his son Christopher writes how the story was first told to him and his brothers in front of their fireplace as a fairy-tale, completely unconnected to the great mythology Tolkien was already working on. Later, as he transformed the story into the book, he did connect the two; in his own words:
"Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm's fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it [the Silmarillion legend] - so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge. And what more can hobbits do? They can be comic, but their comedy is suburban unless it is set against things more elemental."

In my mind, it's exactly this juxtaposition of opposites, so to speak, that's one of the greatest strengths of Tolkien's writing. In the same story we have war, death, dragons and strands of the great story of a discord as old as time itself, alongside a comical dinner-party and fairy-tale songs and rhymes. The flawless interweaving of the two, the light and the dark, is what gives the text its rich texture, like the blending of the light of the trees of Valinor.

Now that you've got a fair notion of how I feel about the material at hand, let's get to business.

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In the first chapter, we're introduced to Mr. Bilbo Baggins: a very proper upper middle class hobbit of considerable means and good manners. He's rich and lives very comfortably, on inherited money whose provenance we never learn, or its extent for that matter, because it isn't talked about. He has a large home in the best upper-middle-class taste: luxurious but not palatial, down-to-earth but not vulgar. All in all we meet a very solid, respectable gentlehobbit smoking his pipe at his front door.

Tolkien's left-wing critics have been numerous ever since the Lord of the Rings started gaining acclaim; he's still hated by much of the left with the sort of mimeograph passion that leads some party rag or other to reprint, almost word-for-word, the same Marxist critiques of Tolkien's terrible conservatism that have been going around for half a century. It's only been a few years since one of the self-appointed literati of our Green party played that well-worn record, for instance. I'm not going to talk about politics much, mostly because I find the notion that everything an author writes is a direct reflection of their deepest political prejudices to be completely ridiculous. Certainly there is much in Tolkien's works to criticize in terms of politics - none of his texts would seem to pass even the most elementary versions of the Bechdel test, for starters - but for now I just want to point out that in my opinion, the majority of Tolkien's political critics miss two major points. Firstly, that Tolkien was explicitly engaged in the construction of a mythology, which he set in an imaginary past. This to the critics who call him a "monarchist" because there are kings in his stories! They confuse setting with ideal. Secondly, they miss the way Tolkien creates juxtapositions and ambiguities. The Shire is no simple rural paradise; its confines are too dull for two of his main characters, its limited government and respectable bourgeoisie no match for its enemies. There are no pure heroes and Always Chaotic Evil villains. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

For now, the point is that as soon as Bilbo has been set up as a pillar of the community with his pipe in his mouth and his thumb behind his braces he is completely overwhelmed by a comedy of manners that makes a mockery of his respectability and airs. The wizard Gandalf arrives on the scene and thoroughly defeats Bilbo by taking his bourgeois small talk at face value and obstinately refusing to play the game of manners with him, causing Bilbo to - very much against his will and to his regret - invite Gandalf over for tea the next evening. In the event, not only does Gandalf come, but in a delightful fairy-tale progression a horde of dwarves come to Bilbo's door in ones, twos and eventually a party of four, and Bilbo's respectable manners make him entirely unable to refuse to let them in, even forcing him to cater to them, running to and from the pantry and the kitchen like a waiter at a restaurant. He fumes and contemplates childish acts of resistance, like hiding in the beer cellar until the dwarves go away, but in the end is powerless to stop them from taking over his home as their meeting-place for the evening.

The Hobbit is told as a children's story: the narrator is very much present in the text, addressing the reader directly and speaking as one of the "Big People", i.e. us humans. It's a story you can well imagine being told at a fireside, and is perfectly suited for reading out loud, even if those of us who are less musically inclined find it best to render the songs as poetry. The dwarven occupation of Bilbo's parlour is a fairy-tale comedy of the best kind. But when the dwarves have had their fill and Bilbo has been running around long enough, the mood of the story shifts. The dwarves sing one of the great songs of Tolkien's works, "Far over the misty mountains cold", and their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, tells the tale of Erebor: how the dragon Smaug laid waste to his father's halls in the Lonely Mountain and dwells there even now with his plunder, and how the dwarves mean to have their vengeance upon him. That Bilbo passes out with a scream in the middle of the story underlines how ridiculous his middle-class pomp has been, and how alien the dwarves' world of high adventure and generational grudges against great worms is to the suburban comforts of Bilbo's home, themselves so familiar to us.

Several of the dualities of the story are present right here. The two narratives, one a comic fairy-tale and another a dark story of death and revenge. Bilbo Baggins the modern bourgeois and the dwarves from the pages of the Prose Edda, with Gandalf as a mediating figure with a metaphorical foot in both worlds. There are several deliberate anachronisms in the story, all connected to Bilbo: he shrieks like a locomotive, his illustrious ancestor is supposedly the inventor of the game of golf, and so on. I follow Tom Shippey in seeing these as deliberate, meant to make Bilbo familiar to us and even identifiable with, as a modern figure in an alien world. This isn't a historical fiction story that tries to set itself firmly in the past, but a story for Tolkien's contemporaries, meant to connect them to an ancient world of Norse myth and magic. I think it's done that quite well.

One of the most important dualities of the first chapter is Bilbo's personality. This is described by Tolkien as Bilbo's two heritages: his solid, respectable Baggins father and his mother, from the rich but unpredictable and controversially adventurous Took clan. During the meeting, it transpires that Gandalf has brought the dwarves to Bilbo so that they can hire him as a burglar, or expert treasure-hunter, to use the more polite phrase. At first this seems completely absurd, even cruel: certainly Bilbo Baggins is no burglar! But for the son of Belladonna Took to go on an adventure, now, that's different. As an interesting point of gendered presentations, Gandalf pointedly addresses Bilbo as Belladonna's son. Bilbo's inner struggle between the comforts of home and the call of adventure is framed in terms of negotiating between his Baggins and Took side; this kind of deep internal conflict between two identities is key to Tolkien's characters.

Evebtually the Took side wins, leading Bilbo to present himself as a professional burglar ready to embark on a profitable venture. He is told the full story of Smaug's assault on the Lonely Mountain, and Gandalf produces a map and key to a side-door which will allow them secret access to the dragon's lair. With the dwarven song ringing in his ears, Bilbo goes to sleep, and in bed his Baggins side reasserts itself, firmly deciding that the dwarves can go to hell, because he isn't going anywhere with them the next day.