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.


"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.


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.