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.

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