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.

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