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.

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