Welcome to the reread of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, where we will consider one chapter of the book per week. I haven’t read the book in a very long time, and I wasn’t planning on re-reading it again in advance of the first of the movies next month, but when the nice folks here at Tor.com asked me about a re-read series, I simply couldn’t say no. I’ll be interested to see if this re-read brings me as many surprises as the The Lord of the Rings re-read did, and I very much look forward to hearing what you all think.
As before, everything Tolkien is fair game in the posts and comments. If you’re new to the book and you care about spoilers, you can read along instead with Mark Reads, who read it completely unspoiled about a year ago.
Before we begin, a brief note about my history with the book. Family lore has it that it was my first “real book,” at some absurdly precocious age. I have no memory of reading it for the first time, though I do remember the books themselves: a kids’ turn-the-page abridged edition, a paperback with Tolkien’s own river painting as a cover, and an oversized hardcover illustrated with art from the Rankin-Bass movie, the 1977 Harry N. Abrams Inc. edition described here. (Book collectors, don’t get excited, it’s not in good condition.) For all that I loved the illustrated version as a kid, I’ve still never seen the Rankin-Bass movie and didn’t even realize until quite recently that that was where the art came from.
But though I read The Hobbit first, I didn’t keep reading it. It wasn’t part of my annual re-read of The Lord of the Rings, and I genuinely have no idea when the last time I read the text was. I did listen to an audiobook (narrated by Rob Inglis, which was not to my very-finicky taste) about seven years ago. Then, my principal impressions where that it was unexpectedly grim; it was a cautionary tale against greed; and it depended a lot on luck for its plot. I have since forgotten what I meant by the last part of that, so that will be something to rediscover. Again.
Bilbo Baggins is smoking a pipe outside his home when a wizard named Gandalf comes by and, after a short conversation, says that he is going to send Bilbo on an adventure. Bilbo attempts to decline and invites Gandalf to tea the next day as a way of leaving the conversation.
The next day at tea-time, dwarves just keep showing up and demanding food and drink as though they’re expected: thirteen eventually, plus Gandalf with the last group. Bilbo is flustered and upset, especially since the dwarves are very demanding eaters and drinkers. As the day ends and the room darkens, the dwarves sing a song about longing to recover their gold and treasures from a dragon. Bilbo is briefly moved to a spirit of adventure and then is frightened again. When Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the dwarvish company, begins to pontificate on their dangerous plans—and the fact that they expect Bilbo to come with them—Bilbo turns into a quivering mess and has to be put on the sofa in another room to recover.
When Bilbo feels better, he comes back to the group and overhears another dwarf, Gloin, expressing his doubts about Bilbo’s suitability as a burglar. Bilbo’s pride is hurt and he walks in declaring that he will do whatever they need him to. Gandalf tells them all to settle down: “I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you. If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes.”
There is then an expository conversation about how the dragon Smaug drove the dwarves out of the Lonely Mountain; how Gandalf obtained a map showing a secret door, and an accompanying key, from Thrain, Thorin’s father, in the dungeons of the Necromancer; and how they’re going to head for that door and . . . figure something out. Then they all go to bed, though Bilbo is “not now quite so sure that he was going on any journey in the morning.”
Two things principally struck me about this chapter: first, the characters, and second, the tone.
The characters: perhaps it’s because of my long relationship with this book, but I was surprised how unsympathetic I found, well, everyone except Bilbo, and that only part of the time. Gandalf could not be more stereotypically grumpy and unforthcoming—seriously, interrogating Bilbo on the deeper meaning of “Good morning!” when used as a greeting? That’s the first thing out of your mouth? Never mind the entirely arbitrary way he forces Bilbo on the dwarves, and also damaging the paintwork on Bilbo’s beautiful front door.
The dwarves? They do help Bilbo serve, but only after he complains to himself, and they tease him mercilessly with their song while they clear the dishes. (The bit where they just keep showing up at the front door is briefly funny to me, up until the last pratfall, but otherwise I don’t find them amusing here because I’m too busy wincing along with Bilbo.)
Bilbo himself? Well, I like that he sticks up for himself eventually, but it’s an odd move to have your protagonist—your eponymous protagonist, even—described thusly:
But [Thorin] was rudely interrupted. Poor Bilbo couldn’t bear it any longer. At may never return he began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel. All the dwarves sprang up, knocking over the table. Gandalf struck a blue light on the end of his magic staff, and in its firework glare the poor little hobbit could be seen kneeling on the hearth-rug, shaking like a jelly that was melting. Then he fell flat on the floor, and kept on calling out “struck by lightning, struck by lightning!” over and over again; and that was all they could get out of him for a long time.
Certainly it gives Bilbo quite a lot of room to display his personal growth, but, enh. Possibly my embarrassment/humiliation squick is interfering with my judgment, here.
That quote leads me into the second major thing, the tone. The Hobbit has an explicit and intrusive narrator who is telling us this story, and so “poor little hobbit” and “shaking like a jelly” are from his point of view (I am assuming that the narrator and the author are the same, though I am open to other interpretations). Sometimes this works fine, and sometimes the tone wobbles so widely that I-the-adult-reader get whiplash. Immediately after the paragraph quoted above, for instance, comes:
“Excitable little fellow,” said Gandalf, as they sat down again. “Gets funny queer fits, but he is one of the best, one of the best—as fierce as a dragon in a pinch.”
If you have ever seen a dragon in a pinch, you will realize that this was only poetical exaggeration applied to any hobbit, even to Old Took’s great-grand-uncle Bullroarer, who was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfimbul’s head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment.
Again, this may be because I’m looking for how the book gets from here to Thorin buried under the Mountain with the Arkenstone on his breast; but, golf, seriously?
In a year or so I’m probably going to run this experiment in-house (that is: read the book out loud to SteelyKid, who turned four this summer), but do any of you remember reading this for the first time and how you reacted? Again, I have a natural sympathy for Bilbo and, hey, quests and dragons and secret doors, great, but I was surprised how much I didn’t like Gandalf and how much the text seemed to be working against my Bilbo sympathies.
- Hobbit aesthetics trump ergonomics? A perfectly round door with a handle in the exact middle sounds suboptimal, particularly to open and close.
- Any pipe smokers here? If a pipe is nearly down to Bilbo’s toes, so maybe three feet long, what effect does that have? My instinct was that it would be really hard to inhale smoke over that long a distance, but I’ve never smoked a pipe, so that’s just a guess.
- The changing characterization of Gandalf over the books is very clear. I can’t see Gandalf the White giving out “a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered,” can you?
- I don’t think I’d noticed before that Bilbo bakes his own seedcakes. There has been much discussion about Shire economics over the years, but I was interested to find that my backbrain associates “gentlebeing of leisure,” which I think is what Bilbo and Frodo are, with “has servants to cook.”
- Music makes such a big difference. On the page, I find the dwarves’ song about the dragon very thump-thump and boring; give it a tune, as heard from about :50 into the first trailer, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
- I do not have a sufficiently mythological frame of mind, and thus the phrase “the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert” made me laugh and think of earthworms, before I realized that Wyrms of a dragon-like nature must be what’s intended. (I admit, I still think were-earthworms is pretty funny, though.)
And that’s it for me for this chapter. What do you all think? The comments were the best part of the LotR re-read and I’m very much looking forward to great discussions again, so please do chime in.
Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog.