There and Back Again… Again: The Hobbit Reread

The Hobbit Reread: Chapter 2, “Roast Mutton”

Happy Thanksgiving, those who celebrate, and happy Thursday, those who don’t. This week in the Hobbit reread, we consider Chapter 2, “Roast Mutton.” The usual discussion—including spoilers for all things Tolkien—follows after the jump.

 

What Happens

Bilbo wakes to find Bag End empty of people but full of dirty dishes. He washes up  and is “just sitting down to a nice little second breakfast” when Gandalf appears, determines that he did not find the note to him on the mantelpiece telling him to meet the dwarves at a local inn, and hurries him out the door to make the meeting on time.

The company rides into unpopulated lands, and, on a windy wet night, find themselves camping in the open with no fire, little food, and no Gandalf, who vanished unnoticed sometime that day. They decide to investigate a light in the distance, since “After all we have got a burglar with us.” Bilbo discovers three cranky trolls, and attempts to pick one troll’s pocket. The purse he lifts, however, objects out loud, and he is caught.

The trolls question Bilbo and then fight over what to do with him, allowing Bilbo to escape. He is unable to go far while he recovers from the trolls’ rough treatment, so he sees all thirteen dwarves come up to the fire, one by one, and get popped into sacks by the trolls—even Thorin, the last, who came prepared for a fight (and who Bilbo does try to help).

As Bilbo watches, the trolls begin to fight again over what to do with their captures, thanks to comments that they each think are coming from the others but turn out to be from a returned, hidden Gandalf. This squabbling lasts long enough for the sun to come up and turn the trolls to stone.

The company finds the trolls’ storage cave and open it with a key Bilbo found on the ground. They take food and bury money; Gandalf and Thorin take beautiful swords, and Bilbo takes a knife. Back on the road, Gandalf tells the company that he left to scout ahead and met friends from Rivendell, where they are heading, who warned him about the trolls and caused him to turn back.

 

Comments

The main thing I noticed about this chapter was its speed, both in the way Bilbo is rushed into the journey and in the fact that the trolls are all the way here in Chapter 2! I had not remembered that they were this early, since Frodo et al. don’t find them again until the last chapter of Book One of Fellowship.

The greater significance of this speed is explained neatly in a timely post by Rush-That-Speaks comparing The Hobbit and LotR, which points out that “It became a meme that you can’t simply walk into Mordor, except that you can, you do, and that’s the only way you get there.” We talked about walking in the LotR reread with regard to Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings” (see this journal post from my pre-Tor.com attempt at a reread). But Rush-That-Speaks focuses on how walking into Mordor is a choice, particularly for Frodo, who “walks as far as he can with what help he can gather, is wounded beyond bearing, walks out of his own endurance, and is, at the very last, carried when he can go no further.”

In contrast, mostly Bilbo is carried. After being shoved out his front door, “he moves from pony to pony to goblinback to eagle-claw to pony again to barrel to boat to pony.” (The unsteerable barrel is particularly telling, since Frodo later gets to row across Anduin.) Bilbo becomes able to influence events through the means of transportation, but the destinations are outside his control until he comes into his own at the Lonely Mountain.

(Rush-That-Speaks’ post also has a theory about the different treatments of the Ring in the books, but I’ll leave that for you to read, partly because I don’t want to summarize the entire post and partly because I am too Doylist in this matter: for me, the different treatment of the Ring in The Hobbit is sufficiently explained by there only being so much retconning Tolkien could do when he realized what Bilbo’s ring was.)

Thus: Bilbo has very little choice about the start of his journey. Left to himself, he would not have gone: “he was really relieved after all,” and only “just a trifle disappointed,” when he thinks that the dwarves left without him. Gandalf hurries him up so much that he applies no conscious thought to the decision to leave: “To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking-stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out.” (I know it all ends for the best and you couldn’t get Bilbo to go any other way, but I still get a bit upset on his behalf at the railroading.) And then when the company spots the trolls’ light, they send him off “before he could explain that he could not hoot even once like any kind of owl any more than fly like a bat.”

So that’s a lot of setup of Bilbo not choosing his own destination. What does it result in? The main thing is he attempts to act as a burglar. Now, I thought someone commented on the last post saying that the very idea of “burglar” as a well-established, professional role was kind of odd, but I can’t find it—regardless, the narrator’s description highlights this:

After hearing all this Bilbo ought to have done something at once. Either he should have gone back quietly and warned his friends that there were three fair-sized trolls at hand in a nasty mood, quite likely to try roasted dwarf, or even pony, for a change; or else he should have done a bit of good quick burgling. 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. Others more practical but with less professional pride would perhaps have stuck a dagger into each of them before they observed it. Then the night could have been spent cheerily.

Bilbo knew it. He had read of a good many things he had never seen or done.

I still don’t know what to make of this as a piece of world-building, but note that “burglar” now includes instrumental violence, which is inelegant but not otherwise worthy of comment. (I should note here that unless I say, “I think this is a lousy / upsetting / unpleasant thing for the character / book to do,” my observations are meant as “huh, look at that, I wonder what it means, let’s talk about it” rather than disapproval, as last post, my tone was apparently unclear to some.)

Regardless, Bilbo has specific (literature-based!) expectations of himself in the role of burglar and decides to try to fulfill them. Starting with a troll is perhaps not the wisest idea, but despite the railroading he is willing to play the role. How this plays out in the middle of the book I don’t recall well enough right now, but I do know that he’s still in the role of a burglar in the biggest decision he makes, handing over the Arkenstone to try to make peace—pushing the boundaries of the role, but still acting through stealth and theft and in a commercial framework. So I think we can see this chapter as beginning as he will go on. Bilbo also shows courage in attempting to help Thorin fight the trolls, and a talent for picking up useful things in finding the key to the trolls’ cave. He doesn’t do a lot in this chapter, because it’s early goings yet, but the seeds of how he starts growing into an active character are here.

* * *

The other major thing I noticed about this chapter is the dwarves coming one-by-one to the trolls’ fire. A few people commented last time about the similarities of the dwarves arriving at Bilbo’s and at Beorn’s, strung out so that they all will eventually gain entry. Since I was wincing along with Bilbo at the awkwardness of his home being invaded, I laughed and laughed when I realized that the dwarves were doing a similar thing here—and getting popped into sacks as a result! My amusement over this makes me perfectly happy to overlook that it doesn’t really make much sense when you think about it—surely by the time half of them had gone and not come back, the rest would decide to change the plan? Or, well, they also seem extremely blasé about Gandalf vanishing without a word, so maybe their sense of danger is calibrated differently than mine. (Yes, I know that they know Gandalf can take care of himself, but still, I’d think the vanishing unnoticed would cause a bit more concern than just “Where has Gandalf got to?”)  But, anyway, the point is: dwarves coming up one by one to get popped into sacks = hilarious.

* * *

Some comments on the trolls. They strike me as close to humans in the same way hobbits are: on a different scale, but obviously humanoid in appearance and acting in recognizable social ways. When Bilbo sees the trolls, here’s what the narrator says:

Three very large persons sitting round a very large fire of beech-logs [eating and drinking]. . . . But they were trolls. Obviously trolls. Even Bilbo, in spite of his sheltered life, could see that: from the great heavy faces of them, and their size, and the shape of their legs, not to mention their language, which was not drawing-room fashion at all, at all.

They speak a low-class version of the same language everyone has been speaking so far (I’m not sure if the “translation” conceit applies to The Hobbit and thus whether that’s English or Westron); they squabble with each other (rather amusingly; I particularly liked “calling one another all sorts of perfectly true and applicable names in very loud voices”); they have prosaic names like William Huggins, Bert, and Tom; and they have only one head each—unlike some other trolls, apparently. (The Annotated Hobbit indicates that trolls with more than one head and that turn to stone in the daylight are found in multiple fairy tales; also, Tolkien’s illustration “The Trolls” (which is included in my 75th anniversary edition ebook) is modeled on a Hansel and Gretel illustration from a 1920s fairy tale collection.) In short, they are relatively low on the “monster” scale, as it were, which I suspect will ramp steady upward until we get to Smaug.

* * *

Miscellaneous comments:

  • Early in the chapter, Bilbo tells himself that he shouldn’t “thinking of dragons and all that outlandish nonsense at your age!”, which is “fifty years old or so” per Chapter 1. I’m not sure whether The Hobbit was written with the idea, seen in LotR, that hobbits come of age at thirty-three, so I’m not sure whether Bilbo is middle-aged or merely adult. But if he is middle-aged, that makes him somewhat unusual as a SFF protagonist, I believe?
  • We talked about servants and housecleaning last time, so I must note that Gandalf fully expects Bilbo to dust his mantelpiece daily, and Bilbo doesn’t deny that that’s his usual practice when he’s not washing up for fourteen. Which says to me that he doesn’t have house servants or the equivalent of a cleaning service, though I think sending out laundry might still be reasonable.
  • There’s a sentence of landscape description as they approach troll-country that made me sit up and say, “That’s the same writer who wrote Lord of the Rings.”

    Still the dwarves jogged on, never turning round or taking any notice of the hobbit. Somewhere behind the grey clouds the sun must have gone down, for it began to get dark as they went down into a deep valley with a river at the bottom. Wind got up, and willows along its banks bent and sighed. Fortunately the road went over an ancient stone bridge, for the river, swollen with the rains, came rushing down from the hills and mountains in the north.

    The “wind got up” sentence might be not entirely grammatically correct, but it feels like Tolkien to me.

  • One of the dwarves, in talking about the isolation of the Lone-lands, says, “They have seldom even heard of the king round here.” I wonder if this is proverbial, as it would be in LotR? It’s just a passing mention, with no narrator explanation, but from what I recall of the later part of the book, it doesn’t feel like there’s a king anywhere that Tolkien later had a better idea about.
  • Finally, I am going to start cataloguing specific dwarf characteristics, to see if I can remember who’s who this time. Thus:

    • Dori and Nori “shared the hobbit’s views about regular meals, plenty and often.”
    • Oin and Gloin are “specially good at” making fire.
    • Balin “was always their look-out man.”

I suspect we get to Rivendell next time, since Gandalf introduces it at the end of the chapter (without explanation yet). See you when we find out.


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.

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