Sunday, June 24, 2012

Puttin' the Blog in Balrog I: The Hobbit, Chapters 1-5

Like, I suspect, many of my generation who were kids in the 1970s, my first foray into J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth wasn't a reading experience at all. It was via the animated efforts of Rankin Bass:

You can watch the whole film right there! Isn't modern technology spectacular?

To this very day, I hear John Huston's voice narrating the novel and speaking Gandalf's lines,Orson Bean as Bilbo Baggins, Hans "5000 Fingers of Doctor T" Conried as Thorin, and Glen Yarbrough singing the poetry. I'm sure I'm not alone, there.

It's been several years since I last read The Hobbit, though I read the "more grown-up" Lord of the Rings trilogy pretty much every autumn. I'm pretty happy to return to it for the summer Middle Earth read-a-thon, though. It's truly a book that not only stands up to repeated readings but is deeply enriched by the reader's having tackled Tolkien's serious efforts at world-building in The Silmarillion* a staggering work of myth-making the philologist spent years on, creating a fully realized world and history in which his lovely invented languages would be spoken if he'd been the boss of anything.

Haven't read The Silmarillion? Well, don't worry; it's not everyone's flagon of miruvor. But my good friend EssJay read it so you don't have to (although if you don't mind some grognardy goodness, you probably should anyway). Just start from the bottom of the page, where Part I is, and enjoy her amusing take on it. She was pretty excited to get this party started.

And so am I!

The Hobbit: Chapters 1-5

Chapter 1:
When I was a kid I wanted to live in Bilbo's hobbit hole; it wasn't until I got to college that I realized that pretty much everyone did. A pre-cursor to the modern fad for earth homes, it sounds like the coziest and most convenient dwelling imaginable, but can still host quite a party at need! Good thing, too, because here come ALL THE DWARVES.

The highlight of this chapter when I was a kid was the song the dwarves sing (not in Glen Yarbrough's voice) about what not to do in Bilbo's kitchen. I used to sing it under my breath when my mom made me do the dishes, but like the dwarves, I never followed through on the implied threat. Well, not on purpose (though had the old "break something precious the first time so you never get asked to do it again" gambit worked as well for kids as for husbands...).

This time, though, it's probably the song they sing by way of introducing the theme of what kind of hare-brained mad adventure they're shanghai-ing Bilbo into on Gandalf's recommendation. With EssJay's Silma-summary, if not The Silmarillion itself, fresh in my brain, their story of pale enchanted gold and the underground kingdoms in which they made it into cool stuff was thrillingly resonant of the dwarves' very beginnings, created by a lesser demiurge, Aule, who got impatient waiting around for the hotshot Illuvitar to get on with populating the place already. When Illuvitar found out he was technically late to the character creation party, he had a fit, and so Aule stashed the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves "in various places" in Middle Earth to wait until Illuvitar got around to actually creating the elves.

Our man Thorin, wearer of the sky blue hood with a silver tassel (this description thus assuring for all time that I would always, always, always imagine Tolkien's Dwarves wearing fezzes) who wants to take back his family's treasure hoard from the dragon Smaug, is a direct lineal descendant of the first of the dwarves to awaken, and has a huge chip on his shoulder that makes a lot more sense when the reader realizes that the dwarves shoulda come first, gosh darn it. They deserve a little help when a dragon comes along, roasts most of their families alive and turns all of their gold into a big shiny mattress (which, diamond-hard scales or not, that still has to be maybe the least comfortable bed ever, surely?), but do they get any from any of the Men or Elves living nearby? Like hell they do.

But really, when you're depending on the goodwill of your customers to survive a disaster, you're probably doing it wrong. Especially if those customers just took it in the pants, too. But hey.

Point is, these are wronged dwarves, and Gandalf has somehow convinced them that this Baggins character, who looks more like a grocer than a burglar, is their best bet at righting this terrible wrong. But has he convinced Baggins himself? Let's read on!*

Chapter 2:
Holy faits accompli, Gandalf! I mean, I know you're basically a demigod and all, but you're really quite the con man, aren't you? When in doubt, convince your mark that he's already agreed and it would be indecent to pull out now, then hustle him out the door without any pocket handkerchiefs. Ha ha.

So we're off now, twelve dwarves and Bilbo on ponies, heading for adventure. Gandalf catches them up "splendid on a white horse" and for some reason this is the first time I've said "Shadowfax?" at this point. Like I said, it's been a long time since I read The Hobbit -- and it's the fact that you can read a book 20-some times and still discover new things that marks it as an exceptionally good one.

"He had brought a lot of pocket handkerchiefs and Bilbo's pipe and tobacco." Not pipeweed, tobacco. Was Bilbo just too much of a fuddy duddy to smoke Longbottom Leaf**, are pipeweed and tobacco synonymous, or other? This is all, of course, deeply irrelevant to everyone except for those people who love to think of Gandalf and the Hobbits as getting high together. I'm really not one of those. Your mileage may vary.

And so begins the most crummyawsome vacation ever. Clark Griswold has nothing on these guys, who barely clear the borders of the Shire (one presumes: the Shire is not named in this book, just references to wild but respectable countryside settled by hobbits and farmers and dwarves on errands) before a pony bolts, two of the guys nearly drown trying to get him out of a river swollen with lots of spring runoff, and 1/14th of the baggage is gone. I hope Dinky wasn't tied onto that one.

All that is, of course, neither here nor there, for the point of this chapter is TROLLS! Trolls who sound a lot like I imagine my dad did when he was a kid "Mutton yesterday, mutton today and blimey, if it don't look like mutton again tomorrer." My dad grew up eating mutton and hated it, and now won't even touch a nice rack of lamb because as far as he's concerned, it's mutton. He also had two brothers, and they liked to go camping, so my mental picture of these trolls has always been very, very distorted, conflated with that of three rough-and-tumble little boys camping in the sagebrush as it is.***

Wait, did I just call my dad and uncles trolls? But of course, I speak of when they were little boys, and from the stories I've heard growing up, Dennis the Menace had nothing on them, so the comparison may be as apt as it is unflattering. I definitely come from the school of thought that holds that children are born savage little beasts and have to learn to be civilized beings, rather than the silly old Rousseauist "saintly innocent child" school. And hey, how do we know these are adult trolls, sitting here on the edge of the wilds of Middle Earth? They could well be three little troll brothers on their first foray on their own. Poor things, with nasty Mr. Bagginses the Burrahobbit (how I laughed at that as a kid! This again reminds me of my father, who is never one to pass up a chance to pounce on the absurd in something a kid has said to him) looking on and dreaming of robbing or murdering them while they gobble their supper.

And there I've talked myself into feeling sorry for the trolls.

But Bilbo soon redeems himself in my eyes, for he is more kin to me and my sense of humor than the trolls are, really. "I am a good cook myself, and I cook better than I cook, if you see what I mean." One wonders what Tolkien might have made of the astonishing versatility of a certain other monosyllabic term (the one beginning with "F") had he been of a mind to. At any rate, if there were any lingering doubt that a philologist wrote this book, this would fry it up in a pan, no?

At any rate, Gandalf's extended ruse to rescue everybody still stands up as a masterful bit of pranking, though with my newfound sympathy for the trolls, it feels kind of mean-spirited. Still, The Hobbit would be a much shorter book if the dwarves all wound up being minced and boiled, or roasted, or squashed to jelly, to add a little variety to Bert's and Tom's and Bill's diets, right?

Because without the dwarves, Bilbo would probably have turned around and gone back to his hobbit hole with the beautiful green door. Right?

We'll meet these trolls once again early on in Fellowship of the Ring, and of course this chapter is also noticeable as the origin of Gandalf's possession of the famous Gondolin-made sword Glamdring, known as "Foe-Hammer" to the orcs, and of Thorin's getting Orcrist, aka "Goblin Cleaver", which Bill and Bert and Tom had in their secret hoard.

Chapter 3
As our party slouches on towards Rivendell, the question that really won't let me go this time around is this: how does Bilbo know what Elves smell like? He's led, we've been told, quite a lot, a very quiet, even sheltered life, not one to "go out of the blue for mad adventures" so his chances of ever having encountered an Elve (tee hee), let alone Elves, seem pretty slim. But here he is, as they follow the trail of white rocks, remarking that "it smells like Elves!" So what's the explanation, here? Is it some genetically bestowed superpower from the Took side of his ancestry? Are the pocket handkerchiefs Gandalf brought along imbued with a special "detect Elf smell" charm? Inquiring minds want to know. Or at least this one does.

Anyway, Rivendell. Everybody's favorite set design from The Fellowship of the Ring's film adaptation (well, almost everyone's; I'm sure there are some stump humpers out there who like Lothlorien better), home of Agent Smith/V/Tick/Hugo Weaving, the Last Homely House, where a rather campy bunch of know-it-alls sing a very silly song of welcome**** and observe that the sight of Bilbo the hobbit on a pony is "delicious" and later Elrond reveals the proud lineage of Gandolf's shiny new sword (and of Thorin's too, but the King of Gondolin, Turgon himself, wore Glamdring to war, so it's somewhat cooler) and finds the hidden moon runes on Thorin's treasure map. I was always tantalized by his observation, after he has read his bit from the map and been asked if there's anything else, that there is "none to be seen by this moon." Am I the only one who would immediately be clamoring to look at the map during every other moon phase just in case? Maybe to see if there's a note saying that Smaug is ticklish under his left wing or that if you play Dwarves in da Hood's latest hit single at just the right volume he'll forget who he is and you can trick him into impregnating his sister?


OK, just me, then.

Also: not a lot of geo/ecological change going on in Middle Earth at this point, that everyone can be absolutely sure that the grey stone is going to stay put and that the thrush is going to keep on "knocking" in exactly the same place every year on Durin's Day and never, ever take a year off. If it were me trying to break into the Lonely Mountain, I could guarandamntee that the year I got there would also be the year some bastard with a bow took my flying keyhole clue home to the missus to be made into pie. But then, as we'll shortly see in spades, Bilbo is a much luckier person than I am, which is probably why the KATE STATION has never seen a Dwarvish invasion, unless you count some nights when I am grumpy, sneezy and sleepy all at once.

Chapter 4
This is the most action-packed chapter yet, and also contains some of Tolkien's very finest weather pr0n as he describes a big mountain thunderstorm in loving detail. I remember one year, I must have been about nine or ten years old, when I took my copy of The Hobbit (from the Ballantine boxed set, which I still have, much worn, so worn that this time I'm reading on my Kindle to spare yet more wear. I still think those are the coolest covers) camping and we got caught in a thunderstorm just like this one. I kept quoting from these passages and babbling about stone giants until my parents told me, very kindly, to shut up. Then the next morning, a herd of sheep invaded our camp site on their way somewhere and our tiny peek-a-poo miraculously survived trying to herd them. What I'm saying here is that I KNOW!

I also learned from this chapter that it's better to get soaked to the bone than take shelter in a strange cave. No strange caves up in Wyoming's Snowy Range, which is good, because if we'd ever gotten caught in a storm and had to shelter in one I would have had screaming hysterical fits.

But it's the swords that were really the problem here, right? Because otherwise the goblins would surely have just eaten the ponies, rifled through the baggage, and let the dwarves and hobbits go, because Thorin apologized, right? Pompously, but you know, everyone knows Thorin's kind of a pompous jerk and that news has surely made it deep into the roots of the Misty Mountains and the tunnels of what is probably Moria or at least the exurban tunnel network outside Moria, where all the Big Box joints drove all the mom 'n' pop pickaxe-and-shovel shops out of business, forcing all the goblins to make the trek to the 'burbs to get their whips, right? Because it was only when the goblins found that Thorin had Orcrist, aka Goblin Cleaver but known as Biter to the goblins, that they got mad, right? Otherwise it would have all been goblin tea and finger sandwiches. Um. Ew.

Of course, in terms of the bigger picture (much bigger), it's a very good thing that Thorin had Biter, or else there would have been no dramatic escape through the tunnels that led to Bilbo getting knocked out and dropped and all of the events of Chapter 5 and, his burglar-y exploits later in the book and, you know, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy. A goblin would have found the One Ring, lorded it over his friends for a while until the Nazgul came along and said, dude, that's our Master's and then Middle Earth would have turned into one giant Chinese Special Economic Zone.

Most important trolls EVER.

Chapter 5
It's such a tiny little moment, isn't it, when Bilbo finds the Ring? He might just have easily have left it where he, uh, felt it. He's much more concerned that he doesn't have any matches to light his pipe. Ho ho, if he had only known, I'm sure he could have made fire happen with the almighty power of the trinket in his pocket!

Of course, he could have also probably made Smaug get out of bed and dance the hula later on, too. But all this might-have-been speculation is probably only amusing to me.

I'm a little concerned that he wore Sting, the little dagger-sword he found in Bert and Tom and Bill's stash, inside his breeches. How did he not do permanent, uh, damage to himself thereby in all the commotion and jostling in the tunnels? On the other hand, he never did have children...

All this is neither here nor there (and back again), however, because this chapter is all about Gollum, "as dark as darkness" (but acceptable in the movie version as a pale and stunted cave animal type creature, though then perhaps he should have been blind as well, no?) whom we obsessive re-readers now know used to be a being "very like" a hobbit*****, and has a hobbity, Tolkien-y love of riddles and word-play and also a razory attention on the task at hand, which is why it never even occurs to him that "what have I got in my pocket?" is neither a riddle nor a query directed at him and basically talks himself into forfeiting to Bilbo. Of course, we re-readers see a sort of parallel here with how the Ring came to be Gollum's back when he was Smeagol and logicked his way into believing that it was his birthday present from Deagol. Not that he knows he's lost that yet, though it is, in fact, the answer to Bilbo's non-riddle. Oh, clever, cleaver J.R.R!

I always, by the way, liked the idea that the goblins avoided the underground pool where Gollum lived because "they had a feeling something unpleasant was lurking down there." I always imagined Gollum sort of exulting in the fact that he was the scary thing in the water that the goblins were afraid of. They fearsss us, my preciousss!

Also, I remember as a tyke being completely gobsmacked by these riddles, because the only riddles I'd heard up until that time had been barely more complicated than knock-knock jokes, and these were so elegant, elusive and allusive I could have cried from sheer happiness! Except I remember being a little annoyed that Bilbo only accidentally guessed the Time riddle, because I'd gotten that one right away and was very impatient with him, but as the book says, I was sitting comfortably in my bedroom, beneath my Shaun Cassidy poster (shut up!) and not in danger of being eaten by anything except for some mosquitoes.

And then, of course, there is the all-important Pity of Bilbo, which I didn't remember as being so dramatic as it actually is, here. Gollum is completely at his mercy; Bilbo is invisible and has a sword and Gollum doesn't even realize his danger, and Bilbo has "a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering."

And you wonder why I almost always wind up feeling sorry for the bad guy?

And that's it for Chapters 1-5. Watch this space for more as our Summer of Middle Earth rolls on!

*He has also, thank goodness, convinced them that maybe trying to take on the Necromancer just now might not be the greatest of ideas. Of course, we all know who the Necromancer is, don't we?

Tell me this doesn't look like an Ullver album cover.

**And yes, now I'm thinking of Neville. Shut up.

***For more on how inaccurate a lot of my mental imagery of Middle Earth's landscapes have been, check out this post from my old blog back in 2001. Skip towards the bottom if you're impatient.

****And Tolkien intimates that the big beef between Dwarves and Elves lies chiefly in how much the Elves like to make fun of Dwarves' beards, which is, of course, balderdash, but it's amusing balderdash, so hey.

*****And yet in this book, our narrator claims "I don't know where he came from, nor who he was." Of course, The Hobbit is meant to be an adaptation or excerpt from Bilbo's travelogue and we don't ever, in any of the books, narrative, mytho-historical or behind-the-scenes-constructed-by-Christopher-from-Daddy's-notes, learn if Bilbo was ever told Gollum's origin story. I'm sure he must have heard it at some point, say on a particularly dull day at the Grey Havens, but we don't know for certain that he ever knew. So if this is just meant to be Bilbo telling this story, that's one thing, but if it's Tolkien, this is just coy and silly, isn't it? If he didn't want to tell the back-story here, he didn't have to, but he didn't have to call attention to there being a supposedly unknown back-story here, either! But then, but then, just pages later, we're told that asking riddles "and sometimes guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played with other funny cratures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago" so, um, argh! Yes, these are really the thoughts I have, at age 42, reading a book I first read at age 7.


  1. Thanks for putting that video up!

    I also found the hints of the backstory intriguing and aggravating at the same time this read through. As a kid, I thought it was simply an interesting note, but was far more focused on the current story and didn't really give the backstory hints much thought.

    A book is different every time you read it because you change and take away different things from the book. I am definitely seeing that with this book.

  2. I confess, I JUST had the same reaction when reading about Gandalf on the white horse. I will be reading LOTR closely now just to see whether this could be Shadowfax or whether Gandalf just has a thing for stealing white horses. Sort of like the feeling I get when reading The Hobbit after The Silmarillion: is the Arkenstone secretly one to the Silmarils? Could it be? Probably not, but I love thinking about stuff like this.

  3. To this day I am heard to insist that the Arkenstone is a Silmaril at parties. Or would be if I got to go to parties. Well, Balticon.

    This time around, I'm getting really hung up on who the narrator is supposed to be, and also the thrush. I will save my thrush thrustings for a later post, though. Knock knock.

  4. So much grumble about my lost comment. Damn you, Blogger. Daaaaaamn yooooou. I do remember that I complimented you with excessive excitement over a) the reference to earth houses and b) the fact that you mentioned The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T, which is ALL THE AWESOME.

  5. I had 'The Simarillion' as a teen but never got through it. I see now that I will have to finally read the whole thing after this. Or maybe during. :)


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