One would be hard pressed to argue The Hobbit being anything other than a children’s story, but when Thorin leaves a letter for Bilbo the morning after their unexpected party it becomes clear that Tolkien wasn’t ignoring adults entirely.
“Terms: cash on delivery, up to and not exceeding one fourteenth of total profits (if any); all travelling expenses guaranteed in any event; funeral expenses to be defrayed by us or our representatives, if occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for. Thinking it unnecessary to disturb your esteemed repose, we have proceeded in advance to make requisite preparations, and shall await your respected person at Green Dragon Inn, Bywater, at 11 a.m. sharp. Trusting that you will be punctual.”
The sarcasm here is razor sharp. While the letter appears nothing more than an unusually formal contract, its purpose is to mock Bilbo for his hesitation and supposed cowardice.
First, Thorin thanks Bilbo for offering his “professional” assistance, when in fact the dwarves forced his hand and have little faith in his ability to burgle anything. Next, he waves in Bilbo’s face the very real possibilities of failure and death, knowing that Bilbo is the last person willing to risk either. Finally, Thorin refers to Bilbo’s slumber as his “esteemed repose,” mocking his overblown civility. Thorin may as well have written, “Get over yourself and get your ass to Bywater.”
(Side note: Bywater, the Lonely Mountain, The Hill, the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood, Long Lake, Dale … the names in The Hobbit are far simpler than what we will see later in The Lord of the Rings. Very kid-friendly. They almost always describe exactly what the place is like.)
When I first read The Hobbit as a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old I hated the scene where Bilbo found Thorin’s note. The sarcasm was entirely lost on me at the time, and so I chalked it up to poor (by way of inconsistent) writing on Tolkien’s part. It seemed so out of place; the dwarves don’t talk like this. Now, seeing it for what it is, I love it. It adds a hardy bitterness to Thorin that’s welcome this early in the story.
However, despite my change of heart, I’m less excited to report that chapters two through four remain my least favourite section of the book.
Firstly, I’m still not able to reconcile the manner in which Bilbo becomes involved in the dwarves’ quest, in that he’s left almost no choice in the matter. Had the decision been left up to him, he would never have gone: “he was really relieved after all,” and “just a trifle disappointed” when he thought the dwarves left without him, and, “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 up well for Bilbo in the end (spoiler?!), and this was probably the only way in which he would have undertaken such a journey, but had things not gone well we’d be talking about Thorin (and Gandalf, most especially) in a much different light. They had no business railroading his entire life like they did, and ultimate success doesn’t excuse that, in my opinion. There’s something to be said about Bilbo needing more than a push to get past his comfort zone, but that’s easier said with the benefit of hindsight. The little guy could have—should have—died.
Secondly, the trolls—Bert, Tom and Bill Huggins—drive me crazy. Call me a purist, but trolls should not be comic fodder. I don’t care that this is a children’s story. Not everything requires levity. Trolls are menacing, destructive creatures; they shouldn’t sound like kooky grandpas.
I would have liked to talk more about Chapter 2—the strange and hilariously titled Roast Mutton—but I honest to God hate it so much I can’t find anything interesting or insightful to say about it. I mean, it proves the dwarves completely inept. For all they’ve thrown at Bilbo, they haven’t even bothered to bring weapons on this journey! Thorin tries to fend off the trolls with sticks he finds on the ground. And rather than investigate the far-off fire themselves, they send Bilbo in to do their dirty work in the name of burglary practice.
Thirdly, the elves. Like … what the f@#$, man.
The elves, we can all agree, are one of the more majestic and dignified aspects of The Lord of the Rings. In The Hobbit, they’re surprisingly (or, given that this is a children’s story, unsurprisingly) comical. Ridiculous, even.
They burst into song, boasting things like “Tra-la-la-lally!” and “Ha-Ha!” They tease the dwarves for their beards and Bilbo for his pudginess. Gandalf even has to chastise them for having “over-willing tongues.” Tolkien, himself, calls them “pretty fair nonsense.” One might argue they’re as ridiculous as the trolls, which says a lot given that one of the trolls is called Huggins for crying out loud.
I realize this is probably my issue as a reader more than Tolkien’s as a creator. These elves don’t hold up to the standard Tolkien set for them later, but The Hobbit isn’t The Lord of the Rings. I shouldn’t expect it to be. However, given that I’m a completionist when it comes to world building, and Tolkien was so masterful at the internal consistency I spoke of in my last post, it’s frustratingly contradictory.
(While we’re on the topic of comparisons, what struck me most while reading these chapters was the speed with which Tolkien moved the story along. Consider this: the trolls that Bilbo encounters in Chapter 2 aren’t seen in The Fellowship of the Ring until Chapter 12. The story is literally moving six times faster in The Hobbit.)
These chapters certainly weren’t all bad, though. There’s lots to like. Such as the description of Bilbo’s attire at the outset of the journey:
“Bilbo was wearing a dark green hood (a little weather stained) and a dark green cloak borrowed from Dwalin. They were too large for him, and he looked rather comic … His only comfort was he couldn’t be mistaken for a dwarf, as he had no beard.”
Literally and figuratively, the adventure doesn’t fit Bilbo yet. Not only that, but he doesn’t want it to fit him. He doesn’t want to be part of this company. He doesn’t want to feel comfortable huddled up on the wet, cold ground. He wants to be back at Bag End curled up with a good book in front of his fire.
I also really enjoyed the ironic brevity of the company’s meeting with Elrond in Chapter 3. If you’ve ever read The Lord of the Rings, you’ll know that the Council of Elrond scene is one of the most long-winded in all of fantasy. In The Hobbit, Tolkien seems to be prophetically doing us all a favour by intentionally keeping things snappy:
Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. They stayed long in that good house, fourteen days at least, and they found it hard to leave… Yet there is little to tell about their stay.
I literally laughed out loud when I read that. If that doesn’t give me a “geek card” for life, I don’t know what does.
In an effort to keep things (relatively) brief, myself, I’ll say one last thing before moving. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the seemingly divine intervention that continues to happen throughout this story. Take for instance:
- The company’s coincidental discovery of the swords Glamdring, Orcrist, and Sting while exploring the trolls’ cave (this is akin to searching a thief’s hideout and finding biblical relics that haven’t been seen in two millennia).
- The timing of their visit with Elrond. The secret of the Lonely Mountain (it’s entrance) can only be discerned from Thorin’s map under the light of a crescent moon on a midsummer’s eve. Well, guess what happens to be in the sky the one night they’re in Rivendell?
It would be easier to chalk these up to laziness on Tolkien’s part, but he actually draws our attention to them. Thorin actually points out how unbelievable a coincidence their timing is. If Tolkien was taking the easy way out, I doubt he would have shone so deliberate a light on that fact.
To me, it seems like Tolkien wants us to be conscious of the fact that greater forces might be at play here. It seems like Thorin and co. are destined to make it into the Lonely Mountain. God, himself (or Eru Illuvatar, as he is known in Middle Earth), may be taking an active role in their quest. Given that possibility, it’s reasonable to assume that what’s going on in The Hobbit is a hell of a lot more important to the grand tapestry of Middle Earth than a simple there-and-back-again story about a little person and some recovered treasure. These apparent coincidences add a special significance to everything that comes after them.