The Hobbit Readalong - Chapter 1

Tookishness is a Funny Word

J. R. R. Tolkien spoke at great length, both in his letters and lectures, about what he called “secondary belief.” For Tolkien, reading fantasy wasn’t about a willing suspension of disbelief as much as it was a secondary belief in an imagined world. As long as that world holds to an internal logical consistency, its laws can be entirely different from our own while being every bit as believable. Through this secondary belief (which is only accomplished at the hands of a master storyteller) readers can easily accept things like elves and magic and dragons.

Due to the depth of Tolkien’s Middle Earth–its people, their languages, their cultures, their histories—this internal consistency became Tolkien’s hallmark. Until the wellspring of fantasy that arose in the ’90s (with Williams, Jordan, Martin, and others), Tolkien was basically alone—with a handful of lesser exceptions—in creating entire worlds that seemed to believably exist. Secondary belief is the reason people used to regularly spray paint “Frodo Lives” on buildings in the ’60s and ’70s.

What’s curious, then, is that there is a moment early on in The Hobbit that spits in the face of this internal consistency, this secondary belief: the dwarves’ musical interlude in Chapter 1. When the dwarves break out their instruments shortly after arriving at Bag End we’re experiencing a very unusual moment in a Tolkien narrative. He’s usually so careful not to jolt his readers out of their secondary belief, but he deliberately seems to be doing it here.

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