Welcome to There and Back Again: A Journey Through Middle Earth – an indefinite season of all things Tolkien here at Books by Proxy. Join me as I make my journey through the most defining literature of my childhood, and unravel the details behind one of the most spectacular fantasy worlds ever made.
Welcome to the first post of Chapter and Verse, a brand new weekly feature where I will be re-reading and analysing The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien chapter by chapter as part of my There and Back Again season.
If anyone wishes to join in with the re-read, please feel free to do so – the comments are open to anything and all things Tolkien. And for those of you yet to discover The Hobbit… you have been warned, there will be spoilers a-plenty throughout these posts!
The first time I picked up The Hobbit was when I was seven years old. I was packing my bags to go for our yearly holiday on my parent’s narrowboat when my mother saw I was taking her bruised and battered copy of The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge to keep me occupied. Again. Keen to expand my literary repertoire, she suggested I take The Hobbit – a favourite of hers from her childhood.
And the rest, as they say, is history. A world of hobbits, elves, dwarves and wandering wizards was opened before me and the magic that captivated me then, captivates me still. This initial reading of The Hobbit, curled up in a duvet as we sailed along the canals, sparked a lifelong obsession with Tolkien and Middle Earth, and led me to my most loved and treasured book of all time, The Lord of the Rings.
by J.R.R. Tolkien
| Chapter I: An Unexpected Party |
A respectable and unsuspecting hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is smoking his pipe outside his home when an old man with a staff and a long grey cloak happens upon him. Introducing himself as Gandalf the wizard, he is invited to take a seat by Bilbo’s door and join the hobbit for a smoke. Following a brief conversation, Gandalf informs Bilbo that he is going to send him on adventure. An alarmed Bilbo swiftly declines, inviting Gandalf to tea the next day as a means of getting rid of him.
Having all but forgotten his invitation, Bilbo is surprised the following day when the door bell rings. Much to his consternation, he is joined by not just one wandering wizard, but thirteen boisterous dwarves who all but eat the flustered hobbit out of house and home.
As the evening wears on the dwarves sing a song of a great dwarven kingdom under a mountain – of treasures now lost and their quest to reclaim their rightful place in its halls. Bilbo is briefly moved by the spirit of adventure but swiftly snuffs it out before entertaining any more un-hobbit-like feelings.
The increasingly confused Bilbo is then informed that his role in the quest is already assured as their fellow conspirator and designated ‘burglar’. Both Bilbo and the dwarves express doubt over his suitability for the mission before Gandalf interjects on his behalf, seeing something in the hobbit that neither Bilbo nor the dwarves are certain of.
After making sure of Bilbo’s role in the coming adventure, Gandalf gathers the company around an old map. He explains that the runes inscribed on the parchment reveal the location of a hidden entrance to the mountain kingdom – an entrance he is certain that no dragon could have discovered.
Bilbo, now a little excited, expresses an interest in the reason for their mission – though perhaps a little late in the day. Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the band of dwarves and rightful King under the Mountain, takes up the tale:
Many years ago, Thorin’s grandfather, Thror, brought wealth and reputation to dwarves of Erebor as his people mined great riches and expanded their Kingdom under the Mountain. But the mass of riches brought with it the undesirable attention of the dragon Smaug who coveted the treasures of Erebor beyond all else. In his greed he destroyed the kingdom and its people, taking the mountain and its treasures for himself. Thorin and few others escaped with their lives that day, and seek now to restore what was lost.
| Commentary |
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – The opening of An Unexpected Party is as familiar to me, and to many before me, as the back of my own hand. From the very start of this chapter we are transported to Bag End, where we are swept along, much like Bilbo, on a dangerous but thrilling adventure. The Hobbit truly is, and will always remain, a lifelong favourite.
The thing that continually surprises me upon re-reading The Hobbit is the strength of the narration. This is a book with a captivating voice – like a parent reading to a child in bed (much as Tolkien wrote it) or a story told around a campfire. There is humour, real world reference – as though Middle Earth is as much a part of our history as anything else – and a pleasant, warm tone to the writing.
The descriptions of Bag End, and of Bilbo and his interactions with Gandalf and the unruly dwarves, are beautiful, quaint and flow with an easy familiarity. They build a picture of a house proud hobbit whose chief joys are the simple things in life and whose first response to any suggestion of adventure is a firm “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you!”; of a jovial and somewhat manipulative wizard who knows a great deal more than he ever lets on; and of a merry, if unwanted, gathering of dwarves whose desire to reclaim their rightful inheritance outweighs all else.
Tolkien’s descriptions, though not as fluid and grand as those featured in The Lord of the Rings, build the character and tone of the novel whilst giving Middle Earth a diverse aesthetic, different to our own but at once relatable. The descriptions of Bag End and its “perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle”, and of hobbits and their fondness for food and a quiet, steady life paint an idyllic picture of Hobbiton – a place that no self-respecting hobbit would ever choose to leave.
Bilbo Baggins has always been one of my favourite literary characters and is perhaps the most endearing, even from the outset. His perpetual confusion and exasperation; his funny and often scathing quips which he is far too polite to say out loud; and his good manners and gentlemanly nature all make him incredibly engaging as a character, if incredibly prone to trouble!
Throughout the first chapter, Bilbo’s determination not to go on an adventure, despite his Tookish heritage, is countered by his determination not to be considered a useless member of the assembled party. His frequent moments of worry, particularly in regard to the state of his home and pantry, and of “shaking like a jelly” in fright at the prospect of not returning from the prospective adventure, give Bilbo a very timid and hobbit-like countenance from which to grow as the novel progresses.
Gandalf interestingly starts off as a jovial, if somewhat troublesome, old man – a far cry from the Gandalf we know and love in The Lord of the Rings. However, the humour which permeates his character – you can almost feel the wry smile beneath the surface as he questions a bewildered Bilbo – is one aspect which bridges the transition across novels, along with the fact that he always seems to know a great deal more than he lets on.
I particularly like the thought that Gandalf’s appearance to the hobbits is distinctly different to his appearance to the rest of Middle Earth; that to them he is Gandalf the firework maker and Gandalf the storyteller, an opinion that he seems to willingly nurture and maintain. This furthers the opinion that hobbits are a peaceful and isolated community who have no love for power or hostile expansion, and that Gandalf, in his love for hobbits and their simple way of life, uses them as a retreat from the world at large.
The dwarves by comparison are rowdy, merrymakers whose experience of the outside world has hardened them somewhat, creating a clear distinction between what characterises a hobbit and what characterises a dwarf – though their shared love of food is an obvious unifying factor! Their love of creation – of building toys, of working wood and metal, and of creating music – is referred to throughout this first chapter, giving them a greater depth of character and a less warrior-like feel than their movie portrayal.
The songs and poetry which Tolkien fills his novels with have always been a highlight, giving even more texture and culture to an already exhaustive world. The two dwarven songs featured in this chapter showcase the two sides to their characters – the playful and the boisterous, and the solemn and brooding; two songs which to me, have even more impact now that there is a soundtrack behind them.
An Unexpected Party really is a joy to read. The idyllic Hobbiton and the grand Bag End, and Bilbo’s charming personality and his initial interactions with Gandalf and the dwarves, all contribute to a chapter I could comfortably read again and again.
What were your first impressions of The Hobbit? Please leave a comment below!