Chapter 1: An Unexpected Party

Reblogged from Moonlight Reader:
The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”


So begins Tolkien's first published work - this sentence marks the beginning of the world's experience with Middle Earth. The Hobbit was originally published in 1937, and it was more than 15 years later before the first edition of The Fellowship of the Ring would be released. It's nearly impossible today to recreate the experience of reading The Hobbit in a vacuum, but it's interesting to remember that at the time of original publication, The Hobbit stood alone as the window into Middle Earth.


It was also my personal first experience with Middle Earth. Tolkien wrote it as a story for children, and I was a child when I, first, heard it read to me by my mother, and later, read it for myself. When I read it as a child, it existed as an wholly self-contained entity, a single, simple, delightful fantasy about a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. My perspective is quite different now - I read it as a more mature, and hopefully more thoughtful, reader, and I read it with the greater understanding of how it fits into Tolkien's larger universe. 


The first chapter introduces the reader to Gandalf, one of the most important figures in the entire mythology. He appears on Bilbo's doorstep like something out of memory or folktale:


“Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered? Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons? Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those! Old Took used to have them on Midsummer’s Eve. Splendid! They used to go up like great lilies and snapdragons and laburnums of fire and hang in the twilight all evening!” 


There are a couple of things that I want to say about this description: first, it makes Gandalf sound quite harmless - as though he is primarily known for magic jewelry, storytelling, and fireworks. This is a nice introduction, but it is wholly misleading. Gandalf is fierce - we don't see all of his fierceness in The Hobbit, but anyone who has read LOTR knows that Bilbo has little to no idea of whom he is talking to when he says these words.


Also, I think it is interesting that Tolkien uses the words: "about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons" to describe the tales being told by Gandalf. These are all touchstone concepts of fairytales that any child who encounters this book will recognize, right down to the widows' sons (i.e. Jack in the Beanstalk), and which tell the reader what kind of a story this is going to be - it is a fantasy, a fairy-tale, with Bilbo as the stand-in for the reader.


The interaction between Bilbo and Gandalf so discombobulates Bilbo that he finds himself asking Gandalf over for tea the next day, much to his surprise and dismay. 


We also get quite a helpful description of both Bilbo, specifically, and hobbits, in general in this chapter. Bilbo has a divided nature: there is his Baggins side, solid, respectable, unadventurous, which has predominated his behavior up to the moment of meeting Gandalf. Then, on the other hand, there is his Tookish side: unconventional and a bit fey (so fey, in fact, that there is speculation that at one time one of the Tooks may have taken a fairy wife). This divide appears again and again in this chapter, most importantly, when he listens to the dwarves singing about their golden treasure lost to the dragon. His Tookish side stirs, and he finds himself thinking about going on an adventure. No one is more surprised by this than Bilbo himself.


I'm going to mention this here, and then perhaps return to it later - when the dwarves descend upon Bilbo's hobbit hole for tea, their entrance reminds me of the way that Bilbo, Gandalf & the dwarves descend upon Beorn in a later chapter. Do they use the same stratagem with Bilbo that they use with Beorn? Why? Bilbo isn’t likely to eat them if they all arrive at once. Perhaps they are afraid that he will slam the door on their faces if they all show up at one time? Bilbo is rather like the frog sitting in a pot of cold water, maybe, and with each dwarf showing up in singles or doubles, the heat is turned up until he is totally cooked?



This post is already pretty long, and even though I could probably go on for paragraph after paragraph, I'll end it with some thoughts on the dwarves and their song. Tolkien introduces the song with this paragraph:


It was a beautiful golden harp, and when Thorin struck it the music began all at once, so sudden and sweet that Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons, far over The Water and very far from his hobbit-hole under The Hill. The dark came into the room from the little window that opened in the side of The Hill; the firelight flickered—it was April—and still they played on, while the shadow of Gandalf’s beard wagged against the wall. The dark filled all the room, and the fire died down, and the shadows were lost, and still they played on. And suddenly first one and then another began to sing as they played, deep-throated singing of the dwarves in the deep places of their ancient homes; and this is like a fragment of their song, if it can be like their song without their music.


Which is really evocative - dark lands, strange moons, deep places - in contrast to Bilbo's homely hobbit hole. It reminds me of the encounter between Lucy and Mr, Tumnus from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, where Mr. Tumnus takes up his flute and hypnotizes Lucy with his music. Bilbo, too, is mesmerized, until he is shaken out of his reverie by the sight of a fire being lit across the water, which reminds him of plundering dragons and, suddenly, he's plain old Mr. Baggins again. Tolkien puts a lot of his world-building into his songs, and the song sung by the dwarves is no exception - it tells the tale of the king under the mountain and the desire for golden things that lives in the hearts of dwarves and dragons.


And there is a lot of similarity between the way that the dwarves covet their golden things which they make from gold and jewels and the manner in which the dragon hoards his plunder. Ultimately, Bilbo thinks of treasure in connection with what it can buy: food, security, warmth. The dwarves and the dragons covet it for its glittering nature: beautiful and cold.


So much good stuff in this first chapter - I could go on and on, but I won't and will end  here.