Monday, August 11, 2008

The Hobbit: Awakening the Took in us

Note: This is the first of a few essays I plan to write about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s hard to express the impact Tolkien’s writings have had upon myself but I hope to explain at least some of the reasons why on The Silver Key.


This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbors’ respect, but he gained—well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

--J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Did Bilbo Baggins “gain” anything in the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit? Of course, the answer is yes. On his adventures over the Misty Mountains, through the gloom of Mirkwood forest, and to his eventual confrontation with Smaug in Lonely Mountain, Bilbo accumulates great personal wealth and earns eternal honor and stature amongst the great peoples of the Third Age.

But Bilbo returns to Bag End with more than just treasure and fame. His adventure with the dwarves ignites a spirit that he never knew he had, one that lies dormant in us all. His personal gain is the true treasure of his journey, and this (among a host of other reasons) is in my opinion what makes The Hobbit a truly special book.

A bit of Bilbo in us all
The Hobbit succeeds as an adventure story and a world-building creation, introducing us to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. But I also think it’s so successful and accessible because of its central character: it’s easy to identify with Bilbo. Like him, we’re fond of food and cheer and peace. Dangerous adventures are not the lot for most of us. For every “uncrowned king in waiting” (i.e., Aragorn) or “displaced grandson on a singular mission of revenge” (e.g., Thorin) there are a thousand Bilbos, whose struggles are with weeds in the garden or bothersome and nosy neighbors. The lot of men are actually hobbits at heart, if not in stature.

There is no shame in our Hobbit-like nature. It’s sensible to stay at home and out of the cold and wet, to favor hearth and home over sword and strife. The wide world is full of adventures, but many are dangerous and often do not end in happiness. Adventures also involve displacement—a shaking up of our comfortable, safe routines. It’s simply not easy to strike out on The Road.

But, as The Hobbit demonstrates, the rewards for such undertakings can be quite great.

At the start of The Hobbit Bilbo is living a comfortable, safe, nondescript existence at his home in Bag End. He seems content to smoke his pipe, enjoy his food and his garden, and live peacefully until the end of his days. But something stirs the pot: Gandalf comes knocking, carving a symbol on Bilbo’s round green door with his staff:

Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward.

Bilbo initially says he wants no part of Gandalf’s adventures. But the song of the dwarves in the dark of Bag End—one of my favorite scenes in all of Tolkien’s writings—stirs something in him:

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.

When Thorin finally reveals what the adventure will entail—crossing leagues of dangerous ground and recovering an ancient treasure possessed by the dragon Smaug—Bilbo is naturally scared out of his wits. He thinks the mission is crazy and wants no part of it.

However, despite his love of the comforts of home and the frightening prospect of the unknown, Bilbo yearns for something more. Part of him is not satisfied with his home and hearth. When he awakes to find that the dwarves have left without him, his reaction surprises him: Relief mixed with regret.

Indeed he was really relieved after all to think that they had all gone without him; and without bothering to wake him up… and yet in a way he could not help feeling just a trifle disappointed. The feeling surprised him.

“Don’t be a fool, Bilbo Baggins!” he said to himself, “thinking of dragons and all that outlandish nonsense at your age.”

Gandalf arrives and hustles Bilbo out the door and onto the road, famously without his pipe, tobacco, or pocket-handkerchief. But don’t be misled: Bilbo is not forced to undertake the journey to Lonely Mountain. Although he is swayed by song and shamed by cowardice, the choice is his. When opportunity (literally) lands on his doorstep in the form of a wizard and a tumble of dwarves, it wakes up a spirit of adventure that, if not nascent, is part of his fiber; Bilbo possesses the potential for great deeds and actions. This is his “Tookish” side.

When Bilbo overhears Gloin questioning his bravery the words set a spark to this heady mixture of fuel. He makes his choice right here:

Will he do, do you think? It is all very well for Gandalf to talk about this hobbit being fierce, but one shriek like that in a moment of excitement would be enough to wake the dragon and all his relatives, and kill the lot of us. I think it sounded more like fright than excitement! In fact, if it had not been for the sign on the door, I should have been sure we’d come to the wrong house. As soon as I clapped eyes on the little fellow bobbing and puffing on the mat, I had my doubts. He looks more like a grocer than a burglar.

Then Mr. Baggins turned the handle and went in. The Took side had won. He suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce. As for little fellow bobbing on the mat it almost made him really fierce. Many a time afterwards the Baggins part regretted what he did not, and he said to himself: “Bilbo, you were a fool; you walked right in and put your foot in it.”

Bilbo soon has legitimate reasons for regret: his adventure nearly comes to a crashing end when he and the dwarves are captured by the trolls, only to be saved by Gandalf. But he proves his bravery when he drives off the spiders of Mirkwood, his resourcefulness when he frees the dwarves from the wood-elves, and his selflessness when he steals the Arkenstone to deliver it to Bard and the elves, sacrificing his share of the treasure and his friendship with the dwarves in a desperate attempt to forge a truce. He has experienced war and grieved the loss of some of his beloved companions. This is not the same Bilbo who thinks only of his personal comforts; he is awakened to a larger world of accountability.

When at last he returns to Bag-End to “Look at last on meadows green,” it is with a new vision, with “Eyes that fire and sword have seen, and horror in the halls of stone.” This is not the same Bilbo who went stumbling onto the Road; he is changed for the better, less innocent but also not as naive, wiser and self-sufficient and with a deeper appreciation for peace.

Chance, choice, and fate
So is Tolkien’s message in The Hobbit that we are in control of our own destiny, and that the future is purely what me make of it? I don’t believe it’s that simple. After all, had Gandalf not come along and knocked on his door, Bilbo likely never would have left Hobbiton.

At first glance, capriciousness seems to play a part in the events of The Hobbit. Gandalf, introduced in as a wandering wizard with a reputation for mystery and fireworks, arrives in Hobbiton to seek out a suitable burglar. Bilbo, middle-aged and leaving a bachelor’s existence, seems like a sensible choice on Gandalf's part, but little else.

But Tolkien offers early hints that Gandalf’s arrival is more than coincidence. He knows about Bilbo’s Tookish background and that there is more to him than meets the eye. Indeed, Gandalf selected Bilbo for this task:

“Of course there is a mark,” said Gandalf. “I put it there myself. For very good reasons.”

“Chance” is not the random series of events that it first appears to be in The Hobbit. There are much larger forces and powers at play that have a hand in fate’s shaping. Says Gandalf:

Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

Clearly there is a combination of choice and fate in The Hobbit. Middle-Earth is a world where larger forces and prophecies interact with men (and Hobbits) possessed of a free will. Which leads to the next question: Who is Gandalf and why has he chosen Bilbo, when he could have chosen many other great heroes of the Third Age? What led him to Bilbo’s door and why did he leave his mark? And how is free will and fate reconciled in Tolkien’s great myth, being The Lord of the Rings?

I’ll try to tackle these questions another time.


Falze said...

How often do you read a novel, truly, and think "I wish I was going with them" as they set off? Surely not as the last survivors of a zombie apocalypse charge out their front door with a chainsaw. Nor science fiction, usually. But even with fantasy, how often would you really want to be there? Perhaps Eddings' Belgariad, because you're surrounded by superpowered larger-than-life heroes. Maybe a hair of Herbert's Dune, because of his grim, but noble, view of the Atreides' fate. But I think most people feel that tug in their midsection as Bilbo and even Frodo set off on the road that begins at their front door, accompanied by no more than some curious dwarves...a disreputable wizard...a few friends.

Good post.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Falze, you're right. Every time I pick up The Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit, and look at the exquisite maps in the beginning of the books, I imagine myself as a wanderer in Middle-Earth. To drink an ale at The Prancing Pony, listen to the elves' songs in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell, or to gaze on the white towers of Gondor ...

Anonymous said...

I just found this website (after re-reading lotr myself), and i had to jump in here and comment, esp. after reading your two comments. LOTR is basically the only fantasy book i've ever read, or at least the only one i've really enjoyed, but i can truly say that it is the only book where i have had the overwhelming feeling of, "God, what i would give to live in this story". I think it has to do, not only with the sights and wonders that ya'll have already mentioned, but also with some sense of a clear morality; in this world, we know orcs will always be malicious, we know hobbits will generally be good. Honor and bravery seem such more easier, and more respectable, when there are no disagreements about their worth, and about their purpose. How many wars in real life can we say that about?
Also what I love is how many of the leaders in middle earth possessed not only the strongest might, but also the most wisdom. It seemed like the hierarchy worked; those who had power deserved it, those who had trust deserved it. How jaded we've become with our leaders- with corruption, weakness, and myopia. When Aragorn becomes king, we never for one second have any doubts about his future.

Anyway, just thought i'd share that. Thanks for the site.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for stopping by. I feel much the same way about The Lord of the Rings. I'd be willing to follow a true and just king like Aragorn, but unfortunately, our world has never seen his like. The "historic" King Arthur was probably our closest parallel.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with the comments about the rulers of ME. Denethor and Theoden are major leaders of men, who are led astray by madness or wicked counselors. Saruman is a leader of men (and Orcs), engaged in brutal warfare out of corrupted self-interest and fear of a greater evil. And that’s not even counting any of the nations under Sauron’s sway.

Overall I tend to agree that LotR has great and shining men (like Aragorn), suited to being heroes of the “might have been” English mythology Tolkien wanted to write, but neither is Tolkien’s world guilty of the oversimplification of making all rulers good ones.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Shimrod, thanks for stopping by. I hope I didn't leave the impression that Tolkien is guilty of writing one-dimensional characters. He gets a lot of unfair criticism for his alleged use of shallow, "unwearingly wholesome or unrelently evil" characters (novelist Richard Morgan accused him of just that recently, which I took him to task for in a recent post). You're correct in all three examples you've cited.