Over seven years ago, upon receiving a nice new edition of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, I started a chapter-by-chapter analysis that has become probably the most read thing on this site (and you can check it all out here!). It was a lengthy labor of love, one that took a long time to write, and then even longer to revise, update and generally improve around two years ago.
And now, I find myself in a similar position again, only this time the shiny new edition I have received for Christmas is of Tolkien’s first masterpiece, 1937’s The Hobbit (the illustrated edition, with art from Jemima Catlin). And I thought that, maybe it was time to indulge a long-held idea, and do the same as I did for The Lord Of The Rings: a chapter-by-chapter look at The Hobbit, discussing its greatness, its flaws, its characters, its themes, its ideas, its structure, and anything else that comes to mind. So come along and join me on this nineteen chapters journey, as we go there and back again
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” It is, quite possibly, the most iconic line in fantasy literature, and one of the most famous lines in literature generally, something Tolkien, according to the popular story, simply wrote down off the cuff on an empty page while marking exam papers one day. This line and the immediately following paragraph of description are not the kind of thing to bring to mind the beginning of an epic tale and a heroic quest, of slaying dragons and fighting mighty battles. But they do root you, very quickly and efficiently, in the world of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and, more exactly, the Shire. Tolkien will repeat this trick in The Lord Of The Rings, wherein the story is framed initially from the position of hearth and home, something worth fighting for in that case, but something worth coming back to here.
It’s also in the opening paragraphs that the humor of the story begins to come out, through the narration of our unseen third-person commentator, and that we are made aware that we are looking at a tale that was, despite its subsequent appeal to all-comers, written primarily with children in mind, and with that, there is a certain “nod nod, wink, wink” style evident in its narrative. Here, in the midst of Tolkien describing Bag End, he expands on the many rooms that Bilbo has, having an aside where he makes sure to note the existence of multiple larders – “(lots of these)” – also the start of The Hobbit’s obsession with food. Tolkien will be cutting into the text, via brackets, often throughout the unfolding narrative, providing comic asides in a manner that is almost breaking the fourth wall in the way he seems to address the reader directly. Tolkien read the story to his sons as he was writing: the conversational style comes through very obviously in the final text
The opening of the story also sets up the inherent contradiction in its title character: “a Baggins who had an adventure“. While we won’t be spending anywhere near as much time in the Shire as we would in the sequel, and we never form a complete picture of what hobbit society is like (aside from it being an obvious analogy of the English countryside), it is still made clear that we are starting off in a conservative rural environment, where the independently wealthy owner of the big house is the last guy you’d expect to do anything too crazy – until he does. It’s a strange notion, one that fits in a world of “less noise and more green” as the author memorably puts it. Our first glimpse of Bilbo is far from the typical picture of a fantasy protagonist, being neither a plucky orphan, a roguish wanderer or a ferocious warrior. He’s fat, rich landed gentry (though, he bakes his own seedcakes!), and yet he is immediately likable. His home, set-up so wonderfully in that opening paragraph, is the very picture of comfort and simplicity: thus, a great jumping off point for a story where Bilbo is going to be going to a very different place.
“An Unexpected Party” also foreshadows some of the narrative for “A Long-Expected Party” by taking the opportunity to delve into Baggins family history in a parochial manner, casually naming the names of illustrious ancestors from other clans and indicating that inter-marriage produces potentially unusual offspring: like a hobbit with the adventurous streak of the Took’s but the hard common sense of the Bagginses. “A Long-Expected Party” will put this kind of conversation in the mouths of actual characters, namely Gaffer Gamgee, Sam and Sandyman as they discuss Bilbo, Frodo and the deaths of Frodo’s parents in the local. Here, Tolkien limits himself to his own narration, but the well-rehearsed nature of the section – like it’s being recited for the umpteenth time at the local – is clear. In story terms, this establishes Bilbo as, essentially, hobbit aristocracy, connected closely to the near-legendary figure of the “Old Took”, and potentially having a bit of his adventurous streak too.
Belladonna Took, Bilbo’s mother, is also the only named female in the entire story, and she doesn’t even really appear (though she is noted as being “famous” for some reason – the Old Took had over a dozen children, so I’m not sure why). This makes it as good a time as any to briefly discuss women in The Hobbit. The lack of women here, only slightly improved in The Lord Of The Rings really, speaks to Tolkien’s male-centric viewpoint, probably influenced by both the society he grew up in and the old tales and stories he immersed himself in professionally and casually, which were often male-centric too. Women exist in Middle-Earth, but outside of a few of The Silmarillion tales, there is only one instance of them being pro-active contributors to the stories (Eowyn) and The Hobbit overlooks them completely. It’s a flaw, one that damns Tolkien and the world he grew up in. And yet, lest we pretend this was an issue of long ago and far away, Peter Jackson’s inclusion of women in his film trilogy adaptation was roundly criticized by purist fans beyond, in my opinion, any sense of reason. I won’t be coming back to this topic much as we go forward (what could I say: this would be a good point to include a woman? and this? and this?) but I want to acknowledge this deficiency of Tolkien’s, and the book as a whole
The references to the Old Took lead us to the introduction of Gandalf, the immensity of his impact on the universe little to be realized from this all too casual entrance to the story, noted specifically in the text. Gandalf’s relationship with the hobbits, which apparently began with an acquaintance with the Old Took, is not something that Tolkien ever elaborated much on, any more than he did on why Gandalf decides to send Bilbo on this grand adventure. The Took’s are always characterized as a slightly “queer” family, and other material indicates that two of Bilbo’s uncles on that side of the family vanished from the Shire on “mad adventures“, possibly instigated by Gandalf (maybe that influenced Belladonna to marry someone solid, respectable and boring).
Gandalf himself, in the larger canon, is noted as arriving in Middle-Earth a millennia before the Shire was founded, and in line with his larger characterization, as a friend to all who want friendship, and a guide to those who need guidance, it makes sense that he reaches out to this little-known species, the same as he does for others. It must be remembered that Gandalf’s “mission” in Middle-Earth is to help rally the forces of good against those of evil: he maintains good relations with all the races of Middle-Earth as part of this, so why not hobbits?
As for Bilbo, Gandalf is the instigator of the plot alright, but his decision-making seems mystical, almost pre-ordained. I’m not sure if Tolkien had Gandalf in mind for a Maiar at the time of writing, but the wizard’s actions have a feel of pre-destination about them, of setting in motion a state of affairs he has more knowledge of than mere assumption. The Hobbit will not elaborate much on why Gandalf choose Bilbo, but Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales does, with its section “The Quest For Erebor” allowing the wizard to outline why he gravitated to Bilbo:
“Somehow, I had been attracted to Bilbo before, as a child, and a young hobbit… He had stayed in my mind ever since with his eagerness and his bright eyes, and his love of tales, and his question about the wide world outside of the Shire…Suddenly in my mind these three things came together: the great Dragon with his lust, and his keen hearing and scent; the sturdy heavy-booted Dwarves with their old burning grudge; and the quick, soft-footed hobbit, sick at heart (I guessed) for a sight of the wide world…As soon as I entered the Shire, I heard news of him. He was getting talked about, it seems. Both his parents had died early for Shire-folk, at about eighty; and he had never married. He was already getting a bit queer, they had said, and went off for days by himself. He could be seen talking to strangers, even Dwarves.”
So, Gandalf, seeking a 14th member of the company, one with a natural penchant for stealth, turned to Bilbo, a hobbit that he knew was inquisitive, secretly yearning to see more of the wider world, without attachments in the Shire to keep him there, who was already exposing himself to outside influences (Bilbo’s gossipy neighbours even indicate he has been chatting to elves). And maybe, Bilbo also fulfils the role of being a counter-balance to the gold and fame obsessed Thorin. While The Hobbit drops the ball here, and the Unfinished Tales material is a bit of a retcon, the picture of why Gandalf traipsed up to Bag End is apparent.
In what will also be a recurring literary motif, Gandalf’s first line is a riddle-like:
“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green.
But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.
“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”
The wizard is clearly looking to discombobulate Bilbo right from the off, to confuse him and leave him susceptible to being an unwitting host without realising it. Such a tactic will come up again in the story, when Bilbo does it to Smaug. Perhaps more pertinently, we can surmise that Gandalf is testing Bilbo a bit by trying to get him to commit to something, even if it is as meaningless as an answer to this word game.
Bilbo bats away Gandalf’s tricky wordplay with politeness but is soon feeling a little under pressure having “decided that he was not quite his sort, and wanted him to go away“. This is the conservative Baggins side of Bilbo on full display, feeling awkward and uncomfortable in the face of a looming stranger who isn’t observing the expected social niceties
In the course of their initial conversation, Gandalf eventually reveals himself with the words “I am Gandalf and Gandalf means me“. While, on the face of it, this may seem like just more clever wordplay, it’s not hard to see a little bit of Tolkien’s Catholicism peeking through in the line, which bears a similarity to Exodus 3:14 and its burning bush/voice of God: “I am that I am“. To be more exact, it calls to mind Number 207 of the Catechism:
“God, who reveals his name as “I AM”, reveals himself as the God who is always there, present to his people in order to save them.”
While I wouldn’t want to take the idea too far, Gandalf does serve as a sort of God figure in the text, popping up to save the other characters from seemingly irretrievable situations on numerous occasions: with the trolls, in the goblin caves, in his summoning of the eagles and later ahead of the Battle of Five Armies. Tolkien’s “eucatastrophe” concept will be on full display throughout The Hobbit, and for a time Gandalf will be his main crutch to achieve it. Eventually Bilbo will be taking over as this person in Gandalf’s absence, which may also call to mind another religious titbit: “God helps those who help themselves”. The other thing is general grumpiness and high-handedness of the character, throughout the chapter, using Bilbo’s home as a meeting place and acting very much as the commander of the expedition: Gandalf might not be God, but he doesn’t dislike acting like it
With Gandalf revealed, the Took side of Bilbo comes pouring out suddenly, in an adorable and endearing way, as he stream-of-consciousness’s his way through memories of Gandalf’s fireworks and relationship with the Old Took. I think everyone has that internal debate, between the more conservative side, and that which wants to go out and be adventurous: Tolkien connects with his audience pretty well in presenting his protagonist in such a manner right from the off. The narrator cuts in to note that Bilbo is, obviously less “prosy” than he initially appears (prosy meaning limited imagination if, like me, you didn’t know) and this is our first direct look at the idea that Bilbo may well be more than he appears, an idea that will soon be extended to cover the entire hobbit species. In a moment of verbal comedy, Bilbo lets slip his true feelings: “Bless me, life used to be quite inter — I mean, you used to upset things badly in these parts once upon a time.”
However, he’s still a Baggins, and this Baggins balks at the idea of going on an adventure, even if Gandalf has guessed – or known all along maybe – that what Bilbo really wants is to go beyond the edge of the map. Bilbo’s flustered end to the conversation, wherein he panics, invites Gandalf to tea as a social nicety and then bolts the door, is, somewhat, a far cry from the person Bilbo will be at the end of the adventure. He’ll still get flustered, but by the time we reach the Lonely Mountain, he’s less inclined to run away
Gandalf leaves a mark on Bilbo’s door with his staff, as if he’s Joseph E Campbell creating a threshold for Bilbo to pass on his way to accepting adventure: Bilbo literally won’t leave his home again until he’s chasing after the dwarves in the next chapter. This also serves to show us that Gandalf actually is magical, as you can presume his staff doesn’t have the ability to carve something into a wooden door on its own.
What follows is the party of the title, and the whole thing unfolds as a comical tale, that is almost a morality play along Arabian guidelines (though I doubt Tolkien was taking influence from that sort of sub-genre), with Bilbo as a hapless stooge that the universe is ganging up on. Poor Bilbo, a little too haughty for his own good with Gandalf, and generally aloof from everyone, suddenly has 13 dwarves and a wizard turn up at his door in stages, eating and drinking him out of house and home. Tolkien takes his time with all this, making sure to note the name, beard colour and clothes colour of every single dwarf, and taking the time to note a few of them out: the elder Balin, the younger Fili and Kili and, of course, the most important of them all, that the narrator specifically mentions as being worthy of greater attention: the curiously named Thorin Oakenshield, a dwarf of some renown. Of course, reading the whole text will result in the reader remembering this moment later, as the dwarfs are marching up to Beorn’s home in ones and twos at Gandalf’s insistence. He does the same thing here, but Bilbo is the mark.
But the focus here is primarily on Bilbo and his conundrum. Like a fantasy Mr Bean, he’s kept running between one apparent disaster to another: the very first dwarf is already through three cakes before the second turns up; Bilbo keeps expecting Gandalf but keeps getting more dwarfs; he must contemplate the horrific possibility that he may have to go without food to feed all of his guests; his opulent home is suddenly host to a large amount of loud, messy people; and, most importantly of all, no one feels the need to explain anything to him. Bilbo’s ignorance and increasing bafflement works well as children’s comedy. It culminates in the marvellous image of “pop-gun” Bilbo, hilariously described as “bewildered and bewuthered” angrily opening the door one last time, only a little too fast, leaving a pile of dwarves on his floor.
Through all this of course is the very important ritual of guest-friendship being played out, that I have discussed before as part of my notes on The Lord Of The Rings. Very similar to the Ancient Greek concept of xenia, while Bilbo is confused, and even annoyed, at the sheer amount of people turning up at his door, he still lets them in, provides food and drink and, to a point, says all the right things: the text specifically calls out both parties’ repeated offering of “service” and the correct responses, to the extent that when Bilbo forgets to do this with Thorin, he continually apologizes until Oakenshield tells him to drop it. One might well wonder why Bilbo undergoes this at all: why he doesn’t just ask Dwalin who he is and why he is there? Aside from his general fear of confrontation that has already been made clear in the text, the answer may well lie in societal obligations in being a good host to those who turn up at your door.
Of course, it’s supposed to work both ways, and the dwarves aren’t especially nice to Bilbo, albeit they may assume he’s more aware of circumstances than he lets on. Bilbo bends over backwards to accommodate the dwarves in his home, and the dwarves are even willing to help him out with the dishes, but it’s interesting that they don’t do so until Bilbo directly mentions their lack of assistance. Once he does, the dwarven party has his home tidied up in a flash, singing the hilarious “Blunt The Knives” as they do so (and how is that song for an example of dwarven ad-libbing?), but they did wait until asked. That says something about the dwarven attitude to things, and how they are reactive in many ways. And Thorin does nothing “being much too important“, a marked contrast to Bilbo, who despite his obvious means has no servants and does his own cooking.
The dwarves, having cleaned up after themselves, proceed to demonstrate their skill with music, with melody and song that has an important transformative effect on Bilbo:
“…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 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…”
The song, “Far over the Misty Mountains cold…” acts as an initial exposition for the reader, being a flowery rendition of the story’s prologue, namely the destruction of Erebor by Smaug the dragon. It’s similar in format and feel to the “Song Of Durin” from The Lord Of The Rings‘ “A Journey In The Dark“, and is like the dwarves themselves: a simple, yet deep song, of basic enough structure, but with serious resonance to it. From the surrounding description, you can tell that it’s a song to be played and sung slowly, almost dirge like. The story of the loss of Erebor, and the commitment of those present to gain their revenge and win back their “long-forgotten gold“, is very affecting.
It also brings to mind thoughts of a “promised land” analogy, with the dwarves as the sons of Abraham, Thorin as Moses and the Lonely Mountain as Israel. The comparison is certainly an intention of the author (maybe subconsciously), who would model his dwarven language on Semitic sources, and whose depiction of the dwarves here as honourable, serious, proud and greedy, and further as a dispossessed people who maintain their own culture and identity within larger societal groups, and even further as people recognized as marvellous craftsmen, is based on medieval depictions of Jews. Going further, we can look at the dwarven greed that led to the return of Smaug and the destruction of Erebor, mirroring the later Old Testament Kings of Israel and their own fall, and the dwarven desire to reclaim the “Arkenstone”, which easily fits the bill of an Ark of the Covenant.
The appropriateness of the comparison is debatable – dwarves are frequently depicted here as money obsessed usurers, with Thorin explicitly noting that Erebor was a place where “the poorest of us had money to spend and to lend” – but Tolkien’s own feelings towards the Jewish people were unequivocal, as can be seen in his (unsent) response to German publishers of The Hobbit, inquiring as to whether he was Jewish himself: “But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.” Still, as much as it seems there is a promised land theme here, the dwarven mission is more about reclaiming the gold Smaug took, rather than the homeland, with the dwarven identity presented here being wrapped up in their material possessions, and not the home they built from inside a mountain.
We might revisit the topic in time. For now, we should focus back on Bilbo’s reaction to the music and the song, wherein the Took side starts to really come to the fore:
“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 a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves… 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. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns.“
It’s an important moment, both for showcasing the depth of Bilbo’s imagination and the power of the dwarf song, and for that crucial line about the “fierce and jealous love” held by the dwarves towards “things made by hands and by cunning”. That’s an idea that will come up again in a large way by the time the story reaches its conclusion, and the first indication that Thorin’s quest does not come from completely pure motivations. Bilbo also sees a campfire somewhere in the distance and imagines dragons descending on the Shire, an image that will be played for laughs in Gandalf’s fireworks display in “A Long-Expected Party”.
There follows the exposition dump of the chapter, marking “An Unexpected Party” as similar in many respects to “The Shadow Of The Past” and “The Council Of Elrond.” Thorin has the longest uninterrupted run-on monologue outlining the loss of Erebor to Smaug in more factual terms than the song, and it’s a straightforward enough account from a man who has had long years to think about the events of the day in question.
Thorin is interrupted however by Bilbo having a shrieking fit, screaming about being “struck by lightning”, and needing to be put into another room to calm down. It’s an extreme moment, one that doesn’t really fit into the flow of the chapter all that easily, and seems to be a convenient way to get Bilbo out of the picture so he can, with somewhat more drama, suddenly appear in front of the dwarves again a page later. It’s like a set-up to show Bilbo as the rising hero, facing up to the destiny that’s been placed in front of him, but it’s easily the weakest part of the chapter. Tolkien even feels the need to save the narrative energy, turning away from Bilbo’s fit to discuss “Bullroarer” Took, Bilbo’s great ancestor, who defeated an invasion of goblins while inventing the game of golf.
Bilbo does come back into the verbal fray however, especially after overhearing some uncomplimentary comments from the dwarves, comments that make him want to be thought “really fierce”: a difficult proposition for someone of Bilbo’s appearance, size and history. But being fierce doesn’t necessarily mean shouting or screaming or waving a sword around. In Bilbo’s case, it means reverting to his grounded common sense style, and treating things the way any serious person would: by “putting on his business manner (usually reserved for people who tried to borrow money off him), and doing his best to appear wise and prudent and professional”.
That Bilbo is joining up on this adventure, seemingly at random – Gandalf putting a sign on his door can easily have the reader thinking “You there! You look trustworthy! Would you like to join our party?” – is easily dismissed and forgotten by the author, especially in the face of Gandalf’s apparent authority. The wizard brooks few challenges from the dwarves, not from Gloin who gets rebuffed for questioning Bilbo’s inclusion, and not from Thorin, whose lack of knowledge on the map the wizard produces creates the first noticeable tension between these two commanding characters. Looking closely, Thorin belittles Gandalf on a few occasions here: rebuffing his command by referring to him as a “friend and counselor“, not an active participant; questioning how Gandalf got a hold of the Lonely Mountain map and the sidedoor key, which the wizard takes offence at; and “taking no notice” when Gandalf points out that the journey to the mountain will be strewn with peril.
In line with the lack of a plan in hiring Bilbo, there is also a general lack of a plan when discussing the produced map, getting to the Lonely Mountain, and slaying the dragon that dwells there. In the end, the party essentially decides to put the crux of the matter off: to get to the secret side-door and think of something there. It’s a section that smells a bit of Tolkien’s usual writing style, which was to make up large sections as he went along and try to cobble together something more seamless later. The man who would go onto to write The Lord Of The Rings would never really allow himself to do such a thing again, to have his party of characters depart on their quest without a clear method on how to achieve it. Well, except for how to get the Fellowship of the Ring to Mt Doom. Just a minor thing really. A repeated issue with Tolkien? Perhaps.
Thorin gets to resume his own narration at this point, and it is a fascinating tale, almost ancient history but for the fact that the person recounting it was actually there. A few interesting things come up in the course of the speech: that Erebor was a fabulously rich, powerful and influential Kingdom that commanded respect from various neighbours and races, before suffering a terrible fall due to its own hubris, a theme Tolkien wrote on over and over (Gondolin, Numenor, Arnor, etc); that dragons were common “in those days”, which weren’t really all that long ago (something Tolkien decided to ret-con, or at least ignore, for later in his canon) and that the dwarves of Erebor were a nation of builders, but not of growers, taking all of their foodstuff in tribute from neighbouring states, especially the town of Dale, a place of men. House Greyjoy springs to mind. In line with the intended audience, Tolkien is sure to note several times that part of the dwarves’ craft was toymaking. We might also note the description of Smaug’s coming, which will be repeated by the dragon himself, as he arrived with “a noise like a hurricane”.
Thorin’s story breaks down after the scattering of the dwarves, at which point Gandalf starts to cut in, outlining his discovery of a key to the sidedoor and a map to find it. In a moment of pure Douglas Adams, neither Thorin nor Biblo are especially convinced by Gandalf’s account of how he came by such things: “The explanation did not seem to explain.”
It is in being prodded on this that Gandalf reveals he obtained the items from Thorin’s own father, Thror, “in the dungeons of the Necromancer.” Dedicated readers of course know that the Necromancer is Sauron, but that was years away from being written into the fabric of the story when The Hobbit was published. Judging just on its own, the Necromancer is a strange namedrop of a terrible sounding character, that goes on to have almost no bearing on the tale at large. The very term “Necromancer”, meaning roughly “diviner of dead bodies”, is a fearsome title, and Tolkien meant it literally, outlining in letters that Sauron performed this darkest of deeds, communing with, mastering and commanding the “unbodied” in the service of Morgoth and then for his own ends. And yet, this figure, who from a first reading would seem to be someone or something of importance, perhaps a villain to be confronted later, has little other involvement.
His mention does provide us another glimpse of the darker side of Thorin’s personality. All too casually he posits the idea that, having accounted for the goblins of Moria that killed his grandfather (forgetting momentarily the loss this entailed to the dwarves) they should “give a thought” to taking on Sauron. Gandalf quickly shuts Thorin down, claiming that the Necromancer is beyond the entire power of all dwarves, before moving swiftly on to other matters without a pause. The moment is important, in establishing Thorin’s easy dreams of glory for him and the dwarves, and Gandalf’s ability to take command and brook no rivals to his authority.
Bilbo, desperate to bring the nightmare of this party to an end, essentially suggests that the group table any discussions of a plan and get some sleep, and the chapter ends without any firm resolution on numerous issues: how will they get to the Lonely Mountain? How will they get into the Lonely Mountain? How will they slay the dragon? And, most importantly of all, is Bilbo actually going with them? I wouldn’t quite call it a cliff-hanger chapter, but there are enough dangling plot hooks to keep the reader interested.
The chapter ends, like a lot of Tolkien’s chapters, with ominous commentary and foreshadowing of darker things to come. Thorin (having gotten “the best bedroom” as another example of Bilbo’s duties as a host) drifts off still singing his song of seeking fortune and glory in Erebor, a man obsessed. We must remember that Thorin is the last of the direct line of Erebor Kings, his grandfather who lost the mountain killed in battle and his own father dead in the Necromancer’s dungeon. A lot rests on his shoulders, the dreams of an entire race. And yet we may well wonder whether Thorin’s dreams are of a promised land for the dwarves, or for his personal advancement and fame.
For Bilbo, it’s an uneasy end to the day, and a promise of worse to come:
“Bilbo went to sleep with that in his ears, and it gave him very uncomfortable dreams. It was long after the break of day, when he woke up.”
Just as he would over a decade later with The Fellowship Of The Ring, Tolkien does not open with sound and fury, but “An Unexpected Party” is not without a bang. It has to accomplish a lot of things. The world of The Hobbit must be introduced. The characters of Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin must be firmly established. The point of the plot must be outlined, stakes introduced, dangers elaborated upon. The supporting cast must get their moment. And, most importantly of all, the reader has to be induced to care about it all. In this mostly well-crafted introduction, Tolkien accomplishes the lot, setting up the quest, the pay-off that awaits at the end, and the people who are going to be going on it. Bilbo is a fat, contented hobbit, but enough has been done to make us realise that there is a hidden side to him, without us getting to see what exactly this may entail. That’s enough to be going on with, and the colourful cast of dwarven characters – and one wizard – does the rest. Tolkien takes his time with it – this is the second longest chapter of the nineteen, behind only “Riddles In The Dark” – but it’s appropriate, and not at all a slog: even Thorin’s exposition is limited to a few pages, and you couldn’t call any of it dull with a straight face.
The scene is set, the players have their places. The journey “there” begins with the next chapter.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.