Here’s a curious chapter title. “An Unexpected Party” wasn’t all that unusual, foreshadowing an exciting incident at the beginning of the story, but “Roast Mutton”? What could a method of cooking sheep have to do with the quest for the mountain? It’s unusually obtuse for Tolkien, who is, in general, quite straightforward with his chapter titles, to the point of basically spoiling major events (“The Departure Of Boromir” anyone?).
The chapter opens in sudden circumstance: “Up jumped Bilbo, and putting on his dressing-gown went into the dining-room.” It’s actually a direct continuation of the previous chapters closing line, something Tolkien would not repeat again as far as I am aware. It makes more sense when it is all put together:
“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.
Up jumped Bilbo, and putting on his dressing-gown went into the dining-room.”
This sense of urgency permeates the opening of “Roast Mutton”, but the narrative does slow down again before too long.
Bilbo walks into the kitchen to discover that Thorin’s party have left a frightful mess of dirty crockery for him to clean up, a marked contrast to their behaviour the previous night when they washed everything they used with rapid speed – once asked. The dwarves do seem like a group of people who have great time for hard graft and cleaning up after themselves, but only when they are directly asked to. This time, they just dump what they used and clear out, which seems remarkably rude. Such actions are not really commented on in the aftermath, though they would appear to be a clear breach of the aforementioned xenia concept.
The rudeness continues as Gandalf just strolls into Bilbo’s home without any warning or announcement, as if he is the one who owns the place, and Bilbo an annoying squatter. Could this be, again, all part of a ploy on Gandalf’s part, to leave Bilbo discombobulated and flustered, and more easily open to suggestion?
That being said, Bilbo’s own feelings on the matter betray the conflict between his inner Baggins and his inner Took, with Bilbo unable to fully revert to type quickly:
“…and yet in a way he could not help feeling just a trifle disappointed. The feeling surprised him.”
The idea of being both “relieved” and “disappointed” is a potent one, and while Tolkien spells it out clearly enough, it’s an important thing to note: Bilbo’s about to set off on his grand adventure, and the reader needs one more reminder that it actually is what he wants, and that he isn’t being bullied into doing so by a horde of rampaging dwarfs and one stern-looking wizard.
The resulting conversation between Gandalf and Bilbo is one full of hilarity, right from the off as the wizard quotes Bilbo’s ill-advised idea of “an early start“, throwing the hobbit’s desperate effort to just bring lasts nights party to a close right back in his face. The dwarves have left a note for Bilbo on the mantelpiece that he has inexplicably missed (house-proud to an extreme, Bilbo’s morning routine appears to include copious amounts of dusting). The note itself is a wonderful bit of black comedy:
“Thorin and Company to Burglar Bilbo greeting! For your hospitality our sincerest thanks, and for your offer of professional assistance our grateful acceptance. Terms: cash on delivery, up to and not exceeding one fourteenth of total profits (if any); all travelling expenses guaranteed in any event; funeral expenses to be defrayed by us or our representatives, if occasion arises and the matter is not
otherwise arranged for.
“Thinking it unnecessary to disturb your esteemed repose, we have proceeded in advance to make requisite preparations, and shall await your respected person at the Green Dragon Inn, Bywater, at 11 a.m. sharp. Trusting that you will be punctual,
We have the honour to remain
Thorin & Co.”
Something as simple as an offhand reference to possible “funeral expenses” works wonderfully here, as both humour and as some subtle foreshadowing of doom. The “if the occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for” line can be taken as a darkly humorous allusion to Bilbo being killed and eaten by some kind of monster. But we might also note the price for Bilbo’s services: “one fourteenth of total profits” which, going by the story of Erebor that Thorin told yesterday, is a vast, vast fortune. It also deflects from the ideas of the dwarfs primarily seeking to reclaim their promised land, with each of the party members to get the same share of the treasure. It’s all about the gold, at least at this point.
The subsequent exchange between Gandalf and Bilbo, wherein the wizard (correctly) surmises that Bilbo has made his mind up and just needs to be shoved out the door, is great:
“That leaves you just ten minutes. You will have to run,” said Gandalf.
“But — said Bilbo.
“No time for it,” said the wizard.
“But — ,” said Bilbo again.
“No time for that either! Off you go!”
To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking-stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out...”
And it’s capped off as a perfect comedy moment by Balin’s simple “Bravo!” as Bilbo stumbles to the starting line of their journey just in time.
Bilbo’s apparent obsession with pocket-handkerchiefs is an interesting repeated thing. Tolkien does well here, tying Bilbo’s conservative Baggins nature to a simple example of a clothing accessory, that will have limited use on a quest of this scope, but which Bilbo just can’t leave home without, unless he wants to appear truly barbaric. A handkerchief is more than just something to blow your nose with in this context, it’s a bit of civilization and it’s a bit of home. The dwarves are uncaring about Bilbo’s loss, but Gandalf is a bit more mindful, rising up with a few to placate Bilbo, and set him on his way. It’s an almost unexpectedly decent thing for Gandalf to do at this point, considering his interactions with Bilbo thus far, but it’s necessary if we are to keep thinking well of the wizard.
As the start of a quest goes, there is something subdued about it, out of kilter for the kind of fantasy epics that would follow in Tolkien’s wake. The Lord Of The Rings would follow much the same pattern, with Frodo and company leaving the Shire lackadaisically and without any clear indication that there are embarking on a trip from one end of a continent to another. But with The Hobbit it’s even more so, there isn’t even a song of the like of “The Road Goes Ever On And On” to mark the moment.
The Shire is left behind very quickly here, much faster than we will leave it and the surrounding area in the next story. As the two intersect directly here – the rocky remains of the trolls being discovered in “Flight To The Ford” – there is a chance for a comparison. It takes Tolkien the better part of eight chapters to go from Bag End to the trolls in The Lord Of The Rings, here it takes a few pages. As such, there’s little time to appreciate the extent of the geography that the company have traversed (though, since they are going directly, it would take less time) or how far they have gone. The sense of wearying travel that so imbued parts of Book One of The Fellowship Of The Ring is sacrificed for the sake of a more energetic narrative. The timeline is also a little confused here: it’s possible to infer that only a day has passed through the text, but I believe it is more.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Tolkien laying off on the hard details. It can be immersive to be drowned in such things, but The Hobbit, a less serious story for a less serious audience, can do enough by simply noting “they had gone far…where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before“.
The first example of Bilbo’s repeated wishes is brought up in this moment, as the pleasant weather of the leave-taking turns to constant rain (and note the nice alliteration of the opening):
“Bother burgling and everything to do with it! I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing!”
For humours sake, it’s a nice repeated joke, and is effective at portraying Bilbo as this conflicted sort of person, at one point all gung-ho for adventure, and now, at the first sign of adverse weather, having a very different tack.
We are well and truly in the wild lands now, a place of “no people“, “no inns“, “dreary hills” and “old castles with an evil look” (a reference to Weathertop and Amon Sul perhaps?). Tolkien refers to here as the “Lone-Lands”, outside of the civilised country of the Shire. The bad weather is the icing on the cake. The dwarves, a practical people, worry less about being waylaid by any “wicked people” and more about where to find somewhere dry to set-up camp, but it is through Bilbo’s eyes that we are seeing the unfolding landscape, and it is a place of darkness, though Tolkien flair for description is still very much evident:
“Somewhere behind the grey clouds the sun must have gone down, for it began to get dark as they went down into a deep valley with a river at the bottom. Wind got up, and willows along its banks bent and sighed. Fortunately the road went over an ancient stone bridge, for the river, swollen with the rains, came rushing down from the hills and mountains in the north.”
And then Gandalf disappears. His absence is sudden and unnoticed, the dwarves (and Bilbo) having kept their faces so resolutely forward they didn’t realise he was no longer with them. It is notable that the dwarves are prone to suspicion when it comes to the wizard, whose disappearance is cause for everyone to express worry and wonderment. They don’t know if Gandalf is even coming along all the way, or if he is just accompanying them (and enjoying lots of their food in the process). This loose arrangement is a strange one, and the narrator’s own words plant the seed of paranoia that we can envision in the minds of the dwarves: “He had eaten most, talked most, and laughed most. But now he simply was not there at all!”
In Gandalf’s absence, we get another recurring narrative theme, that of escalating disasters. The surroundings are creepy, the rain is falling, the wind is rising; then the fire refuses to start and the ponies bolt and supplies are lost. Everything happens very quickly, and I’m unsure whether Tolkien meant for the impression to be comical or not. Up to the loss of the ponies, it certainly seemed more light-hearted than anything, but after that it’s fair to say Tolkien has managed to create a firm sense of things slipping out of Thorin and company’s control. We might also remember Gandalf’s warnings on Thorin’s father and his own quests: “lots of adventures of a most unpleasant sort he had…”
Having seen a light in the distance, a debate over whether to approach it or not takes place. It’s not the last time such a debate will take place, and it will be replicated almost exactly when the company is in Mirkwood. Campfires in these parts tend to not harbour nice people; but the company is wet, cold and miserable. That Thorin doesn’t seem to understand which way is luck is leaning adds some humour to the moment, but there is a certain amount of tension to the scene, with the dwarves bickering over what to do.
The dwarves also talk about how people in this area “have seldom even heard of the king round here…”. There’s no actual King of this area at the point in the timeline that Tolkien is writing (where’s the nearest one? The Woodland Realm? Rohan?), but Tolkien will explain this in later appendices, as a local phrase used to simply denote a lack of civilisation, referring to the ancient Kingdom of Arnor and its successors, that fell into ruin millennia prior. Whether Tolkien meant it that way at the time of writing is anyone’s guess. Also, in a nice bit of subtle foreshadowing, some dwarves warn that they are “too near the mountains” to expect friendly company.
Not for the last time (saying that a lot) the dwarves decide to press Bilbo into doing their dirty work for them – “after all we have got a burglar with us” – to act as an impromptu scout and see who is around the fire and if they are friendly or not. In another moment of outright comedy, Thorin advises Bilbo to give his answer on the question in the form of differing owl noises, despite the fact that Bilbo can do no such imitations (reminds me of a Malcom In The Middle episode, as Reese prepares to parachute into a warzone: “Pull the green cord before the light-green cord”).
Bilbo creeps forward, and Tolkien takes a moment to set-up his point of view as the direct framing device: “And this is what he saw”. The campfire belongs to three trolls, cooking the meat of the chapter title. Peter Jackson’s film trilogy will surely have coloured the perception of trolls in Middle-Earth, as animalistic creatures with little in the way of higher intelligence, but these three have a certain amount of smarts, even if they are far from civilized. That Tolkien describes them as “Obviously trolls” is interesting, the author perhaps trusting that his readership will get the point without any great elaboration, based on their own likely experience with stories of man-eating monsters that reside under bridges. These trolls have the man-eating part down, but the bridge is absent, they instead being, essentially, wandering vagabonds out to make the Lone-Lands live up to their names.
William, Bert and Tom, a three stooges-esque combination, are quickly established as morally repugnant, and Tolkien seems to delight in giving these three the time and space to just talk in their not quite “drawing-room” way. The Cockney nature of their accents is obvious, and one can certainly detect a bit of classist writing from the author in these moments: he could be writing a sketch about a well-to-do gentlemen being waylaid by comically inept and over-the-top lower class highwaymen. They fight with each other (physically and verbally) at the slightest pretence, they casually talk about ambushing travellers and eating them, and they just seem to generally delight in being, well, wicked, “even those with only one head each”. The first of an escalating series of episodic villains in The Hobbit, Bill, Tom and Bert are a great introduction to the kind of antagonists we will be dealing with in the course of the story.
An important moment occurs as Bilbo listens to the trolls, formulating his own plan to be the hero and impress everyone. That Bilbo undertakes what is almost a suicidal action may seem strange, but it does sort of fit the character he has been established as, capable of occasionally daring acts, though they are connected in scope only in a relative sense. In the first chapter, this was seen in Bilbo shaking off the “fit” and bravely walking back into the conversation happening in his parlour (and into this adventure). It’s also him asserting some badly needed agency for his character, having been manipulated and railroaded a bit thus far: he’s going to pickpocket the trolls of his accord, and impress the dwarves in doing so. Or, at least, that’s the plan. Here, he conjures up a fantastical vision of what he might do:
“A really first-class and legendary burglar would at this point have picked the trolls’ pockets — it is nearly always worth while, if you can manage it — , pinched the very mutton off the spits, purloined the beer, and walked off without their noticing him. Others more practical but with less professional pride would perhaps have stuck a dagger into each of them before they observed it. Then the night could have been spent cheerily.”
Instead of that, Bilbo settles on a simple pickpocketing job, which is a bit more traditionally gung-ho, almost rogue-like, as the way he will demonstrate his worth by stealing from the trolls.
Except it doesn’t really work out (in one of the rare examples of Bilbo’s bravery not doing so), with Bill’s purse, enchanted, yelping out a warning when Bilbo tries to take it, with a cockney twang, the same as his master: “Ere, ‘oo are you?”. This kind of magic, almost childish in its presentation, is not going to be seen in The Lord Of The Rings, and is another firm indication that we are very much in a children’s story.
Caught, Bilbo faces the three villains alone, and in a very compromised position. His interactions with the trolls blurs the line between crisis and comedy:
“Blimey, Bert, look what I’ve copped!” said William.
“What is it?” said the others coming up. “Lumme, if I knows! What are yer?”
“Bilbo Baggins, a bur — a hobbit,” said poor Bilbo, shaking all over, and wondering how to make owl-noises before they throttled him.
“A burrahobbit?” said they, a bit startled.”
The trolls are a bit slow on the uptake, not liking new and unfamiliar things, but they aren’t totally without wits, with threats to their well-being staying very much in the memory: they won’t let Bilbo go, “Not till he says what he means by lots and none at all…I don’t want to have me throat cut in me sleep!” Literally hanging, and not for the last time, Bilbo must rely on his verbosity over any other traditional weapon. Obsessed with food himself, he targets the trolls’ stomachs, suggesting he will “cook better than I cook” in a moment of pun-ish hilarity.
Of course, this little interaction, which quickly results in “a gorgeous row” and the trolls “calling one another all sorts of perfectly true and applicable names in very loud voices”, and all of the troll dialogue so far, has also served to set-up the very important points, soon to be very relevant, that the trolls are both easily misled – Bill, almost crying (and drunk), suddenly wants to let Bilbo go at the merest hint of a sob story – and easily roused to anger, as evidenced by how they are constantly snarking and biting at each other, before fists are actually used.
Before the resolution must come the growing crisis however, as the dwarves, coming up in dribs and drabs (just as they did at Bilbo’s door, and just as they’ll do again with Beorn) to check after the absent Bilbo, are captured by the trolls (that hate “the very sight of dwarves (uncooked)”), and neatly stacked up in some convenient sacks. This moment does little for our opinion of the dwarves, especially when it comes to their capability to take on a fire-breathing dragon, and I would count that as a weak-point in the chapter. Peter Jackson decided to avoid it, having the dwarves attack the trolls in unison, and only surrender when they threatened to tear Bilbo into pieces, a solution to the narrative issue I admire. Only Thorin, in the book, avoids the ignominious fate of being immediately captured, and he gets a brief moment to showcase his own martial acumen, taking on the three giants alone for a few moments, before he too is sacked. He’s smarter and tougher than his opponents and, as this section makes clear, the rest of the company. It’s good that Tolkien allowed Thorin the chance to show why he is charge (only a few other dwarves stand-out in “Roast Mutton”, maybe Balin as the designated look-out, and Nori and Dori as those complaining about the lack of meals).
Bilbo at least tries to help Thorin, forewarning him about the trolls, being the only other member of the company who hasn’t been trussed up in a sack, but his efforts are pinpricks, albeit brave. This too, is foreshadowing of events at the end of this chapter, with Bilbo unable to properly fight the trolls largely because he isn’t properly armed.
The delighted trolls are left with 13 dwarves they can cook, and from here the remainder of the crisis is one punctuated with the comical interaction of the three, dressed up with heaps of black humour: their main argument now being how exactly to cook the dwarves.
Crucially, in narrative terms at least, Tolkien notes that Gandalf has already returned to the area at this point. Letting the reader know this is a mite curious, as it sucks some of the possible tension and bemusement out of the following exchanges, but it is a children’s tale: in a way, it sets up some subverted expectations, as a first-time reader might well expect Gandalf to burst into the clearing with sword and lightning. Instead, he does something far cleverer.
The resulting discussion between Tom, Bert, Bill and another mysterious voice, is a master-class in both humorous writing and the tense unfolding of a dramatic crutch. I’ll include just one section of it:
“No good roasting ’em now, it’d take all night,” said a voice. Bert thought it was William’s.
“Don’t start the argument all over again, Bill,” he said, “or it will take all night.”
“Who’s a-arguing?” said William, who thought it was Bert that had spoken.
“You are,” said Bert.
“You’re a liar,” said William; and so the argument began all over again.”
The pattern is repeated over and over: a relatively harmonious decision over how to cook the dwarves; the interjection of an unclear voice; a misunderstanding; comical troll-on-troll violence. Like an old children’s rhyme, Tolkien repeats the pattern a few times, with the trolls getting more and more disgruntled and confused, and never able to actually get to the essential object of their fight: killing and eating the hapless dwarves (and maybe one “burrahobbit”). In the end, it is their final downfall, with Gandalf distracting the three until the sun arrives, turning the trolls to stone, a neat and tidy resolution to the crisis of the chapter (that also alludes to traditional fairy tale depictions of such creatures). Gandalf, pointedly, doesn’t use any force to end the threat, just his voice (which, it is never explicitly noted, isn’t changed by any magical means). Tolkien lets Tom, Bert and Bill stand where they cease, an abject lesson for the world to note: “And there they stand to this day, all alone, unless the birds perch on them…That is what had happened to Bert and Tom and William. “
The freed dwarves grumble at Bilbo – “Silly time to go practising pinching and pocket-picking,”- but Gandalf, again exerting his authority, admonishes any thought of a successful encounter with the trolls – and then moves on to more practical matters, almost like another distraction. The trolls must have a bolt-hole somewhere nearby, and Tolkien leaves it to Bilbo to find the key, just so he can have a little something to mark himself, a successful pickpocket, of a sort anyway.
The troll-hole is a dank, horrible place, untidy and strewn with bones. Interestingly, Tolkien is almost at pains to point out both the surviving clothes of the trolls’ victims, and the clutter of how they store their food and plunder. The contrast with the civilised Shire that the company has left behind is thus made even clearer. Of greater interest to the characters are the swords they uncover, fancy blades “not made by any troll, nor by any smith among men in these parts and days“, whose full story will be told later. Re-supplied from the trolls’ stash (making up for the loss of the ponies), armed and with a little extra gold that they bury nearby (that they put “a great many spells over” in a curious aside that goes unelaborated on: is it Gandalf doing the spells, or the company?), they are ready to move on.
The chapter ends with a final conversation between Thorin and Gandalf where, once again, the authority of the company seems to be in discussion as much as anything else. It begins with a straightforward question that Gandalf answers sarcastically:
“Where did you go to, if I may ask?” said Thorin to Gandalf as they rode along.
“To look ahead,” said he.
“And what brought you back in the nick of time?”
“Looking behind,” said he.”
The conversation then becomes dominated by Gandalf, outlining all he has done for the company, while they were little more than useless and suspicious of him: scouting ahead, meeting some of “Elrond’s people“, though who he is goes unexplained (poor Bilbo, the audience surrogate who asks, is simply told “Don’t interrupt!“), receiving warnings of the three trolls, and hurrying back to rescue everyone. Just why Gandalf did all this without telling anyone what he was doing goes unasked upon. The wizard keeps his own counsel it would seem, and you can read a lot of different interpretations into the final exchange between he and Thorin, that closes out the chapter, be it genuine gratefulness, sarcasm or outright anger:
“…So now you know. Please be more careful, next time, or we shall never get
anywhere ! ”
“Thank you!” said Thorin.”
“Roast Mutton”, our first proper step on the road to the Lonely Mountain, has to get things off on the right note, and it largely does. The narrative has enough of a fast pace to it, divided as it into three distinct sections: Bilbo at home and then heading off, the travel to the campsite, and then the encounter with the trolls. The lion’s share of the words is given to the last one, but each trips along nicely. The writing is imbued with lots of humour, and some important aspects of characters and company established in the first chapter are re-emphasised and solidified: Thorin’s huffiness, Bilbo’s conservative attitude to travel and occasional bravery, Gandalf’ aloofness, and the dwarves’ general haplessness and bad luck. The set-piece with the trolls is wonderfully written and has a great resolution and, as the first episode of many to come, “Roast Mutton” is a treat, blending traditional high fantasy questing narrative with more grounded child-friendly encounters.
Next time, our introduction to elves.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.