“The Hobbit” Read-Along Chapter 1: “An Unexpected Party”

Chapter 1

An Unexpected Party

(In which I tell you things I thought while reading the first chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit.)

You can nearly hear it: the squirming under the blankets, the excited whispers from little voices, the occasional giggle or outright laughter, and, perhaps, the interrupting questions which are bound to pepper any evening spent telling a good story to children. And you, the teller, the reader-out-loud, love these sounds, because they feed the energy of your growing tale and remind you that, whatever else you have planned, your story absolutely must entertain.

If you are lucky enough to be actually reading The Hobbit aloud to children, all the better. If you find yourself alone, no matter; for me, at least, Tolkien’s prose—more carefree and warm than the tone he would later adopt for The Lord of the Rings—had the effect of making me feel as if I was the storyteller.

So, Things of Note about Chapter 1:

  • Bilbo is quite unfazed at Gandalf’s famous parsing of the many meanings of “good morning” on page 4. He invites the strange (blue-hatted!) man to have a smoke with him and, when the topic of adventures is brought up, is not shy to say that they’re not wanted around here, thank you. We can tell that this little fellow, however homely, has a certain spunk. This is confirmed when Gandalf reveals his identity, and Bilbo nearly explodes with excited recognition: “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 who used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those!…Splendid!” Gandalf finds it hopeful that he at least liked the fireworks.
  • The arrival of the dwarves at Bag End reveals some excellent comedic timing. You can imagine children gasping and giggling a little when Bilbo first throws open the door expecting Gandalf, and finds a brusquely-friendly Dwalin instead; more giggles for the second time Bilbo answers the door, swearing that it must be Gandalf now, only to have Balin stroll in and ask for beer; and finally peals of laughter as more knocks come at the door, and Bilbo resigns himself to the steadily growing groups of dwarves that keep tumbling into his hallway, hanging up their cloaks and caps, and trundling off to the kitchen to drink loudly with their kinsmen. Even grumpy old me (I turned 25 this Sunday the 23rd, by the by) chuckled a fair bit to myself.
  • Bilbo’s exasperated attempt to follow the rules of polite hospitality despite not knowing a thing about these dwarves who have crashed his home as if they were expected is quite amusing.
  • “Confusticate and bebother these dwarves!” Frodo was never so eloquent as Bilbo. +)
  • The first song in Tolkien’s published legendarium is a Dwarven one about…breaking plates and causing mayhem in Bilbo’s kitchen! “Chip the glasses and crack the plates! / Blunt the knives and bend the forks! / That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates– / Smash the bottles and burn the corks!” (12)
    • It is at this point especially that I began to picture the story as a cartoon. Tolkien, don’t smite me from beyond the grave, but this little scene of the dwarves singing cheekily as they clean up after dinner is very Disney-esque. In a good, rousingly fun way.
  • Ah, but then the second song starts, the famous one. For the first time in the chapter, a deep, epic tone creeps in. The stanza about Smaug’s arrival to the Lonely Mountain, heralded by moaning winds and flaming forests, and the subsequent destruction of the Dwarven society there, is genuinely chilling. Bilbo gets a taste of the numinous:

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. (15)

  • Tolkien’s revelation about the battlefield heroics of Bilbo’s great-great-great-granduncle Bullroarer is surprising, given what we’ve seen of hobbitish courage thus far (Bilbo outright faints when the possibility of them not returning from this adventure alive is mentioned), and mixed with a bit of deadpan British humor.

[Bullroarer Took] charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfumbil’s head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred years through the air and went down a rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment. (17)

  • Even amidst the somber tragedy of the story that Thorin relates, what I remember most is that the dwarves were most proud of their crafting of…toys. “…Not to speak of the most marvelous and magical toys, the like of which is not to be found in the world now-a-days…the toy-market of Dale was the wonder of the North” (22).
    • I actually kind of like this reference, although it seem to be included primarily to induce wonder in the children of the audience. It is difficult to imagine Thorin making toys, even magical ones.
  • Shortly before the chapter ends, Tolkien is careful to bring back the more mythic tone. Gandalf mentions that he found Thrain, Thorin’s father, a suffering witless prisoner in the dungeons of the Necromancer, a mysterious sorcerer who is “quite beyond the powers of all the dwarves put together” (25). And just before they all go to sleep, Bilbo hears Thorin softly singing the chorus of that haunting song “Far over the misty mountains cold…” and we shiver a little and brace ourselves for adventure.

The first chapter of The Hobbit manages to be cheeringly cozy while still waking us to the cold winds of danger and ancient mysteries. It establishes its setting and characters with remarkable swiftness and charm. It’s a delight.

Friends: What are your thoughts on this auspicious chapter? What did you think of Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves? Have you any particular concerns or hopes for the movie’s treatment of scenes from this chapter?

Next up, Emily of WanderLust will write about Chapter 2 “Roast Mutton”!

25 thoughts on ““The Hobbit” Read-Along Chapter 1: “An Unexpected Party”

  1. Happy birthday!

    “Frodo was never so eloquent as Bilbo. +) ”

    I’m not sure that even eloquent Sam can outmatch Bilbo, for Bilbo seems to have words for all occasions.

    Your thoughts on this chapter are very akin to mine. The braiding together (for they are not blended, and more’s the wonder!) of the comedic and serious, the playful and mythic, the merry and the grave of this book is set out clearly from the very first. I think that, as I child, I truly fell in love with this book at the misty mountain song. You are lucky to have young folks to read it to.

    1. I should try to incorporate “confusticate” into my daily vocabulary, see how many people ask what it means (or pretend that they already know it).

      “Braiding,” I like that term! You’re right, the elements aren’t quite blended, but rather they alternate. They aren’t jarring, though; they seem to fit. It helps keep the story moving, and it avoids a monotonous tone.

      Tolkien’s writing is fantastic right from the outset, but that song is the first sign of real poeticism. I can’t wait until my nephews are over again and I can read some more to them.

      1. Out of curiosity, how would you pronounce confusticate in conversation? Is your “u” short or long? That one letter seems to change the entire nature of the word.

        1. According to Wiktionary, it’s a short “u.” I’d probably have pronounced it long otherwise, but I haven’t had the chance to use it in proper conversation yet.

  2. Happy birthday!!

    Well, this is my first reading but from the first word it is so lyrical, beautifully written and grabbed me straight away! I must say it’s a wonder why I waited so long to read this.

    This chapter was absolutely hilarious to me. I loved every minute and as Jubilare said Bilbo is very eloquent! How he dealt with all of those dwarves invading his home is a mystery and something to wonder at.

    I already love Gandalf! Can not wait for the next chapter! <3

  3. The almost aggressive politeness of Bilbo to Gandalf cracks me up every time. All those Good morning’s with a wealth of meaning in them all. The humor in this book is really what makes it so different from LOTR. Not in a bad way, but it certainly changes the tone.

    As to the movie, I think I’m most excited about seeing the dwarfs become individuals. It’s really easy in the book for them to all blur together in my mind, except for fat Bombur and Thorin, who always seems to be grouchy. I think the movie will help to flesh them out a bit more.

    1. Aye. There’s definitely some humor in LOTR, but I don’t recall nearly as much. You can tell that The Hobbit was first a story told to his children, that he then worked to fit into his growing mythology.

      Aye, overall I’m extremely pleased with the designs of the dwarves so far. The “sexy” Kili and Thorin give me a little pause (especially the former looks out of place among them; and check out Jenny Dolfen’s recent sketch of Thorin, which perfectly fits my imagination), but should turn out fine. The beards are amazing.

  4. Reblogged this on WanderLust and commented:
    And so it begins.

    As mentioned several posts and weeks ago, a group of bloggers and I are reading through The Hobbit together in anticipation of the upcoming movie. This is David at The Warden’s Walk’s thoughts on Chapter One: “An Unexpected Party.”

    P.S. Happy birthday, David!

  5. Your opening is the perfect reminder that The Hobbit was written as a tale for children and you reading it aloud is the perfect format. I’m grateful that Tolkien didn’t start his tale with the old “Once Upon A Time” line. I much prefer “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

    The man knew how to gain attention.

    Speaking of a hole in the ground, my first impression from this chapter was, “How cool would it be to live in the side of a hill!” The description of Bilbo’s home sets a wonderful mental picture and tells us quite a bit about Master Baggins himself. Talk about great insulation!

    Your observation of the chapter’s swerving between comedy and deep drama is spot on. After all, what is an Unexpected Party but life itself? Suddenly one is alive and knee-deep in laughter, tears, hope and sorrow. One has no choice but to push on to a grand adventure. Gandalf certainly leaves poor Bilbo no choice.

    I have no idea if Tolkien was thinking along these lines or not, but I’ve always looked at it that way. I hope no one considers it bad form to make reference to a Western while commenting on a fantasy, but near the end of Lonesome Dove (the novel), as Augustus nears death, he says to his lifelong friend, “Woodrow, quite a party.”

    And we’re off!

    1. That he did, that he did.

      Absolutely right! Bag End is such a cozy, comfortable place, I’d love to live there. And while Tolkien obviously agrees that it is near or at the top of the nicest places to live, there’s also a lesson lurking around that it is important to get out of one’s comfort zones now and then.

      Absolutely not bad form! I’ve never read Lonesome Dove, but Augustus has some nice last (or near last) words there. And fantasy and Westerns aren’t mutually exclusive; just check out the webcomic Next Town Over.

  6. I love this chapter! I love the language Tolkien uses. “Confusticate and bebother”–brilliant!
    I have to say, there are 2 moments in this chapter that constantly fight to be my favorite: 1) when Tolkien says something Tookish woke up in Bilbo (I get chills!), and 2) when Bilbo freaks and falls on the floor shaking like a jelly and shouting “struck by lightning! ” I doubt that will make it in the film, but I can imagine Martin Freeman playing that part very well. ;)

    1. Aye, those are good parts. Bilbo’s freak-out struck me as a little much at first, but it serves to illustrate just how easy and smooth his life has always been, how mundane, and how much he fears adventure at this stage. Plus it’s hilarious. +)

  7. Ha, I started rereading and took note of my favorite passages, two of which ended up here! I love how lighthearted Tolkien can be; sometimes I think readers (myself included, on occasion) get caught up in analysis and read with overly somber hearts.

    Also, I’d not noticed before you pointed out the comedic timing of the dwarves’ arrival, but no wonder Gandalf knew it was the best way to approach Beorn; it had worked perfectly on Bilbo!

    1. “Delightful” is really one of the most apt descriptions for the story, since it produces so much delight. I find it impossible not to smile or chuckle all through it.

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