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”!