Reading notes: The Hobbit

Stuff about which I thought while rereading The Hobbit recently. Very self-indulgent, yes, feel free to ignore or mock.



In my teenage years I knew a lot more about the history of the writing of Middle-earth than I do now. So I’m no longer sure of how much of the larger mythos existed when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and how far it was written to tie into that – or to what extent it has since been edited (beyond the editing of the Gollum chapter to better fit The Lord of the Rings; I do at least remember that much) to fit. So when Tolkien’s narrator says that he does not know things – how Gollum got his ring, which we will learn; or the ancestry of Beorn, you can read this as either a potentially omniscient narrator/author who doesn’t know these things because they aren’t there to be known or you can read it as how a children’s book would be written, in that world, by an author who may or may not (probably not though) know these facts about the world he lives in even though those facts exist in the world and are knowable.

One of the things I think I’m trying to get at here is that I like the gaps in Middle-earth where Tolkien either admits of not knowing or knows but doesn’t tell. Tolkien fans often seem to love the mapped-out-ness of Middle-earth — here is a history that starts out from before creation, all neatly set out with dates and family trees and philology. M John Harrison’s clomping foot of nerdism.

The Hobbit is another world. I don’t know where the trolls come from. I don’t know why a man who occasionally turns into a bear and who has trained animals to do his housework exists. And I don’t know what Tom Bombadil is, of course).

As I write this I’m rereading Verlyn Flieger’s “’Do the Atlantis Story and abandon Eriol Saga’” (Tolkien Studies 1.1 (2004): 43-68). Flieger writes (in a far more informed and articulate manner than I ever will) about Tolkien’s “strategy of presentation” of his various Middle-earth books, and the question of “Who would be telling his stories, to whom, and why?”. If the Silmarillion is to be a history of Middle-earth as written by a denizen of Middle-earth, it’s incomplete and biased, it privileges some narratives over others. Which narratives it privileges are possibly a result of Tolkien’s own biases, but that’s a different matter entirely. If Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth is to be vast and complete it’s a vision in which books exist and tell different sorts of stories. Genre is in itself a sort of acceptance that the world can be herded into types of story; that we pick and choose so some extent. Which, I suspect, means that part of the completeness of Tolkien’s Middle-earth is to make the stories it tells itself about itself incomplete. I’m not sure if this means that Tolkien’s worldbuilding is inextricably linked to a kind of anti-worldbuilding, that I agree with MJH, or that I have somehow talked myself around to having Tolkien agree with MJH.

[All of this is why I find the Peter Jackson attempt to place The Hobbit in proper continuity with LotR ominous. By their own logic they are not a book and its sequel; they’re works in separate genres that purportedly tell different parts of a history. At the time of writing I haven’t seen the movie and it’s possible I’m doing it an injustice. But I suspect that nerdism’s foot has clomped with great clomp.]


Riddles in the Dark

The impression one gets is that telling riddles is a thing people do regularly – which is why Bilbo so readily remembers a few. I’m interested in how Gollum’s language changes while he’s asking riddles; he’s quoting. So is Bilbo, to a less obvious extent. Which has the effect, to me, of turning the whole into less of a competition and more a formal game. There are a finite number of structured, existing riddles and one either knows them or doesn’t. No wonder Bilbo’s pockets question is such a breach of the rules.


Moon runes

These are a really stupid idea, dwarves. I thought this when I was 7, and I think it now.



This was one of my favourite parts of the story as a child. Beorn is fascinating.

All the time they ate, Beorn in his deep rolling voice told tales of the wild lands on this side of the mountains, and especially of the dark and dangerous wood, that lay outstretched far to North and South a day’s ride before them, barring their way to the East, the terrible forest of Mirkwood.

He is also dangerous:

In this hall we can rest sound and safe, but I warn you all not to forget what Beorn said before he left us: you must not stray outside until the sun is up, on your peril.

Perhaps it’s years of sexy werewolf fanfiction or perhaps it’s an echo of the Cupid and Psyche myth passing through time or Beauty and the Beast (and perhaps sexy werewolf fanfiction is also an echo of the Cupid/Psyche myth + Beauty and the Beast) but I cannot help seeing this scene as having great erotic potential. If I recall correctly, LotR mentions Beorn’s “sons” in passing. Does he turn men into werebears by biting them, or does he have a mate, and is she (presumably) bear or human? There is probably self-insert fanfic of this out there somewhere.



“Still elves they were and remain and that is Good People”. Sigh. On the whole The Hobbit offers a far better format than Lord of the Rings for seeing people as complex, flawed individuals. But it’s Tolkien and biology is morally important, so elves will always be basically good and orcs will always be basically bad. Bard the Bowman isn’t just a good man with archery skills; he has to be the descendent of Girion, Lord of Dale, so that he and Thorin and Dain echo the Return of the King plot. All will be well when the Rightful Descendant comes to the throne.

“[The elves'] hatred for the goblins is cold and bitter”. There’s a much stronger sense of this here, for me, than in LotR simply because the elves are presented to us as capable of having feelings that are cold and bitter.

The feasting people were Wood-elves, of course. These are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though their magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them (together with their scattered relations in the hills and mountains) were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West. There the Light-elves and the Deep-elves and the Sea-elves went and lived for ages, and grew fairer and wiser and more learned, and invented their magic and their cunning craft, in the making of beautiful and marvellous things, before some came back into the Wide World. In the Wide World the Wood-elves lingered in the twilight of our Sun and Moon but loved best the stars; and they wandered in the great forests that grew tall in lands that are now lost. They dwelt most often by the edges of the woods, from which they could escape at times to hunt, or to ride and run over the open lands by moonlight or starlight; and after the coming of Men they took ever more and more to the gloaming and the dusk.

Cliffnotes for the early bits of the Silmarillion; I wonder if these were in the original Hobbit or added later to fit in better with the rest. It’s a useful reminder of why I prefer the Sindar to the Eldar- who are “fairer” and “wiser” and have a history of colonialism. Also, what lands are ‘lost’ (apart from Numenor) and who/what are they lost to?

I seem to recall that the Appendices state that Legolas eventually leaves Middle-earth for Valinor. What is that like, if you’re a wood-elf and your people are pretty much defined by choosing not to go to heaven and to stick with the land and the trees that they love?



“But our back is to legends and we are coming home.” Applying something so mundane as character arcs to the sort of things Tolkien wrote is guaranteed to get you angry people claiming you’ve missed the point, but if there’s one character you can do that to, and if there’s one character you can treat as a sort of moral centre to this world, it is Bilbo. He isn’t heroic (and surely part of the appeal of the the hobbits is that they don’t belong in a world of heroes, they exist in a more common-sensical register in which people can be greedy and lazy and kind and fundamentally decent all at the same time) but he achieves a sort of heroic kindness by the end of it, and he will always have my heart for this in ways that no one in LotR can quite manage.


6 Comments to “Reading notes: The Hobbit

  1. Also, what lands are ‘lost’ (apart from Numenor) and who/what are they lost to?

    I always forget this myself, since the Silmarillion makes much less of it than the downfall of Numenor (and also I hardly ever read the Silmarillion), but there’s a massive inundation at the end of the First Age. If you compare the Silmarillion map with the one in LotR, nearly all of the land in the former is underwater in the latter.

    Here’s the Silmarillion passage:

    «Thus an end was made to the power of Angband in the North, and the evil realm was brought to naught; and out of the deep prisons a multitude of slaves came forth beyond all hope into the light of day, and they looked upon a world that was changed. For so great was the fury of those adversaries that the northern regions of the western world were rent asunder, and the sea roared in through many chasms, and there was confusion and great noise; and rivers perished or found new paths, and the valleys were upheaved and the hills trod down; and Sirion was no more.»

    Treebeard laments in LotR: “And now all those lands lie under the wave“.

  2. In the Hobbit and LotR, the major viewpoint is that of the little folks for whom elves are magical revered folk, which probably explains the sense that they are altogether good and above the concerns of other beings. In the Silmarillion, though, there are elves without this pure white characterisation (Fëanor and his sons, and even Galadriel). They can be cruel and vengeful even to their own kin, they can hate and murder, they are capable of immense empathy for humans. Or am I wrong? (Happy new year, also!)

    • Sure, which raises again the question of who is supposedly *writing* those two books. And sure, the elves are capable of great levels of flawed-ness, but the very fact that they’re allowed this differentiation of character raises them above the orcs, say, who can only be bad.

      Happy new year to you also!

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