The Hive reads THE HOBBIT – Part 2 (READALONG)
Well that was a bit of surprise!
We have besmirched Peter Jackson for toying with the canon narrative of the Hobbit and carving it into three bloated parts. However, it appears that our re-read posting has not only fallen into three rather long (but also lush) parts, but the break has come pretty much at the exact same point that Jackson made his first cut.
So we pick up the tale with our party fresh from rescue by the eagles but looking for some R&R before tackling the terror of Mirkwood. (And wasn’t that a great scary place for a child to be reading about – warning, there may be spiders ahead!)
Chapter VII: Queer Lodgings
Theo: I still smile at Kareem copying Gandalf’s tactics at Bristolcon 2018, when a huge crowd of us went out looking for a restaurant that would take such a large unbooked party – a very forlorn hope – until Kareem started slipping us in to one establishment just a few at a time, snatching a table here or there until pretty much the whole party was accommodated.
I remember finding this chapter quite spooky on the first read – the notion of Beorn being one of the good guys, yet still someone one should be afraid of! As Gandalf puts it “He can be appalling when he is angry, though he is kind enough if humoured. Still I warn you he gets angry easily.”
Nils: I had forgotten this chapter with Beorn, and like you Theo I found him quite creepy. Although he comes across as jolly when we get to meet him, knowing that someone as powerful as Gandalf is even cautious not to upset him gives him an air of real threat.
Theo: That is a good point, Nils. Gandalf’s wariness is like seeing your parents look worried, you know it’s serious then. As I said in the Whatsapp chat, I find Beorn arguably the scariest good guy in fantasy.
Beth: This was a chapter I did remember quite fondly, I always quite liked the figure of Beorn! Rather than scary, I always saw him as angry; angry at the careless way people treated animals. Coming across his home behind its hedge always reminded me of a similar moment in C. S. Lewis’ The Horse and his Boy, where they too find respite in a house hidden by a large hedge. I’ve been finding a number of similarities between that series and The Hobbit on this re-read.
Something that I did find annoying though was the continued interruptions as the dwarves came in; this bit was lost on me I’m afraid!
Theo: Also a shout out to the first appearance in canon of Radagast the Brown as Gandalf says to Beorn “Perhaps you have heard of my good cousin Radagast.” I hadn’t realised he featured in the Hobbit – though less heavily than Sylvester McCoy’s cinematic role would suggest.
Beth: And Beorn likes Radagast – most likely as he has an affinity for nature and animals too?
Nils: Yes, I could just imagine them both discussing the best ways to help all the animals! I kind of now want a spin off story with them both!
And we get another mention of the Necromancer, Sauron, and his dark tower!
Qu11: Is Beorn the first fantasy Vegan?
Beth: I mean, he’s the only fantasy vegan I can think of!
What did you both make of his animal servants?
Nils: Ok this bit was a touch far fetched for me, but the imagery of it was strange and fun!
Theo: Yes the serving animals did stretch credulity a bit, I mean never mind a lack of opposable thumbs, but Horses with hooves serving and dogs carrying platters. It definitely drifted into real children’s book stuff of talking anthropomorphised animals. (I wonder if that inspired C.S.Lewis and Narnia!)
Beth: It may well have been a nod to Narnia? Although not actually written until the 1950s, it’s well known the two were good friends?
Chapter VIII: Flies and Spiders
Theo: I suppose I should mention Tolkein’s prose which is unobtrusively effective – it isn’t showy and yet it doesn’t patronise what was a child readership. The opening to this chapter is a case in point
“They walked in single file. The entrance to the path was like a sort of arch leading into a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves.”
Beth: The best children’s books do this though, they don’t shy away in terms of vocabulary, and I believe children love them all the more for it.
Theo: Also interesting in the course of this chapter is Bilbo’s continuing growth – in any story characters have to change and Bilbo has progressed from being a liability (the trolls) to being resourceful on his own account (riddles in the dark) to being a considerable asset to the group (Flies and spiders). Again Tolkien doesn’t patronise or bore his young readers with an unchanging mary-sue of a character.
“There was the usual dim grey light of the forest-day about him when he came to his senses. The spider lay dead beside him, and his sword-blade was stained black. Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath.
“I will give you a name,” he said to it, “and I shall call you Sting.”
I love this bit! Our Mr Bilbo Baggins is now a little hobbit warrior! And the naming of Sting, who becomes Frodo’s in LotR, really put a smile on my face.
Beth: It’s lovely to be able to really see the progression and his growth, I love that our perception of him can change, mirroring the change of the dwarves’ respect for him. With the growth of his courage and capability, comes the growth of hope in the reader that maybe this isn’t such an impossible task ahead of him.
Qu12: What is it with Tolkein and giant spiders?
(“in an interview with Jan Broberg in 1961, Tolkien said, as translated by John-Henri Holmberg, “I don’t like spiders. It’s not a pathological fear, but I rather won’t have anything to do with them.)
I mean there’s these guys, there’s Shelob in LotR and then there’s Ungoliant (Silmarillion reference Nils) who made even Morgoth (also a Silmarillion reference) quake!
Nils: I’m sure Ungoliant and Morgoth are both mentioned in Beren and Luthien at some point and I have read that! So there, Theo! I have some knowledge of the Silmarillion.
Theo: Ah ha, you have the advantage of me there as I haven’t read Beren and Luthien, only the abridged version of their story that appears in the Silmarillion!
Nils: I have the full version that Christopher Tolkien published! I also have The Fall of Gondolin but I’ve not read that yet.
Beth: As for spiders, I absolutely hate them, and I am not at all impressed by how often they turn up in his work! It’s interesting that spiders should be the creature of choice though, there are never any snakes? Or… other scary creatures I currently can’t think of?
Nils: I also hate spiders but I guess it’s a good way to make kids a touch frightened too. But that’s a great point Beth, why not snakes or rats?
Theo: Speaking of the Silmarillion – as I often am – this description of the wood elves as an example of the Sindar feeds straight into or from the Silmarillion, the sundering of the elves between those of the light who went to Valinor and those of the stars who stayed behind.
“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.”
But then again as this site attests, “The Silmarillion is actually Tolkein’s first book, preceding even the Hobbit.” https://tolkienlibrary.com/booksbytolkien/silmarillion/description.php
Beth: I loved this description of the different elves, and I found the wood elves quite exciting; they put me in mind of the darker kinds of creatures you’d find in British folklore? The kinds of elves you’d put a saucer of milk out for to stop them stealing your babies, the kinds of fae elves you’d never make a deal with. There was the moment with the hunt that really put me in mind of that, of Herne and magical hunts through ancient forests. Again, Narnia link here.
Qu13: Come on Nils, are you not tempted to read the Silmarillion yet?
Nils: I am indeed! I’m intimidated still, but very much looking forward to reading it!
Theo: Tbh if you’ve read Beren and Luthien and have the Fall of Gondolin poised to go, then you’re ready (and even slightly spoilered) for The Silmarillion.
Beth: I’m definitely going to pick it up, I need to get a paperback edition. I also have Beren and Luthien to read, and Unfinished Tales. What’s the recommended reading order, O Font of all Tolkien Knowledge (Theo)?
Theo: Well, the Silmarillion gives the overview with chapters detailing tales of Beren and Luthien, or Turin Turambar, or the Fall of Numenor, all of which are covered in much more detail in the separate books. So – at the risk of spoilers I would start with the Silmarillion as the origin of everything story, and then dive into the lush detail of the individual additional books!
Chapter IX: Barrels out of Bond
Theo: I have given much thought to the floating of cylindrical objects in liquids, to which barrels in a river represent a good approximation (no really, I have!) The question is at what point does a cylinder flip from floating on its side like a log, to floating on its end. It comes down to a combination of the ratio of liquid/solid density, and the ratio of cylinder height/radius. However, given the underlying physics and length of time (two days?!) that the dwarfs are sealed up in barrels with potential leaks (air holes?!) this is the point at which I most doubt their survivability – goblins, spiders, starvation not a problem – but mess with the physics and you’ve lost me!
See also “Legolas dances with stones” – though this “Legolas dances with barrels” scene comes close to that utter disregard for fundamental physics (3:40 mark)
Nils: You lost me the moment you started science-ing!! Stop it Theo! It’s a kids book!
Theo: A kid’s book you say?! But what about all the socio-economics of Dragons hoarding wealth? (Or is this the point where you say “This is why we can’t have nice things, Theo”)
Beth: I’m with Nils I’m afraid! I suspended my disbelief at the door where it belongs. It was a perfectly round door, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.
Beth: Although, very good point that it’s a great deal more than a kids book, I feel we’ll have to come back to this later for further discussion…
Qu14: Were there any points in what is – after all – a fantastical narrative, where the story’s twists or turns stretched your credulity to breaking point?
Nils: We have talking giant eagles and spiders, Theo! If my breaking point was not there then I don’t think floating in barrels and surviving is going to do much 😂
In all seriousness, I don’t really care how far fetched it all is. This is fun, exciting, it has peril and chaotic shenanigans. It’s everything a kids book should have!
Beth: I may have had a slight pause at Beorn’s animal servants, the dogs walking on hind legs to serve them… but it was slight in the extreme. I think it’s a valid question though, as I’m a lot more critical of modern books and credibility in fantasy! It won’t take much to throw me out of a narrative, and when it does I loathe to forgive too easily.
A note on something that struck me in this chapter, which ties in nicely with credibility; a plot hole people often complain about online is how the elven guards were able to fall asleep just from drinking, when elves are supposed to have such strong constitutions:
“Luck of an unusual kind was with Bilbo then. It must be potent wine to make a wood-elf drowsy; but this wine, it would seem, was the heady vintage of the great gardens of Dorwinion, not meant for his soldiers or his servants, but for the king’s feasts only, and for smaller bowls not for the butler’s great flagons.”
Chapter X: A Warm Welcome
Theo: The descriptions here reminded me of a few real world places. The lonely mountain, in its splendid isolation, reminds me a bit of Kilimanjaro, while the long lake feels a bit like Lake Garda. (There’s also parts of Donegal in North West Ireland that remind me of the Grey Havens. Which may not be a coincidence since Tolkein did take inspiration from the Irish Landscape – https://brehonacademy.org/the-irish-roots-of-middle-earth-discover-how-j-r-r-tolkien-was-inspired-by-irelands-ancient-myth-language-and-landscapes/ )
Qu15: What real world landscapes and scenery do you think of or draw on when you are trying to imagine Tolkien’s middle Earth?
Nils: I think you and Beth are better at answering this as you’ve probably travelled more than I have. I know Beth has some lovely landscapes near her, whereas I live right in the city centre.
“The lands opened wide about him, filled with the waters of the river which broke up and wandered in a hundred winding courses, or halted in marshes and pools dotted with isles on every side; but still a strong water flowed on steadily through the midst. And far away, its dark head in a torn cloud, there loomed the Mountain! Its nearest neighbours to the North-East and the tumbled land that joined it to them could not be seen. All alone it rose and looked across the marshes to the forest. The Lonely Mountain! Bilbo had come far and through many adventures to see it, and now he did not like the look of it in the least.”
This is what I love about Tolkien’s prose though, his descriptions are so vivid and evocative. He can transport me to places I’ve never seen but feel so familiar.
Beth: Often when I drive back from Llanelli and crest Pen-y-Mynydd just before the descent to Trimsaran, I’m floored by the incredible view – and squatting on the horizon is one of the peaks of the Preseli mountains in Pembrokeshire. It has always put me in mind of the Lonely Mountain. I wonder if I can find a picture of this view on Google…
Nils: You have such beautiful greenery there Beth!
Beth: It’s much clearer when you can see it for yourself, and for some perspective, that peak is an hour’s drive away from that point. But living in the rolling hills of Carmarthenshire, I’m constantly put in mind of Middle Earth. There’s a ruin around every corner with tales of long-forgotten Welsh kings and lords. Not far from the above picture, my grandmother’s brother once found a sword in a field, a remnant possibly of some battle we had no idea had taken place. That’s the sense I have reading Bilbo and Frodo’s accounts of Middle Earth, of exploring a landscape whose history is laid bare around them but not always understood.
Driving past Dryslwyn castle always makes me think of Weathertop:
Nils: That definitely has Weathertop vibes. It’s stunning.
Chapter XI: On the Doorstep
Theo: I like the fact that Tolkien bookends Bilbo’s original retort from Chapter I: The Unexpected Party about “if you sit on the door-step long enough, I daresay you will think of something”” with a whole chapter about exactly that activity. In some ways, after the hectic danger and excitement of the previous sections this feels like a slowing of the pace. But I think it is actually quite well placed, allowing the party (and the reader) to catch a breath and brace themselves for the final tumultuous events of the story.
Qu16: The more I re-read the book, the more I think the dwarfs come out of it pretty badly – switching from a dependence on Gandalf to get them out of scrapes to a dependence on Bilbo. To what extent do you think the dwarfs end up playing the foolish sidekick – the Watson to Bilbo and Gandalf’s Holmes?
Nils: That’s an excellent point, Theo. The dwarves feel more like sidekicks. Bilbo even mentions “this is your adventure after all” or something like that to the dwarves to remind them, but it really doesn’t feel like the story belongs to them. The adventure is Bilbo’s and he’s the link holding them all together. The dwarves are much less competent than I originally thought they would be, perhaps in a way they’re even more a liability than Bilbo ever was.
Beth: I was also surprised by their incompetence, Nils! This wasn’t an element I’d remembered, but they really are very much dependent on either Gandalf or Bilbo, and I’d say Gandalf is well aware of this going into this venture! But considering how many of them there are, it’s surprising that they’re all as useless as each other. Why do you think there needed to be quite so many of them?
Nils: Maybe because they weren’t expecting many to survive all the way to The Lonely Mountain?
Chapter XII: Inside Information
Theo: There’s a nice bit in here where Bilbo utterly alone in the dark makes his bravest decision,
“It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.”
Beth: It’s a very stirring moment, isn’t it. There’s so much in these books that point back to the world wars, but I was certainly put in mind of the trenches and tunnels of world war one at this part.
Theo: Of course the whole Smaug thing is really just a very obvious allegory for Jeff Bezos and his fellow billionaires – especially when you read lines like this
“Dragons may not have much real use for all their wealth, but they know it to an ounce”
“His rage passes description- the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but never before used or wanted.”
The value of money, like the value of friendship and thought, is transactional. It is the exchange of these commodities that enhances the lived experience. It’s why trickle down economics was always a con – the notion that dragons like Bezos … sorry Smaug would actually invest effectively. Giving money to people who have to spend it (and do so locally) is a far surer way to get the economy moving!
This handy – if rather outdated list from pre-pandemic 2012 – puts Smaug in his place below the then richest real-life billionaires – and their accumulation of wealth has only increased in the last decade! https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidewalt/2012/04/20/billionaires-fictional-15-real-imaginary/
Beth: I wonder who were the Bezos and Musks of Tolkien’s time? Or was he just referencing the aristocracy in general?
Theo: To be fair Smaug was my first fantasy Dragon and I think Tolkien did a great job of capturing his malevolent cunning (not exceeded until I read of Glaurung in the Silmarillion) and great power (not exceeded until I read of Ancalagon the Black – also in the Silmarillion).
Nils: Theo, there are more dragons in the Silmarillion?????
Theo: Sooo many dragons – though only those two got named!
Beth: Theo you could have saved yourself a lot of time coaxing Nils to read it if you’d just said in the first instance there were dragons!
Nils: Too bloody right!
Theo: If only I’d known! 🤣
Qu17: Is Smaug the best all round dragon? If not suggest your alternatives
“To hunt the whole mountain till he had caught the thief and had torn and trampled him was his one thought. He issued from the Gate, the waters rose in fierce whistling steam, and up he soared blazing into the air and settled on the mountain-top in a spout of green and scarlet flame. The dwarves heard the awful rumour of his flight, and they crouched against the walls of the grassy terrace cringing under boulders, hoping somehow to escape the frightful eyes of the hunting dragon.”
“My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”
Nils: I always gravitate towards books with dragons, they are by far my favourite fantasy creature and Smaug is the dragon, the first dragon I ever read about and instantly loved! And with descriptions like those two above, how can Tolkien’s dragon not be the best?!
Beth: Of course he is Theo! I think my first experience of a dragon in fantasy was actually C. S. Lewis’ from Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I’m not sure if he was inspired by Smaug, but he’s used as a moral lesson against greed, there’s a lot of talk about the dangers of dragon’s gold and the effect it can have on people, just like here in The Hobbit. Then I came across The Dragon Riders of Pern, and their parody in Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, and I think it was finally after this I came to Smaug himself at last. I think just as with Gandalf, he set the template for what a dragon in fantasy should be like? The cunning, the greed, the way you have to speak very carefully to them. Obviously that’s not to say now that every dragon in fantasy is like that, but that’s certainly the tradition, isn’t it? And again, obviously Tolkien didn’t invent dragons, he wasn’t the first to use them in his stories, but his writing has been so very influential to the genre that Smaug has naturally coloured what’s come after him.