In the first chapter of The Hobbit, we are introduced the the world of the hobbits and, in particular, a specific hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, who very much would like to not go on an adventure. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to start The Hobbit.
CHAPTER ONE: AN UNEXPECTED PARTY
Oh lord, what the hell have I gotten myself into?
My relationship to the world of Middle Earth (which I probably have already gotten wrong, as I have no idea if this takes place there) is pretty simple: All of humanity has either read these four books by J.R.R. Tolkien, or seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Meanwhile, I was busy doing jack shit while missing out on most of normal life. At least with Harry Potter, I had a rough sense of what was going on. It was a series about a boy wizard who goes to Hogwarts and bad stuff happens.
At best, this is what I know about The Hobbit:
- Hobbits are these small people-like things that look like a mixture between a Cabbage Patch doll and a potato. And now I’ve gained the ire of every fan of these books for saying that.
- No, seriously. Look at a Cabbage Patch kid. Then look at a potato. Am I in the wrong here?
- J.R.R. Tolkien wrote it.
- It somehow ties to the trilogy that follows it.
- Stuff happens???
Somehow, I have been living under a rock in the cultural landscape because I haven’t even gleamed information about these books just through osmosis. (When I get to The Lord of the Rings, I’ll share what I know about the trilogy.) It’s odd to me because nearly everyone in my life is obsessed with all of this: my brother, the vast majority of my friends, nearly everyone I’m friends with online, and pretty much 99% of the world or something. On top of that, it seems there are even more people who are just casually familiar with this all, so much so that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced so much shocked derision from a fandom. YOU’VE NEVER READ THE HOBBIT? HOW ON EARTH ARE YOU EVEN BREATHING AIR AT THIS MOMENT. I AM GOING TO MURDER YOU IN THE NEXT THIRTY SECONDS IF YOU DON’T START READING IT.
I think part of me avoided all of this because I’ve never been attracted to high fantasy. The fantasy world is probably pretty badass, but I’m a gay man who thinks RENT is the most important contribution to musical culture in the last couple decades. The truth is that I never thought there was much for me to like in these worlds. I like dragons! I like wizards! I like magic! But I tend to gravitate towards fiction that I can at least find something to relate to, and what little exposure I have had to fantasy made me feel like there wasn’t much in these worlds that I could get attached to.
But, again, the point stands: I don’t much about any of this, and after having such a good time with the A Song of Ice and Fire series, which apparently is greatly inspired by these books, I felt it was time to jump into J.R.R. Tolkien’s world. I had initially planned to open Mark Reads a year ago (OMG IT’S BEEN A YEAR) with these four books, but I worried about their density or my possible desire to piss off an entire fandom. Truthfully, I’m glad I’m starting these now, with quite a few books series under my belt and with a much, much more open mind than I have ever had in the past. So, it’s just over a year since I started this site, and it’s about goddamn time I read these books.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
There’s a part of me that is incredibly excited to lovingly poke fun of these four books and to bring back the alternate narrative reviews. Yet I can’t make fun of this: that is a fantastic couple of opening sentences for this book. It’s simultaneously this conscious effort to tell this story like a fairy tale, but to frame it in a direct, matter-of-fact way. What I noticed very quickly while reading this lengthy opening chapter is that J.R.R. Tolkien writes this with a sense that he is narrating the novel. Well, I suppose that it’s entirely possible that some other character is telling this story, but I’m still not sure about that. It’s an odd way to tell the story and there are a few moments here that take me completely out of the book. This might be his style, or it might have a larger point. But it’s different, and even if I’m totally not into it yet, I’m glad that it’s nothing like anything I’ve read.
Tolkien describes. He describes everything in the hobbit home, every piece of furniture, the layout, the floor, the rooms, which rooms are best, and then he describes what a hobbit is, what they look like, what sort of “magic” they possess, what skills they have, what they wear, what their body shape is generally like, and then announces:
“Now you know enough to go on with.”
Dare I suggest that I knew enough to go on with two pages ago? I think this is something I’m just going to have to get used to. Tolkien’s attention to detail is even more complete than George R.R. Martin’s. (Sidenote: Has someone in the world made a goddamn A Song of Ice and Fire cookbook? Because that man has described more food dishes than Julia Child. And half of them I want badly.) I get the sense that this is written as if the author himself is sitting down in front of us and telling us this story over a fine dinner, which is actually a neat way to write a book. But, again, it’s a tad distracting; I’m trying to imagine the home of the Bagginses and then Tolkien injects himself into the narrative. It’s a bit weird when he says things like, “…which I have just described for you…” because….well, I know you did, dude? I am reading your book. WHAT ARE YOU DOING.
Anyway, it seems that Bilbo has just been minding his business for decades. How do the hobbits have money? Are their hobbit jobs? Does Bilbo just sit around all day and drink tea and bear and eat cakes and such? Not that there’s anything wrong with that sort of life, but it seems that he really hasn’t done much at all with the fifty years of his life up until Gandalf comes strolling up to The Hill where Bilbo lives. I had no clue that Gandalf was in this book! Oh god, what sorcery will he bring to Bilbo?
That’s actually not clear. Both characters have an interesting way of talking; Bilbo is prone to exclamations and short sentences, while Gandalf is much more pensive, witty, and clever. He also brings adventure, which is apparently anathema to the hobbits. They just don’t like adventure! Why would you go do anything to disturb the possibility of having your second dinner? Sure, it’s some sort of event with Gandalf, but two dinners. I’m not even making fun of Bilbo because why wouldn’t you want to sit at home and have tea and a second dinner? That just sounds pleasant!
But once Bilbo realizes that this is Gandalf, who he’d not seen in many, many years, the tone of his rants change; he’s confused now, teetering between being polite to his guest, complementing his fireworks display when he was younger, and acting entirely wary of any sort of adventure that might require his service. Gandalf doesn’t just show up to small talk, so Bilbo becomes more and more nervous about what this wizard has in store for him.
“Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning! But please come to tea–any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Come tomorrow! Good bye!” With that the hobbit turned and scuttled inside his round green door, and shut it as quickly as he dared, not to seem rude. Wizards after all are wizards.
Um, rude. That’s Gandalf! He’ll…..well, I don’t know what he’ll do. He scratches a sign in Bilbo’s door. Does it say, “Kick me”? Is he secretly a high-school bully? Wait, there probably isn’t even a school in this world. So….what? What is going on?
Things only get more confusing the next day when Bilbo things Gandalf has returned for tea. Instead, a large procession of dwarves show up, one after another, all of them apparently in-the-know of some reason for why they need to be at Bilbo Baggins’s house. Also, can we talk about this?
They had not been at table long, in fact they had hardly reached the third cake, when there came another even louder ring at the bell.
This world measures time in the number of cakes consumed. Why isn’t this real? SIGN ME UP ALREADY.
And so continues this odd parade. A dwarf shows up and tells Bilbo that they’re “at [his] service.” Okay, what are you servicing? Is Bilbo running something? What does the sign that Gandalf scrawled on Bilbo’s door say? “Free back rubs for dwarves”? Okay, wait, that doesn’t even make sense, since they’re at Bilbo’s service, not the other way around. At this point, there are THIRTEEN dwarves in the hobbit’s house, and when Gandalf finally arrives, the wizard REMOVES THE SIGN ON BILBO’S DOOR WHILE KNOCKING. Oh, you scoundrel. With him, he brings four more dwarves, including the majestically-named Thorin Oakenshield, whose very name makes me feel like my entire existence is inferior to his. I mean, if I was a character in a fantasy novel and was introduced as “Ser Mark Oshiro, Lord of the Internet, from the Shire of Potato Tot, Heir to the Bicycle Throne,” I’m pretty sure you’d all laugh at me. Though now I have an image in my head of a field of tater tots, and that’s pretty goddamn awesome. Could you imagine? You’d just waltz out into a field and pluck a basket of tater tots from some sort of bush. Or, hell, maybe it’s a tree and you just shake the tree and gather them all in some sort of blanket or tarpaulin to harvest for that day’s meals.
Oh. Right. The Hobbit.
At this point in the chapter, I was just as confused as Bilbo. There are thirteen dwarves and a wizard in his house, all under some pretense he isn’t aware of, and they’re all demanding food and drink. And I get that this is part of hobbit culture to provide for guests, but it doesn’t make Bilbo feel any better about the whole thing, especially when Thorin announces that not only are they staying for dinner, but it’s time for music! And so the dwarves pile everything up and start to sing THE MOST TERRIFYING SONG IMAGINABLE TO BILBO BAGGINS:
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!
NO, WHAT ARE YOU DOING dwarves. THIS IS NOT YOUR HOUSE YOU SHOULD STOP SINGING ABOUT THESE THINGS. Thankfully, they don’t actually do them, but how the hell do they all know a song about tormenting Bilbo Baggins? Is this just a thing that the dwarves do? Do they routinely enter the houses of unsuspecting people, demand food and drink, and then sing about destroying everything around them? If so, I would probably be a dwarf bigot and never invite one to my house. And that would be perfectly justified bigotry.
Even stranger, after bringing out a bunch of instruments and singing of stolen gold and adventures, this happens:
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.
Is this just a realization due to the beautiful music, or is this a trick? Did Gandalf plan for this to happen this way? Either way, Bilbo is disturbed by this realization. It’s something he’s never felt before, especially as a hobbit who has developed a strong aversion to the very nature of adventure. But he can’t escape the sensation he has, and then he soon is unable to escape the plan he’s been dragged into. When Thorin begins to speak up and explain why they’re all here, Bilbo finds out he is a conspirator. He tries to explain (very verbosely, I might add) the opening of this journey when Bilbo FLIPS THE FUCK OUT. And justifiably so! Gandalf is responsible for this, for bringing these thirteen dwarves to this hobbit’s house, and for getting him involved in something that goes against his very nature WITHOUT EVEN ASKING HIM IF HE WANTS TO DO IT. Maybe Biblo was right to shut the door in this wizard’s face!
The story starts to come together when other dwarves express doubt that this little hobbit can actually help them with…well, we don’t know much at all at this point, do we? There’s something about a dragon and gold and then we learn that the sign on Bilbo’s door said he was a burglar. Is that….is that just something you brag about in this world???? HEY, I STEAL SHIT, COME TO MY HOUSE. What the fuck?
“And I assure you there is a mark on this door–the usual one in the trade, or used to be. Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward, that’s how it is usually read. You can say Expert Treasure-hunter instead of Burglar if you like. Some of them do. It’s all the same to us. Gandalf told us that there was a man of the sort in these parts looking for a Job at once, and that he had arranged for a meeting here this Wednesday tea-time.”
GANDALF. WHAT ARE YOU DOING. How did you even choose Bilbo without having seen him for DECADES. I’m glad that he admits to being the one who puts the sign on the hobbit’s door, but I’m completely lost as to what he sees in this hobbit that assures him he’ll make a great burglar. Which is not to suggest that Bilbo is a waste of space or anything, as I’m sure he’s an awesome hobbit! It’s just that….what?
With this basis, Tolkien launches into the explanation for why all these dwarves and Gandalf are in Bilbo’s hobbit hole home. (THAT IS A MOUTHFUL.) Again, like before, this is….detailed. I can’t say it’s the most exciting story in the world? This dude is verbose. The dialogue over the best way to reach Smaug and the gold is interesting enough, though I still have no idea of scope or geography quite yet. Thorin is the one to oblige Bilbo when the hobbit finally tells the others that HE HAS NO FUCKING CLUE WHAT ANY OF THEM ARE TALKING ABOUT.
“Bless me!” said Thorin, “haven’t you got a map? and didn’t you hear our song? and haven’t we been talking about all this for hours?”
Oh, it’s going to be like that, is it? Even with the slight condescension, it seems Thorin is more than a little excited to tell the tale attached to this adventure. And maybe this is going to be the one thing I latch on to that I’ll make fun of constantly, but Thorin. Thorin. I think you might want to write down an outline of what you’re going to speak about next time because holy shit dude. While I understand that Tolkien is using this to introduce a whole lot of information to the reader, that’s the problem as well. THIS IS A LOT OF INFORMATION ALL AT ONCE. Surely, you could have just told Bilbo that a dragon named Smaug stole your family’s gold, burned most of the dwarves alive, and only your father and grandfather survived. Gandalf was given the map by Thrain (Thorin’s father) right before the dwarf disappeared and it has taken him until this moment to find Thorin and now they are enacting this plan. THERE I DID IT. That didn’t take SEVEN THOUSAND WORDS.
I’m just going to have to get used to this, aren’t I?
What amuses more than anything, though, is the bizarre sense of entitlement that drips across the pages. I think it’s just part of dwarf culture, perhaps, but Thorin not only insists that Bilbo is coming along with them on the journey to get his gold from Smaug, but he then tells Bilbo his precise breakfast desires:
“I like six eggs with my ham, when starting on a journey: fried not poached, and mind you don’t break ’em.”
WELL EXCUSE ME.
After all the others had ordered their breakfasts without so much as a please (which annoyed Bilbo very much), they all got up.
No, seriously, never inviting a dwarf into my house. Because then I’ll end up just like Bilbo: falling asleep in total fear that they are going to make go on adventures to steal gold from a dragon. Okay, I admit that’s pretty awesome, but maybe a bit more of a heads up would have been nice? Oh, Gandalf, as long as you were actually Ian McKellan, I could probably never get mad at you anyway.