The Magazine

Making Middle Earth

From "The Hobbit" to "The Lord of the Rings."

Dec 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 14 • By DANIEL KENNELLY
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Hobbits . . . are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. . . . There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large folk like you and me come blundering along. . . . They are inclined to be fat in the stomach . . . and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it).

The hobbit hero, Bilbo Baggins, lives a comfortable life in a well-furnished, well-provisioned hobbit-hole called simply "Bag End." He enjoys smoking a pipe, and regularly takes his afternoon tea at four o'clock (as ought to be guessed by his surname, which according to the "Oxford English Dictionary" means anything eaten between meals in substantial form, especially afternoon tea).

In short, he lives the best life a middle-class Englishman could expect in the countryside of the early twentieth century--minus machinery based on anything other than a rudimentary technology. And this bourgeois, unadventuresome hobbit, barely distinguishable from a character in one of Trollope's Barchester novels except in stature, is promptly introduced to a cast of characters--thirteen dwarves and an old wizard named Gandalf--straight out of the Norse Elder Edda.

IN THE NEWLY REVISED and expanded version of The Road to Middle-earth, Tom Shippey, a colleague of Tolkien at Oxford, has delved deep into Middle-earth's Northern roots. What Tolkien set out to do in The Hobbit, Shippey suggests, was recreate the forgotten literatures of ancient northern Europe. The dwarves to which Bilbo is introduced in the first chapter--Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Fili, Kili, Bombur, Bifur, Bofur, Dwalin, Balin, and Thorin--have names taken directly from "a section of the Eddic poem "Völuspá," often known as the "Dvergatal" or 'Dwarves' Roster,'" which scholars have typically regarded as a meaningless list. Tolkien, however, saw in the "Dvergatal" and other such scraps not a rigmarole, but "the last faded memento of something once great and important, an Odyssey of the dwarves."

But, particularly in The Hobbit, Tolkien found it impossible simply to tell a story from the heroic world of the North. The narrative itself required the irony of Bilbo Baggins, a bourgeois hobbit, if only to connect the modern reader to the lost world. With prodding from the wizard Gandalf, Thorin Oakenshield and the dwarves agree to employ Bilbo as a "burglar" to accompany them in a journey to reclaim their far-off, ancestral home, the Lonely Mountain, from the depredations of the dragon Smaug.

For Bilbo, discretion in battle is often the only part of valor, and his ineptitude at "burglarious proceedings" more than once threatens to throw the whole company into ruin. The strong comic vein of The Hobbit owes much to the clash between Bilbo's modern anachronisms--the jacket he wears, his handkerchiefs, his talk of "profit" and "contracts"--and the archaic world in which Thorin Oakenshield and the others live. The dwarves are on a high and noble quest, straight out of the age of ancient epic. Bilbo is on an adventure, straight out of the age of the Victorian novel. All the comedy in the book comes from this contrast--but in the end, the comic vein gives way, as Thorin, on his deathbed, exchanges with Bilbo parting words indicating a newfound mutual understanding and tolerance of their respective worlds:

"I am glad that I have shared in your perils--that has been more than any Baggins deserves."

"No!" said Thorin. "There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."

Perhaps what Tolkien hoped is that through the comic and ironic contrast of a modern hobbit let loose in a heroic world, present-day readers would come to some appreciation of the past. Or perhaps he simply caught hold of the tail of a fantastic children's story, that day when he scribbled in an exam book, and all he did was hold on while it bucked and galloped its way to the end of the book. Maybe he meant it, in other words, or maybe he didn't, but either way he was clearly on to something, for Middle-earth proved a thicker, richer place than was necessary for the story.