Reading the first chapter of Tolkien’s The Hobbit can sometimes seem a chore. It is the reader’s first introduction to hobbits, the Shire, Bilbo and Gandalf, and an enormous cast of characters; of dwarves and far off lands and adventure to come. It can be positively mind-boggling at times. We land, just like Bilbo, directly in the thick of things. And like Bilbo, we can be forgiven for wanting to sneak away or shriek “struck by lightning!” Yet like this simple hobbit, we are inexplicably drawn on.
You see, the Unexpected Party is much more than cause for sensory overload. It is our, meaning Bilbo’s and the reader’s, invitation to wander in the lands of Faerie.
Through his mother, Bilbo is grandson of the Old Took. And it is explicitly stated that there is something odd about the Tooks; “that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife” (TH 5). They inclined to be absurd and go off on adventures, to find and experience the unknown.
Yet Bilbo is a Baggins and if ever there was a stick-in-the-mud, stolid, home-body type it is literally defined by the Baggins clan.
Bilbo is firmly placed between these two extremes: the love home and the known and the enflaming desire to see beyond. His Tookish aspect is just buried, and only needs a little prodding to be awoken:
Far over the misty mountains grim
To dungeons deep and caverns dim
We must away, ere break of day,
To win our harps and gold from him!
The Hobbit, 19
Upon hearing the dwarves’ song, “something Tookish woke inside [Bilbo], 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” and so do we (TH 19).
Myth and legend, song and tale kindle in a us a desire for the unknown, the fantastical, the wondrous things and events just beyond our sight. It is soon quashed by fear, as seen in Bilbo’s case, but once planted, is not easily uprooted.
Though terrified out of wits, it doesn’t take much to get Bilbo back in the Tookish frame of mind. His curiosity has been awoken. The thrill of fear and his own apparent weaknesses do little more than increase the desire in his heart to prove both the dwarves and even himself wrong.
We have stepped to the threshold of Faerie. The Shire is home. It is the world, largely as we see it. And like Bilbo, at first we are unaware that somewhere beyond our sight, in that very same world, there are dragons.
It may be wondered, why Bilbo? Why are we invited to follow?
Gandalf tried to find a Warrior or a Hero; “but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighborhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found. Swords in these parts are mostly blunt, and axes are used for trees, and shields as cradles or dish-covers; and dragons are comfortably far-off (and therefore legendary). That is why I settled for burglary-especially when I remembered the existence of the Side-door. And here is our little Bilbo Baggins, the burglar, the chosen and selected burglar. (TH 27, my emphasis)
Heroes, warriors, dragons…they are all things far away, and, as Gandalf states, therefore myth. They are outside the Shire, outside our understanding of the world; dangerous and fascinating…alluring in their otherness.
It is the same sense of other, of magic, wonder and fear that we feel when contemplating travel to Rome or Paris or Moscow. They excite our passion for the unknown and awaken the imagination to create marvels larger even than later reality would prove. Here we stand at the gates of Faerie, where even those spectacles remain true. Like Bilbo, we have only to take the next step.