Reading The Hobbit: Roast Mutton or The Reality Check

The Unexpected Party awakens the Tookish thirst for adventure in Bilbo, exciting his curiosity and filling him with the thrill of fear. He has geared himself up for a great adventure. He is still a typical hobbit, and a Baggins at that, and so put out by the pretentions of the dwarves and their generally ungrateful attitude. Throughout the Party, though discomfited beyond belief, Bilbo is the very picture of politeness, polite to fault you could say. One can forgive his frustration, and his subsequent “revenge.”

Bilbo sleeps in. When he awakes not a dwarf or wizard is in sight. Other than the atrocious mess, it would appear the events of the previous night were nothing more than a dream. And so he goes to work setting Bag End to rights, and settles in for a second breakfast, falling back into the comforts of home.

Much like any of us readers, Bilbo has had his fun contemplating the notion of leaving on an adventure, but he is “really relieved” to put it all behind him (TH 34). At the same time, however, like us, he is “just a trifle disappointed” to not be included in the quest, to see the world, to prove his mettle (TH 35). This is why, given minimal prodding by Gandalf, he sets off in haste forgetting all his worldly comforts. He’s left behind his handkerchief, his hat, and his money; as far as we know, he has little more than the clothes on his back.

When was the last time you left the house without preparation? Without worry? Without baggage of any kind? These things are ultimately unimportant. The opportunity must be grasped, and when it comes we need to be ready to pick up and leave and not be tied down being owned by our own possessions. This is what Bilbo does. He is caught up by the romance and glamour of adventure, but it is not to last.

As they enter the Wilds, the weather turns sour:  full of rain and wind. Bilbo realizes that “adventures are not all pony-rides in May sunshine;” they are full of such discomforts and toil (TH 39). This, of course, puts the entire company in a foul mood which makes them prime pickings for the trolls when they spot their fire in the distance.

A couple things struck me about the encounter with the three Trolls. First is the absence of Gandalf. Like Tom Bombadil, in the LotR, Gandalf’s primary function thus far has been as a sort of guide and guardian. Stopped in the rain, trying to light a fire, the dwarves realize he is gone. Little do they know this moment would prove to be instrumental in demonstrating their mettle. As in the guardianships of LotR, it is in the absence of said guardians that we really learn about the protagonists.

They do not yet trust each other. They are quick to foist unpleasant and possibly dangerous tasks on Bilbo, a very inexperienced hobbit. Bilbo is desperate to impress and therefore lacking in prudence. No dwarf for that matter seems to have any either. They are incapable of doing much of anything to help themselves, except perhaps Thorin, who does get in a few good blows.

In the end, though, it all comes back to Gandalf. He saves them through his care and ingenuity. He is the glue and the heart of the company.

This is the baseline. This is the standard by which we can follow the growth of Bilbo and the company. It also sets up a similar pattern of guardianship, by Gandalf primarily, which will continue until Bilbo (in particular) grows in stature to take his place.

The second point of interest here are the trolls themselves. I’ve written before regarding the nature of evil and questioned the nature of the orcs. It would seem a relevant question to put towards the trolls as well.

They are thoroughly reprehensible, yes. They’ve murdered and eaten countless people: elves, men and dwarves. Yet all the same, they don’t seem entirely in the black. Granted they have eaten their fill of mutton, but following the capture of Bilbo, William at least is quite keen on letting him go.

“’Poor little blighter,’ said William. He had already had as much supper as he could hold; also he had had lots of beer. ‘Poor little blighter! Let him go!’” (TH 44)

The moment is akin to a later scenario: the Riddles in the Dark. There too the “monster” has recently eaten and so is more disposed to talk or in the that case play. In both cases, this endears these characters to the reader. The knowledge of their atrocities remain, but their deeply buried “humanity” is also revealed for all to see. It is a reminder that not all things are evil; they are made so, twisted from good, but the good is not utterly destroyed.

Gandalf tricks the trolls by playing on their distrusting nature, inciting conflict between them until the coming dawn turns them to stone. Though it is later said in Tolkien’s other writings that the Trolls come from Ents that have been corrupted, in The Hobbit they are said to come from the mountains, from stone. In the light of the sun “[trolls] go back to the stuff…they are made of,” in other words, the sun reveals their true nature (TH 50). They are of the earth. They are defeated by the light, not necessarily of the sun, but the light of Truth.

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