Reading The Hobbit: Flies and Spiders or Spectator no Longer

Though the finding of the Ring, and the riddle contest with Gollum are arguably the most famous scenes of The Hobbit as well as “a turning point in [Bilbo’s] career,” they are actually secondary to the momentous events of the eighth chapter, “Flies and Spiders” (Hobbit 81). Up to this point in the tale, Bilbo has been barely more than a spectator, at most a catalyst in the action, but almost never what could be considered a true protagonist, a true participant in the action.

In the confrontation with the Trolls, Bilbo’s quiet sneaking is highlighted, but desiring to prove his worth he attempts to pick William’s pocket and so is captured. This, of course, leads to the capture of the dwarves, who are only saved by Gandalf’s return as Bilbo looks on.

On the Goblin’s front porch, Bilbo’s shriek upon seeing the crack opening in the wall warns Gandalf of the coming danger. Subsequently, in their escape through the tunnels, Bilbo must be carried or be left behind, which indeed he is.

“Riddles in the Dark” marks the first time Bilbo is left to his own devices, with no hope of reprieve by Gandalf or any of the dwarves. He is forced to rely on his own ingenuity. It should be noted that he succeeds both in the riddle contest and in finding a way out through his wit and cunning and no small amount of luck rather than through force of arms.

Yet, other than this singular moment, Bilbo’s role has largely been that of a catalyst. He doesn’t take part in the action, he precipitates it (dictionary.com). This is about to change.

On the eaves of Mirkwood, Gandalf parts ways with the company, leaving Bilbo “to look after [the] dwarves for [him]” (Hobbit 161). He reasserts his confidence in Bilbo, stating that he “has more about him than [they] guess,” and that they will discover his worth in the journey through the wood (Hobbit 160). The company sets off, swallowed by the gloom of Mirkwood.

Even before the character defining events which end the chapter, Bilbo is given a more active role in the company. First, at the magic stream, he proves instrumental in the sighting of the boat and in being Fili’s eyes for its retrieval. Again, as in the Troll episode, he is recognized for his natural skills, having “the sharpest eyes among them” (Hobbit 166). Furthermore, Bilbo saves the situation when, after pulling hard on the rope, the boat flies across the stream and risks floating away. Yes, he needs Balin’s help, but this is due to his stature, and does not lessen the importance of the deed.

As occurs on the front porch of Goblin Town, Bilbo is again the first to notice trouble, when after reaching the further shore, Bombur falls into the stream. Here, for a short time, he slips back into his spectator or catalyst role, at least in terms of his function in the company.

Time goes by, and food runs short and tempers high, when Bilbo is coerced up a tall tree to see the lay of the land. Though his later report may be deemed the cause of the desperation which leads to future events, on another level this deed marks a subtle turning point in Bilbo’s character. Hobbits do NOT like heights, hence their preference for homes of a single floor (Hobbit 3). The hobbits’ unease in the talan in Lothlorien demonstrates this common trait: they “do not like heights and do not sleep upstairs” (LotR 335). Even so, granted with some shoving and prodding, Bilbo scrambles up the tree, finding his way up above the canopy and ends up reveling in the sun, the breeze and the sight of butterflies. Though not stated as such, this journey, both up and down the tree, defines a great act of courage for the hobbit.

Immediately following Bilbo’s depressing observation of the endless expanse of trees, the company sees a fire off in the distance. The setup is basically identical to that in “Roast Mutton:” the company is in dire straits, desperate and alone, and sees in the fire a hope of food and warmth. They have a clear understanding of the danger, particularly now having the prior experience of the Trolls for reference. The sequence of events follows the same pattern, except in this case the company enter the light of the fire three times, and are left in enchanted darkness each time.

This leads to the dwarves’ capture by the spiders, and Bilbo’s first act of violence. Despairing of ever finding the dwarves in the dark, Bilbo decides to wait till morning. Dozing off, by chance he discovers he is being bound in spider web. He beats off the spider and kills it with two strokes of Sting (Hobbit 181). It is a desperate fight, marked more by quick reflexes than skill. Yet this fight “[makes] a great difference to Mr. Baggins;” suddenly he is “much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach” and seemingly without a second thought sets out to find the dwarves (Hobbit 181). However, it is important to note that this is self-defense, the opening attack is by the spider, not Bilbo. He is changed, yes, but is more because he is forced to. He is a hobbit and that means a decent soul. He does not seek violence, but being of tougher stuff uses the tools/talents necessary to save those for whom he is now the solitary hope of salvation.

Bilbo finds the spiders’ lair, and as with the trolls, stops to decipher some of their speech. Again, their argument is almost a perfect reflection of the Trolls’: which dwarf to eat first, if they’re alive and which is juiciest. Bilbo comes to the moment “when he must do something” (Hobbit 183). Instead of acting the hero, rushing in with sword high, Bilbo, wearing the Ring, returns to known talents: stone throwing. He throws quite a few stones, killing some, but mostly enraging the giant spiders.

As in his dealings with Gollum, though now under much more dire circumstances, Bilbo relies on his intellect to achieve his goals. He goads the spiders with song, calling them Attercop, Tomnoddy, fat and lazy. Incensed, the majority of the spiders run off in pursuit of the hobbit, allowing him to return to loose the dwarves.

Bilbo remains alone, and is forced into the position of leader, being the only member of the company still whole and un-befuddled. He fights off the spiders, instilling in them a “[mortal fear] of Sting” (Hobbit 191). He leads and the dwarves follow. They escape, solely through the ingenuity and new-found courage of Bilbo.

Bilbo’s transformation into the protagonist of the tale, rather than the observer/recorder is now complete. It is a process of growth which leads to greater and greater self-actualization as Bilbo’s goals and actions slowly become more his own and at times lead the movements of the company.

These two tests, the Trolls and the Spiders, elucidate the growth of the hobbit as a character. The first serves to set a baseline of Bilbo’s skill, his courage and his relationship with the Company. In that case, Bilbo enters into the task unwilling, forced to test himself and eager to prove himself worthy of the company. He is scorned by them, and disposable.

In the second case, Bilbo has become integral to the party. He has impressed them with his luck and sneaking skills finding them outside the goblin caves. He is their eyes and ears. Though unprepared and surprised by duty, Bilbo finds it thrust upon him and accepts it. This test, he takes upon himself, ready and willing to use his skills not to prove himself but to save others. It is an instinctual act, unforced, executed in the only manner he knows how, which reveals the true mettle of the hobbit.

(“Flies and Spiders” is an action packed chapter, full of much applicability. It has always been one of my favorites, and was the original hook which cemented Tolkien as my favorite author. As such, this is only the first of three planned posts. This post marks the most obvious and therefore easiest application, which I decided to knock off first before getting to the “interesting” stuff. Enjoy!)

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Reading The Hobbit: Queer Lodgings or Gandalf’s Usual Tricks and The Mystery of Beorn

Bilbo’s quest, as recorded in The Hobbit is by nature an episodic tale, full of small (and large) adventures along the way. Yet many of these happenings are near identical in nature.  A reader seeing this for the first time may pass this off as a cheap trick to fill the pages, but Tolkien actually does something quite clever with his parallel plots.

The last post delved into the nature of motivation and how preconceived biases color Bilbo’s and the readers’ view of events and the peoples involved.  This is a major theme which Tolkien explores through repetition; portraying basically the same events but in each case only changing the motivations and the peoples involved. It is a technique that is often used, as in this case, to add to the depth of the tale.

In reality, the best metaphor for the technique Tolkien exploits throughout The Hobbit is the Scientific Method. The first event is our control, the base line. Each subsequent repetition tweaks the formula, leading to a different result, either in terms of events, character reactions or Bilbo’s view of the world. As in science, each time this occurs, the reader learns something about the lands and peoples of Middle Earth, as well as our narrator, Bilbo Baggins.

However, Tolkien doesn’t just use this method to reveal depth; he very skillfully uses the same repetition in the chapter “Queer Lodgings” for humor’s sake.

The Company has been flown to Carrock by the great eagles, and so is freed from pursuit by the goblins and wargs, but is left far from where they had meant to go. Gandalf knows of one in the area who might help who is “appalling when he is angry, though kind enough if humoured” (TH 135).  Dealing with such a touchy subject, Gandalf devises a plan to “introduce [the dwarves] slowly, two by two” and thereby avoid “annoying” their prospective host (TH 134).  Once they reach the hedge around the house, Gandalf and Bilbo enter. They meet Beorn, who is more interested in sending them on their way than helping; that is until he hears of their trouble with the goblins. At this, he quickly invites them inside to tell their tale.

Gandalf slowly spins the story, sprinkling it with vague hints of the Company’s number as he goes. First, it’s a “friend or two,” then “the hobbit and I and several companions,” growing to a “troop,” on to a “dozen,” up to “fourteen left” and finally to “fifteen birds in five fir-trees” (TH 141-5). Each time Gandalf swells the number in his tale, Beorn is quick to question, but while slightly annoyed at the coming of each pair of dwarves, is eager to hear the full tale. Towards the end, he cares very little about these uninvited guests, for “the interruptions had really made [him] more interested in the story, and the story had kept him from sending the dwarves off at once” (TH 145).

Sure, the matter is somewhat more serious now, but this scene unmistakably recalls the Unexpected Party. Bilbo is met by dwarves singly and in groups, interspersed across tea-time. Being a respectable hobbit, he is unlikely to turn one away, and as time goes by is so caught in the whirlwind of arrivals, he can do nothing to stop it. Granted, Bilbo being a gentle and unadventurous type, and rather unused to anything unexpected (being a Baggins), makes his scene rather humorous. The tale at Beorn’s house recalls this first self-invited party, leading to some rather amusing possibilities.

Gandalf came up with the plan to ease the dwarves into Beorn’s presence, might he have done the same in setting up the Unexpected Party? Here we have a somewhat dangerous and mercurial character that Gandalf greatly desires to appease, and on the other hand a home-body hobbit of the Shire. It is quite laughable! It is a parallel found in hindsight, and one can only wonder if Bilbo realizes that the very tactic he is admiring and deciphering is the very same that apparently was used on him.

 *  *  *  *  *

As much as this comical and thrilling episode is one of the major plot points of this chapter, the real question is asked by Bilbo fairly early in the narrative as Gandalf describes Carrock: “Who calls it? Who knows it?” (TH 134). Just who or what is Beorn? Like Tom Bombadil, his nature is very much a mystery. We are told by Gandalf:

“He is a skin-changer. He changes his skin: sometimes he is a huge black bear, sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard….Some say that he is a bear descended from the great and ancient bears of the mountains that lived there before the giants came. Others say that he is a man descended from the first men who lived before Smaug or the other dragons came into this part of the world, and before the goblins came into the hills out of the North. I cannot say, though I fancy the last is the true tale.” (TH 135)

Even so, Beorn’s nature and origin remain a mystery. John D. Rateliff, in The History of The Hobbit, Vol. 1, gives two possible sources for Beorn the skin changer. The first acknowledges Tolkien’s expected audience: his sons.

“As Tolkien himself said, an author writes primarily to please himself and uses his own interests as a guide…yet a writer is also naturally inclined to include things that he knows from first-hand experience will interest his audience…” (THoTH v1 p254)

Tolkien introduces Beorn, a man who can also walk as a bear, to please his sons, just as many of the tales he would create for them in the Father Christmas Letter, and Mister Bliss would also rely on a prominent bear to add further interest for his first audience (THoTH v1 pp253-6).

Rateliff’s second hypothesis looks for a source in Tolkien’s scholarship, and finds one in the characters of Bothvar Bjarki and Elgfrothi of the “lost Bjarkamál;” a tale of a man who creates and controls a great bear in his sleep (THoTH v1 p257-9). However, neither of these explanations explains the nature of Beorn as he pertains to Middle Earth, only as he appears as a literary set piece.

Tom Shippey takes the analysis a step further than Rateliff, referencing the same Böthvar Bjarki of the Saga of Hrolf Kraki, as well as Beowulf. Tolkien “had to teach the Old English poem…probably every year of his working life,” so it is little wonder it had a large effect on his work (AotC 31). The main character’s name, “Beowulf” means “’bear’: he is the bee-wolf, the ravager of bees, the creature who steals their honey” (AotC 31). Beorn embodies all these aspects and more; indeed he is a “were-bear,” to use Shippey’s term, exhibiting a duality of character in all things.

In The Road to Middle Earth, Shippey expands the argument, stating that Beorn demonstrates Tolkien’s ‘theory of courage,’ echoing the beliefs of the “Icelandic wanderers in sagas[:]…’I believe in myself” (RtME 80). Another interesting point, is that Beorn “is not a name but a description,” as may be seen by the analysis above (RtME 97). The same is true of Beorn’s violent side, which may be defined as berserk; “a ‘berserk’ being a ‘bear-shirt’” (RtME 83). As is quite frequent in Tolkien, Beorn is an amalgam of language, word-play, and mythic bearing.

This brings us much closer to the mark, explaining Beorn’s presence and origin in the tale. Like Tom Bombadil, he is there as a “’comment’…[representing] something [Tolkien] felt important” (Letter 178). It remains a mystery where Beorn’s origins fall within Middle Earth’s history, but it seems safe to trust in Gandalf’s judgment: he is both man and beast, though by what magic we’ll never know. In the original manuscript, however, there is one “magnificently equivocal statement that [Beorn] is ‘under no enchantment but his own’” (THoTH v1 p259).

If Beorn were truly lifted from Tolkien’s sons’ desires and blended with ancient mythology, would Tolkien have accepted him and further enmeshed him in the world of Middle Earth? In The Lord of the Rings, Beorn is only mentioned once by Glóin at the feast preceding the Council of Elrond. His decedents have gone on to be leaders of men, controlling the “land between the Mountains and Mirkwood” (LotR 222). This single reference grants further legitimacy to Beorn. Granted there is no mention of skin-changing in this passage, but it functions as the acceptance of Beorn into the fabric of Middle Earth, and not an aberration found during a singular hobbit’s adventure.

Only one other reference may be found to Beorn or his descendants in Tolkien’s legendarium. In the ‘Hunt for the Ring’ found in Unfinished Tales, the reader is told that the Beornings aided Aragorn in bringing Gollum across the Anduin and into Mirkwood (UT 359). Again, as in the LotR, it is a passing reference with almost no detail, but as in the previous case, lends legitimacy to Beorn and his progeny as inhabitants of Middle Earth.

Tolkien himself has this to say about Beorn:

“Though a skin-changer and no doubt a bit of a magician, Beorn was a Man” (Letter 144 p178)

And later, discussing the need for a specialist volume to elucidate some of the mysteries of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, including the Beornings, declared:

“It will be a big volume, even if I attend only to the things revealed to my limited understanding!” (Letter 187)

We are left, then, with three clear facts: first, whatever his attributes, Beorn is a Man, secondly, he is some form of Magician and lastly there are many parts of Middle Earth unexplored, even by Tolkien himself. In any case, it would appear Gandalf’s guess hits closest to the mark, though the matter of Beorn’s enchantment may always remain a mystery.

In many ways, Beorn is much like the Hobbits, dropped into Tolkien’s Middle Earth, with little apparent origin. Both share a questionable past, in terms of their place in Middle Earth, as well as their discovery by Tolkien. Both are apparent aberrations, inexorably drawn into the realm of Tolkien’s heart. Their origins remain a mystery, even as both are woven even more tightly into the continuing tale of the Silmarillion and Arda with The Lord of the Rings.

The Hobbit: AUJ, Third Time’s a Charm!

I went to see The Hobbit again today determined to enjoy it for what it is. For me this is very hard to do. It is very hard to look at the film as an interpretation rather than an adaptation of Tolkien’s writing. I came fairly close this time around, and it was largely due to a different frame of reference. I read the Tolkienist’s post recently, “Why the ‘film purists’ and the ‘book purists’ will never understand each other – on how (not) to appreciate Peter Jackson’s work,” and was inspired. Yes I would most likely fit best in group three, but groups 1 and 2 rear their heads now and again as well. What really struck me was the distinction between adaptation and interpretation.

According to Dictionary.com, to adapt means ” to fit, change, or modify to suit a new or different purpose,” whereas to interpret means “to perform or render (a song, role in a play, etc.) according to one’s own understanding or sensitivity.” One is a translation, the other an explanation. One implies recreation of the same end product in a different media, while the other recreates the original in a new light originating from the creator. One looks to the source exclusively, the other to the source and the interpreter.

What we have in Peter Jackson’s films are Jackson & Co’s vision of Middle Earth, their interpretation.

And while I’ve been well aware of that fact, being more in the purist camp, I still find it hard to accept, even though it makes complete and logical sense. Thinking about it, part of the reason for The Lord of the Ring film’s initial success for me was due to the fact that I had only read the books twice by the time they came out. Granted, the seeds of my own interpretation were well sown, but were not fully dominant, so I was able to enjoy those films easily.  After many years, and just as many rereads, the approach to The Hobbit is much more fraught with peril for the potential film-maker.

At least it was so for my first two viewings.

This time around, I came to the theater with a better grasp of what I was going to be seeing, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of the adaptation/interpretation question. This time around, I approached the film as I would fan-fiction, fun, adventurous, daring, but also flawed. I came knowing I was looking through another’s eyes at the world Tolkien discovered. Seeing differently, just as if I’d borrowed someone else’s glasses.

It was a revelation.

My concerns, frustrations, and quibbles largely fell by the wayside. I really enjoyed the film!  The changes, twists and additions, though still troublesome as an adaptation, I was mostly able to accept as an interpretation. They may not be the choices I would make, but I understood and appreciated them in the context of the three prospective Hobbit films and the previous trilogy.

For this viewing, I brought my mom along to see it for the first time. She has never read the book, or even seen the original Lord of the Ring’s movies (other than bits and pieces perhaps), so I was able to get a new-comer’s view on things.  She really enjoyed the movie, even going so far as saying she’d like to see the next and even read the book. Her first reaction was confusion at the end, “That’s it?” she asked. I had to explain there are two more movies to come, and the one book expanded to three by way of the LotR appendices. Watching her watch the movie, and hearing her reaction, proved to me the triple goal of Jackson’s interpretation, as I’ve previously stated, to appeal to fans of the books, of the films and the new fans yet to come.

My primary goal in writing this blog, starting in 2007 to this day, has always been to encourage greater readership and scholarship of Tolkien’s writing as well as to discuss and share the wonder to be found in it. If the film gets more people to read Tolkien’s work, this adds greatly to its appeal.

Now, even viewing the movie as an interpretation, I still had issues with it. I think the reason why is fairly simple. Peter Jackson and his crew have created a vision of Middle Earth which is at times exceedingly close to the reality of my own vision, and at others light-years away. This duality between right-fit and wrong makes it difficult to maintain either the separation of interpretation or the connection of agreement.  It makes it next to impossible to wear the same “hat” throughout the movie: either purist or carefree.

Though the description of the film as fan-fiction may seem harsh, other than the fact that the screen-play is a re-imaging of the original work rather than a side-bar creation, the metaphor fits well. In fan-fiction, it is generally easy to separate yourself from canon, at least for a short time, in the name of fun or discovering a new twist. The further removed the new creation is from the plot and characters of the original, while maintaining the hallmarks of the world or universe at question, generally the easier I find it is to accept. Many of Jackson’s choices would fit exceedingly well in this category, if not for the fact that the story has already been told.

The truth of the matter is that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is remarkably faithful to its source material. Where closest, and where Tolkien’s dialogue is used, the film truly soars. This may be part of the problem though; because in this environment, the few additions and diversions are quite obvious to those familiar with the books.

I can live with Azog. Heck, I could even live with the buried and dead “Witch-King” if need be (though I’m inclined to concede that most likely this will change once more is revealed in future films). Both fit into the film as created. If we are to take Tolkien’s “Necromancer” at his word, he is a black sorcerer, capable of raising the dead. It should be remembered that as Bilbo’s diary, The Hobbit is not a perfect resource.  The Necromancer, who would turn out to be Sauron, appears to be what he’s been named. Take the name to its logical conclusion, and you have the Witch-King of the film.  Azog adds improved structure to a film/plot that hasn’t yet gone far.  He lends added danger, a continuing villain and a satisfying hero’s arc to end the film. All of this makes sense for the medium and for the interpretation of the book as three films.

However, I still cannot deny what I feel are the two most egregious errors of the film.

First, the finding of the Ring. I paid very close attention during this scene. I’ve heard and read from many that Bilbo is hidden behind the mushrooms and so we are to believe that he doesn’t see the Ring fall, only we as spectators do. From memory, this seemed plausible. Watching today, my first impression was confirmed. The camara, quite pointedly, shows Bilbo looking through the mushrooms at Gollum as he fights the goblin and as the Ring falls, switching focus from one to the other. Then without any hesitation, Bilbo comes to the exact spot where the Ring fell, and though he first looks towards Gollum’s cavern, he then looks down. There is no reason he should look down, no stumble, no feeling something odd, only the fact that he knows something fell! He reaches with confidence, and picks up the Ring, knowing it is there. How far indeed this is from the way it’s written!

The second makes complete sense for the three movies, allowing this first one to stand well on its own. This, of course, is Bilbo’s battle with the orcs in Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire. This is just so completely out of character for Bilbo, it cannot be ignored.  Though it makes sense as an ending to this first film, it diminishes the importance of and the surprise of Bilbo’s rescue of the Dwarves from the Spiders, where he first draws blood and names his sword. That future moment has been marred, but I can only hope it will be salvaged and not eradicated completely by Tauriel and Legolas as seems to be hinted by some of the merchandise (Lego set, I’m looking at you!).

Other than that, though, it was an illuminating experience and thoroughly entertaining. Maybe I need to try this approach on the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

Please find below all my reviews and musings on the first Hobbit film:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Initial Thoughts
The Hobbit: AUJ, Contemplating Change
Secondary Impressions, TH:AUJ

Reading The Hobbit: Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire or the Notion of “Other”

It is often stated that Tolkien’s work exhibits a clear demarkation between good and evil, light and dark. This has been used many times by critics as one of their strongest rebukes. The same frame of reference is used today to lift up the new fantasy authors of the age as champions of the grey area.

Obviously these people did not read The Silmarillion, or for that matter The Hobbit, and certainly did not read The Lord of the Rings closely. Yes, there is a clearly proposed notion of good and evil in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but this negates all levels of nuance. For Tolkien all is good in the beginning; it could even be said all is turned to good in the end as well. This notion is firmly established at the moment of creation in the Ainulindalë, so declares Ilúvatar on the completion of the Great Themes:

“’Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’” (The Silmarillion 17)

Not only is this one of the most beautiful and clearly theological passages in Tolkien’s larger legendarium, it is crucially instructive in the nature of good and evil. The whole tale of the singing of the Ainur, describes the nature of good and evil as Tolkien saw it. As I understand it, it is a spectrum or a circle. All are within it, some closer to Ilúvatar’s unadulterated theme and some further, but altogether creating the great harmony.

So what does any of this have to do with The Hobbit, or in particular the sixth chapter?

In this chapter, like the previous two, we are introduced to three separate races (not including Gollum): the goblins, the wargs and the great eagles. Two are arguably evil and one supposedly good.

Let’s look at the goblins or orcs first. They are greedy, cruel, and clever. In “Under Hill and Over Hill” it is stated that

“…they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them…” (TH 74)

They certainly qualify as evil. But what is interesting to note is that their particular motivations are very clearly stated. Evil is not a monolithic entity, of single mind, level and goal. Their primary purpose in capturing the dwarves is one information and two slaves for their work force, both of which, while of dubious morality, are highly practical and in other circumstances would seem normal. The scenario, as will later be seen, is repeated multiple times throughout the book, each time playing the reader’s preconceived notions of the character of the captor against their stated action. And later, it is perfectly justifiable, if we weren’t dealing with goblins, for a people to pursue infiltrators in anger after the murder of their leader, the Goblin King.

Then there is also the wargs, who happen upon the company by chance. The glade where they collide is apparently a meeting place of the wargs, and their coming preordained:

“Now it seemed that a great goblin-raid had been planned for that very night. The Wargs had come to meet the goblins and the goblins were late.” (TH 118)

The goblins and the Wargs are natural allies against the men who have come to live in that area. They are not of sufficient number to raid alone, but together may not be resisted. The motivation of the Wargs in the tale of the Company is therefore purely coincidence enflamed (literally) by the counter attacks of Gandalf. However, their interest starts and ends at stopping the escape of the supposed spies of Men, who will report their planned raid. When they are met with fire, they are soon quelled and ready to flee.

And at this moment the goblins appear.

Each of these two “races” wears the stereotypical trappings of evil. Yet if we stop to think about it, which I believe Tolkien intends us to do, how evil are their actions really; particularly if we view them in light of their later twin in the capture of the dwarves by the Wood Elves?

So the goblins and the wargs join forces, and by the clever guile of the goblins devise a plan which would have led to the Company’s utter destruction, that is if not for the arrival of the great eagles.

Just using The Hobbit as our source, it is again made clear that the eagles also have their own motivation and self interest in rescuing the Company. Tolkien very explicitly states the nature of the Great Eagles and their posture towards others:

“…the ancient race of the northern mountains were the greatest of all birds; they were proud and strong and noble-hearted. They did not love goblins, or fear them. When they took notice of them at all (which was seldom, for they did not eat such creatures), they swooped on them and drove them shrieking back to their caves, and stopped whatever wickedness they were doing. The goblins hated the eagles and feared them, but could not reach their lofty seats, or drive them from the mountains.” (TH 121)

The coming of the eagles has nothing to do with any good will towards the Company, but rather a general and deep-seated malice towards the goblins and the wargs. Even so, their primary motivation in this case is not even that, but the “curiosity” of the Lord of the Eagles (TH 121). Again, like the wargs, the Company’s presence in their actions is defined by coincidence.

It is later said that Gandalf and the eagle-lord are on “friendly terms…[as Gandalf] had once rendered a service to the eagles and healed their lord from an arrow-wound” (TH 127). Though this friendship exists, however, it is not the reason the Company was saved, but again happy coincidence. It is though, the reason the eagles are willing to fly the Company on to Carrock. They will not fly close to the homes of Men because “’they would shoot at [the eagles]…for they would think [they] were after their sheep. And at other times they would be right’” (TH 128-9).  The Lord of the Eagles is of course very pleased to have halted the goblin’s endeavors and in the act to pay back the debt owed Gandalf, but again it should be noted that these are the surprise benefits of their act, not the planned upon goal.

Each of these “peoples” is a study in motivation, as are all in The Hobbit.  This book is largely a tale of that very issue and how preconceived notions of a character or people’s nature color both Bilbo’s and the reader’s perception of their actions.

Here, in The Hobbit, Tolkien does something he would also attempt to do in The Lord of the Rings with Tom Bombadil. Tom is, of course, one of the most enigmatic and therefore questioned plot pieces of almost all Tolkien’s larger legendarium. No one seems to know his purpose, least of all Tolkien himself (at least in his published writings). Yet one of the reason he gives for Tom’s existence, here adds further depth to the “simplistic” tale of The Hobbit.

Tolkien states in his 153rd letter (p192):

“…I kept [Tom] in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out. I do not mean him to be an allegory-…-but ‘allegory’ is the only mode of exhibiting certain functions: his is then an ‘allegory,’ or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires the knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind…

…The power of the Ring [or in this case monolithically conceived good and evil] over all concerned, even the Wizards or Emissaries, is not a delusion-but it is not the whole picture, even of the then state and content of that part of the Universe.”

There are two parts to this argument. The first is that Tom represents the desire for study, for seeing beyond, for knowledge outside ourselves and our apparent need “because they are ‘other.’” This is the impulse that appears to be driving Bilbo in reporting the peoples of Middle Earth in his diary. He is reporting the “other” he sees, not only based on the power of the monolithic Black and White he has probably been indoctrinated into through established tales in the Shire, but based on the motivations he reads with more acuity as time goes on.

The second argument, which is more prevalent in LotR, is that neither Evil or Good is monolithic in either character or motivation. Just as there are evils outside Sauron’s power (the barrow wights, the Balrog and Shelob) and goods outside those opposed Sauron directly/openly (Tom, the elves of Imladris, Cirdan, the Shire etc), there is more beyond the gloss of either good or evil in The Hobbit.

Here, it seems appropriate to segue into the film’s interpretation of these same peoples. This is the greatest facet lost with the additon of Azog to the film. In place of a nuanced and multilayered study of motivation, prejudice and the nature of good and evil, the viewer is left with the unified mallice of a single enemy, which ultimatley drives all others.

Let’s Raise a Glass

“…Frodo kept up the custom of giving Bilbo’s Birthday Party year after year until they got used to it. He said that he did not think Bilbo was dead. When they asked: ‘Where is he then?’ he shrugged his shoulders.” (LotR 41)

Today, like the hobbits of his famous literary work, we celebrate the birth of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien on January 3, 1892. Like the hobbits of the Shire, one might wonder why. Tolkien has been dead since 1973, almost forty years ago. ‘Where is he then?’ would seem a valid question. And we readers might shrug like Frodo, even though in our hearts we know he yet lives.

He lives and breathes in the writings which were his life work. He lives on in the land of Faerie, which he so lovingly explored and revealed to each of us. He lives in the passion and excitement of each fan who has felt the excitement and chill of fear on beholding the Balrog of Moria, the awe of Valinor or the crushing sadness of the First Age.

Today we celebrate the Professor, without whom we would have missed the invitation, and remained wandering in this bleak world without the shimmers of Truth he would bring to it.

“By the starlit mere of Cuiviénen, Water of Awakening, they rose from the sleep of Ilúvatar; and while they dwelt yet silent by Cuiviénen their eyes beheld first of all things the stars of heaven. Therefore they have ever loved the starlight…” (Silarmillion 48)

So like the hobbits, let us all raise a glass to the Professor, may his works always inflame our hearts and minds with wonder.