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.
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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.