Reading The Hobbit: Flies and Spiders or Repetition as Interlacement

The Hobbit is not Tolkien’s first tale in Middle Earth, only the first published. It is a story devised apparently by the chance inspiration of the first jotted line “in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” (H 3). The genesis of the novel is well known, but the meta-narrative is only hinted at in the writing.

Tolkien’s writing is multi-dimensional; weaving many tales in and out of the primary narrative in a process Tom Shippey refers to as interlacement. Both the threads of each individual character’s story and the larger legendarium are woven into Tolkien’s tales. The process is highly developed in The Lord of the Rings, and grants that epic an elegance of depth which remains largely unique to all literature.

It may not seem fair to view The Hobbit, a book written for children, through the lens of Tolkien’s other works. And largely this is true, though difficult for any Tolkienite to achieve. It is more accurate to say that the reader should view Tolkien’s other work through the lens of The Hobbit.

The story of Tolkien’s heart was always that of the Silmarillion. He began its composition during the first World War, with “The Tale of the Fall of Gondolin,” which later found a home in The Book of Lost Tales. For the next twenty years, before the advent of the hobbits, he would struggle to develop and frame these tales, a herculean task he sadly was unable to complete in his lifetime.

By the time of the writing of The Hobbit, Tolkien had largely given up on Lost Tales as well as the great Lays and begun work in earnest on what would be the first definitive Quenta Silimarillion. It was Tolkien’s fondest hope that this epic would follow after The Hobbit, when his publisher and fans began clamoring for a sequel, but his hopes were dashed (Letters 17). And yet, even in rejection, Tolkien was not surprised, but generally pleased that readers found value in the tales at all, elevating them beyond his own personal musings (Letter 19).

The Hobbit begins largely outside the realm of Tolkien’s mythology, but as time passes is drawn further into its mysteries. It is possible; knowing the tales of the First Age would not be published or finished satisfactorily, Tolkien inserted small pieces in order that those tales would not be lost. In Bilbo’s tale, the interlacement of the events, places and peoples of the First Age lends depth to the narrative, as it does in LotR. Unlike its sequel, however, The Hobbit’s use of these tales is often fleeting and vague, hinting at a forgotten past, unknown in full, at least to Bilbo and the Narrator (at the time of its composition).

One of the most detailed examples of interlacement occurs in the chapter “Flies and Spiders” when Thorin is captured by the wood elves. At this point in the tale, there is a long section of exposition on the elves as well as the apparent enmity between elves and dwarves. There are “Light-elves and…Deep-elves and…Sea-elves…and the Wood-elves [who linger] in the twilight” (H 194). This passage is an astute distillation of the Vanyar, Noldor, Teleri and the Grey Elves.  Here, the reader is given a vision of “Faerie in the West,” a place of magic which elevates those who come to it (H 194).

Following this bit of sociology, Tolkien describes the palace of King Thranduil: a “great cave, from which countless smaller ones opened…[light] and [wholesome]…[both]…palace…and…fortress” (H 195). Then the long enmity between dwarves and elves is explained. Here, one of the most tragic and inflammatory events of the larger Legendarium is diffused through the lens of history and tradition, becoming a sort of dispassionate grudge, reminiscent of the great blood feuds of history in which the source of conflict is long forgotten and mythologized.

Long ago, the king of the Wood-elves “bargained with [the dwarves] to shape his…gold and silver, and had…refused…their pay” according to the dwarves; but the elves accuse the dwarves “off stealing their treasure” (H 195). The reader is left with no clear sequence of events, and so is left with each being equally to blame or even biased against the elven king, who has a “weakness” for treasure (H 195).  All of this colors the confrontation between Thorin and Thranduil; and while it does cast Thranduil in a particularly bad light, also does not release Thorin, who is determined to avoid any mention of gold.

In this simple meeting, between the leaders of two races, the conflict of far history is given concrete ramifications. As with feuds of history, it also establishes blame on both sides, not only in the original wars, but in their present dealings.

As The Silmarillion was not published until after Tolkien’s death, it is clear the tales of the First Age are meant to be seen and interpreted in light of the stories they are woven through. However, much may also be learned by turning this view around. Tolkien wrote his novels with full awareness of the larger Legendarium, and though it grew and changed throughout his life, it is firmly imprinted in each of these.

Tolkien is very methodical and precise in his writing, one has only to look through the Tale of Years and the precision with which he tracks the moon to see this. Therefore, though these represent the applications of this reader, the many apparent ties which bind his tales together may not all be coincidence.

The confrontation described between the Wood-elves and the dwarves is, of course, the tale of the forging of the Nauglamir and the treasures out of Nargothrond. There is truth to both narratives, unfortunately, and it may be argued each is equally to blame.

However, the meeting of these two men resembles the first meeting of Beren and Thingol very closely. Both mark the same cataclysmic meeting between races.  Though motives are different, the bearing of each participant is remarkably similar. In Thranduil is seen the same haughty, pretentious demeanor as Thingol. And in Thorin a similar sense of resolve and pride as Beren. The current scene is obviously quite light in tone, but reflects the same feeling of senseless pride, unfounded suspicion and simple greed. Yes, the current scene pits two characters which more resemble Thingol, and lack the heroism in love of Beren, but this meeting, as with many others, is simply the repetition of a formula. It is meant not only to allude to the far past through interlacement, but to inform the present pettiness through the gravity of the past.

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Reading The Hobbit: Flies and Spiders or Proof of Faerie

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal essay, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien works to define and codify the fairy-story.  The fairy-story is defined by its allusions to “Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself,” a task which must be approached with all seriousness (OFS 114).  They may pertain to fairies, but the import lies more in the revelation of the lands and their wonders themselves.

Tolkien rejects the notion of the use of dreams as a mechanism “to explain the apparent occurrence of [the fairy-story’s] marvels,” as such disavowals steal the reader of the satisfaction of the truth found in the imagined world (OSF 116). “Flies and Spiders” raises this question, and defiantly answers it, confirming the existing of Faërie.

The original lecture was given in 1939, almost two years following the publicaton of The Hobbit. It may seem odd then to look back on The Hobbit, through its frame of reference. However, this chapter in particular appears to play quite vigorously with the core theme of truth Tolkien finds at the heart of an authentic fairy-story. It may be such experimentation is nothing more; but it may also show signs of Tolkien testing and building his grand theory.

Crossing the enchanted stream, Bombur inadvertently falls in and when pulled ashore has fallen into a sleep from which none of the company can wake him.  He sleeps a fey sleep for days, if not weeks, “with a smile on his fat face” (Hobbit 170). He finally wakes, having lost all memory of their quest, but left with the memories of his vivid dreams. He dreams of fairies, or to be accurate elves, feasting in the wood. It is a powerful dream, like to real life, which persistently tempts return. Waking up to little or no food and the prospect of long travel on short commons ahead, Bombur bemoans his fate, exclaiming “Why ever did I wake up!” (Hobbit 174).

In what can only seem a jibe at the dream motif, in place of waking to discover the illusion of the dream, the company actually literally stumbles into it in waking life!

Desperate for food and the comfort of light, the company pursues the firelight in the distance. They see the elves “eating and drinking and laughing merrily” as if Bombur’s “dreams [are] coming true” (Hobbit 176). Filled with desire, the dwarves and Bilbo rush forward, and all falls into darkness. Despair sets in, and the reader may begin to wonder if this is an illusion like the dream, when the lights reappear in the distance.

This time, Bilbo only moves into the light. Immediately darkness falls and the hobbit is lost. He is found by luck “curled up fast asleep…having a lovely dream…[of] a most gorgeous dinner” (Hobbit 178). Again, this would seem to refute the reality of the feasting, when more light blazes more brightly than ever before nearby.

This time the dream appears fulfilled in full, “very much as Bombur had described,” and Thorin steps into the light. For a third time the company is plunged in darkness (Hobbit 179). Other than the smoke and ash of the extinguished fires, the feast seems little more than illusion.

The repetition of dream and apparent waking dream substantiate each other. They are reflections of both illusion/enchantment and reality. The dream recalls the unsubstantiated fairy-tale where all returns to reality upon waking. The three encounters with the elves reflect the true encounters with Faërie, the perilous realm. It is dangerous and unpredictable. Rather than feast and song, the company is confronted with the reality of distrust and wariness.

Even so, the reality of the elves may still seem a questionable subject. Their almost immediate disappearance, the ensuing darkness and enchanted sleep call into question the elves’ existance to begin with; they could be nothing more than illusion.

However, the truth is unequivocally found when the elves return and capture Thorin. The elven king interrogates him, asking “Why did you and your folk three times try to attack my people at merrymaking?” (Hobbit 198). This single question cements the prior stumbles into Faërie in reality. It does happen; it is not mere illusion or dream. The Perilous realm does exist, and it is truly perilous.

Again, in this instance, one can only feel Tolkien is playing with his own growing theory of the nature of the fairy-story. The fairy story must deal in marvels as truth, and “since [it] deals with ‘marvels’, it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole story in which they occur is a figment or illusion (OFS 117). Through the use of Bombur & Bilbo’s enchanted sleep, as well as the three encounters which follow, Tolkien has it both ways. He leads the reader back and forth, through dream and illusion, into physical light and darkness, but finally ends by establishing truth.

In these scenes, Tolkien restates the dream frame-work not only as an explanation of marvels, but as the precursor to those marvels.  He plays with the motif, demonstrating (as he did with the Ents) its true potential. It is the foil by which the marvels are to be seen and interpreted: not as the realm of fairies and good fortune and feasting, but the land of fey.

It is a gentle reproach for the typical children’s fairy-story. In place of the dream full of wonderful adventure, the dwarves are confronted by the grim truth. Tolkien demonstrates the frivolous and carefree nature of the dream motif: even if said dreams are dire, no harm comes to the dreamer, only waking. True encounters with the perilous realm are very different. One may enter, and maybe return, but he or she may not leave unchanged.