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 It is possible; knowing the tales of the First Age would not be published or finished satisfactorily, Tolkien inserted small pieces in order that those tales would not be lost.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.