Reading The Hobbit: Barrels out of Bond or Parenting Dwarves

As most of you probably know, I am an architect by profession. We are currently in the architect’s busy season, preparing documents for construction in the summer. Well this year has been particularly busy, and I’ve been working flat out for the last couple months. It’s a great sign that the industry is growing again. While I love what I do, I wish I had more time to explore the Perilous Realm and report my adventures. It has been a challenge to fit in work on WP, in terms of time, energy and inspiration; and so for anyone who cares about such things, I apologize for the delay.

However, the delay has been put to good use. I have to admit, that for the longest time, this particular chapter (and the next) has thrown me for a loop. The events are momentous and certainly demonstrate the immense growth of Mr. Baggins, but have failed to inspire a truly interesting application. Instead, I’ve taken to rereading and listening to this chapter multiple times, spending significant time thinking about it and basically coming up with nothing.

Now, at this point, my mind turned more to wondering why this was the case; an endeavor which ultimately lead to the topic of this post.

The problem I had was one of perspective (which I have been warned about in comments and by Tolkien in his writings and my own philosophy on his works). The Hobbit is, and will always be, at its core a children’s novel. It is enlightening and fascinating to investigate applications looking at it from the standpoint of Tolkien’s full corpus of work, but this also risks destroying the magic of the work as it is.

There is some validity to cross-legendarium applicability, but one must never forget the singular character of this work among all others. It is a children’s story, dropped within the larger realm of Arda’s history, and further it is a narrated story. This final distinction is paramount. The Hobbit grew out of the stories told by Tolkien to his own children. It is from this simple relationship between child and parent, story-teller and listener, that the structure of the tale is derived. It also holds the keys to how the tale may be approached by the more mature reader.

There is a great deal of hidden humor in these two chapters. They are filled with the sort of gently chiding humor anyone dealing with young children is sure to recognize (or anyone who has been a child themselves!). It may be seen as a sort of inside joke for future parents reading The Hobbit to their children.

By this, of course, I am referring to the guardianship of the dwarves by Bilbo.

Bilbo takes upon himself the role of parent or guardian, shouldering responsibility for the dwarves’ future. He could have run off, and found his own way. Though initially he rejects this notion because he is lost, he discovers in his wanderings in the Elven King’s halls the way out, and could have taken it for himself. But he does not.

Bilbo is left completely to his own devices, as was the case with Gollum and the confrontation with the spiders. He cannot rely on the dwarves for help, or even wait on Gandalf’s return: “if anything was to be done, it would have to be done by Mr. Baggins, alone and unaided” (TH 203).

He finds all of the dwarves, including Thorin. He discovers the hatch to the river culvert and devises a desperate plan. Luck is with him, and when the opportunity is ripe, he takes it without hesitation. He takes on the role of leader, of guide, of parent.

The dwarves “all [trust] Bilbo;” or at least that is stated by the narrator (TH 204). However, reading the meta-narrative, it is a selfish trust, a desire for a miraculous and painless out. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that good (whether it be faith, work or friendships etc) never comes easily. All good things have to be strived for.

In their insistence on a repeat miracle by Mr. Baggins, the dwarves exhibit a level of naiveté and selfishness that is very childlike.

Balin stops to ask Bilbo what is going on upon his release, perfectly mirroring the “Are we there yet?” “Why’s” or “How’s” of a child. There is no concern for the danger or the task at hand. He and the others must follow Bilbo and trust in his guardianship.

Once told the plan, the grumbling and complaints break loose. It takes Bilbo’s appeals to reason to calm and convince them, inviting them back to their cells to think of a better plan (TH 209). They grudgingly move forward with Bilbo’s idea, though not without many more protestations; particularly upon being stuffed in the barrels.

Bilbo rushes around, plugging holes, tamping lids and checking air holes, completely focused on the safety and comfort of his charges. Typical of any guardian, he forgets himself, and though free of a barrel, must suffer the cold and wet of the river journey.

Upon reaching LakeTown, Bilbo releases the dwarves, and what sort of thanks does he get? Next to none. The dwarves are freed, no longer in prison, free to move on with their quest, and solely through the efforts of the Hobbit. They grumble and complain, and many refuse a helping hand save Thorin, Fili and Kili. Their official thanks, voiced by Thorin, is couched in a “thanks, but” manner (TH 226).

It is only when they are fed, and clothed and warm that the dwarves show any appreciation for their liberator. Then they shower praise on him.

Both “Barrels out of Bond” and “Warm Welcome” express many of the frustrations and contradictions of caring for children and even being a child oneself. Reading them, I am struck by the learning potential implicit in these pages, both for the reader/parent and the listener/child. Here we are shown the virtue of patience, selflessness and care of the Hobbit, dealing with often ungracious charges. We are also given a parable on gratitude and one of the somber truths of the world that not all things come easily.

I see in these chapters both satire and instruction. It is meant to produce wistful recognition, as well as inspire some soul searching on our part. How patient are we? How gracious? Do we see the goodness in what others have done for us? Do we appreciate the blessings in life, even if they are few or hidden?

These are core questions anyone must confront during their life. In The Hobbit, and particularly these two chapters, we are invited to search our hearts to find the answer.

PS WooHoo happy 100th post to WP!…though real festivities will have to wait for the eleventy-first!

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