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.

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Names as Myth

A common practice in mythology tends to be the proliferation of names for any one person or object.  This tends to be the case for characters of particular importance or stature.  This tendency is also true of history and politics, usually the man (or woman) with the most titles or the longest one holds the most prestige.  But when you run across a long list of names, what is it you really see or sense?  What is the purpose of so many titles, that one alone cannot suffice?

Many fantasy authors use this multiplication of names for the simple reasons stated above.  However, if the topic of names is approach in a manner similar to history or the development of language another picture is revealed, and this is the argument I’m inclined to think Tolkien used himself.

I was struck in the Tale of the Sun and Moon by the many names given to each.

“…they called her Sári which is Sun, but the Elves Ûr which is fire; but many other names does she bear in legend and poesy.  The Lamp of Vána’s is she named among the Gods in memory of Vána’s tears and her sweet tresses that she gave; and the Gnomes call her Galmir the goldgleamer and Glorvent the ship of gold, and Bráglorin the blazing vessel, and many a name beside; and her names among Men no man has counted them.” (TBoLT I p.209)

“Thus was the Ship of the Moon, the crystal island of the Rose, and the Gods named it Rána, the Moon, but the fairies Sil, the Rose, and many a sweet name beside.  Ilsaluntë or the silver shallop has it been called, and thereto the Gnomes have called it Minethlos or the argent isle and Crithosceleg the disc of glass.” (TBoLT I p.215)

I know Tolkien repeats the same pattern with many characters, predominantly Turin, who goes by no less than eight names.  And there’s Aragorn, with a least five.  The difference here in the tales is that all the names are listed together.  Nowhere else in Tolkien’s writing (that I recall as of this writing) does he list such a proliferation of names.  So this presentation of the names of the Sun and Moon got me thinking about the purpose of names.

Names are little more than words, yet they are given paramount importance as they are meant to in some manner embody the nature and being of a person or thing.  When you think of a name, particularly of a loved one, do you think of the name itself or the emotions it evokes?  The nature of naming is a slippery slope.  How can anyone limit the expression of a person or object to just a few sounds?  This is the implied question stated by Tolkien in the introduction of multiple names.

To borrow, yet again, from my favorite quote:

“You call a tree a tree, and you think nothing more of the word. But it was not a ‘tree’ until someone gave it that name. You call a star a star, and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course. But that is merely how you see it. By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.” (Tolkien, Carpenter p. 151)

The process of naming is in many ways the process of myth-making.  In naming a character, we are intrinsically changing them; we are adding a layer or facet to their being.  Names are accrued through a process of history and relationship as well as legend.  When you see the names of the sun or moon, their multiple forms reveal hints of stories.  They demonstrate the history and culture of the namers and their hidden legends.

Names cannot be trifled with.  By not limiting himself to a single name, Tolkien is able to add layer upon layer to the history of Middle Earth.  No character or thing is one sided, and is seen differently both by the person themselves and those around them.  The nebulous nature of names lies in the challenge of naming the unnamable.  With each appellation, a sliver of the Truth is revealed.  The use of manifold titles is comparable to Tolkien’s insertion of Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Wights in The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien’s one stated purpose for Tom Bombadil is to give a sense of other; to show that the quest for the destruction of the Ring and the evil of Sauron is not all there is to the world.  There is so much more which is beyond our reach or knowledge.  Using a multitude of names, Tolkien is able to evoke a sense of history and wonder.  Not only can names play a game through their meaning (as with Turin) but they are used to tell the story behind the story that we will never see.

Resurrection and the Barrow Downs

Firstly, I’d like to wish you all a blessed and joyous Easter!

As today is Easter, and we’ve passed through Good Friday and Holy Saturday, this put me in a particular frame of mind which I found perfectly suited for reading “Fog on the Barrow-Downs.” There is such wonderful symbolism that can be applied to this chapter. Whether it was ever the intent of Tolkien in writing it, I don’t know, but this chapter literally sings of Resurrection.

The hobbits are tricked and trapped by the wight in its barrow-mound. There, Sam, Merry, and Pippin fall into a death-like trance. Frodo is miraculously awake and sings for their salvation: Tom Bombadil. His coming reverberates through the land, making it seem the very ground is singing. And with “a loud rumbling sound, as of stones rolling and falling, and suddenly light streamed in, real light, the plain light of day” the tomb was opened. For me, at this time of year there can be no greater symbolism than this, the opening of the tomb and the entrance of light. This is but one small moment of eucatastrophe, in which both Tom and Frodo act as the instruments of Grace.

It is also a moment of rebirth. The hobbits are awakened from their sleep and marvel at the cleanness of the grass, the brightness of the sun. Finding themselves clothed in burial robes and girt in gold chains, they cast of the raiment of death and run naked on the grass. They are reborn to the joy of living and breathing in the world. The casting off of their clothes I found particularly significant. During the Stations of the Cross, the tenth station: Jesus is stripped of His garments is almost always paired with the words of the prophet Job: “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb and naked shall I go back again.”

The hobbits were dressed in the clothes of death by the wight, in stripping themselves of these garments they reclaim their life. They are, in a sense, reborn.

There is one other Biblical application that jumped out at me reading today. As usual, I return to the question of the nature of Tom Bombadil. As yet I, nor anyone else excepting perhaps Tolkien himself, know who he is supposed to be or what. But reading today, I found a new link that I found quite appealing. It came as Tom named the hobbits’ ponies, which the narrative told they would answer to the rest of their lives. Naming is a powerful thing and this episode bears great resemblance to the naming of the creatures of the land, sea and air in Genesis. So perhaps Tom can be interpreted as a sort of Adam figure in Middle Earth. Maybe even the Adam who never fell from Grace.

The nature of Courage and Hobbits

It is said repeatedly throughout Tolkien’s works in Middle Earth that hobbits are a hard and courageous lot in spite of their plump and peaceful ways. There is a core of hardness at the center of each hobbit, which with significant hardship will bloom into a courage and strength to be reckoned with.

But what is courage? Is it only a personality trait; a description of the nature of one’s actions? That seems a bit too simplistic, and I think “Fog on the Barrow-Downs” has something very powerful to say about the full meaning of having courage. Courage is not a simple word, a noun, an adjective about a person. It is not just a concept, a passive tag to identify what we do. In some ways it is a being unto itself, and ultimately boils down to one word: obligation.

When trapped by the Barrow-Wight, Frodo feels the intense draw of the Ring; it wants to escape and return to its master. It cannot be trapped and incorporated into the Wight’s horde. And so it puts tremendous pressure on Frodo to place the ring on his finger and escape. Now it can be argued that this is nothing to do with the ring and everything to do with Frodo’s fear. But I think his attempts to rationalize this potential action and his compulsive groping for the ring are evidence that the ring is very much active in Frodo’s thoughts and judgment.

One thing and one thing only pulls Frodo out of this temptation: courage. Courage is not about lack of fear or surmounting it. It is about obligation; knowing what is right and though the consequences and obstacles may be difficult and fearful, doing it anyways. And so, though disoriented and weak from his contact with the wight, Frodo strikes back, cuts off the wight’s hand and sings for Tom Bombadil.

Of Songs, Dreams & the Ring

In the Christian tradition and particularly the Roman Catholic rite song has always played an important role in worship and prayer. Song was and is popularly believed to be the most potent form of prayer; the most moving and most likely to be heard by God. This does not discount other forms of prayer, but song has a very special place in the Catholic faith and mass. Reading about Tom Bombadil and Goldberry brings this great tradition to mind and reminds me in many ways of the monastic tradition, where almost all prayer was conducted by means of song. It makes for an interesting interpretation of Tom, doesn’t it?

But then there’s Old Man Willow, who Tom says is “a mighty singer.” Here the similarities, obviously, fail. Yet there still remains the truth that there is some mysterious power in song, and that power is infectious, as is seen in the hobbits.

Before going to bed, Goldberry gives the hobbits this warning:
“Heed no nightly noises! For nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top.”

When the hobbits go to sleep that night, Frodo, Pippin and Merry dream. They dream vivid, terrifying dreams of such vividness that they are compelled to search for truth in them upon waking. All three dreams devolve into nightmarish fantasy, usually focusing on past horrors.

Yet there is one unique dream: that of Frodo. His dream, at least at first, is a true dream. We and he don’t know it yet, but he is seeing Gandalf’s escape from Isengard, which occured eight days prior to the night at Bombadil’s house. In all cases then, the hobbits see the past in some manner. Yet Frodo’s is the true past. Why?

There are two possiblities: either it is the effect of the Ring’s power or it is the effect of grace or eucatastrophe. Either works, but it is evident that another power is at work.

In preparing this post I had another thought I found to be quite intriguing. Only the hobbits who were affected by Old Man Willow dream. Sam did not. Sam fought off the effects of Old Man Willow’s singing and remained free of his power. Frodo, Pippin and Merry all fell asleep under his song and succumbed to his mechanations. And recall, Tom Bombadil admitted Old Man Willow is a mighty singer. It may be a slight stretch, but could the dreams have originated from Old Man Willow? It also seems suspect that Goldberry and Tom knew they would dream and have nightmares. Does this indicate some lasting hold of the Willow’s or just the haunted aura of the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs?

Escaping the same old Question

I’ve written about the Old Forest, Old Man Willow and Tom Bombadil on many occasions in an attempt to shed some light on their purpose in the narrative.  However, this is a mystery that will most likely never be answered satisfactorily, so I tried to shift my focus as I reread “The Old Forest” today.  I saw some new things, but the funny thing is I always ended up thinking how this or that truly helps the story. 

My first impression of the Old Forest was very surreal, and downright creepy.  With this chapter, the reader is almost immediately confronted by strangeness, and Tolkien’s imagery here, though a bit on the disturbing side, is very effective.  The journey doesn’t start auspisciously, “Soon they were riding off into the mist, which seemed to open reluctantly before them and close forbiddingly behind…”  Not a happy way the start a day is it?  And it only gets worse.  The tunnel through the High Hay is “dark and damp” with a gate of iron bars.  There’s a certain ring of finality and dread the entire passage of the hobbits’ leave-taking of the Shire in the closing of that gate.

And then there’s Merry’s description.  Granted there is description and imagery as the hobbits traverse the forest, but I found this one paragraph the most powerful and evocative:

“But the Forest is queer.  Everything in it is very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak, than things are in the Shire.  And the trees do not like strangers.  They watch you.  They are usually content usually to watch you, as long as daylight lasts, and don’t do much.  Occasionally the most unfriendly ones may drop a brand, or stick a root out, or grasp at you with a long trailer.  But at night things can be more alarming, or so I am told.  I have only once or twice been in here after dark, and then only near the hedge.  I thought all the trees were whispering and the branches swayed and groped without any wind.  They do say the trees do actually move, and can surround strangers and hem them in.  In fact long ago they attacked the Hedge: they came and planted themselves right by it, and leaned over it…” (FotR p108)

There is just something so otherworldly about this entire chapter which is so well captured in this one passage.  We go from the peace and natural beauty into this place where nature becomes dark and gloomy…and downright crafty.  It is a shock, immediate and brutal.  And in some ways begs the question: how are we to stomach this? 

Well, we aren’t dropped in completely unawares.  There were hints dropped in Sam and Ted’s conversation earlier in the book of walking trees.  And there is the hobbits’ complete lack of knowledge of the outside world to consider.  But in the end, I was most drawn to the foreshadowing of this chapter.  It is full of references immediately recognizable to re-readers who keep an eye out.  I don’t know how well the ents and the huorns were established in Tolkien’s thought at this time, but it would appear that in the Old Forest we get our first glimpse of their development, at least in how they pertain to Middle Earth during the Third Age.  This whole scenario runs parallel with the entry to Fangorn and the meeting of Treebeard; and shows great similarities with the huorns and the “dark” places of Fangorn.  Treebeard’s lament about the ents was ever on my mind reading this chapter: that many ents had become too sleepy and so like trees and many trees too awake like ents. 

To return to my discussion of imagery, as the chapter continues, the descriptions become gradually darker and more threatening.  Yet the forest has some tricks up its sleeve (or should I say branch).  Notice the transition in tone from the forest to the Withywindle River valley.  Suddenly there is color, openness, peace.  Or so it seems.  I hadn’t picked up on this before, its subtle, but upon rereading this shift becomes loaded with meaning. 

By this false sense of the security the Hobbits are lulled to a stop, to sleep against a hoary old tree.  Only to be hurled in the water, or sucked into it’s shadowy depths.  And even then there is a sense of calm and lassitude, for the hobbits, besides Sam, remain asleep throughout.  This only heightens the strangeness and horror of the event. 

The strangeness also acts as a barrier, however.  It makes the entire adventure hard to believe and out of this world.  And so I never found this threat to the hobbits to be overly threatening, but rather miner.  The barrow wights to come were always more successful.  Upon this reread, I felt an almost palpable sense of relief at the entry of Tom Bombadil.  Not for his role in saving the hobbits, but for his apparent normalcy.  He is a return, more or less, to the sort of person we know.  He is there the draw us out of this surreal nightmare which is the Old Forest. 

And so I’ve returned to question that has haunted so many who read The Lord of the Rings: why the Old Forest, why Old Man Willow, why Tom Bombadil? 

We are used to our world and its close shadow, which is the Shire.  But at the High Hay we enter with tentative steps more firmly into the secondary world of Tolkien’s creation.  We are thrust straight into the strangeness of it; not necessarily with the expectation of our belief in this moment but with thoughts turned towards our future belief.  Have you ever noticed that to a certain degree everything that follows is easier to swallow after the Old Forest?  I hadn’t, but I think that’s part of the point.  By placing this den of strangeness right at the start of his tale, I believe Tolkien has found a way to aid his readers in believing his tale. It is an abrupt wake up call to all readers: we are far from home.

I have an assignment for you…

Many of my posts have dealt with the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil and the Wights.  I’ve attempted to reveal their nature and reason in Middle Earth.  They are a crucial part of the story.  Yet there is more.  Remember Tolkien was a philogist.  He studied words and language, their permutations and origins.  More than any other author, at least in the fantasy genre, he crafts the language.  Each word is picked with care and specific intent. 

And so I have a challenge for you.  Granted chapters 6-8 seem out of place and hard…but that may be due to the way we as the reader aproach them.  Think for a minute.  Tolkien loved language.  Like a painter, he used words, instead of brushes, tones and strokes.  So pay attention to the WORDS, the LANGUAGE!  This is the key to truly appreciating all Tolkien has to offer; and it is no where more clear than in the chapter “In the House of Tom Bombadil.” 

Here’s what I’d like you to do.  When Tom enters, he sings, he sings throughout his role in the book.  Spend some time on his songs; get a feel for the rhythm of the words.  Then read those chapters (6-8).  Pay particular attention to the passages when Tom is present.  It took me a while to notice, but the same rhythms apply to the entirety of Tolkien’s prose there.  If you truly focus on the words and language, I’m sure you’ll find wonderous artistry.

The beauty of Tolkien’s prose is amazing.  Often it can be difficult to appreciate.  But you have to remember, the story comes from language.  First, from Tolkien’s desire to make a mythology for England.  Secondly, through his growing belief that language creates stories; ie The Silmarillion.  So I challenge you to pay attention when you read.  Appreciate it for more than story and adventure, but for the true artistry of a master-craftsman.  The wonder and power of the work only grows as you delve deeper.