January 2020

This report will be ahead of the report for last December, which I will post in due course. But here is the first report for 2020:

11.1. 2020

Seven of us met to pick up our reading of The Hobbit at Chapter 11 ‘On the Doorstep’, and I for one felt it was lovely to get back to our reading and discussions after the distractions of Christmas.

Laura opened the meeting with her comment that Chapter 11 is initially rather mundane with its descriptions of the river journey from Laketown.

Ian observed that the company was passing through and towards luminal space.

Laura remarked that it is a bleak opening with its echoes of the World War 1 blasted trees.

Tim observed that the devastated trees of the Desolation of Smaug (like those of Mordor) are also reminiscent of the fire-blasted trees in Australia at this present time. Tim went on to note the contrast this bleakness and the welcome the company were given in Laketown, and remarked that this contrast if bleakness after hospitality is a motif in The Lord of the Rings as well.

Angela noted that the description of the Gate echoed again in The Lord of the Rings where darkness flows out of the Paths of the Dead; and in both stories crows are perceived as hostile.

Tim commented that it represents the fundamental fear of going into darkness.

Laura said that she felt the impression of Dale had been enhanced after the film. I agreed with this.

Laura then noted that Balin is the one dwarf who befriends Bilbo and Angela remarked that he has more respect for Bilbo than the other dwarves have.

In response to the question: ‘where does Smaug come from? we discussed dragons and the ancient belief that some at least were transformed mortal men.

Time directed our attention to the Map and the information that dragons came from the Withered Heath. He also noted that Smaug was the last of the great dragons.

Angela noted that there had been hot and cold dragons, some flying and non-flying, like Glaurung the crawling ‘worm’. Laura reminded us of the ‘cold drakes’ of The Silmarillion.

Eileen observed that Smaug is obsessed with the jewels, and compared this to Gollum’s obsession with the Ring.

Ian pointed out that Smaug doesn’t continue to collect jewels, he’s not like a magpie, but as a dragon he takes possession or treasure already accumulated. Ian pondered whether there was a ‘critical mass’ that determined the value of a hoard to a dragon. Ian continued his consideration of Smaug’s treasure by proposing that what attracts the dragon may be the dwarves’ misappropriation of some of it as the spoils of warriors or by dishonest dealing, as well as accumulating by mining.

Angela noted that there is cursed treasure in The Silmarillion, and Ian added that gold is effectively ‘cursed’ in the film ‘Goldfinger’, and in ‘Pirates of the Carribean’, where the sails of the galleon replicate the look of wings.

Chris proposed that the Ring has no influence on the dragon because it has no cultural or aesthetic interest, as it does not differentiate between the gold cup and the Arkenstone.

Laura observed that Bilbo’s riddles work perfectly well with Gollum because they share the same cultural knowledge but they don’t work with Smaug because they are not part of his ‘culture’.

Ian commented that Smaug lying on the hoard encrusts him, if he hadn’t been lying in the way he was his underside wouldn’t have got so encrusted. Ian used the analogy of a pangolin – armoured on top and with a soft underside, but Smaug’s soft underside gets armoured by the jewels, all except for one spot.

I referred to some background reading that had led me to wonder if Tolkien was not only borrowing the cup and dragon episode from Beowulf, but whether he was also borrowing Christian symbolism as Bilbo reluctantly but courageously descends into a hellish environment to confront a dragon. Was this, I wondered, alluding to Christ harrowing hell and confronting ‘the great red Dragon who is Satan’ (Book of Revelation). I also queried an echo between the cup and the grail.

Laura picked this tentative query and noted that as Christ is not tempted by Satan in the desert, so Bilbo is not seduced under the ‘spell’ of Smaug’s dangerous speech; and that Bilbo’s errors fears and courage echo Christ’s fear which defines his humanity.

Eileen elaborated this remarking on the motif of the reluctant hero represented in Christ’s declaration ‘not my will. Likewise, Bilbo has to push himself to act, and in both cases the process is humanising.

Laura commented that there is an illustration of Satan which takes the shape of both man and dragon.

Ian noted that Bilbo goes down twice. The first time he brings back the cup, echoing Beowulf and maybe the grail. The second descent leads to the confrontation with Smaug, and maybe echoes the Harrowing of Hell. [I should have added that Tolkien may have known the confrontation between Christ and Satan at the Harrowing from his knowledge of medieval biblical plays such as The Towneley cycle.]

Laura remarked that Smaug is true to his own nature, and Eileen commented that it is a clever dragon.

Laura observed the extent to which the tunnel creates tension.

I commented that there seems to be layers of interpretation in this episode, from myth, legend, and Christianity, perhaps all represented already in the Beowulf dragon episode.

Ian noted that in The Hobbit none of it is played for laughs but includes elements of higher moral tone without moralising or rhetoric.

Tim observed that the story maintains its sense of adventure and drama.

Laura added that it includes a poetic register in the use of vocabulary such as ‘enchantment’.

Ian ended our discussions with his observation that humans make myths from information we can’t process otherwise, while animals simply react.

Having over-run our time we agreed that next time we would finish ‘Inside Information’ and go on to ‘Not at Home’.

Last meeting in November

Thanks to Chris for creating this report:



Unfortunately Lynn couldn’t join us to day. The meeting went ahead with Ian, Laura, Eileen, Angela and Chris.

Before discussing the next chapter of the Hobbit “Barrels out of Bond” Ian raised a couple of interesting points. The first concerned a tweet about Joseph Wright following the award of a bursary to Leeds University for the study of English dialects. The tweet made clear that the original study had been done by Joseph Wright as this fact seemed to be absent. The second concerned a new book by Tom Holland called Dominion which has a number of references to Tolkien. The book deals with the effect of Christianity on the world over the ages.

The meeting proper began with a discussion of the word “bond” and how the title of the chapter “Barrels out of Bond” had a double meaning indicating the technical use of the word “bond” as a secure warehouse storage system, and the escape of the Dwarves in barrels. Laura said that in Thranduil’s realm trade played an important role not seen in other Elvish locations. She also said that the elves in this realm were not typical of the elvish race, for instance getting drunk.

Chris said that this chapter highlighted the theme of Luck as Bilbo is often described as being very lucky, for instance in managing to organise the escape.

Eileen commented that Bilbo is often described as if he were a type of animal/rodent because he frequently scuttles about.

There was a discussion of the Ring causing the bearer to cast a shadow in sunlight. Eileen felt this could be because the Ring has not taken full effect so a part of the body still exists to cast a shadow. Angela said she couldn’t remember this particular issue in LotR.

Laura again stressed that men and elves are seen working together in the barrel trade and for sourcing the wine, presumably some from men’s vineyards.

Eileen mentioned the singing of the elves when marching the prisoners so felt it must be part of their nature.

Eileen thought it was interesting that Bilbo was sometimes referred to as Bilbo and at other times as Mr Baggins.

Laura thought Thranduil fitted in with nature as he wore a head decoration with appropriate flowers.

Angela said that although Thranduil was a high elf he identified more with the Silvan elves.  This is detailed in Unfinished Tales in the “History of Galadriel and Celeborn” chapter.

There was a discussion that Bilbo had now definitely become a burglar with constant pinching of food.

Laura thought that the dwarves felt unhappy as Bilbo often had to do things to help them out whereas originally they thought he was useless.

Laura wondered what Gandalf knew about the service Bilbo would provide to the Dwarves and whether this came from on high. It was as happens in LotR when Gandalf says Gollum has still a part to play. We all agreed that Gandalf couldn’t have had inside knowledge about the finding of the Ring.

Eileen described how Bilbo gains practical skills during this chapter. Chris said it was a nice gesture for Bilbo to put the keys back on the guard’s key-ring.

There was a general discussion of Tolkien and Lewis in a slight digression.

Laura wondered where Tolkien got the idea of the barrels being transported in rivers. Had he seen this somewhere else?

Finally at the end of the chapter Eileen said that Bilbo was no longer interested in dainties – he was just too hungry.

The meeting finished with the decision to do Chapters 10 and 11 at the next meeting

First meeting in November


On this palindromic date, seven of us braved a drenching to meet and discuss the matter of Flies and Spiders.

Eileen began the discussion with her consideration of what she described as the threatening forest. She noted that Tolkien felt that trees had feelings and wondered if the trees in Mirkwood reflect or pick up on the feelings of Bilbo and the dwarves.

Tim compared Mirkwood to the motif of the Enchanted Forest and the injunction to stay on the path based in local knowledge, and evoking foreboding. The comparison included Hansel and Gretel.

Angela remarked on the little hint of light, and compared this to the effect of light in a railway tunnel. Laura picked the hopefulness of the phrase ‘light at the end of a tunnel’.

Ian observed that in canal tunnels travellers lose sight of the light if the tunnel bends.

Laura commented that the whole chapter is a fairy story with its insistence on things that are interdicted.

Eileen thought that at the start both Bilbo and the dwarves were not coping.

Laura and Angela both remarked on the sinister effect of the very short sentence ‘There were black squirrels in the wood’.

Laura also proposed that the moths in the wood may have been changed by their environment.

I mentioned that in the north of England around the industrial towns moths that had developed camouflage to rest on tree trunks were discovered to have become darker in colouring as pollution had darkened the bark of the trees. I therefore wondered if the Necromancer in Mirkwood could be understood as a metaphor for the effects of pollution.

Laura remarked that the black butterflies were not so sinister.

Eileen noted the introduction of cobwebs, and their stickiness. Tim commented on the experience of encountering cobwebs in summer, but noted that in Mirkwood they are dark.

Laura observed that the spiders in Mirkwood are apex predators.

Angela remarked that in The Lord of the Rings the suggestion is that they are Shelob’s offspring.

Carol commented: the encounter with the spiders has its comical slant but, like other dangerous episodes, there’s a real dark side to this. No such ‘fun’ with Shelob in The Lord of the Rings, and Bilbo comes into his own as Sam does with Shelob and after. Just had a thought about a juxtaposition: as Bilbo rescues the dwarves from incarceration with the elves, Sam does the same for Frodo from the orcs.
Laura compared the paths in the Old Forest, which move around, but the Elf-Path in Mirkwood can’t move or its magic will be lost.

Chris proposed that it is the Elves who keep the path clear.

Angela and Laura both observed that the stream in Mirkwood is cursed like the Withywindle.

Chris observed that the river in the wood is enchanted not actually cursed, and wondered if it could actually focus dreams according to the desires of the dreamer.

Carol commented: ‘Bombur’s falling into the enchanted stream is really laying it on thick because now they have to carry him as well as getting hungrier and thirstier and then being caught by spiders. But who comes to the rescue…? Bilbo’s finding his ‘adventure’ feet. Bombur actually has a sort of foretelling when he tells of seeing lights and food whilst asleep, because that comes true.

Chris also noted that Bilbo has sharp eyes in the forest, but this attribute is not noted in The Lord of the Rings.

Laura remarked that dwarves should have sharp eyes after millennia in their mines, but then the forest is not their environment.

Angela commented that Gimli was scared of Fangorn.

We spent some time discussing the enchanted river and its analogues, such as Lethe and the Stix.

Ian discovered that there are 11 rivers in Norse mythology, one of which separates the living from the dead.

Tim then remarked that Thorin’s terse ‘don’t start grumbling’ was rather orcish.

Eileen commented that Bilbo is becoming the one upon whom the others depend.

Laura wondered if Bilbo’s assertiveness is the effect of the Ring on his passivity.

Tim noted that the Ring prevents his capture by the spiders, but Chris added that hobbit skills help in this, such as a good throwing arm.

Tim then remarked that Tolkien ‘breaks the fourth wall’ when he writes that there things ‘I haven’t had time to tell you about’.

Laura went on to consider the deer imagery and its significance in mythology and Christianity.

Tim remarked on the contrasting change of tone that happens when the dwarves are down in the forest and Bilbo is in the tops of the trees.

Eileen commented that the light hurts Bilbo’s eyes, and she thought this provided light relief and hope.

Tim observed that there are three attempts at encounters with Elves.

I wondered if the Elf feast was an enchanted vision but Chris, Angela and Laura thought it was a real feast that was interrupted.

Carol commented: ‘in the account of the wood elves we see bits of the ‘mythology’ creeping in – faery in the west and what I assume is a reference to Thingol’.

Chris also noted that Elves kill spiders.

I proposed looking at the word ‘attercop’ with the help of background sources including Gilliver et al, The Ring of Words. Reading through their entry for this led Ian to observe that when they discuss ‘cop’ they omit any mention of its place in the Dialect Dictionary, focussing only on entries in the OED. Ian went on to notice that in the Dialect Dictionary the word ‘Tomnoddy’ is local to Northumberland and means ‘big head and little body’.

We had run well over our finishing time in our discussion so we only got through one chapter this time. At our next meeting we will pick up at Chapter 9, ‘Barrels Out of Bond’.



Last in October


On a miserably wet and gloomy afternoon six of us gathered to get back to The Hobbit. We picked up our reading at ‘Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire’ with the intention of seeing if we could pick up the pace at which we get through our chapters.

Chris opened proceedings with his observation that Bilbo is actually thinking about going back to look for the dwarves, having just escaped from the goblin caves.

Laura remarked that the beginning of the chapter seems like just an escape but things soon get nasty.

I asked what everyone thought of Bilbo creeping about and startling the dwarves, and making Balin look incompetent. Laura thought Balin is actually suspicious.

Eileen thought Bilbo was enjoying a bit of one-upmanship. Ian agreed that he was getting his own back for the way he was parted from the dwarves. Laura wondered whether the ring was beginning to make Bilbo secretive.

Eileen commented that Bilbo is surprised at first that the goblins can’t see him. Laura noted however that the invisibility is not complete.

Eileen remarked that Bilbo’s sneaking is a flaw and that this makes him more realistic.

Laura commented that the middle-class Mr. Baggins wouldn’t dream of behaving like that but perhaps his Tookish genes are beginning to show through, or maybe it is a sign of race memories shared ultimately with Gollum.

Chris remarked that Bilbo develops like the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings.

I wondered if there was an underlying theme being explored because the action moves from caves to fire to air? Chris noted that this is the trajectory taken by Gandalf in Moria. Angela added the elements are those of the 3 Elven rings.

Carol commented “I’m beginning to think that with the goblin song ‘fifteen bird in five fir-trees’, Tolkien takes some delight in writing about grizzly ways to cook the dwarves, after the trolls did the same.”

I then compared the goblins’ songs – suitably horrible to suit the tastes of small boys perhaps – against the narratorial comment: ‘The sudden splendour flashed from his wand…’. My point was that the phrase ‘sudden splendour’ seemed so characteristic of Tolkien at his most powerfully poetic, and out of keeping here, although it lifts the text and adds to Gandalf’s characterization.

Chris referred us to an essay in the new book Music in Middle-earth which explores the songs of goblins and other ‘bad’ races.

Laura then remarked that in this chapter the landscape is beautiful, so the wargs and the forest clearing are more horrible by comparison.

Angela commented that goblins and wargs create nasty environments. She then went on to question whether Bilbo’s dream described in the last sentence of this chapter was due to the effect of the Ring.

Laura wondered if it was indicative of him looking for his own recent past, which he’ll never find. There will be no more comfort and cake because he has moved on.

We went on to consider the eagles and Laura observed that the eagles of the mountains, like Grendel in Beowulf are disturbed by noise. She also commented that in this chapter the eagles disrupt the evil actions of  wargs and goblins but are otherwise indifferent.

Chris noted that in The Silmarillion the eagles of Manwe are helpful creatures. Laura remarked that in The Lord of the Rings one goes to Minas Tirith, and Angela commented that Galadriel may have had some influence when the eagle picks up Gandalf from the mountain of Moria.

Eileen observed that in this chapter the eagles are proud, strong and noble.

Angela reminded us of the great eagle-shaped cloud over Numenor.

Eileen commented that this is a chapter about self-preservation.

We then moved on to ‘Queer Lodgings’

Laura observed that in the Navaho culture shape-changing was often associated with cursed folk, and Navaho skin-changers were evil.

Chris noted the mention of the eagles at the Battle of Five Armies, and Laura remarked on the reference to their gold collars, so that the success of the battle and their participation in it was already known.

Eileen observed that Gandalf becomes impatient with all Bilbo’s questions.

Laura, Angela and Carol all commented that the concept of animal servants doesn’t work. Carol declared “the only part I don’t like is the serving animals – too twee!!” and Eileen found it humiliating.

Ian remarked that it was evidence of a different world view, and that it shows another hierarchy around Beorn, after that around the King of the eagles.

Eileen commented that it reminded her of Animal Farm.

Carol remarked “a constant diet of honey and clotted cream would make me sick”, and Angela agreed that it would not be healthy living on cream and honey.

I asked what everyone thought of the bees. Laura thought their size was probably in keeping with Beorn, but might just be big compared to the size of the dwarves and hobbit. Ian thought it was perhaps a case of making creatures as fantastical as possible.

Carol commented that the dwarves enter Beorn’s house like they did Bilbo’s, a couple at a time. Eileen found it amusing that Gandalf sends in the dwarves 2 by 2, and she commented especially on the way the text plays with numbers to amuse children.

Angela thought Beorn is really rude, and Chris remarked that he doesn’t trust the strangers who are arriving, but he gets on with Radagast.

Angela noted that Gandalf gets a horse here, just as he does in The Lord of the Rings, and Chris remarked that Beorn follows the company to get his horses back as Bombadil gets his ponies back. Eileen commented that children would worry about the ponies.

Chris observed that when the text represents Beorn’s emphatic instruction ‘DON’T LEAVE THE PATH’ in capitals, this means the company certainly will leave the path.

Laura picked up the matter of hierarchies again when she observed that we are given another one: goblins/hobgoblins/orcs.

And so we had completed the 2 chapters as we hoped, and it was agreed that we would read the next 2 chapters for our first meeting in November.

Carol also commented:

I’ve always like the bit ‘dwarves sitting up in the trees with their beards dangling down, like old men gone cracked…’ and for me, deathly scared of heights, the worst bit in the whole book is Bilbo’s being borne aloft by the eagles whilst handing in to Dori’s leg. It just gives me the shivers!

The name Mirkwood is one of the things I like best. I’ve always thought what a great name for an ominous forest – of course lifted from the Elder Edda but who cares.

As in The Lord of the Rings, the company has to learn to cope on its own without a wizard to help them, so they can ‘grow’ and show what they’re made of. In The Lord of the Rings Gandalf’s fall into Moria is a lesson for the others for when he really departs for good.


Last in September


A slightly depleted group met today to take on the twin challenges of plotting a way forward for the group and accompanying Bilbo through the labyrinthine caverns and tunnels under the Misty Mountains. We missed Laura, but she sent comments, as did Carol, and these are added into the blog where appropriate and added on at the end as an appendix when they address matters we didn’t get round to. Sadly, thought hopeful of attending, the weather prevented Julie, and we also missed Tim.

The five of us who got to the meeting came up with proposals for next year which have been communicated to everyone. Final decisions have not yet been made.

Having taken care of this business Chris began the discussion of the text with his comment that the Ring is very active and that it tries to get to the goblins. Laura commented: “Not sure why it slipped off his finger at the end – even being found by a goblin might not have helped”. Chris observed that it almost gives Bilbo away by falling off.

Ian pointed out that this was not the first version of the story but had been tweaked after the writing of The Lord of the Rings. Chris observed that these revisions affected the last riddle. Angela remarked that reading The Lord of the Rings should really come after reading The Hobbit.

Angela noted that we don’t know much about Gollum but he knows what sun and daisies are. Laura commented: “interesting that Gollum is described as “dark as darkness” – does it really mean he’s black?” She added: also about Gollum’s family life – teaching his grandmother to suck eggs! So that’s where the expression came from. Although I can’t believe he had anything to teach his grandmother – hence the twist in its meaning!” Laura also noted: Gollum has pockets! We may have touched on this before – so what was he wearing?  Also he keeps things on the island and in his pockets so things have some meaning for him, even goblins’ teeth!

Eileen remarked on the ancient delight in Riddles. Laura commented: “I know you’ll talk about the Anglo Saxon love of riddles. It’s an interesting insight into Gollum’s history – he’s not a goblin without a past but a sad background. The riddles also give the sense of fairy tale – tricks to get past the giant or the right words/answers like the Sphinx.” [As it happened we didn’t get round to the Anglo-Saxon riddles.]

Angela commented that the only thing except for the dark is the Ring of cold metal. It was noted that in the darkness there was no way of distinguishing what kind of metal. Carol commented: “This is where Bilbo starts to come into his own – alone and in the dark, finds the ring. ‘It was the turning point in his career’. However, Angela commented on the fact that Bilbo is for a time very concussed but his recovery and health are not issues. Eileen remarked that Bilbo’s depression and dismay may have been Tolkien’s lesson to his sons that life may be hard.

Angela observed that Bilbo is not as unadventurous as he may seem, or as he makes himself out to be.

Chris wondered how and why Gollum’s eyes shine without a light source. I suggested that they shine as an internal response to his evil emotion.

Angela picked up the reference to ‘older things’ in the lake and compared this concept to the similar reference to ‘older and fouler things’ in Moria, and Laura described this as a: “a nasty intrusion just as you thought the goblins were bad enough, there’s a suggestion of “older and fouler things!”

Eileen thought the whole chapter was creepy at times as we feel aligned with Bilbo, but that Gollum is endearing because of the way he talks to himself, and she proposed that the mental activity to talking to himself keeps him going. She also admitted to sometimes feeling sorry for Gollum as he is demented by the Ring.

Both Laura and I wondered where Gollum got his boat? Laura commented: How did he build his boat?  I presume thieving from the goblins. Chris and Angela also suggested he got it from the goblins who were sent down by the Great Goblin to get fish from the lake.

Angela noted the reference to goblin imps and remarked that this suggests that goblins breed in the normal way.

Chris remarked on the introduction to the ‘pity’ motif, and Carol commented that: The answer to Eileen’s earlier query as to why Gollum’s in TH is that Gollum teaches Bilbo pity, not to kill without due cause and because Bilbo spares Gollum’s life, eventually Middle-earth is saved by Gollum’s going into the fire in The Lord of the Rings. Without Gollum the quest in The Lord of the Rings couldn’t have been concluded in the West’s favour. Plus Tolkien once said that the ring was the natural thing to carry over into The Lord of the Rings as being the object of the quest. Laura commented: The concept of the ring as a Ring of power comes as a bit of a shock – even though it again gives a touch of fairy tale – the magic sword/potion etc. to help the hero. And the introduction of a Master of rings: perhaps an element of pity here for Gollum, suffering from the downside of wearing the ring.  Bilbo later feels that pity when has a glimpse of Gollum’s life. I thought the introduction of the ‘pity’ motif was part of the post-The Lord of the Rings revision.

Eileen commented on the combination of emotions felt by Bilbo but he has to save himself. Angela noted Frodo and Sam’s conflicted feelings towards Gollum, and Eileen thought conflicted feelings are more realistic.

Chris raised a matter of chronology when we wondered whether the narrator’s comment that Bilbo’s jump was ‘no great leap for a man’ came before or after the Moon landing and the famous ‘one small step for man’ speech. Chris proposed that maybe the astronaut had read The Hobbit to his children. I dismissed the idea because an astronaut is a scientist. ‘Tuts’ from those of more balanced opinions! Ian then discovered there was a connection between Tolkien and Neil Armstrong, who had named his property Rivendell, and had a Tolkien-themed email, but had only read Tolkien’s work after the moon landing. But Chris wondered if this was Armstrong’s way of protecting his famous line!

I was on safer ground when I mentioned that I liked the image of the ‘leak of sunshine’ around the door. Eileen suggested that it seemed like an accident but was important for Bilbo.

Laura commented: “A little bit of WW1 – the paragraph that begins “Whistles blew, armour clashed….” etc. and Eileen remarked on Bilbo’s recognition of Gollum being miserable alone and wondered if Tolkien was referencing the understanding of an enemy in shared, if opposed, circumstances. I thought this was possible and compared Sam’s reaction to the dead Haradrim in The Lord of the Rings.

Ian proposed that some situations are right for identification by comparison through similar experiences but although through differences.

Eileen remarked that Bilbo is evolving before our eyes.

Chris wondered if this part of the chapter had been added in the revision, and whether it uses different kinds of language because of that?

We ran out of time at that point. The rest of Laura’s comments follow here, and at our next meeting we will continue with the next chapter: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire.

Musings by Laura!

Rather obvious for us now but Bilbo puts on the ring “almost without thinking” – so is it the grand plan or is it the ring making its move, especially as it’s made itself tiny? Later on in the chapter, Bilbo finds it hard to believe that he has found a magic ring “by accident”.

I liked the “miserableness” and “miserabler” – I think this would be very funny for children!

Paras 11, 12 and 13 – three “slimy”! Ugh!

The no-legs riddle – “.the cat has the bones.” Who wrote this nonsense? Four-legs stares at two-legs until two-legs gives four-legs one-leg.

The words shouted at Bilbo by Gollum “Thief, thief etc.” is a curse on the Baggins family and on Gollum himself as he has to leave to find the ring. Interesting bit of rhetoric speechifying trickery – repeating phrases three times.

I love the thought of goblins being interested in gentlemen’s tailoring – picking up his buttons!


First in September


September already and time for Oxonmoot, which was early this year and coincided with our meeting rather than marking the Birthday, as has been customary in the past. Hence only four of us met on a lovely afternoon to discuss matters arising from Chapter Four and the start of Chapter 5 of The Hobbit. Happily, though, we also had Carol’s comments to add diversity. Those relating to Chapter 4 are included in our discussion, her comments on the earlier chapters are added as an appendix.

Laura began the meeting with her observation concerning the stone giants that C.S. Lewis includes his own version of stone giants exactly the same scenario as in The Hobbit, in his children’s book The Silver Chair.

Tim remarked that the episode in TH sounds Scandinavian, and stone giants are omitted from The Lord of the Rings, although giants are named as such in The Lay of Leithian. There are giants in Grimm’s Tales and the stone giants may hark back to giants in Eddic lore, or to German storm giants (rübezahl). Tim also noted that in the film Troll Hunter a boulder field is attributed to the actions of gigantic trolls.

Laura imagined the Inklings in the pub telling old stories to each other as well as bits of their own work, and Eileen remarked that they must have been influencing one another.

Laura changed the topic slightly when she picked up Gandalf’s grumpy comment to Thorin on the mountain: ‘Well, if you know of anywhere better, take us there!’ Laura compared this to the World War One cartoon in which a soldier in a foxhole tells his mate ‘If you know of a better hole…’. As Tim and Laura agreed, Tolkien undoubtedly knew this image.

Tim pointed out another of the Tolkienian anachronisms in Thorin’s reference to football, and Laura toyed with the idea of a dwarf 13 against the goblins.

Laura also noted that while the term ‘paraphernalia’ is of Greek derivation, after a string of probably Old English terms, ‘the narrator’s references to ‘rocks and blocks’ is characteristic of the rhyming prose conventionally used in children’s stories.

Continuing the subject of rhyming, Eileen questioned whether Fili and Kili were names in the original Icelandic list. Laura thought they were, and Carol had commented “we have the full company of dwarves which Tolkien said he ‘bagged’ wholesale from the dwarves’ roster in the Elder Edda -Thorin and Oakenshield being joined together from 2 names – Eikenskjaldi which we later learn was given to Thorin at the battle of Azanulbizar against the orcs in the myth. The past peeping through.”
Tim noted that the rhyming names of the dwarves were good for entertaining children, and Eileen remarked that rhyme made them easier to remember.

Tim observed that though ‘unrhymed’ with any other dwarf, Thorin is memorable for his unique name and his ‘surname’.

Eileen thought the ‘Misty Mountains’ was a lovely name. Tim remarked that lots of the peaks have dwarvish names.

Eileen prompted a debate when she expressed an interest in the effect of Bilbo’s dream and the configuration of the crack and the passage way.

Tim thought it had the same creepy effect as the concept of a cupboard/wardrobe door that isn’t quite shut properly so something like the bogeyman could come out.

At this point we discovered a difference in our perceptions of the alignment of the crack. Laura said she had always thought of it being horizontal. Tim and I had always imagined it as being vertical. Laura saw it as opening as the floor slipped down, so opening at floor level. We debated whether the ponies had to hop over, and why the goblins had to jump out (Eileen’s question). Tim replied that it was because they were ambushing the dwarves.

I then noted the inclusion of a ‘political’ statement as Tolkien blames goblins for much of the worst of early 20th century technology. Laura observed that he had probably witnessed the arrival of the first battle tanks, and Carol also commented: “Tolkien gets in a dig at the ‘progress’ on modern weaponry whose antecedents were laid at the goblins’ feet…they had not advanced (as it is called)  so far.’ Tolkien hated the tanks on the western front and aerial warfare too”. Tim remarked that he was having a poke at the industrialists of his time.

Tim then noted that the goblins refer to the cave as ‘The Front Porch’ and Laura wondered about the reference to wicked dwarves who made alliances with goblins. Tim thought this might include Mîm the betrayer in The Silmarillion.

Laura remarked on the Great Goblin’s use of the term ‘persons’, and I wondered if goblins have a similar lifespan to Elves and dwarves. Tim observed that they were not immortal like elves.

My question had been prompted by the goblins’ recognition of Gandalf’s sword which had come from Gondolin. Laura proposed this may relate to the fact that goblins are derived from or cloned from elves, and may they have an archive of swords! Tim likened this to wanted posters.

Eileen observed that it is because goblins have no culture that they call Orcrist (Goblin Cleaver) simply Biter.

Tim confessed that when reading the account of the killing of the Great Goblin he has a Star Wars light sabre moment as Orcrist ‘flashed in its own light’. Tim also thought there is a pre-echo of the Mines of Moria as the dwarves flee and then Gandalf and Thorin stand together. Happily the balrog is absent in this episode!

I led us on into Chapter Five and drew attention to Bilbo’s collapse into misery and the slow process of his recovery aided by discovery of his pipe.

Eileen remarked that there can be a strange kind of joy in relinquishing a struggle and that the relinquishing itself can lead to hope.

Tim thought it was a very human episode, and noted that hope and help come in the reassurance provided by the Gondolin blade.

I commented that Bilbo’s feeling that it was ‘rather splendid’ to be wearing a Gondolin blade lends another aspect to Bilbo’s character. Tim characterized it in terms of the song ‘If you could see me now…’. Eileen elaborated – it would signal him as a warrior.

Laura observed that among the resources to which Bilbo can turn are many ‘wise sayings’ apparently lost to us, but these can get him through. Eileen noted that it is input from the past that changes his mood, and Laura remarked that Bilbo can’t stay calm and wait for rescue.

Finally, Laura noted the title of the previous chapter included the resonant words ‘Under Hill’, and Tim pointed out that the same words are used in Chapter One as part of Bilbo’s address: Mr. Baggins of Bag End, Underhill.

We ended the meeting before Bilbo’s crucial encounter with the Ring and Gollum, so that is where we will begin next time.

Carol’s Comments on previous chapters:

Preface. This preface was written by Christopher in 1987 for the 50th anniversary hobbit and talks briefly about the publication process.
Compare Letter 1964. ‘it had no necessary connexion with the ‘mythology’, but naturally became attached towards the dominant construction in my mind, causing the tale to become larger and more heroic as it proceeded.’

JRRT’s intro states that ‘east’ is ‘at the top of The Map, ‘as usual in dwarf-maps’. There was something in your discussions of the top of The Map being north.

Chapter 1 An Unexpected Party

‘in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’, now iconic in Tolkien circles, but I always expect it to continue with more about hobbits, not holes.

‘The Hill’ the first of many words that simply describe what a thing is, e.g. Lake-town, River Running. I have always admired this simplicity but of course they all have ‘foreign’ names like Esgaroth. The past peeping through. There is no shire in TH.

‘long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green.’ Tolkien’s ecological leanings coming out.

‘good-morning’: here Tolkien uses a bit of philology to show how many meanings ‘good-morning’ can have. When it was used in the first Hobbit film I thought we were going to get something authentic and smiled. Then scowled for the rest of the film.

‘to fetch 2 beautiful seed-cakes which he had baked that afternoon…’ Bilbo is not sticking to gender stereotypes, baking his own cakes.

Bilbo is ‘positively flummoxed’.

The first of the songs – situational ‘chip the glasses…’

So far the action has been comical but with the song ‘far over misty mountains cold’ comes the first glimpse of what life is like in the Wild. In the film this is the only memorable bit of music.

So they regard Bilbo as a grocer rather than a burglar but he’ll end up becoming the virtual leader of the expedition because he has common sense.

Chapter 2 Roast Mutton

I’ve often thought that 13 dwarves and a wizard would have cause uproar in Bywater but no mention is made of it.

‘old castles with an evil look’, even in TH Tolkien can’t quite keep away from history in topography.

‘hoot twice like a barn owl and once like a screech owl.’ Hoot it is, for Bilbo doesn’t know how to hoot like any owl.

The trolls: ‘Yes, I’m afraid trolls so behave like that, even those with only one head each.’ these bits of humour are lovely but there’s a gruesome side to this episode that perhaps needs lightening.

Chapter 3 A Short Rest

‘is that THE Mountain? asked Bilbo’. Sam says exactly the same thing in The Lord of the Rings.

‘tired as he was, Bilbo would have liked to stay a while. Elvish singing is not a thing to miss in June under the stars, NOT IF YOU CARE FOR SUCH THINGS.’ for once a rare hobbit likes elvish singing better than food and he was very hungry.

‘the master of the house…’ The mythology creeping in as Elrond is described. And again with explanations of the swords from the troll hoard.


Last in August


All together again after the Birmingham conference, those of us who did not attend were updated on proceedings by those who did. It was a considerable success by all accounts. We also congratulated Chris on the publication of the first part of his latest research in Amon Hen, and he and Angela shared with us their copy of the important new book Tolkien’s Library, from Luna Press (with whom Angela has published her book on Aragorn). We heard Ian’s account of his substantial presentation on Joseph Wright and the English Dialect Dictionary and the responses this provoked, and after much interesting insight into the conference generally we turned to our own matters and picked up The Hobbit at Chapter 3.

Setting the scene, Laura backtracked briefly to ask if it elves would actually be afraid of orcs? Angela supported her suggestion that they might feel vulnerable and noted that in The Lord of the Rings Elrond sends out ‘those who are capable’ when it seems that the Back Riders may have to be confronted – hence Glorfindel’s arrival on the road. So there must be different kinds of elves.

Chris noted that a paper was given at the Birmingham conference defending Elrond.

Eileen remarked that she felt that Tolkien must have acted out bits of the story when telling it originally to his children and that she finds that reading it aloud helps the reader to feel good about the story.

Angela commented that she reads the verse aloud in The Lord of the Rings.

Moving into Chapter 3, I observed that there is a whole paragraph of references to material from The Silmarillion, showing that this was what Tolkien really wanted to write. Laura was more specific in noting that it focuses on Goldolin.

Ian remarked that these references to Gondolin for the ‘stub’ of another story which emerges into The Hobbit.

I felt that after having just read The Silmarillion, the Gondolin references feel different, and Ian observed that there is a different sensibility to the artifacts – the swords make no difference to the story of The Hobbit up to this point but a window opens onto other significances. Ian went on to note that Elrond doesn’t try to confiscate the swords although they are part of his lineage

Laura observed that Gondolin was attacked by orcs, but here they are called ‘goblin wars’.

Angela remarked on Bilbo’s prophetic wish that he could stay in Rivendell, and Laura commented that it is like Bag End but multiplied in its security and comfort, she wondered if the mention of ‘supper’ meant that it was more relaxed than ‘dinner’? Angela suggested that the term indicated it was not a banquet.

Laura also commented that one of the elves sounds very much like Noel Coward when he comments ‘Just look! Bilbo the hobbit on a pony, my dear! Isn’t it delicious’. Chris at this point discovered a reference to P.G. Woodhouse in Tolkien’s Library, but nothing obviously to do with Coward.

Laura went on to suggest that Tolkien’s travels in Switzerland influenced his description of the colours and contours of the journey into Rivendell, where there are various shades of green, but one of these connoted bog.

Eileen was puzzled by the reference to Durin’s Day, and I hadn’t appreciated how specific it is in the way it is distinguished from an ordinary New Year.

Ian pointed out that veneration for astronomical events included Ramadan and the ancient Egyptian belief that when the sun and moon are visible together this represents the Eye of Horus.

Eileen similarly noted the calculation of Easter and the fact that there had been 2 versions of this. Laura added that the problem had been resolved at the Synod of Whitby A.D. 664 (hosted by Abbess Hild).

Laura commented that C.S. Lewis uses stellar conjunction as an omen in one of his Narnia stories.

Eileen thought it was interesting that the cosmos was brought into the story.

Laura commented that it was very ‘faerie’ and magical, while Eileen thought it fortuitous. Ian added that in this it was like the finding of the swords.

I was surprised that the dwarves had lost the ability to calculate Durin’s Day and Ian remarked that they had lost both the means of calculation, and the dwarves who knew how to do it.

Angela put this down to the effect of the orc/dwarf wars, mentioned briefly in the text, and compared the loss to the effect of Rohan having no written history. As Aragorn demonstrates in the ubi sunt verses the oral dissemination works only as long as there is someone to remember it.

Laura extended this to include England’s ‘lost myths’, and Tolkien’s greater project.

Eileen then commented that there is not much description of the Last Homely House and she felt cheated by this absence, wanting to know much more about it.

Ian defined ‘homely’ as ‘familiar’, although Laura pointed out that the word can be used pejoratively of people.

Angela remarked that its importance is as a place of refuge and knowledge. Laura commented that it provides a warm feeling of comfort where bad things are outside. More pragmatically, Ian observed that it is only a means of discovering the runes and their meaning, and it gets a bit more ‘magic’ into the story as only Elrond can read them.

Eileen declared she still felt cheated!

I proposed that because the story was originally for children Tolkien kept it snappy, moving quickly from one exciting bit to the next.

Eileen, Angela and I all remarked on the level of non-aggression between elves and dwarves, compared to the hostility represented in The Lord of the Rings, and I commented especially on Thorin’s assertion that the sword from Gondolin will be treated with honour.

On that positive note, we ended our discussions. We will continue next time with Chapter 4 and see if we can manage more than 1 chapter!