Last meeting in July


This blog begins by picking up the discussion at our previous meeting of maps and particularly of the Dwarf map as reproduced in editions of The Hobbit. Omer, our ‘virtual’ group member in Pakistan, sent another contribution to the list of mapmakers when he wrote:

In some ways, I am also reminded by this map of Al-Idrisi the early Muslim cartographer and his map making — maybe those maps were not very ‘correct’ in terms of geographic layout or North-South alignments but they still gave a unique world view and lots and lots of regional details and histories etc.

I feel Tolkien was influenced by the medieval map makers in his own map making, indeed ‘world making’.

Maybe, you would like to know a bit more about Al-Idrisi and his work, and I am giving a very basic link below:


Thanks to Omer for a fascinating addition to this discussion.

At our latest meeting we missed Angela’s presence in person but happily Chris brought her comments so she was with us in spirit. Carol is still recovering from illness so we don’t have comments from her this time.

Laura began our afternoon’s discussion with her observation that the opening of Chapter 2 is very Edwardian in its domestic details, except that Bilbo does not seem to have the customary ‘woman what does’ – the charwoman or daily help.

Ian noted that nowhere, except in the garden, is there any mention of domestic servants, which is a telling omission so this is not a representation of ‘normal’ Edwardian life.

Eileen remarked that Bilbo seems to take a pride in his home and regards his life as very fulfilling. Laura commented that he has to have everything just so and no one could do such a good job. Tim thought he was an example of a bachelor doing it for himself.

Chris observed that Bilbo was not as happy with his life as it may seem because he goes off on his adventure.

Eileen noted that he nevertheless has a great love for his home, as well as an endearing innocence.

Laura remarked that nothing had changed in the Shire, and that suited Bilbo. Eileen proposed that this was not necessarily a sign of stagnation but of control.

Angela had commented that Chapter 2 links to the start of The Lord of the Rings with many allusions and references. Although it is not expressed, the travellers must go through Bree, and the castles Bilbo sees are those seen on the approach to Weathertop. The bridge over which they pass is the old Last Bridge, the stone bridge on which Aragorn finds the beryl gem which he takes as a good sign. Bilbo’s observation that in these lands there was no king provides (now) a tantalising allusion to things to come, while one of the petrified trolls will have a bird’s nest behind its ear in The Lord of the Rings.

Eileen then remarked that she found the Contract letter a brilliant piece of humour.

I thought the language does not sound at all like Thorin, but Laura proposed that dwarves are businessmen who know the value of everything.

Ian agreed that it doesn’t sound at all mythic but ‘real world’.

Eileen noted the use of ‘cash on delivery’, but pointed out that the letter doesn’t specify what has to be delivered.

Ian remarked that it hasn’t been stated yet, but Chris observed that it means that Bilbo will get one fourteenth of anything they find.

Laura commented that Thorin only tells Bilbo a bit about the plan and adventure, and Tim remarked that Bilbo wouldn’t go if he was told all the horror they might encounter, but besides this, Tolkien won’t give the story away to the reader.

Chris noted that Gandalf knew Bilbo would do the job, and Ian suggested that Tolkien himself was a ‘burglar’ of ideas.

Chris went on to point out that Bilbo only becomes a burglar after being named so. I was interested in the fact that he lives up to the name he’s given.

Tim observed that the Contract is expressed in legal language and for Tolkien-the-philologist this was just another kind of language which is also a kind of common language.

Eileen remarked that Bilbo is not given time to think.

I thought the precise reference to a ‘pocket handkerchief’ sums Bilbo up at this particular point. I also remarked that I liked the sentence ‘the mischief had got into the fire’, and Laura compared this to the evocation of Loki in Germanic/Norse myth, where he is the trickster spirit of fire.

Tim then wondered if Gandalf’s white horse in this story is Shadowfax. We all thought it could not be.

Chris thought it typical of Gandalf when he comments at the end of the troll episode that he had been ‘looking ahead’ and came back because he had also been ‘looking behind’.

Laura proposed that the way Gandalf tricks the trolls is reminiscent of fairy tales and that the episode reflects the grim tales published in Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

We turned to the matter of the trolls’ speech, which Tim described as ‘mockney’. Eileen thought the use of such ordinary vernacular was quite liberating as it is used for fun. I commented that it reminds me of the ‘canting’ language popular in sixteenth and early seventeenth-century which developed from the obscure communications of a criminal underclass. Tim thought colloquialism could encompass various dialects.

Laura remarked that the ‘jargon’ of the trolls makes the episode less horrific, and went on to comment that trolls aren’t English in origin (except The Three Billy Goats Gruff) so Tolkien has imported them from Scandinavia. Tim observed that rather than trolls, we had giants, and reminded us of the story told by Geoffrey of Monmouth of the arrival of Brutus the founder of Britain and his Armoricans, and their battles against the incumbent giants.

Ian observed that the troll never loses its basic characteristics and its spirit remains, thus the modern online trolls are channeling the spirit of the mythical ones.

I thought this modern manifestation will give a new meaning or feeling to the younger generation’s reading of this episode. Ian noted that our editions of the story had already been altered by Tolkien as he revised successive editions.

Moving on, Laura noted that dwarves have some magic as they weave spells over the troll gold they bury.

And with that return to the story, we ran out of time. As half the group will be at Tolkien 2019 in Birmingham on 10th August those of us remaining will prepare for later adventures in The Hobbit by revisiting Beowulf.

First in July


Six of us assembled. We were temporarily without Ian and Carol’s comments (owing to her being unwell) but we first considered the matter of advertising for new members, and adverts are now in place as far as possible. Tim and Claire (who was on a flying visit) had kindly agreed to help with placing the ads.

So we moved on to begin the discussion of The Hobbit, postponed from previous meetings. We only dealt in any detail with the Map and Chapter 1.

Tim began by asking why the Map at the start of the book is oriented as it is rather than with North at the top.

I suggested it related to the map’s primary or cultural purpose, which was to record the way of finding the Door in relation to other landscape features.

Chris wondered if it was because this orientation makes it easier for publication? Angela, however, thought it could have been altered.

Laura compared it to the Mappa Mundi in Hereford cathedral which is oriented around Jerusalem because that was the focus of Christendom. This then posed the question ‘when did the orientation of maps change’.

Tim thought it was the result of explorations by historical figures such as the Portuguese Henry the Navigator, and Arabs like Ibn Batuta, who made more detailed maps.

After our geographical deliberations, I asked if the authorial interventions in the text created a problem? Laura considered that it fits with the knowledge that the story originated as a narration to children, and with the comfortable Edwardian context evoked by the narrative itself.

Eileen and Angela both agreed that the interventions were acceptable in a children’s book, although Eileen remarked that it would otherwise seem patronizing.

Everyone considered that the interventions were more acceptable as written evidence of oral storytelling.

Tim pointed out that the book is notionally written by Bilbo and pretends that he is speaking an original oral narrative.

Angela went on to comment on the inclusion of ‘lasses’ in the list of adventurous hobbits, but Laura added that although Belladonna Took is included, the narrator explains that she never had any adventures after she married.

We turned briefly to the matter of anachronisms, and Tim noted that Bilbo’s words, as author, have to be ‘translated’ for us, and anachronisms such as the ‘pop gun’ are equivalent to a ‘best guess’, or best attempt by the ‘translator’ to render the original in terms we can understand.

Eileen remarked that she found many of the characteristic traits of Bilbo endearing and enjoyable, citing his reluctance to go with the dwarves, and continuing reluctance to be away from home. She compared this to the reluctance of children to do things.

Tim picked up Gandalf’s pedantic response to Bilbo’s ‘Good morning’. And Laura noted the detailed description of Gandalf’s clothing, wondering at the nature of the ‘silver scarf’ and whether it was a gift from Galadriel, another example of her weaving! Angela questioned whether it was made of mithril?

Tim remarked on the scale of the feasting in Bag End, comparing it to the ‘lashings of…’ in other children’s stories, but in fact perhaps recalling the kinds and amounts of food that might not have been always available to the family.

Eileen commented that the stores in Bilbo’s pantries made her think he would be alright in the event of No Deal! More seriously, she wondered whether Tolkien was writing during a time of food scarcity.

Laura and Angela noted that Mabel Tolkien was impoverished after her husband’s death and Tim proposed that Tolkien may have been harking back to his own childhood.

I thought, after the fun and extraordinary variety of the feast, the poem changes the mood of the chapter. Tim observed that the change begins with the dwarves’ music. Laura commented on the mix of instruments and Angela remarked that the clarinet was first used by Mozart.

Tim proposed that only small harps would be carried around and Laura suggested they would be like Celtic harps or the lyre-like Anglo-Saxon harps.

Laura remarked that the singing in the film owed something to Russian Orthodox music, while Tim noted that in the film that music is closest to the book.

Tim also remarked on the moment when Bilbo is no longer under the ‘spell’ of the dwarvish song and ‘shudders’ as he comes back to his own reality.

Angela observed that Frodo is similarly torn between home and adventure.

Tim wondered if it serves as a premonition for Bilbo of dragon wrath over the Shire, if it is disturbed, which itself prefigures the Scouring of the Shire and the effect of Mordor.

Laura observed that Bilbo’s repetition of ‘struck by lightning’ when he trips is gibberish because he is under stress.

Jumping ahead, Angela remarked on the dwarf artisans of Dale and the acknowledgement of their return in The Lord of the Rings, and Eileen commented that she was surprised at the inclusion of Gollum in this story. Chris and Eileen briefly discussed whether Gollum kills only for food, and whether it was only imps, or full sized orcs.

With that we ran out of time. Our next meeting will continue with Chapter 2.