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!