First Meeting in February


Seven of us raced the onset of Storm Ciara to get to the Library and back and enjoy our usual discussions. We were picking up the portion of ‘Fire and Water’ that we didn’t finish last time, before moving on to ‘The Gathering of the Clouds’ – very appropriate!

Laura began our afternoon by setting the destruction in some historical context by reminding us of a programme hosted by Alice Roberts in which she visited the site of a Bronze Age village in East Anglia where fire had destroyed a group of thatched round houses raised on stilts. The inhabitants had fled and never returned. Laura also reminded us that Denis Bridoux, a long-standing Tolkien Society member had presented a paper on the early stilt village in Switzerland, with special reference to Laketown’s construction. He made the point that this one would have been known to Tolkien.

Tim remarked that the Laketown Smaug destroys was not the first such construction.

Laura wondered why, when Smaug can fly, there was so much emphasis on the destruction of the bridges connecting Laketown with the shore?

Tim thought they would be more effective if Smaug was on foot.

Ian proposed that from Smaug’s perspective destroying the bridges would enable Smaug to corral the people and pick them off, even if they were in boats. From the Master of Laketown’s point of view corralling the people meant they had to stay and defend the town, but the people use the boats to flee.

Chris noted that the loss of the bridge is more threatening to Smaug as he fears the cold water and has less to land on.

Eileen remarked that Smaug is also laden with jewels and so is heavier.

I asked why when we know Tolkien is drawing much of his inspiration for Smaug from the mythic dragon in Beowulf and that in the Volsunga saga, we are so intent on rationalising this episode?

Laura replied that Smaug is not like Glaurung or the mechanical dragons because he thinks about things. Eileen thought this made him a more ‘sympathetic’ dragon. Laura added that we know Smaug has a vulnerability, which is mythic. Tim argued that Smaug is not a 2-dimensional monster but has a backstory, and Tolkien gets the reader involved with him, and not just with Bilbo and the dwarves.

Laura remarked that Tolkien opens ‘Fire and Water’ with direct address to the reader: ‘Now  if you wish, like the dwarves, to hear news of Smaug …’

Chris commented that Smaug is no worse than the dwarves in his lust for gold, and he is not shown to be a predatory dragon.

Angela remarked that gold is deep in the psyche of the dwarves, and she cited Galadriel’s prophecy to Gimli which acknowledges and redefines his cultural and personal relationship to gold.

Laura observed that Smaug destroyed Dale and ransacked the buildings, not just the treasury, like Glaurung. Laura also noted that after Smaug has been killed the characters go back to the question of money, and to politics as the Master diverts attention from himself.

Tim noted that after Bard is hailed as a hero he speaks up for Dale.

Eileen proposed that once immersed in the Lake, both Smaug and his jewels are effectively dead.

I wondered if the Master and Bard are intended to represent opposed views – commerce versus heroism, of whether they are two aspects of the same thing. Angela observed that Bard is a thematic forerunner of Aragorn in many aspects.

Tim thought there was a reference to ‘a land fit for heroes’ in the plight of the Laketown people and the matter of compensation.

Laura remarked that Tolkien would have seen French refugees on the roads fleeing from the Somme.

Tim then commented that Bilbo is not a mythological hero, but trying to get through the trials and to help the dwarves, and that Tolkien is playing with mythology, e.g. in details of the plight of the Laketown people.

Eileen noted that he resents bits of the adventure but learns to depend on himself and to take the lead.

Tim remarked that Thorin is going through a personal journey.

Eileen commented that at one point Balin addresses Bilbo as ‘Baggins’, and Tim noted that most characters have patronymics, only Bilbo has a real surname.

Chris remarked on a different topic that ‘caper’ is an odd word to use about dwarves, even if they are celebrating.

Tim noted that ‘caper’ used to be used as a synonym for ‘crime’.

Chris then observed that Roac the raven has a lot of vocabulary and understanding, and that the Wood Elves divert from their trek to the Mountain in order to help the Laketown people.

I suggested that when Bilbo hears the harps and songs of the elves beyond the fortified entrance to the Mountain he feels excluded.

Tim remarked that as far as Bilbo’s concerned the job’s done and he wants to be out and in good company, not with gloomy dwarves.

Laura noted that the word ‘grim’ is often associated with the dwarves, and with Bard, and the dwarf song suits Thorin, but does not recognise Bilbo’s part in their success. Tim added that that’s why w have the book!

Eileen observed that since setting out both Bilbo and Thorin have changed, and that Tolkien may have been teaching children about responsibility and doing what has to be done, which makes you a better, or a different, person.

Tim thought that Thorin is no longer quite rational but becoming quite dragon-like, while the dwarves song is rewriting history as it happens by failing to acknowledge Bilbo’s crucial role.

Eileen thought Bilbo was becoming like Gollum, shunned and not acknowledged. Tim added that both Bilbo and Gollum are ‘not normal’ in the estimation of other races.

On that bombshell we had to end our meeting. We shall continue with the next 2 chapters ‘A Thief in the Night’ and ‘The Clouds Burst’. That will leave just 2 more to finish the book.

Update from December 2019

Thanks to Tim for sending through these notes he took from the meeting before Christmas which I couldn’t attend.

Present: Laura, Eileen, Chris, Angela, Ian, Tim.
Chapters: “A Warm Welcome” and “On the Doorstep”.

After gathering for a pre-meeting pre-Yule coffee and snacks at the Artisan Café, where we were joined by Lynn, we reconvened at the Seminar Room at about 1.30pm, without Lynn (who was unable to come to the meeting this week). We had been hoping to see Julie too, but sadly illness prevented her from coming.
Tim opened the discussion of Chapter X “A Warm Welcome”, noting that there was a lighter, sedate tone at the start of the chapter after the drama of the escape from the Elven-king.
Eileen liked the name “Lonely Mountain”.
Laura commented on Tolkien’s children storytelling mode: “Bilbo had come far and through many adventures to see it, and now he did not like the look of it in the least.”
Angela noted the description of the Men-Elves’ relationship: bickering, talking about the weather, etc.
Laura observed that the Wood-Elves seemed dangerous and less wise, more involved in commercial/business interchange. Trade, Eileen added.
There was a mention of earthquakes, Chris said, attributed to the dragon – could these have been instead due to Sauron, or Gandalf?
Laura suggested that Dale had been destroyed due to fracking. Perhaps the earthquake was caused by Smaug moving about catlike in his sleep.
Tim commented that, whilst on the barrel, Bilbo has been gathering information from the Raft-elves’ conversation, learning about the local situation – continuing his burglar/spy role.
Eileen said that Bilbo resents the position he’s been put in, always sorting out the messes. His whole heart isn’t in it.
Laura thought that Bilbo handles things more carefully. Making decisions, taking a lot of physical action, such as helping the dwarves out of their barrels.
Laura highlighted the reference to The Wain – the Plough – which comes from an Old Norse word vagn (via the Old English wæg(e)n and Old Frisian wein)
Eileen added that “wain” in Northern Irish dialect means a child.
Tim said that Lake Town reminded him of Iron Age settlements built in the middle of lakes, and wondered if Tolkien would have been aware of these. In The History of The Hobbit Part One, John D. Rateliff describes how Lake Town is modelled closely on Neolithic lake-dwellings discovered on the shore of Lake Zurich in Switzerland (2008 paperback edition, p.448).
Angela said that at Madeira Airport, half of the runway is on stilts.
Chris noted that Thorin announcing himself and his company to the people of Lake Town is similar to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli when meeting Éomer. Thorin “does a Gandalf” on the raft-elves by putting them in their place. Mention is made of trade and tolls.
Laura noted that the dwarves left elves at a time of feast and arrive at Lake Town at a time of feast.
With reference to Chris’ comment, Tim wondered if anyone was worried about the Elvish Backstop.
Eileen referred to how quickly the people believe Thorin. Chris added that there was a legend prophecy. Eileen noted that they were singing about legends of old. Angela said that the song was like the Aragorn prophecy. Laura noted that Thorin has a lot of presence.
Chris commented that people were looking forward to the good times, gold flowing down the river, etc.
Tim said that the reference to Elven scouts added to the layers of narrative.
Laura observed that the reader has to be un-cynical – it is a children’s book. There is a touch of Tolkien the storyteller when he writes: “as we will see in the end”.
Ian highlighted the Elven-king’s thought process toward the end of the chapter: “… he was a wise elf and wiser than the men of the town…” Tolkien is employing a rhetorical trope that may be compared with the first chapter, regarding Bilbo’s possible loss of his neighbours’ respect.
The Master was not sorry to let the dwarves go, Laura noted, since their presence has caused a long, unproductive holiday.
Eileen asked why Bilbo did not use Ring in this chapter. Chris responded that he had no need to. Laura noted that no one queries what this hobbit is. Tim said that Bilbo had no need to use the Ring because he is literally overlooked in a town of Men.
Eileen said that Bilbo was the only one that was unhappy, because he knew what was happening. Tim thought that the company leaving Lake Town was reminiscent of the Fellowship leaving Lothlórien in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Eileen thought Bilbo was a pseudo-Gandalf. Laura said he was Gandalf’s representative. Eileen added that he was an unwilling hero, which is inspiring.
Eileen broached the start of Chapter XI, referring to the imagery of names.
At this point we had to draw the last meeting of 2019 to a close.

Our next meeting will be on Saturday 11th January 2020: we will continue with Chapter XI “On the Doorstep” (which we had only just started) and Chapter XII “Inside information”.
Note: All errors and omissions are my own. I’ve endeavoured to make this as accurate a record as possible of the meeting, but if anyone spots any Almighty Clangers (or Large Soup Dragons) please do not hesitate to let Lynn or myself know. Thanks, Tim.

Last meeting in January


For our second meeting of the year, 6 of us gathered to finish the chapter ‘Inside Information’ before moving on to ‘Not at Home’.

Laura opened our discussions with her observation that the title of the chapter ‘Inside Information’ is reminiscent of dealings on the Stock Exchange. This introduction to a commercial aspect in the chapter was picked up later.

I wondered whether Bilbo’s riddling speech with Smaug was a sign of his ‘ofermod’, his hubris or arrogance, and whether this can be seen in terms, not simply in terms of ‘ofermod’ as Tolkien defined it, with reference to OE poem The Battle of Maldon, as a bad thing, but in the later understanding that while it seems disastrous in its short-term effect, it has beneficial long-term consequences. My point was that in the short term Bilbo’s unwise riddling led to great danger and the destruction of Lake-town, but in the long term it led to the destruction of Smaug itself, to the refounding of Dale, to a new hierarchy in Laketown and to many other changes.

Eileen proposed that from this perspective Bilbo is an agent of evolution.

Laura reminded us that Bilbo is to some extent under Smaug’s dragon enchantment while Thorin and the others are unwilling to face it.

Eileen noted that Bilbo, being a hobbit, doesn’t smell familiar to Smaug, and Laura added that Gandalf chose Bilbo particularly for this, to confuse Smaug.

I remarked that Bilbo knows already how to speak to a dragon, and Laura replied that at one level this shows Tolkien’s respect for fairy stories. At another level Bilbo is remembering the lore contained in his father’s sayings, which he keeps repeating.

Angela commented on the description of Bard and the whispering thrush, remarking that the Rangers in The Lord of the Rings had the ability to understand some birds. Laura remarked on the use of birds to pass on information in both stories.

I returned the discussion to the commercial aspect Laura had introduced, when I picked up Smaug’s trouble-making but insightful query about how Bilbo would get his share of the treasure home, taking into account practical matters such as ‘cartage’ and ‘tolls’. I wondered why there is such an emphasis on commerce and business in this chapter, quite apart from Murray Smith’s observations on the prominence of business contracts in the story.

Eileen observed that Smaug knows about the operation of other societies in order to survive.

On the matter of tolls, Laura remarked that when tolls were and are used their presence is/was often visible in the landscape.

Laura suggested that the business details may indicate Tolkien was concerned about his salary.

I wondered if Tolkien was interrogating fairy tales for their lack of practical details.

Chris noted that the men of Laketown engaged in commerce with the Elves.

Angela and Laura both thought it was treated with humour when Bilbo apologises to Thranduil for helping himself to food and drink.

Chris then observed that Bilbo is drawn to the Arkenstone as its enchantment draws him, but is the Ring also an influence here? Chris remarked that Bilbo knows keeping the Arkenstone is wrong so is the Ring overriding his better nature, or is it leading towards something larger?

Laura queried whether Bilbo’s ‘fourteenth share’ was always already part of The Plan.

Eileen remarked that Bilbo has to cajole the dwarves to do what he wants, but he takes on more control.

Laura commented on the last sentence of this chapter, especially ‘He rose in fire’, and noted the tension of other things happening just in time.

Chris observed that the dwarves don’t seem very brave, especially Thorin, whose supposed to be a leader.

Laura remarked that most, if not all, the dwarves would have seen the arrival of the dragon.

Chris thought Bilbo was more sensible, while Laura proposed that the dwarves remember the worth of the artefacts they find, which is beyond their mere value.

We all discussed the fact that the Arkenstone has been considered by John Rateliffe to be one of the lost silmarils.

Chris noted that the Arkenstone, like the Ring, has some degree of independent agency.

In the context of Smaug hoarding the treasure and the dwarves’ response to the Arkenstone and other artefacts, I remarked on the extent to which the chapter deals with matters such as exchange value and cultural value.

Eileen commented that to her Smaug’s hoarding echoed the Nazi attitude to acquiring Jewish wealth – a statement of the power to take and keep regardless of cultural and even commercial value.

Chris extended this to British colonial expansion which involved the taking of whole countries and their wealth.

Laura noted the humorous reference to harps and the fact that the dragon had little interest in magical harps. She further remarked that Bilbo expresses a poignant kind of value when he expresses a desire for a drink from one of Beorn’s wooden bowls.

Eileen remarks that Bilbo’s diet is not what it had been back in Bag End when his pantries were full of food and drink.

Laura added that the Lakemen’s cram is not tasty.

As the Year of the Rat was being celebrated outside, complete with dragons, our meeting came to an end and we agreed that next time we would discuss ‘Fire and Water’ and ‘The gathering of the Clouds’.

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.