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!



First in August


Only four of us met this afternoon because everyone else was in Birmingham for the major Tolkien conference, but we had our own small ‘moot’, characterized by its difference from the primary reading in which the whole group engages when all together. Laura named our meeting the Hart Hall Moot, because our chosen text for the afternoon was Beowulf – perfectly apt reading and discussion in the context of The Hobbit, and because Eileen doesn’t know the Old English poem and is new to reading The Hobbit.

We began with observations concerning the relationship between pagan and Christian elements in the poem. Laura had brought one of her beaded recreations as an example of the inter-relation between the two belief systems that had been co-existing during the Anglo-Saxon period. This was a little amulet pouch beaded in the colours associated with the Sutton Hoo hoard and hung with a small Thor’s hammer (the proper sort, not the Avenger’s kind!), and she pointed out that the pouch would also have contained a Christian cross.

We considered the development of the poem from its oral origins and the place of oratory in the oral society it represented. Laura noted that Beowulf is not characterized by the humility that defines the virtuous individual in Christian society. We discussed psychological benefits of the warrior’s vaunt and the humiliation incurred when warriors cannot live up to their vaunts – something we see in Hrothgar’s complaint that his men boast of the deeds they will accomplish against the troll – but they fail to live up to their words. Beowulf, on the other hand, completes what he boasts of doing. Laura offered a comparison between Beowulf and General George Patton, whose own hubris was legendary.

We do not see vaunts to the same extent in Tolkien’s work, although where they occur they serve to highlight the virtues of humbler characters, or the folly of hubris.

We went on to consider the importance of swords, and the unexpected preference for old ones over shiny new ones. Tim remarked on the difference it would have made if Aragorn had chosen a new sword rather than the reforged ancestral sword. But the primary benefit of an old sword, as Ian pointed out during a previous reading, and as Tim reminded us, was that apart from the significance of its historical lineage and associations, if it remained intact after many battles it was a strong weapon.

Laura commented on the fate of Unferth’s sword, which melted when it wounded Grendel’s mother. As she pointed out to Eileen, Tolkien echoes this in the fate of the Morgul blade, which melts away. I added that Merry’s Carn Dum sword similarly melts when it wounds the Lord of the Nazgul, and that Beowulf needs to use the giant sword to kill Grendel’s mother and cut of Grendel’s head.

I moved on to consider a comparison between the dragon sequence in Beowulf and Tolkien’s handling of the onset of a dragon. It seems to me that Tolkien’s vocation of the Desolation of Smaug is more powerful than the fiery retribution of the dragon after the slave taken the cup in Beowulf. Eileen thought that the Desolation would have been horrifying to Tolkien, who was ecologically sensitive.

Laura remarked on Tolkien’s echoing of the description of Heorot with its golden roof and walls hung with tapestry in his depiction of Meduseld. She also noted the similarity between the greeting of the ‘Coastguard’ and the reaction of the Doorwardens at Meduseld where there are clear echoes in the leaving of weapons, and the judgement of virtue.

Laura also compared the role of the Coastguard in Beowulf with the arrival of the Vikings in Dorset in 787, and the riding of the shire reeve to meet them, with fatal consequences in that case.

When Laura noted that the structure of politics in Beowulf revolved around the making of alliances, Tim compared this to the alliance between Gondor and Rohan.

Tim went on to note the role of early medieval Irish monasteries in the saving of literature and culture after the Romans left, by gathering and copying all kinds of important texts.

Laura then likened Beowulf’s companions to the Fellowship. She allowed that Beowulf’s companions are largely undifferentiated, but linked by their loyalty to him, and to their king, as the members of the Fellowship are bound together by the concept of loyalty, and that this was something Tolkien certainly knew from the Pals companies of WW1. Tim noted that the idea of small group who had a mission together and a primary loyalty to one another was a familiar theme in mythology such as the Odyssey and the story of Jason and the Argonauts.

Laura remarked that Beowulf includes many pre-echoes of disaster.

As we began to run out of time, I observed that OE poetry characteristically uses kennings and I asked if we thought Tolkien could be said to include kennings in his work. I couldn’t think of any. Tim, however, wondered if the ‘Straight Road’, in reference to the road to the West after the Fall of Numenor could be considered a kenning? We did not arrive at a definitive answer as we ran out of time, in fact we had over-run our time quite significantly!

After an afternoon of quite intense discussion we continued our ‘moot’ over a nice cup of tea and a snack, eschewing our usual alcoholic refreshment and dinner on account of the bad weather. We will no doubt make up for this deprivation on another occasion!



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.




First in June


Sadly, once again, only 3 of us were able to get together for today’s meeting, and as Carol is also unwell at present she has not been able to send her usual Comments. Nevertheless, we had a lively meeting. However, the inevitability of time creating changes of circumstance that are bound to affect the group prompted me to divert our discussions for a while from our reading/re-reading of The Hobbit to consider whether the time is coming when we should widen participation in the group, along with it remit.

This is a matter that will require some serious discussion in its own right once we are all together again. As Ian and Eileen both pointed out, the sustainability of the group is affected by the number of its members when we get to the unfortunate matter of having to pay for the room we use. There are likely to be a number of possible ways forward, and the three of us were looking forward optimistically.

As preliminary options, Ian suggested that we might devise a highly flexible but nonetheless structured programme of topics for reading and discussion based on Chris’s excellent compilation of our past blogs, choosing things that would be of interest to a wide range of people, not necessarily only those with our long-standing passion for Tolkien’s works.

Ian added that we meet in a city with substantial medieval history and architecture and this could be part of a whole new package relating Tolkien to medieval literature within a medieval environment.

Eileen remarked that she was just looking for literary stimulation when she came along, but the group’s enthusiasm became infectious and now she’s as lost in Middle-earth as the rest of us!

Ian added that he had noticed a flyer in a bookshop because it had a dragon on it, so any publicity needs pitching in a way that attracts the right kind of attention. It also needs to include certain keywords, such as ‘stimulating discussion’, and Ian and Eileen came up with a slogan: ‘Bring along a book, a sense of humour, and an open mind’.

This was as far as it was reasonable for us to go with our initial brainstorming. The proposal to expand now needs to be considered by the whole group together and individually, but at the very least I would suggest that we need to consider how we take our own reading forward once we have finished The Hobbit.

Ian, Eileen and I then turned our attention to The Hobbit. I remarked that the runes at the start are not just phonetic symbols but as runes they come loaded with various kinds of significance for us, irrespective of their function in the story.

Eileen observed that for her, they took her back to an ancient time, both within and outside the story. They are another of Tolkien’s languages, and their use divides ‘tribes’.

Eileen also went on to express her delight at the humour in the story. She particularly mentioned Bilbo’s comic bewilderment, and found more humour in the story than in other Tolkien texts we have read. She even found the goblins funny, and questioned the differentiation of goblins in TH from orcs in The Lord of the Rings.

I thought it had to do with Tolkien structuring the stories for different age groups.

Ian compared the situation with the Harry Potter stories and proposed that Tolkien uses familiar terms so as not to alienate young readers. But in The Lord of the Rings he uses ‘orcs’, which are still goblins, but named in such a way as to enhance their ‘otherness’ for other readers. At all times goblins/orcs are the same kinds of creatures.

Eileen felt that in TH the goblins are depicted with more black comedy. Ian thought they were more ‘impish’.

This led Eileen to compared their comic depiction with the equally (she felt) comic characterization of the trolls who argue over how to cook the dwarves and Bilbo.

Ian observed that this elides the reality that they are talking about actual cannibalism!

I thought the comedy lies in the incongruity between the horrible intention and the argument over the methods.

Eileen remarked that reading TH as far as she has gone has put The Lord of the Rings  into focus.

Ian observed that Tolkien translated medieval ideas of story into modern form, using childish language to introduce the story, but he evolves the style as the story develops.

I noted that his use of styles of language in it is very varied, from the crude colloquialism of the trolls to rhetorical/poetic, to the conversational-paternal.

Ian picked up this point when he noted the use of ‘oozy’ at the very start, but that by the end the language of the story has become more conceptualized.

I referred to one sentence that I found particularly illustrative of stylistic development: at the start of Chapter 4 the narrator says:

‘It was a hard path and a dangerous path, a crooked way and a lonely and a long.’

Ian described it as multi-dimensional. I thought its structure was highly rhetorical and Eileen thought it poetic. I felt it was also mimetic of sequential experiences which could have been expressed in a more ordinary way. This structure emphasizes each experience by isolating it semantically, but relating the last 3 terms by conjunctions to draw out a feeling of weariness with yet another kind of difficulty to face.

Eileen thought that the developing style argued that this is not really a book for children. I agreed, although the style makes it a book one would wish children to get to know.

Ian observed that the reader and writer both go on the same journey.

I specifically asked Eileen, as it’s her first reading of the book, how she responded to the songs of the Elves in Rivendell because these are not always well received. She replied that she loved them! For her they showed another side to the Elves as they sang merrily to welcome the travelers.

I also asked Eileen how she felt about the language of the trolls, because Tolkien apparently rather regretted their linguistic characterization. Eileen thought it suited them.

Ian then looked up ‘booby’ in an online dictionary and found the kinds of definition we might expect, but he also found that it was characteristic of the vocabulary of East Anglia and the entire south of England from Kent to Devon. So everywhere but Mercia! Could this be an authorial comment?!

And so the afternoon came to an end for us. We will continue with The Hobbit at our next meeting.