The Hobbit, of course, is not of the same calibre as The Lord of the Rings, whose relationship to it is complicated. It would be more accurate to view The Hobbit as a precursor of the larger work, than to view the latter as its sequel, for it took Tolkien many years to write The Lord of the Rings, and into it he poured all of his literary power. However, both The Hobbit (albeit peripherally) and The Lord of the Rings are related to Tolkien's legendarium, his mythopoeic vision.
Except for those two works, Tolkien did not publish anything directly connected to his legendarium (the corpus of which may be found in his posthumous works The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, and in the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth, all of which were edited by Christopher Tolkien) , but we know that he began crafting the stories and languages that would shape and form it (actually, that should be the other way around) while recuperating from trench fever during World War I. An excellent book that traces the development of Tolkien's literary work from its infancy during the Great War is John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War.
My purpose in this marginal commentary will be to explore some of the literary strengths of The Hobbit. As I shall show, much of its excellence stems from passages which are of the same kind of writing at which Tolkien excelled in The Lord of the Rings (about which see my marginal commentary on Brian Rosebury's book Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon). I shall also explore whether The Hobbit's only excellences are those it has in common with The Lord of the Rings, or whether it possesses any peculiar to itself. Given some of its flaws, it is easy to dismiss The Hobbit as a 'kid's book' (even though it, and many other works of children's literature besides, is better than many a 'grown-up' book), so it is worth asking what, if anything, it has of itself that makes it a worthwhile read.
On we go.
As Rosebury showed in Tolkien, vivid and detailed landscapes, variety, and multiplicity - of cultures, of crafts, of tongues, of peoples - are among the excellences of The Lord of the Rings. To a lesser extent, this is so in The Hobbit.
A few passages in which Tolkien describes landscapes in The Hobbit should demonstrate that already he possessed no mean skill in crafting passages of remarkable clarity and vigour; we shall look at these in more detail after seeing what Rosebury has to say about The Hobbit.
Another remarkable feature about The Hobbit is its modulation (to paraphrase Rosebury) 'into a more serious key', a feature noted by other critics.
In his essay 'On Stories,' C. S. Lewis writes about The Hobbit:
The Hobbit escapes the danger of degenerating into mere plot and excitement by a very curious shift of tone. As the humour and homeliness of the early chapters, the sheer 'Hobbitry', dies away we pass insensibly into the world of epic. It is as if the battle of Toad Hall had become a serious heimsökn and Badger had begun to talk like Njal. Thus we lose one theme but find another. We kill—but not the same fox. [p. 18; On Stories and Other Essays on Literature] Lewis's turn of phrase is, as always, excellent. I also think his point about the book's escape from 'degenerating into mere plot and excitement' is right on the mark; as we shall see when we look at Brian Rosebury's brief treatment of The Hobbit, below, it is precisely that which is a feature of the work up until, I would say, the escape by Bilbo and the dwarves from the elves. But 'mere plot and excitement' aren't quite the same thing as the 'humour and homeliness', the 'sheer "Hobbitry"' which Lewis also notes. Although this quality, too, is in The Hobbit overmastered by the shift in tone to a more epic feel, it is one of the qualities woven more skilfully by Tolkien into the warp and woof of the story of The Lord of the Rings, and it would be worth seeing how well Tolkien expresses this 'Hobbitry' in his lesser work.This shift in tone, as we shall see, is a harbinger of Tolkien's mature style and moral depth in The Lord of the Rings.
Rosebury, in Tolkien, himself has quite a bit to say about The Hobbit. While summarising the plot, he points out:
Bilbo alone recognises the need for compromise, and smuggles the dwarves' priceless Arkenstone into the elves' camp to be used in bargaining. This treachery to his friends [the dwarves] marks a pointed rejection not only of the dwarves' obsessive lust for gold, but of the heroic self-respect which underlies Thorin's refusal to negotiate with armed men at 'his' gate: for Bilbo, the unheroic aim of avoiding bloodshed comes first, and he is prepared to humiliate himself in the attempt to achieve it. An attack by goblins... fortunately unites the disputing parties just as war seems on the point of breaking out. Thorin is mortally wounded in the battle, and forgives the 'traitor' Bilbo before dying.Much more could be, and has been, written about The Hobbit, but I think the passages from Lewis and Rosebury are, for what I am doing, enough to go by. (Much of what I could have quoted undoubtedly falls under the category of 'head-patting' that Rosebury depreciates in Tolkien's 'hostile critics'.)
'Farewell, good thief,' he said. 'I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed. Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friendship fro you, and I would take back my words and deeds at the Gate.'As the close of this extract suggests, The Hobbit even in its most serious moments retains the self-conscious tone of a children's book: 'whether you believe it or not' is typical of the fireside intimacies to which the narrative is prone (and which Tolkien later regretted), and the deliberately naïf diction and syntax of this and the final sentence seem to wrap Bilbo in a blanket of paternal tenderness. The anti-acquisitive moral, too, is spelt out more carefully and repeatedly than an adult reader, or possibly any reader, needs. ... Yet one reason that Thorin's words about food and cheer are superfluous is that the situation has taken on a realistic moral tension that requires no underlining. Bilbo has betrayed the dwarves for good reasons, and their prior debt to him is much greater than his to them, but he has nevertheless betrayed them, and Thorin's rage has been understandable. Bilbo's remark about his own deserts is a sufficient, though oblique, apology for his 'treachery'; Thorin repents his covetousness, and each forgives the other. The dialogue is effective because (as the occasion surely demands) the forgiveness is expressed with a minimum of explicit reference to the events which have divided them: Thorin's 'good thief' initiates this blend of bluntness and indirection. ... The style of both characters' declarations is at once elevated and laconic, close to that of many dialogue passages in The Lord of the Rings in which the hobbits or other speakers adapt their normal discourse to a formal or solemn occasion. The success of the episode depends upon the reader's willingness to concentrate on the thoroughly imagined situation, to allow it to validate the momentarily dignified language, and to extend a certain indulgence to the lapses in sententiousness or chattiness. Indeed, this is true of the whole work.
Biblo knelt on one knee filled with sorrow. 'Farewell, King under the Mountain!' he said. 'This is a bitter adventure, if it must end so; and not a mountain of gold can amend it. Yet I am glad that I have shared in your perils—that has been more than any Baggins deserves.'
'No!' said Thorin. 'There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!'
Then Bilbo turned away, and he went by himself, and sat alone wrapped in a blanket, and whether you believe it or not, he wept until his eyes were red and his voice was hoarse. He was a kindly little soul. (The Hobbit, 243)
... [F]or Tolkien's hostile critics, patting The Hobbit on the head has become something of a tradition: the critic indicates a benevolent receptiveness towards 'fantasy' (when confined to the marginal world of children's books) before proceeding to ridicule the ambitious scale and implied adult readership of The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit seems to me, on the contrary, to be a likeable patchwork of accomplishments, blunders, and tantalising promises of the Middle-earth to come: flawed by inconsistencies of tone and conception, it is essentially a transitional work, a stopping-off point on Tolkien's creative journey from the exploratory forms of bedtime story-telling to the richly 'realistic' narrative of The Lord of the Rings[.] ...
At one level, its most characteristic, The Hobbit functions extremely effectively as an adventure story for children that makes no particular bid for internal realism, or for emotional or moral depth. The delightful opening chapter, in which Bilbo is simply selected out of the blue as the burglar for the dwarves' expedition, makes no attempt to disguise the deus ex machina role of Gandalf in getting the adventure started. The thirteen dwarves' arrival at Bag End, in unannounced groups at more or less regular intervals, is a stylised effect (a kind of burlesque of the iterative structure of fairy-tale) which Tolkien is not above repeating several chapters later. ... Several subsequent episodes, such as the encounter with the three ill-bred trolls, or the battle with the spiders... are gripping enough but leave no impression of a serious encounter with evil: the villains lack a moral history or distinctive motive, and the forces of good triumph through superior guile, energy, and luck. Each conflict is essentially a battle of wits. Even Bilbo's confrontation with Gollum by his underground pool... is maintained at this stylised level by the ritual of the Riddle-Game the two characters play. Toward the end, as we have already seen, the story modulates into a more serious key. But it concludes with a conventional and unambiguous happy ending. ...
At times The Hobbit falls below, or rises above, this level. The dialogue is often under-differentiated, with figures such as Thorin and Gandalf lapsing intermittently into a bourgeois banality more appropriate to Bilbo. There are occasional narrative contrivances which revision could have easily disguised, as when Dori tells Gandalf several things he knows already... for the benefit of an eavesdropping Bilbo and an eavesdropping reader. ... The notion of 'magic', largely avoided in The Lord of the Rings in favour of a putatively consistent system of powers and 'lore', is too often invoked (sometimes in the vaguest terms) in the evident hope of lending colour to a prosaic episode or passage.
On the other hand, we find from the very beginning glimpses of an exhilirating temporal and spatial scope. ... [In passages evoking this scope] Tolkien is, of course... building a land of heart's desire by elaborating the fairy-tale formula 'once upon a time', and adopting the perspective formed in childhood (but deeply embedded in adult consciousness) of the world as concentric circles centred upon Home. As he observes in 'On Fairy Stories', 'If a story says, "he climbed the hill and saw a river in the valley below" ... every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but specially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.' The insight is not especially original. What is important is the conviction with which the compositional project is carried out. Through writing The Hobbit, initially for his own children, Tolkien discovered not only the hobbit's-eye-view which humanised (if one can put it that way) his mythical vision in The Lord of the Rings, but also the concretely imagined Middle-earth of the later work, though he did not as yet call it by that name and though its realisation was as yet rudimentary. The two qualities are in fact connected: the hobbits' grateful and unassuming pleasure in life, which gathers value and significance as the narratives of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings proceed, requires the texture of experience to be evoked as compellingly as possible. That in turn requires a plain and transparent, but flexible and sensuously alert, prose style. The simple and direct, even at times naïve and homespun, style of The Hobbit was an indispensable rehearsal for the huge narrative labour of The Lord of the Rings. The 'old castles with an evil look, as if they had been built by wicked people' which Bilbo sees on the 'dreary hills' of the Lone-lands (34) may represent only the faintest inkling of Isengard or the tower of Minas Morgul; but in phrases and sentences a paragraph later the mature style can be seen beginning to emerge.
It was after tea-time; it was pouring with rain, and had been all day; his hood was dripping into his eyes, his cloak was full of water; the pony was tired and stumbled on stones ... . Somewhere behind the grey clouds, the sun must have gone down, for it began to get dark as they went down into a deep valley with a river at the bottom. Wind got up, and willows along its banks bent and sighed. (The Hobbit, 34—5)[pp. 112-7]
Rosebury's point about the rudimentary realisation of a 'concretely imagined' Middle-earth is well made. On re-reading The Hobbit, I have noticed how well Tolkien describes things, as the passage Rosebury himself quotes indicates. The edition of The Hobbit from which I am quoting passages was published by HarperCollinsPublishers (based in the UK) in 2006, based on a 1995 publication. (I am reminded by T. R. Shippey in J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century that the text of The Hobbit varies on which edition one consults; mine is undoubtedly the third edition, the most up-to-date version revised by Tolkien.)
Indeed, the opening page introduces us to Tolkien's 'plain and transparent,' 'flexible and sensuously alert' style:
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as all the people for many miles around called it—and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river. [p. 3] While 'no going upstairs for the hobbit' is the kind of statement you are only likely to find in books for children, and the use of the word 'comfortable' not quite necessary, the rest, by and large, effectively communicates the domestic comfort of the hobbit hole, not to mention the wealth of its owner: Bilbo Baggins's (although his name has not yet been given) house has many mansions, so to speak. His love of comfort and food are indicated by Tolkien's parenthetical comments following 'pantries' and 'wardrobes'. Something of the geographical and descriptive precision Tolkien employs so well in The Lord of the Rings is captured here by the lines 'The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill' and 'The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.' In short, in a single paragraph Tolkien is able to paint a vivid picture of Bilbo's home. If you stop to read the passage carefully, as I frequently have not, you can picture Bilbo's house in your mind quite vividly.Another aspect of Tolkien's prose in The Hobbit that does not draw on his distinctive style to any great extent but which I appreciated was his frequent discussion of food, and where the party is going to get it:
"Let's get out of this horrible smell!" said Fili. So they carried out the pots of coins, and such food as was untouched and looked fit to eat, also one barrel of ale which was still full. By that time they felt like breakfast, and being very hungry they did not turn their noses up at what they had got from the trolls' larder. Their own provisions were very scanty. Now they had bread and cheese, and plenty of ale, and bacon to toast in the embers of the fire. [p. 52] Gandalf later tells Thorin that one of the reasons he went off on his own (shortly before the dwarves and Bilbo find the three trolls) is that he was 'anxious about replenishing our small stock of provisions'. The exchange between Gandalf and Thorin at the end of the chapter, by the way, is of the sort of dialogue that Rosebury calls 'under-differentiated'; Gandalf goes so far as to end his explanation with a moral: 'Please be more careful, next time, or we shall never get anywhere!' (p. 53). But with its concern for food The Hobbit steps onto a plane of realism many stories of its sort do not. It is also, I think, true to the life of children; we grown-ups do not often let on that we are hungry - except indirectly with questions like 'what's for dinner?' - but one of the most frequent statements on the lips of children is, 'I'm hungry.' Helpfully, Tolkien does not allow for food to magically appear, as many children learn to expect; at every stage of the adventure, Bilbo and the dwarves have to face the challenge of either carrying their food, or wondering where their next meal is going to come from (or do without for a time). Thanks to the device of lembas, the characters in The Lord of the Rings (or so it seems to me) on the whole have to concern themselves less often with finding food than the adventurers in The Hobbit, at least (as it were) per capita. In its journey through Mirkwood, Tolkien refers thrice to the party's growing lack of food and water, and it is their hunger and thirst that motivates them to stray from the path, whereupon Thorin is captured by Elves and the rest of the dwarves by giant spiders. Incidentally, the journey through Mirkwood is an example of good coming out of bad (something Tolkien develops with much greater skill and complexity in The Lord of the Rings); Bilbo Baggins for ever becomes a braver hobbit, more able and willing to take risks as a result of rising to the challenge of fighting the spiders and rescuing his companions from their clutches (as well as from the prison of the Elves). But he would not have been able to meet this challenge had not he and the dwarves made the disastrous decision to step off the path. I would say from this that The Hobbit possesses greater moral complexity than Rosebury allows, at least to an extent; on the whole, though, his assessment is accurate.Tolkien weaves his transparent prose style into the more 'childish' style more characteristic of The Hobbit in such a way that the former leavens the latter. In one passage, during the last leg of the journey to the Last Homely House in Rivendell, we see both styles intermixed and with them the unending and realistic concern about food:
... [T]he dwarves were all for supper as soon as possible just then, and would not stay. On they all went, leading their ponies, till they were brought to a good path and so at last to the very brink of the river. It was flowing fast and noisily, as mountain-streams do of a summer evening, when sun has been all day on the snow far up above. There was only a narrow bridge of stone without a parapet, as narrow as a pony could well walk on; and over that they had to go, slow and careful, one by one, each leading his pony by the bridle. The elves had brought bright lanterns to the shore, and they sang a merry song as the party went across.I won't look too much at the dialogue in The Hobbit. Rosebury, as we have seen, in briefly summarising The Hobbit describes it as 'often under-differentiated, with figures such as Thorin and Gandalf lapsing intermittently into a bourgeois banality more appropriate to Bilbo': this comment is apt, for, as Shippey discusses in the opening chapter of J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Bilbo Baggins is meant to be just on this side of bourgeois. It might be more accurate to say that much of the dialogue and narration in The Hobbit is anachronistic, and meant to be so, so that readers of the book can enter into the developing heroic atmosphere (viz., Lewis's comment about the 'humour and homeliness of the early chapters' passing away) without experiencing 'culture shock', as it were. (Shippey also makes the point about The Hobbit that Tolkien is attempting to show that the world of ancient heroism is, in many respects, to be identified with our own, despite what would appear to be vast differences in terms of sympathies, moral codes, social norms, and the like.)
"Don't dip your beard in the foam, father!" they cried to Thorin, who was bent almost on to his hands and knees. "It is long enough without watering it!"
"Mind Bilbo doesn't eat all the cakes!" they called. "He is too fat to get through key-holes yet!"
"Hush, hush! Good People! and good night!" said Gandalf, who came last. "Valleys have ears, and some elves have over merry tongues. Good night!"
And so at last they all came to the Last Homely House, and found its doors flung wide.
Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. They stayed long in that good house, fourteen days at least, and they found it hard to leave. Bilbo would gladly have stopped there for ever and ever—even supposing a wish would have taken him right back to his hobbit-hole without trouble. Yet there is little to tell about their stay.
The master of the house was an elf-friend—one of those people whose fathers came into the strange stories before the beginning of History, the wars of the evil goblins and the elves and the first men in the North. In those days of our tale there were still some people who had both elves and heroes of the North for ancestors, and Elrond the master of the house was their chief.
He was as noble and as fair in face as an elf-lord, as strong as a warrior, as wise as a wizard, as venerable as a king of dwarves, and as kind as summer. He comes into many tales, but his part in the story of Bilbo's great adventure is only a small one, though important, as you will see, if we ever get to the end of it. His house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Evil things did not come into that valley.
I wish I had time to tell you even a few of the tales or one or two of the songs that they heard in that house. All of them, the ponies as well, grew refreshed and strong in a few days there. Their clothes were mended as well as their bruises, their tempers and their hopes. [pp. 59-61] This passage has a little bit of everything: the elves as merry jokesters, expressing the most 'childish' aspects of the book (the Wood-elves later in The Hobbit more closely resemble Tolkien's vision of elfkind, and, indeed, are connected to Tolkien's legendarium by means of parenthetical reference); the sensuous and alert (not to mention economical) description of the river, how it is rushing because the sun has been upon the high mountain snows all day; and of the bridge, how it is narrow and without a parapet (an author with an eye less keen for precision than Tolkien would probably have written 'guard-rail'); Elrond's history, in which he is described in terms of stepping almost out of myth, with its reference to the legends of the 'First Age' ('the wars of the evil goblins and the elves and the first men in the North'), recognisable as such only to those who have read Tolkien's other writings: this is characteristic of Tolkien's constant reference to lost, ancient history, part of what makes The Lord of the Rings at once so fulfilling and poignant; in The Hobbit it is less so, yet it still holds the imagination captive for a time; and, despite the 'over merry' nature of the elves, the incurable 'elvishness' so characteristic of Rivendell and Lothlórien in The Lord of the Rings, in which the places are sanctuaries, centres of creative work, and oases, is expressed, albeit in very brief and direct terms: the narrator 'tells' us what Elrond's house is perfect for: 'food... sleep... work... story-telling... singing... sitting and thinking... a pleasant mixture of them all'; and that '[e]vil things did not come into that valley', and so forth. Even so, Tolkien evokes something in The Hobbit of the character of the 'elf-lands' he will display more fully in The Lord of the Rings. Meanwhile, another 'impish' trait Tolkien gives to the Elves of Rivendell is their ascription as 'Good People', given by Gandalf. (By the way, is it just me or does Gandalf exclaim things a lot in The Hobbit? Every other sentence he speaks seems to end with an '!'. Actually, exclamations are a frequent form of speech in The Hobbit, and it must be said that they accurately, if sometimes wearyingly, reflect the patterns of speech of children, who themselves frequently exclaim things.) If memory serves Elves are referred to as 'Fair Folk' (or some such term) at one point in The Lord of the Rings, but in the latter work the term has less an euphemistic and more an eulogistic feel to it: they truly are 'fair folk!' In The Hobbit, Gandalf uses the term euphemistically: we have just heard the Elves mock Thorin, the esteemed leader of the company, and make fun of Bilbo, and Gandalf chides the Elves for their overly free tongues, besides. Meanwhile, the opening sentence (which follows on an Elf announcing that supper is being prepared ('I can smell the wood-fires for the cooking,' he says [p. 59]) refers to the recurring concern by the company for food. The narrator indicates that Bilbo would have liked to stay to listen to elf-song just before our passage, but the dwarves plump for supper, as to be expected: an empty stomach often shouts louder than song. One other noteworthy point about Elves in The Hobbit is that, so far as I can tell, they are never directly described. One elf at Rivendell is called a 'tall young fellow', and Elrond is said to be 'as fair in face as an elf-lord'; of the Wood-elves of the Mirkwood, Tolkien writes, first, that they are 'elvish-looking folk, all dressed in green and brown' (p. 176; this is their first appearance, so it is fitting that, in order to retain the mysteriousness of Faerie Tolkien does not out and out call them elves), later, as 'elvish folk', with a 'woodland king with... golden hair'; their hair is 'gleaming' and 'twined with flowers' (p. 179). Actually, this lack of precise description is a strength of the work: the Wood-elves in Mirkwood especially are meant at first to be elusive and mysterious; I find Tolkien does an especially good job of evoking the 'feyness' the uncanniness, of the Elves in his chapter on Mirkwood. Meanwhile, the fact that Tolkien does not vividly describe the elves of the Valley in which may be found the Last Homely House helps, I find, prevent them from being entirely associated with their diminutive cousins in contemporary English fairy-tale. (It helps that the most descriptive passage indicates that one elf is 'tall'.)
That may be said to be one of the book's literary weaknesses: that is, though Tolkien had a purpose in writing for Gandalf, Thorin, and others as though they were more modern Englishmen of means than heroes out of saga, still the effect of his so writing for them is that their language seems stilted and just a bit contrived (or, perhaps less generously, more than just a bit contrived).
One example worth looking regarding dialogue is that of Smaug's with Biblo. Of all the characters in The Hobbit, Smaug is the most immediately recognisable as heroic, in the sense that, as a dragon, he is properly a personage whom anyone would know belongs to 'ancient legends' and heroic sagas, and the like.
Yet, the style of his speech, as Shippey shows in Author of the Century (sorry, I don't have a copy of the book available so there is no reference), is, for the most part, that of upper-class British society; and he is the particularly cutting type. You might say that Smaug is a shoe-in for upper class twit of the year:
Then Smaug spoke.To end this marginal commentary on The Hobbit, I will quote a selection of passages of descriptive prose, in which, I think, Tolkien's mature style, so well expressed in The Lord of the Rings, can be seen.
"Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air. I hear your breath. Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!"
But Bilbo was not quite so unlearned in dragon-lore as all that, and if Smaug hoped to get him to come nearer so easily he was disappointed. "No thank you, O Smaug the Tremendous!" he replied. "I did not come for presents. I only wished to have a look at you and see if you were truly as great as tales say. I did not believe them."
"Do you now?" said the dragon somewhat flattered, even though he did not believe a word of it.
"Truly songs and tales fall utterly short of the reality, O Smaug the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities," replied Bilbo.
"You have nice manners for a thief and a liar," said the dragon. "You seem familiar with my name, but I don't seem to remember smelling you before. Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask?"
"You may indeed! I come from under the hill, and under the hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air. I am he that walks unseen."
"So I can well believe," said Smaug, "but that is hardly your usual name."
"I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number."
"Lovely titles!" sneered the dragon. "But lucky numbers don't always come off."
"I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me."
"These don't sound so creditable," scoffed Smaug.
"I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider," went on Bilbo beginning to be pleased with his riddling.
"That's better!" said Smaug. "But don't let your imagination run away with you!"
This of course is the way to talk to dragons, if you don't want to reveal your proper name (which is wise), and don't want to infuriate them by a flat refusal (which is also very wise). No dragon can resist the fascination of riddling talk and of wasting time trying to understand it. There was a lot here which Smaug did not understand at all (though I expect you do, since you know all about Bilbo's adventures to which he was referring), but he thought he understood enough, and he chuckled in his wicked inside.
"I thought so last night," he smiled to himself. "Lake-men, some nasty scheme of those miserable tub-trading Lake-men, or I'm a lizard. I haven't been down that way for an age and an age; but I will soon alter that!"
"Very well, O Barrel-rider!" he said aloud. "Maybe Barrel was your pony's name; and maybe not, though it was fat enough. You may walk unseen, but you did not walk all the way. Let me tell you I ate six ponies last night and I shall catch and eat all the others before long. In return for the excellent meal I will give you one piece of advice for your good: don't have more to do with dwarves than you can help!"
"Dwarves!" said Bilbo in pretended surprise.
"Don't talk to me!" said Smaug. "I know the smell (and taste) of dwarf—no one better. Don't tell me that I can eat a dwarf-ridden pony and not know it! You'll come to a bad end, if you go with such friends, Thief Barrel-rider. I don't mind if you go back and tell them so from me." ...
Bilbo was now beginning to feel really uncomfortable. ... But plucking up courage he spoke again.
"You don't know everything, O Smaug the Mighty," said he. "Not gold alone brought us hither."
"Ha! Ha! You admit the 'us'" laughed Smaug. "Why not say 'us fourteen' and be done with it, Mr. Lucky Number? I am pleased to hear that you had other business in these parts besides my gold. In that case you may, perhaps, not altogether waste your time." ...
"I tell you," [Bilbo] said ... "that gold was only an afterthought with us. We came over hill and under hill, by wave and wind, for Revenge. Surely, O Smaug the unassessably wealthy, you must realize that your success has made you some bitter enemies?"
Then Smaug really did laugh—a devastating sound which shook Bilbo to the floor, while far up in the tunnel the dwarves huddled together and imagined that the hobbit had come to a sudden and a nasty end.
"Revenge!" he snorted, and the light of his eyes lit the hall from floor to ceiling like scarlet lightning. "Revenge! The King under the Mountain is dead and where are his kin that dare seek revenge? Girion Lord of Dale is dead, and I have eaten his people like a wolf among sheep, and where are his sons' sons that dare approach me? I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old and their like is not in the world today. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong, strong, Thief in the Shadows!" he gloated. "My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane and my breath death!" [pp. 257-62] Vengeance, of course, is a traditional motif of heroic epic; and once Bilbo begins alluding to this motive for the journey to the Lonely Mountain to confront Smaug, even his dialogue becomes (as it were uncharacteristically) heroic: 'Not gold alone brought us hither,' he says, which by the thirties was archaic, which echoes heroic diction - and which, besides, is a well-crafted passage almost poetic in feel. 'Smaug the unassessably wealthy' is undoubtedly true, and provides the mental image of Smaug's horde by virtue of its great size thwarting attempts by some English taxman, in a dapper suit, to assess it for the purpose of determining Smaug's 'tax bracket' - but for this reason, its 'bourgeois' or anachronistic quality makes it feel out of place as Bilbo announces the real reason why he and his companions have come to the Mountain. At his mention of the word 'Revenge', however, Smaug, who, as we have seen, has been ripping Bilbo to figurative shreds in the great tradition of the English upper class - 'In that case you may, perhaps, not altogether waste your time', he says, and: 'You'll come to a bad end, if you go with such friends... . I don't mind if you go back and tell them so from me' - at that point, Smaug launches into heroic soliloquy worthy of epic narrative: 'Girion Lord of Dale is dead, and I have eaten his people like a wolf among sheep, and where are his sons' sons that dare approach me?'; 'I laid low the warriors of old and their like is not in the world today. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong, strong[!]' In addition to responding heroically (in the sense that he speaks in a mode properly called heroic) to Bilbo's proclamation, Smaug makes what I think is a faint allusion to the Bible, with his 'wolf among sheep' comment. (Unlike, say, a similar allusion to Scripture in Room by the five-year old protagonist, Smaug's allusion is not self-conscious or incongruous, in itself it is not an inapt or unlikely comment; you might say that the allusion was intended by Tolkien as author, but is, as it were, accidental on Smaug's part.) Actually, the dialogue 'modulates' (to use Rosebury's term) in to and out of an heroic style throughout the passage, beginning with Bilbo's first allusion to the company's real motive for coming to the Mountain. While this does create a certain amount of what you might call stylistic confusion, it allows Tolkien to ground the story in a contemporary idiom while touching upon the heroic and epic currents underlying social life. Bilbo's travelling down the passage into the Mountain and riddling with the dragon (though Smaug himself speaks no riddles) is after a fashion a recapitulation of the riddle-game with Gollum. It is not, of course, identical in content, tone, or dialogue. I find another aspect of this passage which renders it effective is that, whatever its idiom ('bourgeois' or heroic), Tolkien does not include quite as much intrusive authorial commentary for the benefit of young readers as he does in other places: other than a few paragraphs on Bilbo's riddling talk and the comment on the state of Bilbo's knowledge of dragon-lore, and (which I omitted) on the explanation of the 'dragon-spell', Tolkien's descriptions are spare and economical. Indeed, one of the longest sections of narrative (as opposed to dialogue) consists of the deafening and frightful effect of Smaug's laughter (although even here a certain childish descriptiveness intrudes, with the dwarves thinking Bilbo has met a 'nasty' end). Actually, Tolkien appears to use the word 'nasty' quite frequently in The Hobbit, more than he does (at least per capita) in The Lord of the Rings. This contributes to the sense that the work is childish in tone, for 'nasty' is, you might say, not a 'grown-up' word, but a generic word such as children might use to describe things they don't like. In The Lord of the Rings, so far as I can remember, 'nasty' is unused in passages of narrative description (I would have to check, which would mean re-reading the work), and almost not found at all on the lips of any of the characters, save those of Gollum, whose 'infantile idiolect' makes the use of the word characteristic. In The Hobbit, in this passage alone, 'nasty' is used as a generic descriptive term three times: Smaug thinks to himself that what is going on is a 'nasty scheme of the Lake-men'; Bilbo begins to feel a 'nasty suspicion' (this phrase was part of the passage that I omitted from the above quote) about the dwarves; and, as I mentioned already, the dwarves think Bilbo has met a 'sudden and a nasty end' after they hear Smaug's overpowering laughter. Heeding the warning implicit to all literary critics in the passage from Tolkien that I quoted in a recent 'short', I should say that this is hardly an exhaustive list of all of the passages in which the word 'nasty' (or some derivative) occurs; but it occurs with relative frequency, and used in that way is a stylistic step below the more precise and descriptive narrative that Tolkien perfected in The Lord of the Rings and developed to a certain extent in The Hobbit.
I should not have liked to have been in Mr. Baggins' place, all the same. The tunnel seemed to have no end. All he knew was that it was still going down pretty steadily and keeping in the same direction in spite of a twist and a turn or two. There were passages leading off to the side every now and then, as he knew by the glimmer of his sword, or could feel with his hand on the wall. Of these he took no notice, except to hurry past for fear of goblins or half-imagined dark things coming out of them. On and on he went, and down and down, and still he heard no sound of anything except the occasional whirl of a bat by his ears, which startled him at first, till it became too frequent to bother about. I do not know how long he kept on like this, hating to go on, not daring to stop, on, on, until he was tireder than tired. It seemed all the way to tomorrow and over it to the days beyond. [pp. 83-4]
Bilbo and the dwarves had now plenty to think about, and they asked no more questions. They still had a long way to walk before them. Up slope and down dale they plodded. It grew very hot. Sometimes they rested under trees, and then Bilbo felt so hungry that he would have eaten acorns, if any had been ripe enough yet to have fallen to the ground.
It was the middle of the afternoon before they noticed that great patches of flowers had begun to spring up, all the same kinds growing together as if they had been planted. Especially there was clover, waving patches of cockscomb clover, and purple clover, and wide stretches of short white sweet honey-smelling clover. There was a buzzing and a whirring and a droning in the air. Bees were busy everywhere. And such bees! Bilbo had never seen anything like them.
"If one was to sting me," he thought, "I should swell up as big again as I am!"
They were bigger than hornets. The drones were bigger than your thumb, a good deal, and the bands of yellow on their deep black bodies shone like fiery gold.
"We are getting near," said Gandalf. "We are on the edge of his bee-pastures."
After a while they came to a belt of tall and very ancient oaks, and beyond these to a high thorn-hedge through which you could neither see nor scramble. ...
They soon came to a wooden gate, high and broad, beyond which they could see gardens and a cluster of low wooden buildings, some thatched and made of unshaped logs: barns, stables, sheds, and a long low wooden house. Inside on the southward side of the great hedge were rows and rows of hives with bell-shaped tops made of straw. The noise of the giant bees flying to and fro and crawling in and out filled all the air. [pp. 136-7]
They walked in single file. The entrance to the path was like a sort of arch leading into a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves. The path itself was narrow and wound in and out among the trunks. Soon the light at the gate was like a little bright hole far behind, and the quiet was so deep that their feet seemed to thump along while all the trees leaned over them and listened.
As their eyes became used to the dimness they could see a little way to either side in a sort of darkened green glimmer. Occasionally a slender beam of sun that had the luck to slip in through some opening in the leaves far above, and still more luck in not being caught in the tangled boughs and matted twigs beneath, stabbed down thin and bright before them. But this was seldom, and soon ceased altogether.
There were black squirrels in the wood. As Bilbo's sharp inquisitive eyes got used to seeing things he could catch glimpses of them whisking off the path and scuttling behind tree-trunks. There were queer noises too, grunts, scufflings, and hurryings in the undergrowth, and among the leaves that lay piled endlessly thick in places on the forest-floor, but what made the noises he could not see. The nastiest things they saw were the cobwebs: dark dense cobwebs with threads extraordinarily thick, often stretched from tree to tree, or tangled in the lower branches on either side of them. There were none stretched across the path, but whether because some magic kept it clear, or for what other reason they could not guess.
It was not long before they grew to hate the forest as heartily as they had hated the tunnels of the goblins, and it seemed to offer even less hope of any ending. But they had to go on and on, long after they were sick for a sight of the sun and of the sky, and longed for the feel of the wind on their faces. There was no movement of air down under the forest-roof, and it was everlastingly still and dark and stuffy. [pp. 163-4]
They spent a cold and lonely night and their spirits fell. The next day they set out again. Balin and Bilbo rode behind, each leading another pony heavily laden beside him; the others were some way ahead picking out a slow road, for there were no paths. They made north-west, slanting away from the River Running, and drawing ever nearer and nearer to a great spur of the Mountain that was flung out southwards towards them.But perhaps one of the best passages in The Hobbit, most reminiscent and characteristic of The Lord of the Rings, is this:
It was a weary journey, and a quiet and stealthy one. There was no laughter or song or sound of harps, and the pride and hopes which had stirred in their hearts at the singing of old songs by the lake died away to a plodding gloom. They knew that they were drawing near to the end of their journey, and that it might be a very horrible end. The land about them grew bleak and barren, though once, as Thorin told them, it had been green and fair. There was little grass, and before long there was neither bush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished. They were come to the Desolation of the Dragon, and they were come at the waning of the year. [pp. 234-5] All these are landscapes, with the first and third being of narrow, cramped tunnels (the one underground, the other under growth, so to speak). The second and fourth passages deal with wider vistas. In all four, with greater or lesser skill, Tolkien spells out how some (often just Bilbo) or all of the company feels or experiences the landscape on view. In the fourth passage this is most effective, because the emotions and thoughts seem to emanate from the travel through the landscape (in this case the Desolation around the Mountain): 'it was a weary journey, and a quiet and stealthy one. There was no laughter or sing or sound of harps, and the pride and hopes... in their hearts... died away to a plodding gloom' - which plodding they are doing as they pass through the Desolation. Tolkien will revisit blasted and desolate landscapes in The Lord of the Rings. Likewise we readers enter into the suffocating stillness of Mirkwood and can sympathise with the company's growing hatred for it. Much less effective stylistically are such things as the exclamation over Beorn's giant bees ('And such bees! ... "If one was to sting me," [Bilbo] thought, "I should swell up as big again as I am!" '), or the authorial comments during Bilbo's descent in the goblin tunnels ('I should not liked to have been in Mr. Baggins's place, all the same.') If these examples are anything to go by, then at least as the book proceeds Tolkien's landscapes become more realised and the emotional effect upon the reader (as on the characters) drawn out of the landscapes themselves, rather than imposed, as it were, from without. (Although as Rosebury's example of Bilbo's reconciliation with Thorin demonstrates, at least when dealing with the action of the plot Tolkien intermittently resorts to authorial intrusions.) Tolkien's descriptions are, on the whole, precise with respect to geography, topology and climate. If the first is not, it is because Bilbo is, after all, lost in the dark, without light. Actually, Tolkien does a good job keeping track of time; the company, having left Elrond's Last Homely House on midsummer's day, have reached Beorn's land in late summer, before the acorns have ripened - whence Bilbo's sadness that they are not yet ripe. At the 'waning of the year' when the company is 'come to the Desolation of the Dragon', they have spent countless days plodding through Mirkwood, imprisoned in the caves of the Wood-elves, and recuperating in Lake-town. Indeed, as we learn from Elrond earlier, they reach the Lonely Mountain at just the right time, for they find the hidden door on Durin's Day, the day 'when the last moon of Autumn and the sun are in the sky together. (p. 63)' Thus in The Hobbit we can see Tolkien write vivid, lively and evocative landscapes, of the sort he shall employ to great effect in The Lord of the Rings.
... They had hardly gone any distance down the tunnel when a blow smote the side of the Mountain like the crash of battering-rams made of forest-oaks and swung by giants. [Incidentally, this is the first time, after re-reading The Hobbit many times, that I have really noticed this simile. This is why it pays to read certain books more than once.] The rock boomed, the walls cracked and stones fell from the roof on their heads. What would have happened if the door had still been open I don't like to think. They fled further down the tunnel glad to be still alive, while behind them outside they heard the roar and rumble of Smaug's fury. He was breaking rocks to pieces, smashing wall and cliff with the lashings of his huge tail, till their little lofty camping ground, the scorched grass, the thrush's stone, the snail-covered walls, the narrow ledge, and all disappeared in a jumble of smithereens, and an avalanche of splintered stones fell over the cliff into the valley below.So much, then, for The Hobbit. I think I have demonstrated sufficiently that The Hobbit, as a precursor to The Lord of the Rings, is a work in which Tolkien, though he understandably wrote it in much the kind of style as if he were telling it aloud as a story to his own children - complete with the 'blankets of paternal tenderness' which Rosebury depreciates - also began to develop the style which he would employ more fluently and more effectively in The Lord of the Rings. It stands analogously to The Lord of the Rings in much the same way as The Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets do to the rest of the Potter septet: just as, in those books, Rowling at first clumsily and fitfully moved away from 'childish' commentary toward a more subtle thematic approach, so too did Tolkien move from elementary moral and stylistic writing toward a more complex and mature handling of things that he would so well exemplify in his master work.
Smaug had left his lair in silent stealth, quietly soared into the air, and then floated heavy and slow in the dark like a monstrous crow, down the wind towards the west of the Mountain, in the hopes of catching unawares something or somebody there, and of spying the outlet to the passage which the thief had used. This was the outburst of his wrath when he could find nobody and see nothing, even where he guessed the outlet must actually be.
After he had let off his rage in this way he felt better and he thought in his heart that he would not be troubled again from that direction. In the meanwhile he had further vengeance to take. "Barrel-rider!" he snorted. "Your feet came from the waterside and up the water you came without a doubt. I don't know your smell, but if you are not one of those men of the Lake, you had their help. They shall see me and remember who is the real King under the Mountain!"
He rose in fire and went away south towards the Running River. [pp. 269-70] The first paragraph of this passage shows, as I think is reasonable to conclude at this point, that in The Hobbit Tolkien mixes good or excellent prose with stuff that is less so: 'What would have happened if the door had still been open I don't like to think', or 'a jumble of smithereens', are hardly appropriate to the danger and tension Tolkien is trying to build. The simile which I 'saw' for the first time (despite having read the book many times is well-drawn - it reminds me of the simile Pullman would much later make about the battle of champions between the heroic panzerbjorn in The Golden Compass. (The which, regrettably, I did not look at in my marginal commentary thereon; you shall have to read the book for yourselves to see what I mean.) '[A]n avalanche of splintered stones' is effective prose, however; and on the whole the passage, especially with its final sentence, very nearly reaches the kind of gemlike brilliance expressed in passages from The Lord of the Rings such as this one:
Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.Actually, I am wrong: the passage from The Hobbit has nothing like the same emotional effect as this one from The Lord of the Rings; but of all the passages from The Hobbit it is the only one, so far as I'm concerned, which effects anything of the like. The final sentence, 'He rose in fire and went away south towards the Running River', possesses something, if only a token or a shadow, of the lapidary brilliance of the passage just quoted from The Lord of the Rings.
And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin's sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last. [RK, Bk. V, Ch. IV]