Forward, Preface (Hobbits) and
Chapter 1 – A Long-Expected Party
The idea was to study the section of the preface relating to Hobbits, as well as the first chapter. What’s here is a considerable expansion on what I said at the Smial meeting.
Remarks on the films were part of it. But only in November did we learn that the vastly expanded film franchise had reached an agreement with the Tolkien Estate on further dramatizations. Amazon’s streaming service is going to feature a series set between the two books. We have no idea yet what this will be. It could feature Aragorn and Denethor as young men and rivals.
Tolkien’s Forward describes how the story evolves, making it clear that this is fiction, and that the influence of real politics in the 1930s was secondary. This is necessary, because the Preface treats the story as if it were real history.
The Forward also make it clear that it is distinct from recent real history:
“As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches: but its main theme was settled from the outset by the inevitable choice of the Ring as the link between it and The Hobbit. The crucial chapter, ‘The Shadow of the Past‘, is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted. Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels.”
So, what does the preface say?
Hobbits are miniature humans: smaller than Dwarves but much more similar to us in outlook. But peaceful and old-fashioned:
“Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favourite haunt. They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge -bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skilful with tools.”
I also mentioned – though the Preface does not say it – that hobbits have a very local outlook. The Shire is suspicious of Bree, and even of Buckland. They have little politics. They are vaguely a part of the Lost Realm of Arnor, with the Thein of the Tooks standing in for monarch
I also noted that it is a slow start to a grand adventure. The BBC Radio adaptation uses the back-story for a faster opening. First the rings, then Gollum being captured near Mordor. Bakshi’s very poor film also started with the making of the rings, told at rather greater length. Peter Jackson borrowed this almost exactly, and gave Bakshi a spot in the appendices to the DVD. Bakshi seems to have since become a non-person in the vastly expanded film franchise.
Why does the book open so slowly? Tolkien probably assumed that anyone who bought or borrowed the book will get at least as far as Chapter Two, when the drama begins to unfold. And people then were less adjusted to instant gratification.
So what does the first chapter do? It recalls and broadly echoes The Hobbit. We see a much older Bilbo – yet he has not aged at all since his adventure. (This is unlike the films, where he starts out old.)
“Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved, but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.
“’It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’
“But so far trouble had not come; and as Mr. Baggins was generous with his money, most people were willing to forgive him his oddities and his good fortune. He remained on visiting terms with his relatives (except, of course, the Sackville-Bagginses), and he had many devoted admirers among the hobbits of poor and unimportant families. But he had no close friends, until some of his younger cousins began to grow up.”
He is handing over to Frodo as his heir, and going off in the company of some dwarves. These are among the guests at the Long-Expected Party. We are told of “the dwarves and other odd folk that were quartered at Bag End”. We are not told which dwarves – are these some of the original 13 or others he later meets? Nor who the ‘other odd folk’ might be. Elves would be most unlikely, so these are probably ‘big people’. Yet there are also spirits in human or near-human form – Gandalf is one, and so are Tom Bombadil and Goldberry. Still, there are no indication Bilbo knows any of these other than Gandalf, and there are certainly not many of them.
We are also introduced to Samwise Gamgee, a lower-class hobbit who is later Frodo’s gardener. Bilbo has made friends with him; taught him to read and to understand the wider world:
“My lad Sam will know more about that. He’s in and out of Bag End. Crazy about stories of the old days he is, and he listens to all Mr. Bilbo’s tales. Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters [sic] – meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.”
Although Tolkien says that a late-Victorian English village is the model, no regular system of education is ever mentioned, even for the richer hobbits. England had compulsory education from 5 to 10 years for everyone from 1880.
There is no mention of any regular system of education anywhere in Middle Earth. People are taught skills by some older mentor, it seems. This would certainly include reading and writing for the upper class, since Bilbo’s relatives write him letters and replay to invitations. But we are not told how it is done: it might be done informally by an older relative, or there might be tutors.
In Minas Tirith, Denethor complains that Faramir has become a ‘wizard’s pupil’, presumably from long talks with Gandalf when he visited.
There are later some mentions of school lessons in connection with Merry and Pippin. Also for Sam: “Standing up, with his hands behind his back, as if he was at school, he began to sing to an old tune” – and sings the comic song about a troll. But Sam certainly learned letters from Bilbo, and would not otherwise have learned, so what would he have been attending school for?
All this might be Tolkien forgetting his earlier assumptions in an enormous imagined world. But I would sooner take these to be metaphors or similes. For the long-expected party, we are told:
“The [firework] dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion”,
There are definitely no express trains in Middle-Earth. Tolkien’s fictional pose is as the translator into English of a book in some lost tongue.
To get back to the story: the party happens, with Bilbo behaving increasingly oddly. He even shows a touch of malice in the presents he leaves behind at Bag-End for his less-liked relatives: not just the Sackville-Bagginses whom he has a genuine grievance against. And Gandalf is alarmed by Bilbo’s reluctance to give up the ring, which goes against his nature. We had already been told that Bilbo is usually generous.
Gandalf does not yet suspect that the ring found in the Misty Mountains is a danger to anyone except Bilbo, and Frodo as his heir. The stages of his discovery are complex, and I plan a schema when my analysis gets as far as the Council of Elrond. But he does warn Frodo against using it.
Another important character is introduced. After Bilbo has gone, “Frodo had retired for a while and left his friend Merry Brandybuck to keep an eye on things.” Pippin is not mentioned until later, and of course he and Merry do not interfere with the fireworks. Sam’s future wife Rosie Cotton is also absent, rather than Frodo encouraging Sam to dance with her. As Ursula Le Guin noted, she is not mentioned at all until much later, when Sam is in Mordor.
So far, it has seemed to be the ‘New Hobbit’ that it was originally planned as. Bilbo departs in the company of some dwarves. But we don’t follow him: only much later do we learn what happens and that it wasn’t much of a story.
The main narrative follows the pattern of The Hobbit in darkening in Chapter 2. But what’s found is much stranger and more dreadful than trolls.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.