Whoa! Shedloads of barely processed infantile psychosexual material. Freud would have had a field day with this stuff. Oral, anal and genital fixations. The maternal body, including ladies’ terrifying front-bottoms (which are also sometimes quite comfy). Phalluses. Abortive queer pick-ups. Fluids spilling everywhere.
I had no idea, I tell you. None at all.
It all begins innocently enough with a hobbit-hole. There is nothing confusingly, scarily vaginal or anal about it at all: it is ‘not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the dark ends of worms and an oozy smell’; nor is it some coldly unrewarding ‘dry, bare, sandy hole’ devoid of nourishment. Rather, it is defined by its ‘comfort’. Once you get past the door – which has ‘a shiny yellow brass nob’ – you come to ‘a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel’. If this all sounds rather like vaginal imagery – complete with a clitoral nubbin, that is also part of a confusion of male and female genitals that is reiterated when they start talking about dragons going into and coming out of caves – you might be horrified to read that this hole under the Hill where Bilbo lives, this ‘most luxurious hobbit-hole’, was originally his mum’s.
Anyways, one morning Bilbo emerges to smoke his ‘enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes’, and the Battle of Phallic Accoutrements commences. It starts with an older man called Gandalf – who has ‘a tall pointed blue hat’ and ‘a staff’ that will see plenty of action before the chapter is out – and the hobbit flirting with each other. Bilbo invites Gandalf to stuff his pipe with Bilbo’s own tobacco (at no point does anyone say ‘rough shag’). Gandalf is too busy ‘to blow smoke-rings’ as he is looking for someone to ‘share in an adventure’ (even though ‘swords in these parts are mostly blunt’). After a while, Bilbo decides Gandalf
was not quite his sort, and wanted him to go away. But the old man did not move. He stood leaning on his stick and gazing at the hobbit without saying anything, till Bilbo got quite uncomfortable.
Although Bilbo poses as a quiet and sedentary figure, he is ‘not quite so prosy as he liked to believe [and] was very fond of flowers’. To his surprise, he invites Gandalf to come for tea (and sympathy?) the next day. As he departs, Gandalf uses ‘the spike on his staff’ to leave ‘a queer sign’ on Bilbo’s front door. What does this Istari polari symbol look like? Sadly, Tolkien does not tell us; his Foreword is only concerned with dull old runes.
Of course, queer has other meanings. Though how effectively can any of them explain why twelve colourfully dressed dwarfs – with detachable party hoods and all-consuming appetites, and mostly in couples – arrive at Bilbo’s door the next day and start to sing about blunting his knives and bending his forks, pouring milk on his pantry floor, splashing wine on his doors, and pounding into a boiling bowl with their thumping poles? (There is also something to it all of the Oxford don having students overrun his rooms during rag week.)
Gloin, one of the dwarfs, explains that the mark on the door, ‘the usual one in the trade’, means: ‘Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward’. It has already been established that Bilbo, like queer old Henry Jekyll, has a conflicted dual nature: his respectable half is content to live quietly and contentedly, but the other yearns for adventure – and from this point on, that other half is associated with criminality, making of his bourgeois demeanour a mere façade. Hobbits might have hairy feet, but Bilbo is his own beard.
The mission for which he is being recruited is outlined by Thorin Oakenshield, he of the over-compensating name, who immediately declares that he knows ‘where Mirkwood is, and the Withered Heath where the great dragons breed’. Presumably because there has been no female genital imagery for a while.
Back when Thorin was a lad, a dragon called Smaug entered the Mountain where his people lived. It rampaged through the front entrance to the caves, from which a river emerges, in order to steal the family jewels; but instead killed everyone and settled in there with all the treasure. Smaug comes out of the cave occasionally to steal a maiden. The dwarf company plan to retake the caves, to drive out the dragon and retake the treasure.
However, none of them like ‘the idea of the Front Gate’, and so they want to recruit a burglar to help them in through the much tighter back entrance to the Mountain.
Surely the whole book cannot be this delightful?
And what a great chapter title ‘An Unexpected Party’ is. Does it refer to Gandalf, returning after all these years? To Bilbo, the unlikely thief? Or to the shindig that kicks off round Bilbo’s gaff? Nicely played, JRR.