Re-reading Tolkien 5: The Hobbit, chapters 10-19

The Hobbitcover1, 2, 3, 4

So the end of The Hobbit is a lot less smutty and a lot like the Brexit fiasco instead.

Finding themselves washed up in Lake-town, the dwarves promise the townsfolks all sorts of future goodies if they will only assist them in reclaiming a long-lost kingdom and its fabulous wealth. But Bilbo and his stumpy companions – the Raiders of the Lost Arkenstone – instead unleash Smaug the dragon who lays waste to Lake-town, utterly destroying it.

And when the townsfolk come looking for compensation, the dwarves hide inside their walled compound and refuse to live up to their promise to share the wealth.

During the ensuing battle, Bilbo slips on his ring of invisibility and disappears like George Osborne (who, frankly, I thought was bound to be unearthed curled into a ball and red-eyed, hiding away from it all in a Limehouse opium den).

The Master of Lake-town, who was annoyed at everyone stopping work and turning things ‘into a long holiday in which business was at a standstill’, gets as pissy as a Blairite in the PLP when it seems like the steadfast and heroic Bard might become leader by popular acclaim; and although Bard demurs, no-one could possibly be surprised when the Master flees with all the town’s gold to his tax-haven, where he sits on the boards of companies he enriched while in power and appoints himself a Middle East peace envoy. Or something like that.

But how can the impasse in the mountains be resolved? How can crisis be averted?

Hurrah, a genocidal war against the goblins!

Bloody goblins, coming over here, seeking recompense for the murder of their king…

Fortunately, there’s also some elves, who I have always suspected of white supremacism, around to help out. And, as Bilbo excitedly points out, ‘The Eagles! The Eagles!’, with their secret weapon of boring everyone to death by repeatedly playing ‘Hotel California’. (In later years, we learn, Beorn oversees the ethnic cleansing of the Misty Mountains.)

On a cheerier note, Tolkien finally concedes my main point: when Bilbo eventually gets back home it is to find that he is ‘in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighourhood to be “queer”’.

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Re-reading Tolkien 4: The Hobbit, chapters 7-9

The Hobbitcover1, 2, 3

It is difficult to express quite how disappointing chapter seven, ‘Queer Lodgings’, turned out to be.

If you’ve been following this, you might understand when I tell you that the only cave in this chapter is ‘a little cave (a wholesome one with a pebbly floor)’.

Sure, there’s the self-important Lord of the Eagles, who’s a little camp. (He will, we are told, become the King of All Birds. Quite how every avian species and society came to be governed by the dynasty Accipitridae remains unclear. I bet it was by bloody violence. It is always by bloody violence).

Beorn is a bit more interesting. He is a shapeshifter or skin-changer, and there is something queer in his were-bear duality; after all, he is the kind of bear who is ‘a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard’.

But there is something uncanny about him, too. Something a little unpleasant.

It’s not just that his grey dogs can walk around upright on their back legs, a detail that becomes all the creepier for the way Tolkien just throws it in without elaboration.

It is that Beorn keeps trophies from his kills. A goblin head stuck on something outside his gate. The flayed skin of a Warg nailed to a tree just beyond it.

No doubt, if there were buffalo roaming between the mountains and Mirkwood he would skin his humps.

Then Gandalf – as arbitrarily as an author just making stuff up – buggers off, leaving Bilbo and the dwarves to the perils of Mirkwood.

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The perils of the arachnid monstrous-feminine, the archaic mother:

The entrance to the path [into Mirkwood] 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.

Like Giger for kids. And with spiders. You know, evil female weavers, and that whole shtick about weaving supposedly originating in women, driven by phallic envy, plaiting their pubic hair.

There they wander, losing their way, slowly running out of supplies. Exhausted. Starving. Trolled by wood-elves. Who are basically dicks.

Bilbo, separated from the company, has ‘one of his most miserable moments’, but steadfastly refuses to let despair overwhelm him, and instead starts thinking ‘of his far-distant hobbit hole with its beautiful pantries’ and ‘of bacon and eggs and toast and butter’.

Is it still a truism of children’s literature studies that food, in its sensual excess, stands in for sex? That would explain what happens next: ‘he felt something touch him. Something like a strong sticky string against his left hand’

Bilbo finds where the dwarves are all hanging, tightly bound in spider threads. He puts the ring on and runs around for a while, with only his little sword visible – ‘I don’t suppose [the spiders] knew what it was’, Tolkien adds, but – like Bilbo – you might want to take a wild stab in the dark. Anyone? Anyone?

You want a clue?

When the spiders are distracted, Bilbo frees his companions, beginning with Fili, identifiable by ‘the tip of a long nose poking out of the winding threads’.

Anyone?

Having escaped the spiders, the dwarves are next captured by the wood-elves who, just a little mysteriously, do not live in the woods but in – you guessed it – caves. Invisibilbo rescues them. And they escape by nicking a trick from Derek Flint.

Okay, chronologically that makes no sense, but I remember feeling cheated when I first read the novel because I had already seen the awesome James Coburn use the same method to save his, er, lady friends. (It is nice though that the chapter in which this happens is called, it turns out, ‘Barrels out of Bond’.)

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There is actually, in passing, a really bleak moment. Bilbo used his ring of invisibility to avoid capture, but finds himself hiding in the midst of the wood-elves for days and weeks (and possibly months, but I nodded off a little in the middle):

‘I am like a burglar that can’t get away, but must go on miserably burgling the same house day after day,’ he thought.

Nicely played, JRR. As unexpected as dogs on the hind legs waiting table.

Re-reading Tolkien 3: The Hobbit, chapters 2-6

Hobbit_coverRe-reading Tolkien 1 and 2.

Mostly it had been as good as May can be, even in merry tales, but now it was cold and wet. …
‘To think it will soon be June,’ grumbled Bilbo. (47)

I swear the delay was not because I was waiting until I could quote that. It is merely the serendipitous silver lining to the rain clouds emptying themselves over Bristol.

My last post on The Hobbit ended by questioning whether the whole book could be quite as delightful as the psychosexual smorgasbord of the first chapter. And I’m afraid the answer is no. Although there is still plenty to comment upon, incidents and episodes have rather taken over.

The Battle of Phallic Accoutrements rages on. While both Thorin and Gandalf are given mighty swords, Bilbo takes a blade that ‘would have made only a tiny pocket knife for a troll, but it was as good as a short sword for the hobbit’ (60) – and only becomes really snigger worthy when he is lost in the caves under the Misty Mountains:

But in slapping all his pockets and feeling all round himself for matches his hand came on the hilt of his little sword – the little dagger that he got from the trolls, and that he had quite forgotten; nor fortunately had the goblins noticed it, as he wore it inside his breeches. (91)

Elsewhere, the anal fixation continues. There is an awful lot of wandering around in dank – some might say cloacal – caves, and an obsession about entrances, of gaining access to them, controlling what passes through them, and about squeezing through narrow passages (losing ones buttons in doing so). Probably the less said about rings at this point the better.

One of the curious things re-reading the novel after all this time is that nothing has happened that I do not remember, but I only remember it as it is happening. And certain things have changed because of the passage of time. So when Bilbo decides to embrace the role of burglar and pickpocket one of the trolls – the entire species are Cockerneys, it seems – the whole Žižek thing comes flooding back.

Years ago, I was the journal editor entrusted with the task of asking him to revise and resubmit an article in which he imagines a scene in a porn movie in which a vagina suddenly starts to speak. My favourite part of the process was asking him to not just make such things up, but to actually make the effort to watch a talking-vagina porn movie, such as the excellently-titled Chatterbox. (Sadly, he declined; the book from which the essay was extracted had already been accepted for publication, and he was already busy on the next one or the one after that.)

But now, I see vaginas loquens the way Haley Joel Osment sees dead people. They are everywhere, and sometime you just can’t move for them .

Bilbo plucked up courage and put his hand in William’s enormous pocket. There was a purse in it, as big as a bag to Bilbo. “Ha!” thought he warming up to his new work as he lifted it carefully out, “this is a beginning!”
It was! Trolls’ purses are the mischief, and this was no exception. “’Ere, ’oo are you?” it squeaked… (52-3)

Though I am not sure “Trolls’ purse” will ever catch on as a euphemism, or that it should.

The next chapter is called “Queer Lodgings” – I can hardly wait.

***

And there is this sentence, probably the finest one in the novel so far, and certainly one that struck me when I was young:

When they got to the top of it [the far river bank], leading their ponies, they saw that the great mountains had marched down very near to them. (63)

Well played, JRR, well-played.

(I also have some thoughts about the description of the goblins, race, species and so on, but I will wait until I have seen more of how Tolkien does these things.)

Part 4

Re-reading Tolkien 2: The Hobbit, chapter one

Hobbit_coverRe-reading Tolkien 1

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.

Re-reading Tolkien 3: The Hobbit, chapters 2-6

 

Re-reading Tolkien 1: why?

tolkein2When I sat down to start thinking through the new second-year undergraduate module – called Genre and the Fantastic – I will be teaching next academic year, I realised that it was more than two-thirds of my life ago that I last read The Lord of the Rings. So even though I will not be teaching it, I figure I should probably give it another go. (I was bored stiff by the films – the only aspect of them I could admire was Sean Bean having the good sense to get out of them two films before I did – and just cannot bring myself to watch The Hobbit movies.)

My introduction to Tolkien came aged 11. We moved to Plymouth right at the start of 1980, when I had just two terms of junior school left to go. At my new school, Hyde Park Juniors,  my teacher – Mr Willis, I think his name was – was already partway through reading The Hobbit aloud to the class, a little bit every day (memory tells me it was just before lunchtime, though I am sure there was a wider convention of reading aloud just before home time). I was immediately gripped, even though I had no idea who all those bleeding dwarfs were, and promptly got a copy from the small local library at Pounds House and read it in a couple of days.

Then – this was the real triumph – I persuaded the main librarian (who was an sf and fantasy fan, to judge by the stock) to let me take out all three hardback volumes of LotR (the white ones, with the fold-out bible-paper maps intact). These were the first books I ever took out from the adult section of a library. I had them for four weeks, and it took me until the last day to finish the last of the appendices (well before Mr Lewis had finished reading The Hobbit to the class).

I persuaded my new best friend, Stuart, that he should read them.  This was a foolish thing to do as he did not read as quickly as me, and so I had to wait forever to borrow them again. (Actually, it was not quite that bad as I bullied him into returning each volume with me once he had finished it and took it back out myself.) I managed to read library copies three times that year, but only because I persuaded my mum to let me join the central library too. There was a fight with the main librarian there as to whether I was old enough to take them out, which I won by persuading my mum that Tolkien was a friend of CS Lewis (my parents approved of him because Aslan was Jesus) and so she came with me to convince the librarian.

(Later that year, I lost the battle with parents over seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark or reading Campbell Black’s novelisation because they were obviously blasphemous. Fortunately, Stuart had a copy of the book I could borrow – and my parents had no qualms a couple of years later with me going to see the even more horrendously racist and notoriously violent Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which had required a whole new cinema certificate in the UK.)

I read The Hobbit three or four times in 1980 as well but right away began to find it too childish. I have not read it since 1981. I read LotR maybe once or twice a year for three years, but probably as early as 1981 I was beginning to find the opening chapters – until the Tom Bombadil nonsense is done with – childish and twee and tiresome. I also got through The Silmarillion a couple of times, only really enjoying any of it on the second go, and the first volume of The Book of Lost Tales.

When I tried to read LotR near the end of 1983, I had grown to hate it.

I was fifteen. Already a sophisticated man of the world.

So anyway, over the next couple of months, I will be re-reading The Hobbit (in fact, I just finished the first chapter, which is hilarious) and The Lord of the Rings (I just got through all the various notes on the text and Tolkien’s foreword to the second edition yesterday when I figured I should probably read The Hobbit first), and I will post about the experience occasionally as I go.

The Tookish part of me is curious about undertaking such an adventure through dimly remembered lands; the Baggins part knows I will probably regret it.

Re-reading Tolkien 2