I heard about Tolkien, as a Christian scholar, a good friend of C.S.Lewis, whose books I had great difficulties to understand, and how Tolkien spent his whole life in creating a complete fantasy world for Lord of the Ring series. I saw film posters and trailers of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings series, which were dark, gloomy and serious. Better suited for adults than children. But somehow I never heard that the Hobbit is a children book. So I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading it. (This specific book squeezed in my long reading list because everybody seems to be reading, watching and talking about the Game of Thrones recently. Many people compare it with Tolkien’s books. So I thought if I was to read one, I want to read the classic one.) The language is fairly simple with light-hearted British jokes. Their encounters with good and bad people are told to make me feel adventurous, funny and brave, but never brutal, evil or hopeless. I had a very different impression when I watched the film trailers. But I will watch the films and make up my mind then.
The theme, story line, characters, religious context and the literary significance of Tolkien’s work have been discussed deeply and widely by many people before me. I don’t feel qualified enough to add my worthless opinions. So I’m going to look at The Hobbit from a language and culture point of view, since I was once a linguistic and cross-cultural communication student and still a language and culture lover. I don’t feel any more qualified or confident in this field. But I hope you find my discoveries interesting.
This is what Bilbo the Hobbit is like in my eyes: he loves his cosy and tidy home, loves having tea and cake and many meals a day at home, lives a simple, comfortable and respectable life at home. He is a home-lover! Just like me. So I’m fond of him. He sees the world in a pretty simple way because he hasn’t seen anything to suggest otherwise. He doesn’t like unexpected visitors, irregular tea time or any changes. But when he has no choice, he can cope with many difficulties, with grumbles of course – but still making the correct choice (for example, handing out the Arkenstone). And he can be courageous when the situation needs him to be (walking down to the dragon’s den multiple times). It could look like anybody in your opinion, but for me, Bilbo the Hobbit is a perfect example of an ordinary British man. And Martin Freeman really is the perfect actor for him. I could see his face when I read, although I haven’t seen the films yet.
A couple more examples to show Bilbo’s Britishness:
After all the others had ordered their breakfasts without so much as a please (which annoyed Bilbo very much), they all got up.
Indeed he was really relieved after all to think that they had all gone without him, and without bothering to wake him up (“but with never a thank-you” he thought).
I’ve mentioned how Bilbo the Hobbit resembles a British man perfectly. His encounters with the wizard and the dwarves are a bit like case studies from my Cross-Cultural Communication course books:
“…… The dragon and the Mountain are more than big enough tasks for you!” “Hear, hear!” said Bilbo, and accidentally said it aloud, “Hear what?” they all said turning suddenly towards him, and he was so flustered that he answered “Hear what I have got to say!”
Just in case you’re not aware of this, “hear, hear” is an expression used as a short, repeated form of “hear him”. It represents a listener’s agreement with the point being made by a speaker. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it has been “the regular form of cheering in the House of Commons” since 17th century till TODAY(!).
In addition to Bilbo, the whole book feels very British to me. The idyllic countryside, the ever-changing views of the plains and mountains, even the rain on Bilbo’s way home. It all feels very comfortably familiar. The film (trailers) gives a very different feeling which I don’t dislike but I don’t feel true to the original text.
Tolkien’s description of human nature (Hobbit nature?) impresses me a lot too. The trail of thoughts and actions make me feel that Bilbo has a really kind heart, although he sounds grumpy and quick-tempered verbally (especially when he is with the dwarves). Here’s one when Bilbo has to get rid of Gollum:
Bilbo almost stopped breathing, and went stiff himself. He was desperate. He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped… No great leap for a man, but a leap in the dark. Straight over Gollums head he jumped, seven feet forward and three in the air; indeed, had he known it, he only just missed cracking his skull on the low arch of the passage.
I suddenly understand that The Hobbit is not a simple adventure story teaching children to climb trees, run around waving toy guns or get lost in woods. It’s not even just to teach children to be adventurous for the unknown and be brave to face challenges and hardship. Bilbo, in his most dangerous moment, does not worry about himself but feels compassion for his enemy. I think at least, it teaches children to put themselves in other people’s shoes, if it was too young for them to understand the idea of “praying for their enemies”.
Another example. Bilbo escaped the goblins after an awful experience but couldn’t find his friends:
He still wandered on, out of the little high valley, over its edge, and down the slopes beyond; but all the while a very uncomfortable thought was growing inside him. He wondered whether he ought not, now he had the magic ring, to go back into the horrible, horrible, tunnels and look for his friends. He had just made up his mind that it was his duty, that he must turn back—and very miserable he felt about it—when he heard voices.
Bilbo is not a fearless modern day superhero but an ordinary person just like one of us. But he decides to go back to danger for his friends although it’s risky. It’s harder to persuade oneself to do the right thing than to face dreadful enemies. I see in him loyalty and integrity.
It’s also a textbook for verbs. The action scenes are described with many verbs in short phrases, looking as vivid as a film in front of my eyes. (I hope this is not too geeky and school-teacher-like for you.)
The place was full of goblins running about, and the poor little hobbit dodged this way and that, was knocked over by a goblin who could not make out what he had bumped into, scrambled away on all fours, slipped between the legs of the captain just in time, got up, and ran for the door.
Something else I find amusing:
The poor little hobbit sat down in the hall and put his head in his hands, and wondered what had happened, and what was going to happen, and whether they would all stay to supper.
A lovely example of how simple Bilbo’s life is in chapter 1 of the book. The most worrying thing when facing this “throng” is if “they would all stay to supper”. On another level, I’m a bit surprised and amused to see this line from Tolkien and wonder if he had similar experience or heard about it from his beloved wife. It’s not the kind of worry I would expect from any men if they’re anything like my husband, who cares little about food or has not much idea that preparing food for guests takes planning. But I’m pretty certain that Tolkien is a fan of food and meals. The mentions of food are necessary for the building of characters at the beginning, which is fair enough:
So after that the party went along very merrily, and they told stories or sang songs as they rode forward all day, except of course when they stopped for meals. These didn’t come quite as often as Bilbo would have liked them, but still he began to feel that adventures were not so bad after all.
Tea-time had long gone by, and it seemed supper-time would soon do the same.
The Hobbit is told from Bilbo’s point of view a lot of the time. So fair enough these were Bilbo’s narrative. But later on, I found more evidence in the Fellowship of the Ring that this was definitely Tolkien’s own habit also. Food is mentioned for no obvious reasons, but as punctuations of their long journey. Since I’m not that fond of the Fellowship of the Ring, and I’m not likely to write reviews of the trilogy, I’ll share my findings with you now:
When they had eaten, the Company got ready to go on.
When all the Company had crossed, they sat and rested and ate a little food.
When they had eaten, Aragorn called the Company together.
I love it!
A lot of the adventure is actually done by little Bilbo on his own. He was asked to find out about the trolls; he was left behind and had the whole business with Gollum; he fought the giant spiders; he hid and lived in the elven-king’s palace like a mouse, and rescued all the dwarves; he floated in the river and shivered on the barrel; he went to meet Smaug the Dragon twice; he handed the Arkenstone over to the “enemy”.
He was altogether alone… It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.
Sometimes our biggest enemy is ourselves and we also have to fight many hard battles on our own. May we be loyal and kind, as Bilbo the lovely hobbit.