Tolkien was already deep into the work on his heroic legends when, on an impulse, he jotted down what would become the first line of The Hobbit—an originally unrelated story which, like most of his stories, ended up being swallowed into the major work, and ultimately itself generated his best-known book, The Lord of the Rings.
But on that sleepy afternoon in spring, it was just a nonsensical sentence, possibly the seed of a good bedtime story for the children:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
A hobbit? Now, where did that word come from? The linguist in him began to invent. What could be meant by a hobbit? Perhaps a short humanoid with furred feet and a love for comfort, pipe-smoking, and waistcoats of an entertaining hue and pattern. Given that, a hobbit-hole could not be any ordinary burrow.
Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
And then the story grew in the telling. You probably know it; if you don't, you will know it soon in some form or another once the Hollywood epic comes out at the end of this year. It is the story of Bilbo Baggins, a middle-aged hobbit gentleman who cares only for peace and quiet. But there is a spark of adventure hidden deep within Bilbo, and when a wandering wizard with a reputation for trouble drops by for tea and brings fourteen unexpected guests with him, Bilbo finds himself unexpectedly on the adventure of a lifetime. The fourteen dwarves, under the leadership of the formidable Thorin Oakenshield, are on a quest across the Misty Mountains, through the dangerous Mirkwood, to the Lonely Mountain that was once their kingdom—before the dragon came.
The dwarves, they heard the tramp of doom.They fled their hall to dying fallBeneath his feet, beneath the moon.Far over the misty mountains grimTo dungeons deep and caverns dimWe must away, ere break of day,To win our harps and gold from him!
No one—from Thorin to Bilbo himself--can tell why their guide and mentor Gandalf has chosen Bilbo, such a timid and comfortable hobbit, as the fourteenth companion on such a perilous journey. But then, as the company runs into trolls, goblins, eagles, bears, giant spiders, Elves, and the fearsome and cunning old dragon Smaug, Bilbo proves his worth and, with the help of his Elvish dagger Sting and the magic ring he won in a game of riddles at the roots of a mountain, eventually becomes Thorin and Co.'s only hope for survival.
|One of the Tolkien illustrations.|
Because Gandalf is a prophet/angel figure, his role in getting the plot going is supposed to remind one of Providence. However, the theme goes much further than this, in that it is not the hero's actions which ultimately bring victory. Bilbo Baggins is the hero of this adventure, he is the one who repeatedly saves the dwarves from catastrophe, and he even has a role to play in the epic climax. But by then, events are entirely out of his control, and he can only do what he can and hope for the rest. The humility of his role—his inability to control and predestine events—is marked.
|An Alan Lee illustration|
“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in the wide world after all!”
In fact, there is a force far wiser and stronger at work than mere luck, as we'll see in The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo is not the predestinator of his fate, but a recipient and agent of some kind of providence. We'll get deeper into Tolkien's worldview later on as we dig into his more serious works.
|Captions are fun!|