At the Last Homely House The Hobbit Becomes a Classic
I’ve just finished chapter four of The Hobbit, “Over Hill and Under Hill,” for Brona’s Hobbit/Lord of the Rings Readalong, and for me this is where the story really begins to pick up (Minor spoilers of the first four chapters ahead). I especially love the book’s opening opening chapter, in which the story feels like a tale told by a grandfather to his grandchildren, with its authorial intrusions:
…what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits needs some description nowadays…
Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have heard only very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale.
But these quaint interruptions keep the story at the level of a child’s tale, and it takes a while for Tolkien to really hit his narrative stride, and that’s when The Hobbit develops into something really special. The transition begins to occur when the company reaches Rivendell and meets Elrond:
With the mention of Elrond, Bilbo’s story is linked to The Silmarillion, a mythological cycle that Tolkien had been writing since World War I, elaborating the vast migrations of the elves. This cycle, written in a style reminiscent of Old Testament histories, was repeatedly revised, and finally published in 1977.
William Green, The Hobbit: A Journey into Maturity, page 59
From the moment Elrond steps into the story, The Hobbit becomes something more than it was before. Elrond speaks of ancient wars and renowned swords, and the reader begins to understand that this story is part of something bigger.
With the mention of Elrond and Gondolin, and fabled swords from past millennia, Tolkien discovers a subtext that will lend his whimsical tale the resonances to make it a classic. (Green, page 59)
Much of this is due to Tolkien’s revisions to the original book. After completing The Lord of the Rings Tolkien revised The Hobbit to bring it more in line with the events, tone, and themes in his epic trilogy. The revised text of The Hobbit was published as a second edition in 1951, and still more revisions took place leading to a third edition in 1966. Green describes how Tolkien’s revisions shaped The Hobbit from a children’s classic into a classic for all ages:
Thus, after a shaky start, an almost-false beginning barely covered over with post-1937 revisions, Tolkien finds at Elrond’s house the deep roots of a heroic fiction for his century. It is here that the tone solidifies, taking on muted resonances of Beowulf, Norse sagas, and the Bible, and the hobbit tale borrows high seriousness from a millennial history of struggles between good and evil, the Goblin-wars and the fall of Gondolin….the “children’s book” fatuities of the early chapters vanish like mist, leaving only a few odd wisps behind. (Green, 60-61)
As I said earlier, I appreciate the grandfather-like tone of the narrator at the beginning of the story, but as Bilbo begins to grow up during his adventures, I think it fitting that the tone grows up along with him.
In any case, I am still enchanted by the story as I continue to read it. I intentionally stopped myself on the doorstep of my favorite chapter, “Riddles in the Dark,” in order to savor it more fully. In many ways, “Riddles in the Dark” is the heart not only of The Hobbit, but of the entire Hobbit/Lord of the Rings saga.
Into the Misty Mountains I go once again!