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Corey Olsen Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
. boston . New York . 2012
copyright © 2012 by corey olsen All rights reserved for information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing company, 215 Park Avenue South, new York, new York 10003. www.hmhbooks.com Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data cIP data tK Book design by Melissa Lotfy Printed in the United States of America DOC 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 excerpts from The Hobbit by J.r.r. tolkien. copyright © 1937, 1951, 1966, 1978, 1995 by the J.r.r. tolkien copyright trust. reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing company. All rights reserved.
Introduction 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19.
A Most excellent and Audacious Hobbit 17 In the Lone-lands 39 the ridiculous and the Sublime 54 over the edge of the Wild 69 the turning Point 84 Where the Wild things Are 111 the friend of Bears and the Guest of eagles 127 the Stinging fly 147 Burgling faerie 166 the return of the King 183 When the thrush Knocks 196 Bilbo earns His reward 206 A Burglar Indeed 226 the Meeting of opposites 238 to Sit on a Pile of Gold and Starve 248 A Leap in the dark 258 the Sudden turn 265 Snow After fire 275 Under cloud and Under Star 288 Acknowledgments Index 309 307
I have loved J.r.r. tolkien’s books for as long as I can remember, though I must admit I don’t recall exactly how old I was when I first read The Hobbit; somewhere around eight, I believe. My very first reading of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit doesn’t stand out in my memory, probably because it was followed immediately by my second reading and then my third. I have read the books at least once a year for the rest of my life to date. I was not, in some ways, a stereotypical “tolkien nerd” as a teenager — I didn’t learn Quenya, I never taught myself to write tengwar, and I have never worn a pair of rubber ears. My relationship with tolkien has always been about reading and re-reading the books, immersing myself in the stories, in tolkien’s world. no matter how many times I read them, I find there are always new discoveries to make. tolkien’s works served for me, as they have for many, as a gateway to the Middle Ages, inspiring an enduring fascination with medieval literature. (tolkien’s books should probably come with some kind of warning attached: caution! May turn readers into Medievalists!) I ended up getting my Phd in medieval english literature, and when I was hired as a professor at Washington college in Maryland, I was soon able to realize one of my life’s dreams: in addition to my courses
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on chaucer and Arthurian literature, I also began to offer a course on tolkien. teaching tolkien’s works at the college level was just as much fun as I had expected it to be. In one way, that class was very different from any other class I had ever taught: most of the people who took my tolkien class were people who had already read tolkien, and many of them already considered themselves fans. As a medievalist, I had never had that experience before. I never had people sign up for my chaucer class because chaucer was their favorite author. no one had ever come up to me after class to show me the ragged and dearly loved copy of chrétien de troyes’s Arthurian romances that her parents had first read to her when she was seven. I never had a student who was a regular contributor to a Piers Plowman fan site and who regularly attended Langland conventions dressed up as conscience or one of the theological virtues. Generally, the first order of business in teaching medieval literature is lowering students’ defenses against it and convincing them that although it is strange and foreign to us, it is still fun and worthwhile. My tolkien students, by and large, needed far less convincing. I found among my tolkien students an obvious hunger to learn more and study the books more thoroughly. I also found numerous obstacles that students wanted help to overcome. casual fans found many things about tolkien’s writing difficult to understand, and some of his books difficult to get into at all (especially The Silmarillion). Many students, even those who had read tolkien’s major works many times, confessed that they skipped over the poetry as they read, and that the songs and poems just didn’t seem all that important or relevant. All in all, I found that what students both liked best and profited most from was the opportunity to read carefully and
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slowly through the texts, working out the meanings of tough passages and seeing how the ideas in the story came together. I taught my tolkien course several times, but as I advanced in my academic career, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the other half of my professorial duties: the world of scholarly publication. Professors, of course, must “publish or perish,” as everyone knows, but I found the world of scholarly publication frustratingly limited. I would be greatly surprised if many people reading this introduction have ever read the articles on Sir thomas Malory or even on tolkien that I had accepted early on in my career. typical academic books and journals circulate not to thousands, but to hundreds, or even to dozens, of people. they tend to be priced so high that only research libraries can afford to purchase them, and therefore the general public has little or no access to the work that most scholars do. Increasingly, scholarly publication has become in practice a closed conversation among scholars and some of their students. I knew that there were tens of thousands of people in the world who had the same desire to learn more about tolkien that my college students shared, and I wanted to engage them in a conversation to which everyone could be invited. In 2009, therefore, I started my podcast and website called The Tolkien Professor (www.tolkienprofessor.com). I started by posting lectures, and I was astounded by the response. Within a month of launching the podcast on itunes, I had over a thousand subscribers, and in a year the podcast had had over a million downloads. People were even more excited than I expected about the opportunity to take part in a serious academic conversation about tolkien. I began having recorded discussions, holding live call-in sessions, and hosting online seminars. I have been having a tremendous amount of fun
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talking to both dedicated tolkien fans and new tolkien readers alike over the past several years and helping to facilitate a deeper appreciation for tolkien’s works. this book brings together the lessons I’ve learned in the classroom, the experiences I’ve had through my podcast, and the love I’ve always had for tolkien’s work. there is nothing I enjoy more than walking slowly through a great book with a group of people, taking the time to notice important details and keep track of themes that often slip by when you read on your own. I hope that you too will enjoy the journey.
Many people, I have discovered, get nervous at the prospect of a literary critic discussing a work they love. too many people have had unpleasant experiences in high school english classes in which they were made to disassemble works of literature, and they don’t want to see that grisly fate befall a work they actually value. this book, however, is not called Dissecting The Hobbit. I will not be acting as an amateur psychiatrist (or psychic), claiming to tell you what was in tolkien’s mind and why as he wrote the book.* I will not be enthron* When I use quotations from The Hobbit in this book, I generally attribute them to the narrator of the story, rather than to tolkien himself. I do this in part to draw attention to the character of the narrator, who is an important figure in this story, and in part because I want to make a distinction between the many occasions on which I am pointing to what the text says and the far fewer occasions on which I am explaining a theory of my own about tolkien’s ideas. As a rule, I do the latter quite seldom. I make no claims to be able to read tolkien’s mind posthumously, and in most of this book I will simply be discussing the patterns that we can see in the published text. I do
Exploring The Hobbit
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ing myself on the judgment seat as the arbiter of taste, telling you which bits of The Hobbit are good and which are bad. In the end, this book just sets out to do a little more of what I suppose you already do yourself: reading and enjoying The Hobbit. In Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, we will take a journey through the story, looking carefully about us as we go. It is easy to rip through a book that you like at top speed; the main thing I hope to do is to slow things down enough to be able to see more clearly what is unfolding in the story as we go. We will take notice of the recurring themes and images in the book, thinking about the ideas that the story keeps coming back to and developing along the way. We will listen closely to all the songs and poems tolkien has built into the story, for they reveal a great deal about the book and especially about the characters who sing or recite them. If we walk slowly and pay attention, we may find that our perspective is enriched by the journey as much as Bilbo’s was, and that our eyes have been opened to marvels that we never expected to see. Along the way, we will see the cultures and characters of several new peoples: the dwarves, the trolls, the Goblins, the eagles, the elves (of both rivendell and Mirkwood), and the Men of Lake-town. We will meet a few remarkable characters with whom we will be invited to linger, so that we can get to know them better — such as Gollum, Beorn, and Bard
not claim to know whether tolkien himself thought about those themes and patterns consciously or not. I have tried, therefore, not to attribute ideas to tolkien himself unless I believe there is good evidence that tolkien consciously intended those ideas.
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the Bowman. Most of all, however, we will see several central ideas that come up repeatedly throughout the book: 1. Bilbo’s Nature: In chapter one, we learn that Bilbo is the child of two very different families, the tooks and the Bagginses, and that his Baggins side and his took side push him in very different directions. the interaction between these different impulses in Bilbo is one of the central realities of Bilbo’s character, and tolkien’s handling of the balance between Bilbo’s tookish and Bagginsish* desires as the story proceeds is subtle and complex, not following the simple patterns that we might expect. 2. Bilbo’s Choices: there are several moments in Bilbo’s journey when he comes to a crucial decision point, when he must take a huge step forward on his own. Waking up alone in the goblin tunnels, coming to his senses to find a giant spider tying up his legs, setting out down a dark tunnel to confront a dragon in his lair — these are the particular moments that define Bilbo’s character as the story progresses, and the narrator lays great stress on them. 3. Burglar Bilbo: Bilbo’s adventure begins when he is identified by Gandalf and hired by the dwarves as a professional burglar, and throughout the story we are reminded of Bilbo’s relationship with his official position. At first, Bilbo’s hiring seems like a rather absurd human resources failure, but his
* tolkien uses the adjective Tookish numerous times, but he never uses the much sillier corresponding word Bagginsish. that term is my own invention, and I must admit that I enjoy how clunky and comical the word looks — there is something about it that seems to me to capture the discomfort and awkwardness so often associated with Bilbo’s Baggins side during his adventure. However, since this word is not in fact used in the book, I’ve tried not to get carried away with it.
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burglarious career ends up going in some quite surprising directions. 4. The Desolation of the Dragon: When Bilbo and the dwarves finally approach the Lonely Mountain, they find that it is surrounded by a wasteland that the dragon has made by his very presence, choking off the life that once filled those fertile lands. In the second half of the book, however, we begin to see that the physical desolation that the dragon has created also serves as an image for the destructiveness of dragonish desires: the “dragon-sickness,” as the narrator calls it. each character confronts these desires, and in some ways the dangers they face only increase after the dragon himself is killed. 5. Luck: Bilbo and his friends are the beneficiaries of a peculiar run of both good and bad luck in their journey, and the narrator draws our attention to it quite forcefully on several occasions. In addition, we learn in chapter three that the quest of the dwarves is bound up with the fulfillment of old prophecies, which come more and more plainly to the center of the story as Bilbo’s journey continues. through the interactions between the choices of the characters and the frequent interventions of luck, Bilbo’s story challenges us to think about the relationship between fate and human choice. 6. The Writing of the Hobbit: At several points, we will pause to look at the construction of the story and the secondary world that tolkien has made through that story. The Hobbit is a story that is very self-conscious of being a story, as we are reminded when we see Bilbo actually writing the book in its last pages. tolkien enjoyed thinking and writing about stories and their growth, and as we read, we will take a look at how tolkien frames the story, and how the tone of the story grows and changes.
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I have laid out my discussion of The Hobbit chapter by chapter, so that it is easy to read it alongside the original. I have also included subheadings in each chapter, however, so that those who would like to skip ahead to trace a particular theme forward in the book may conveniently do so.