The Hobbit: The Nursery is Where It’s At

I’ve undertaken to read this to the boy; our first real book with chapters. Richard and I alternate reading at bedtime, so the experience is kind of fractured, but so far I’m loving it. I got to be trolls tonight. I do brilliant trolls. 


When I was six, my dad, who was more the reader-at-nighter of my parents, endeavored to read The Hobbit to me. He got to the part about the giant spiders in Mirkwood, and I promptly lost my damn mind, and begged him to stop reading. He did. My room at the time was this odd room that couldn’t rightly be said to be on any floor of the house but its own: you reached the top of the stairs to the second floor, and then there was a door at the end of the long, Victorian hallway, then then another set of maybe five stairs to a small room with sloping ceilings, kind of like a dormer, but not. I couldn’t be called an arachnophobe, exactly, but I was regularly terrified by mosquitoes that would somehow get into the bedroom while I was sleeping, drink my blood, and then whine around me in the dark. The ceilings were dotted with the bug and blood marks when my dad would have to come in after I started screaming and hunt down the offending insects with a shoe. So boo on you, mosquitoes, and boo on giant spiders. 

When I was eight, he started again, and the intervening two years gave me the composure necessary to finish the tale. I loved it. I didn’t really go on a big rampage of reading fantasy at this point, although I did like the Lloyd Alexander stuff I found in the school library. But something about this story made me want to write it myself, and I set to telling the tale of some creature who never went on adventures until he did and then all manner of craziness ensued. I don’t know where any of this writing has gone, and in truth I don’t think I really want to see it, but I’m now stuck by the power of Tolkien’s writing to make other people want to write. I just recently finished reading Meditations on Middle-Earth: New Writing on the Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien by Orson Scott Card, Ursula K. Le Guin, Raymond E. Fei, and if there is any commonality to the stories of latter day fantasists, it’s that being readers of Tolkien made them writers. (I mean, shit yeah, writers are always readers first – duh – but I’m just going to go on record as saying that if an author claims never to read, then they aren’t an author, they’re a dumb word product generator/marketer, and no reader should ever encourage them. There’s enough crappy word-product coming out of people who actually give a tinker’s damn, bless them.) There’s something exceptional about Tolkien’s world that drives people to tell stories themselves, something weird and hind-brain, coiled up in our mystical and commonplace daily word usage that jumps from the dinner table anecdote to the broad, unending vistas of the otherworldly. Man, just thinking about it makes me all hot. 

I started reading this to my own son now that he is six. I fretted a bunch about the giant spiders, but of course it turns out that I am not him, or he is not me, and we don’t share the same fears. I’ve read The Hobbit maybe a half dozen times, or had it read to me, but I’ve never before been in the position to read it aloud to someone else. I thoroughly recommend having some babies for the purposes of reading stuff aloud to them. Barring that, as that could possibly be irresponsible and expensive, take a very patient lover and spend some time in a darkish room in your pajamas and really roll the tale out. (This stuff may not be sexy in the strictest sense, but literacy is hot however you slice it, and this is the kind of tale for the telling.) Be the freaking trolls, wield Sting while you shout attercop and slash down your arachnid foes, smoke and steam and lie like Smaug in the ruined halls, squeak and scheme and try to avert a battle of five armies, and fail, but fail in the honesty of smallness. The story rips along for the most part, a busy enough tale to keep the attention of distractable six year olds for maybe half the time. This may sound like I’m damning it with faint praise, but half is maybe the best for which a parent can hope.

This most recent reading has given me an appreciation for the role of the narrator in The Hobbit. The narrator’s often a tricky beast, capable of bringing down the entire narrative house of cards with his or her weird intrusions and extra-narrative knowledge. Who the hell are you, narrator? Stop that right now! But when done well, the narrator can be this sly commentary on the mechanics of plot and character. I’m thinking here of the narrator in Persuasion, whose voice rings with the authority and social barbarism that is everything the (very beloved, and almost idealized) main character is not. Narrators are often genderless, but the Persuasion narrator is almost a counterpoint to Anne’s hyper-femininity, not male exactly, but differently female. You see this when one of the Musgroves injures herself in the seaside town. The prose is simple, descriptive, a series of declarations. Anne within this narrative takes charge in the most feminine of ways, and manages to tell everyone what to do without ever using the imperative; indeed, I think even without finishing a sentence, but I don’t have the book in front of me. (I’m so far off topic, it’s awesome to behold. I’ll try to bring it back around.) The narrator details the domestic with her clear prose; the character is the domestic with her silence and demurrals. 

Tolkien’s not much interested in the questions of gender. Now that I’ve typed maybe the most insanely obvious statement I’ve ever written in a review, (gold star! high fives!) when I give it some thought, I realize that women in The Hobbit function as a sort of bracketing device. There’s some mention of Bilbo’s mother at the start, descended from the Old Took himself, and Bilbo has to confront the acquisitive Sackville-Bagginses when he gets home, but at its heart, The Hobbit is concerned with what happens when a quiet boy is thrust into the world of men. Bilbo is not child at the beginning, but he’s comfortable and domestic, puffing about getting seed cakes and dratting unwelcome visitors who mess up his kitchen. Throughout the tale, he pines for food and bed, and those lovely old standards of feminine affection, the pocket handkerchief. I don’t think anyone much uses those anymore, but my Grandfather did, and those worn and frayed squares of cloth, washed, folded and placed habitually in the pockets of his jackets by my Grandmother, are one of the few items I took from his belongings when he died. For me, and it’s possible that I’m an eccentric in this regard, the pocket handkerchief is an emblem of the quiet and commonplace intersections that take place between partners in traditional gender roles, and Grandpa’s hanky, and his love for Grandma, and her love back makes me all weeping and nostalgic for a social structure that I habitually scorn, wasn’t raised in, and have no interest in bringing back, even if such a project weren’t doomed to utter failure. 

The narrator in the Hobbit consistently situates the events of the story in a mythic past, while the story itself plays out a very different set of values than the a traditional heroic legend. The story begins more in the style of the anecdote, with its digressions and definitions, and only very slowly works into the mode of the fairy tale. The narrator defines hobbits, gossips a bit about Gandalf, Bilbo’s parents and house, and then a few pages in does the “once upon a time” thing: “By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was more green and less noise…” The dwarves – my spell check is insisting on dwarfs, but it can go screw itself – intrude on Bilbo’s peace, tell tales of gold and dragon slaying and other glorious pursuits, and it’s the tale that sent him puffing out the door. Bilbo, the most hobbitest of hobbits, which is by definition the most domestic, social and quiet of beings, gets swept off into the world of legends, and I think it’s totally fascinating that Bilbo here functions as a kind of reader-proxy. I sit in the most domestic of settings, as my father did, read out this tale of adventure to my children in the safety of their own bedrooms, and Bilbo’s constant whining and dratting undercuts the honor of war and the mythos of danger. The boy loves the wizards and dangers, but part of the fascination is born of fear, and Bilbo keeps reminding us that the fear is real, hungry and uncomfortable. 

This is where the narrator comes in. He – and I’m going to call the narrator a he, because it’s the only thing that makes sense – is the voice of the present, who simultaneously places this story in the mythic past and then confounds the story’s mythic status. There are lots of fairy tales and the like about plucky younger sons who make their ways through the world using luck and wit, and I think one could mistake Bilbo for one of these, he’s really much more of a Shaggy-from-Scooby-Doo-style bungler and coward. I mean this in the best possible way. We all hate Fred, with his fearless masculinity, (or should, because c’mon, man) and Shaggy/Bilbo isn’t so much feminine as differently masculine, the kind of masculine that doesn’t sit upon hordes of gold with nothing to eat, but instead pines for a good meal and a hanky. The hanky ends up being the standard of femininity, carried with Bilbo on his journey, pined for in the dangerous world of men, their heroic wars, travels and squabbles. Bilbo carries idea of the handkerchief with him, trying to apply the less aggressive, less “heroic” modes of conflict resolution to the problems ahead of him. He sneaks, he burgles, he riddles: all the quiet activities of the clown, the the weakling, the sensitive boy, the Shag and Scoobs of the world. 

I realize now I have a hobby horse about Tolkien and his experience with WWI, but I’m going to get up and ride it anyway. The heroic tale of the national hero, whose ethnic identity is wound up with his goodness, managed to get his ass completely mowed down by the mechanism and mass-production of the world wars. There are no heroes in WWI, only silly and tragic figures like the Red Baron, who flew the symbol of the future of warfare using the outdated social models of the Romantic Past. Bilbo puts a face on the cannon fodder, and doesn’t so much speak to power as pick its pockets, get knocked in the head, and survive due to to love of comfort over the love of glory. Here is Bilbo’s response after being found, unconscious, at the end of the battle:

“Victory after all, I suppose!” he said, feeling his aching head. “Well, it seems a very gloomy business.” 

And again, after being led to the Thorin’s bedside, as Thorin lays dying he says to Bilbo:

“There is more good in you than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!”

Then Bilbo turned away, and went by himself, and sat alone wrapped in a blanket, and whether you believe it or not, he wept until his eyes were red and his voice was hoarse.”

I’ll try not to go off about Tolkien’s directional metaphors; how the West is often synonymous with tradition, the conservative, the homey, even while it carries the implications of death and stagnation. The East is where you go to find your death and salvation, in Tolkien’s most Christian of terms, but it is not a path of ease and comfort. 

I was also struck, in this reading, by Tolkien’s fierce and loving descriptions of landscape. One of the reasons Middle Earth seems so real is that Tolkien conjures dirt and rock, tree and water in this incredibly solid way. I was lucky enough to be the one who read the section in which Smaug batters and destroys the rock ledge where Bilbo and the dwarves had been camped in their attempts to infiltrate the mountain, and the majesty and violence of that description really moved me. It made me think of the devastation of Europe, the earth itself laid low by the engines of war. The earth of Middle Earth is a love song and a eulogy to the lost landscape of Tolkien’s youth. He and many other young men were swept out the door on the path to glory and victory, and the dragons they slew ended up being the myth of progress and heroism. Tolkien was savvy enough to see that the heroic quest is almost coded within the language, and that rewriting such a thing requires not just a simple reversal, but a reordering of heroism. Thorin, by all rights, is the hero of the story; his is the will that sets the plot in motion, and his temper and anger are the hallmarks of heroes stretching back to Achilles. Bilbo is not an anti-hero, who simply turns his anger and his will against the things for which the hero stands, but something subtler and more cunning: the fool. Sure, nothing would ever get done with a Bilbo in charge, but let us hope and pray that our Thorins can have clown such as Bilbo there to remind them that a myth is more useful in the nursery than on the battlefield. 

Tolkien was famously irritated that fairy tales had been “relegated to the nursery”, but I humbly think he’s wrong, that the telling of such stories to boys who will become men is the first order of business for we mothers who pray and hope for world in which the test of manhood is not glory but some courage and some wisdom, blended in equal measure. 

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