As Tolkien later told it, the story began with a blank page he found in a student's term paper he was grading when he was a professor at Oxford. Never one to let a blank piece of paper go to waste, he jotted down a random sentence which came to mind: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." At the time he had no idea what a hobbit might be, but the line sounded like a good start for something. He was right about that. The first sentence of The Hobbit is one of the best-known opening lines in 20th Century literature.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a philologist. Not just your typical scholar of languages who studies vowel shifts and tries to trace the development of the Indo-European tongue. No, he was a full-bore language geek: the kind of guy who starts a club to read Finnish epics to each other in the original Finnish -- and gets people to join who don't even speak it; the kind of guy who invents his own languages for fun. It's been said that his life's work, The Silmarillion, started because he had devised an Elvish language and then had to build a world for the language to fit in.
This is not entirely true. Tolkien's early ambition was to write a national epic for England, the way the Kalevala was the national epic of Finland or the Aeneid of Virgil was the national epic of Rome. He didn't quite succeed. His national epic sort of morphed into a sprawling history of the elves which he never in his lifetime was able to organize to his satisfaction into a consistent narrative. It fell to his son, Christopher, to complete The Silmarillion after his death. At the time , though, Tolkien couldn't find a publisher interested in his elvish saga. And, of course, he got distracted by Hobbits.
He began The Hobbit as a children's story, and the narrative voice of the book is that of a father reading aloud to his children. Some readers find this tone annoying, and those who try reading Tolkien chronologically and go from the sonorous tragedy of The Simarillion to the whimsical once-upon-a-timeness of The Hobbit can suffer narrative whiplash. But although Tolkien conceived The Hobbit as a children's story, he did not forget his elvish history. As he told his fireside tale about the befuddled hobbit and the thirteen dwarves, he filled in the background with hints of the greater deeds of the Elder Days. Perhaps it was inevitable that such a story fertilized by such a background rich in legend would grow into something grander; and the sequel Tolkien wound up writing grew into an epic of its own -- if not a national epic, then certainly an English one.
The story begins with Bilbo Baggins, a solid, well-to-do middle-class hobbit. It's been said that England is a nation of shopkeepers, but also that it is a nation of poets. Bilbo Baggins has a little of both in his make-up. Although he looks and acts much like a second edition of his conservative, respectable father, he also has a liking for beautiful things like flowers and fireworks, and probably more imagination than his father would have thought proper. The narrator ascribes these un-Baggins-like tendencies to his mother, who came from the more adventurous Took family.
This comfortable, complacent Baggins is sitting outside his home one day, when the wizard Gandalf comes by.
Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale. Tales and adventures sprouted up all over the place wherever he went, in the most extraordinary fashion.Gandalf is looking for a volunteer to join an adventure he is arranging, but Bilbo will have none of it. "We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" But not wanting to offend the wizard, Bilbo invites him to tea the following afternoon.
What Bilbo gets is a string of dwarves who show upon his doorstep the next day, one after the other. Note the spelling please. Tolkien was particular about this. The correct plural of "dwarf" is "dwarfs", but Tolkien preferred to spell it "dwarves" to give it a more archaic flavor and to differentiate his version from the cutesy Disneyfied versions which Victorian storytellers had left. Tolkien had no end of trouble with the proofreaders over his spelling, but in the end he scored a small victory: today "dwarves" is accepted as an alternate plural of "dwarf"
These dwarves are led by a chieftain named Thorin Oakenshield, the grandson of a great dwarvish king; and he intends to lead his companions on an expedition to the Lonely Mountain, where his people once lived until they were driven out by the Dragon Smaug. Gandalf has offered to help them, and has selected Biblo to accompany them in the capacity as a burglar, to help them break into the dragon's mountain fastness.
The dwarves are initially skeptical. "He looks more like a grocer than a burglar," one of them comments. Bilbo is not keen on the adventure either, and greatly resents being the butt of Gandalf's practical joke. But he finds his imagination stirred by the dwarves and their quest, and against his better judgement finds himself agreeing to join them before he even realizes what he's doing.
The story skims over the early parts of the journey, through lands described in better detail in Lord of the Rings. The first incident of note occurs one night when the party is far from settled areas and caught in a drenching rainstorm. Gandalf is missing; he tends to come and go depending on the needs of the plot; (something the dwarves find highly annoying: "Just when a wizard would be most useful," one of them complains); so they send Bilbo off to investigate a campfire they spot in the distant trees.
The campfire belongs to three cockney trolls, (Yes, I'm afraid trolls do behave like that, even those with only one head each), and Bilbo's encounter with them plays out very much like an old folktale, with Gandalf saving the day by tricking the trolls into arguing with each other until the rising sun turns them to stone.
Continuing onward, the party gets to pause in Rivendell, the elvish haven ruled by Elrond the Half-Elven, a figure from Tolkien's elvish history. Elrond is a descendant of Beren and Luthien and was present at Sauron's defeat during the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. But none of that comes up in this story. In the Hobbit he is a wise lore-master and a friend of Gandalf's who gives the party advice; little more.
Beyond Rivendell lie the Misty Mountains, a high mountain chain stretching across the continent; home of goblins and all manner of nasty creatures. Gandalf guides them up the mountain passes, but a violent storm forces the party to take refuge in a suspiciously convenient cave. During the night, the dwarves and Bilbo are attacked by goblins and dragged off into the mountain depths. Gandalf once again comes to the rescue, but as they are all fleeing the goblins, Bilbo becomes separated from the party.
NEXT: Riddles in the Dark; or: It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Ring!