Tolkien Re-read Part I: The Hobbit (Chapters 1-3)


Since The Hobbit was originally published in 1937, there are many editions of it out there in the world. For these posts I will be reading from Houghton Mifflin’s 1999 trade paperback edition. If you’re reading along, front matter may differ but the text itself should be the same (unless you’re reading from an edition published before 1951. In which case, are you attached to it and can I buy it from you?).

Before I get started I want to give a quick warning: There might be spoilers ahead. For the most part, the posts will keep in time with the chapters I’m discussing from The Hobbit, but I will probably also make references to things that occur in The Lord of the Rings, because the two are so closely tied in my brain and I get giddy when making connections. If you’ve at least seen the movies, it won’t be a problem. I suspect the references will be mostly inconsequential to the plot. But, yeah. Just putting that out there. Moving on!

Chapter 1: An Unexpected Party

In the first chapter we’re introduced to Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit (short of stature, large hairy feet, eats at least seven meals a day, avoids adventures) who, being a well-to-do hobbit, lives in the hobbit-hole equivalent of a mansion. We learn that although Bilbo’s family is well respected for being properly predictable, his mother, Belladonna Took, came from a decidedly less hobbit-like family with a history of discretely hushed-up adventures. This bodes ill for our hero’s respectfully quiet life.

The story itself gets started when, as Bilbo is standing at his door smoking his pipe, the (in)famous wizard Gandalf shows up. You know Gandalf—elderly chap, big grey beard, pointy hat. Anyway, Gandalf shows up and this happens:

Gandalf: I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.

Bilbo: Well I should think so—in these parts! We are a plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.

Quite the proper hobbit response, but it doesn’t do Bilbo much good. After some more talk about adventures, he gets flustered and sends Gandalf on his way, but not before reflexively asking him to tea the next day. Gandalf, left on the doorstep after Bilbo went inside to go about his business (mainly cake eating), laughs quietly to himself before scratching a “queer sign” on the front door. Tricky wizard.

Bilbo forgets to put Gandalf Tea Wednesday on his engagement tablet, however, and doesn’t recall that he’s made plans until the doorbell rings at tea-time. But it’s not Gandalf at the door, it’s a dwarf named Dwalin. After a greeting and a bow and an awkward silence, Bilbo invites him in for tea. Not long after, the doorbell rings again. But, nope, still not Gandalf. It’s Balin, another dwarf, who Bilbo (polite as ever, though quite beside himself) also invites in for tea. Then, just as Bilbo is serving beer and cake to Balin, the doorbell rings yet again. This time, instead of Gandalf, it’s two dwarves—Kili and Fili—and they come in for tea, too. And then—okay, you see where this is going. Let’s sum up.

Dwarves Who Arrived at Bilbo’s Unannounced, a List

– Dwalin

– Balin

– Kili & Fili

– Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, & Gloin

– Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, & Richard Armitage—I mean, Thorin Oakenshield

Gandalf, having finally arrived with Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, and Thorin, announces that this is “quite a merry gathering” and they all sit down to tea. Except it’s not really tea anymore because some of them are drinking beer or wine or coffee, and there appears to be much feasting on mince-pies and cheeses and apple tarts and eggs and cold chicken and pickles. Quite possibly the oddest day ever, especially for poor baffled Bilbo.

After the eating, there is music and singing about a dragon that wreaked some fiery havoc and stole dwarvish treasures. The lyrics for the song appear on page 14-15, but it’s much more exciting to hear this bit in the trailer (Did you click the link? Did you squee? I sure did—I mean, Richard Armitage singing…Sorry, I digress):

Far over the misty mountains cold

To dungeons deep and caverns old

The pines were roaring on the height,

The winds were moaning in the night.

The fire was red, it flaming spread;

The trees like torches blazed with light.

As it turns out, this song is why these thirteen dwarves appeared unannounced at Bilbo’s house—the story it tells is true. The dwarves are heading out on a journey to reclaim their stolen treasure from a dragon named Smaug and are in need of a treasure-hunter to help them in their task, so Gandalf has led them to Bilbo. The sign that he scratched into Bilbo’s front door the day before is a mark that reads “Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward.” Tricky wizard, indeed.

There follows some (rather valid) arguments from the dwarves about whether or not Bilbo is fit for the task (though by this point Bilbo’s adventurous Took side has taken over and he’s warmed up to the idea of a journey) but Gandalf sets them straight:

Gandalf: You asked me to find the fourteenth man for your expedition, and I chose Mr. Baggins. Just let anyone say I chose the wrong man or the wrong house, and you can stop at thirteen and have all the bad luck you like, or go back to digging coal.

Touché, Gandalf, touché. It seems even dwarves find thirteen to be an unpalatable number. With the dwarves silenced and Bilbo suddenly determined to participate, Gandalf pulls out a map of the mountain where Smaug lives. And not just any map, a map made by Thorin’s grandfather, Thror. 

Thrors Map

[See the pointing hand on the left side? It’s pointing to a rune marked at the base of the Lonely Mountain which indicates a secret entrance to the Lower Halls. The runes below the hand (as Gandalf translates) read “Five feet high the door and three may walk abreast.” More on Tolkien’s runes in next week’s post.]

Talk of Thror’s map and its secret passage starts a discussion in which we learn that in the time of Thorin’s grandfather his family was driven out of their homes in the far North and later settled at the Lonely Mountain, which had been discovered by Thrain the Old, an ancestor of Thorin’s. There they mined and crafted and became rich (as dwarves tend to do), and—are you ready for this?—Thror became King under the Mountain. That’s Thror the mapmaker, grandfather of Thorin, descendent of Thrain the Old who discovered the Lonely Mountain. (Are you keeping track of all these similar sounding T-names?) So, this guy Thorin, he’s kind of a big deal (which makes perfect sense, since he’s Richard Armitage).

Anyway, King Thror and his people lived under the mountain making beautiful things from the riches they mined and gathering fame for their craftsmanship. Then the dragon Smaug came and set fire to the mountain, killing all the dwarves inside and burrowing deep into the mountain with their gold and jewels. The only dwarves to survive were those who happened to be outside at the time (Thorin among them) and Thorin’s father (another Thrain) and grandfather (King Thror), who both escaped from the mountain via a secret passage. Later, Thror made the map marking the passage and gave it to Thrain who gave it to Gandalf who gives it to Thorin to aide him and his fellow dwarves in reclaiming their home and their stolen treasure.

Some planning and strategizing follows this bit of history, and then the chapter ends with Bilbo finding a place for all his guests to sleep before going to bed himself. He falls asleep listening to Thorin singing and is no longer quite so certain that he’ll be going on this journey. (Quit waffling, Bilbo. We all know you’re going.)

Chapter 2: Roast Mutton

When Bilbo wakes up the next morning he discovers that the dwarves and Gandalf have left, and finds the remains of a large breakfast in his kitchen. Relieved (yet also disappointed) that they went off on their journey without him, he cleans up the mess and makes his own breakfast, scolding himself the whole time for even thinking of “dragons and all that outlandish nonsense.”

But then Gandalf shows up to ask Bilbo why he’s taking so long, and didn’t he get the message, and “great elephants!” he didn’t get the message? The dwarves left it on the mantelpiece. (This is why I enjoy Tolkien. Where else will you find an exclamation like that?) Gandalf retrieves the message from the mantel and hands it to Bilbo, and thus we get one of the most amusing notes ever written:

Thorin and Company to Burglar Bilbo greeting! For your hospitality our sincerest thanks, and for your offer of professional assistance our grateful acceptance. Terms: cash on delivery, up to and not exceeding one fourteenth of total profits (if any); all traveling expenses guaranteed in any event; funeral expenses to be defrayed by us or our representatives, if occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for.

Thinking it unnecessary to disturb your esteemed repose, we have proceeded in advance to make requisite preparation, and shall await your respected person at the Green Dragon Inn, Bywater, at 11 a.m. sharp. Trusting that you will be punctual,

We have the honour to remain

Yours deeply

Thorin & Co.

In my head this reads, “Hey, thanks for agreeing to help us on our dangerous journey! We’ll pay you—in cash!—1/14 of profits we might not obtain. But we’ll pay for your travel! Also, your funeral if you die, because you might. We’re waiting for you at the Green Dragon. Don’t be late. K’bye!” Those dwarves, they really know how to sell a job.

With only ten minutes to get to the Green Dragon, Gandalf shoos Bilbo out the door and he gets there just as Thorin & Co. are saddling up their ponies (they even brought a very small pony for Bilbo). They start riding once everyone is settled and Gandalf joins them on the road.

So begins the journey. There follows some traveling and some singing and some storytelling and some eating and some more traveling. They pass through hobbit-lands and the Lone-lands and some other lands until one night, as they’re preparing to setup camp, they notice that Gandalf has disappeared. There is some groaning about how he’s left them just when they needed him to help find a dry spot to spend the night. Then, as Oin and Gloin are attempting to start a fire, Balin notices firelight on a wooded hill not far from them, and they all begin to argue about whether or not they should go and see what it is.

In the end they send Bilbo off to investigate, since he’s their burglar and all. And burglars are sneaky…or something. In any case, hobbits can walk absolutely silently through wooded areas, so Bilbo is up to the task. When he reaches the fire he sees three very large creatures (these are trolls) sitting around it and roasting mutton. Remember this scene at Bilbo’s birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring? Well, that pretty much sums up the rest of this chapter, so you should probably just click and watch it.


Okay, just kidding. So, Bilbo comes upon the mutton-roasting trolls (William, Tom, and Bert). They’re arguing about having to eat mutton (again) until they spot Bilbo. William catches him and Tom suggests they cook him, but William says he’d barely be a mouthful. Then Bert asks Bilbo if there are any more of his sort nearby and this delightful exchange happens:

Bilbo: Yes, lots. No, none at all, not one.

Bert: What d’yer mean?

Bilbo: What I say! And please don’t cook me, kind sirs! I am a good cook myself, and cook better than I cook, if you see what I mean. I’ll cook beautifully for you, a perfectly beautiful breakfast for you, if only you won’t have me for supper.

William: Poor little blighter. Poor little blighter! Let him go!

Bert: Not till he says what he means by lots and none at all.

William and Bert start fighting about whether or not to hold Bilbo’s toes in the fire until he talks. Bert calls William fat and stupid. William calls Bert a lout. And then they’re punching each other while Tom whacks at them with a stick.

Now free, Bilbo is outside the firelight recovering from being dropped by Bert when Balin appears. The moment the trolls see the dwarf, they stop fighting and catch him in a sack. Convinced that more must be on the way, William, Bert, and Tom grab some more sacks and wait in the shadows. Then, as each dwarf appears, they catch them, sack them, and toss them in a pile by the fire. Thorin is the last of the dwarves to show up, and manages to give them a good fight before being captured (despite the movie photos and trailers, Thorin still looks like this in my head, so I have trouble imagining how the trolls sacked him in the space of a paragraph).

Roast Mutton Image

Bilbo, too scared to move, hides in a bush as the trolls begin to argue about how to cook the dwarves (boil them, roast them, squash them into jelly—so many options!). But then Gandalf returns and, hiding behind a tree, he gets the trolls arguing again by impersonating their voices and causing general confusion until the sun comes up and turns them to stone.

Gandalf helps Bilbo out of the bush, frees the dwarves, and they go off in search of the trolls’ cave. When they find it, they take some food and supplies (swords, even!) and gold before making camp for the night. The next morning they continue their travels East, but not before this exchange with Gandalf:

Thorin: Where did you go to, if I may ask?

Gandalf: To look ahead.

Thorin: And what brought you back in the nick of time?

Gandalf: Looking behind.

Thorin: Exactly! But could you be more plain?

I love Gandalf. He answers without answering and people mostly deal with it. But here he actually does do some explaining: He went ahead to scout the road and ran into “two of Elrond’s people” (yay elves!) who informed him of the trolls in the area, which gave him a feeling that he was wanted back. And then he scolds them all for not being more careful. And Thorin says thank you. See? Gandalf = awesome.

Chapter 3: A Short Rest

Chapter 3 is a short chapter about a short rest, so I’ll try to keep this…short.

After some more travel exposition, Gandalf, Bilbo, and Thorin & Co. come within sight of the Misty Mountains, which they’ll have to travel over (or under) in order to get to their final destination. Ever one for encouraging words, Gandalf addresses this by saying, “It is very necessary to tackle the Misty Mountains by the proper track, or else you will get lost in them, and have to come back and start at the beginning again (if you ever get back at all).”

With this in mind, and the fact that they need food and rest before tackling the mountains, Gandalf leads them to Rivendell, a secret valley that is home to elves. There they meet Elrond, the lord of Rivendell, who we’re told has both elves and “heroes of the North” for ancestors (also, he’s something like 6,000 years old, but we don’t really know that yet).  Along with allowing our travelers to rest in Rivendell for a time and gather supplies, Elrond reveals a few useful things to them:

Things Gandalf, Bilbo, and Thorin & Co. Learn from Elrond

1. Those swords they took from the trolls are crazy old and were made by the High Elves of the West in Gondolin for the Goblin-Wars. (Random aside: “The Fall of Gondolin” is one of my favorite stories. Stick around for The Silmarillion re-read and you can find out why.) Thorin’s is called Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver; Gandalf’s is Glamdring, Foehammer, which belonged to the king of Gondolin. (And from this the genre trope of a special sword/weapon of magical significance/evil-defeating power was born. Okay, not really. I just made that up. It was probably King Arthur and Excalibur.)

2. Thror’s map has moon-letters on it, which can only be seen when the light of the moon is behind them—even trickier, it has to be the light of a moon that is the same shape and season as the one that was in the sky when the runes were written. What a happy bit of luck! The runes offer another clue to entering the secret passage in the Lonely Mountain: “Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.”

Thorin explains that Durin’s Day only occurs when the last moon of autumn (which is the dwarvish New Year) and the sun are in the sky together. This revelation offers a bit of concern since there is no way to guarantee that they will get to the Lonely Mountain on Durin’s Day. But they can’t turn back now, so they leave the next morning and head for the pass through the Misty Mountains.


I forgot how long-winded Tolkien’s writing can be, but it only took a few pages to get back into it, and I’m already remembering why I fell in love with Middle-Earth (despite all the instances of deus ex machina). The complexity of its languages, races, and histories has amazing depth, which makes it easy (I think) to get lost in the world. You only get a taste of it in The Hobbit, which might be why I didn’t like it as much as The Lord of the Rings when I first read it. My friends always gasp a bit when I tell them I was “meh” about the book, so we’ll see if I’ve changed my mind after this re-read.

In movie news, did you hear that there are now going to be three Hobbit films instead of two? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned that Jackson might be stretching a 200-page book far past its “good film” capacity, even with the speculation that much of the extra time will be used to fill out the story with related tales from the appendix published in The Return of the King. I’m going to keep an open mind, if only because Jackson did such a brilliant job with his Lord of the Rings adaptation, but I can’t help but think that by the logic he’s used in his decision to make The Hobbit a trilogy Lord of the Rings could have been made into 9 films instead of 3. I guess what I’m saying is that I hope this isn’t the real reason for the third movie.

Hope you enjoyed the first post. Did you read along? What did you think about the first three chapters? Share your thoughts in the comments!  Next week: chapters 4-5. Come see me get nerdy about dwarvish runes.

Tolkien Re-read Part I: The Hobbit (Chapters 4-5)