There’s something dreadfully boring about the second chapter of The Hobbit. Gandalf disappears at a key juncture so that we can see just how unprepared Bilbo, and even the dwarves, are for a real adventure. The Tookish half, after all, certainly never imagined being kicked into a tree and having to spend a whole night listening to uneducated clods arguing in a low-class dialect.
It’s well-told, of course. The bumbling trolls can be funny, Gandalf’s reappearance and the sudden “Dawn take you all, and be stone to you” to end the mortal threat the Dwarves are placed in (Bilbo notably does not seem to be in fear of his life) wrap up the tale neatly, and there’s plenty of repetition with variation as dwarves stumble into the firelight & then trolls argue about how to cook them. Plus of course, there’s the epic failure of poor Mr. Baggins’ first attempt at burglary when he tries to steal a talking purse. It’s entertaining enough, but there’s not much else to say about the episode.
Similarly, Tolkien’s bigotry is on easy display here as literal monsters are painted as stupid, prone to violence and infighting, with all of these negative characteristics signaled by the trollish dialect – “not to mention their language, which was not drawing-room fashion at all, at all.” All you need to know about people can be determined easily enough from whether they’ve learned to speak correctly, promises this Chapter. To borrow from a quote I stumbled on a while ago, the cliches are so unimaginative as to highlight a failure of craft. The storytelling techniques Tolkien’s good at are done well here, and the things he’s not are also on full display.
Casting about for something interesting to say about Chapter 2, I find that I keep returning to the ways the reader has to invest in the story. Before running into Trolls who surely talk like some of the Hobbits near enough to Bilbo’s own home, the company has passed through (and beyond) “lands where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before.” The crisis exists only because Gandalf mysteriously vanishes, only to reappear in the nick of time, and Bilbo’s own attempts are thwarted because “Trolls’ purses are the mischief, and this was no exception.” This is authorial contrivance entirely unforeshadowed and at it’s most awkward. If you are reading to be carried off, or to delight in the richness of an imagined world, or to puzzle out the twists and turns of story, Chapter Two of The Hobbit is almost designed to infuriate.
And yet. If you come to the book (which is a children’s book) with the wonder and naïveté that I can attest many children do bring, determined to laugh when prompted and not to peek behind the curtain, there’s delight to be had. A certain kind of discipline is required to read this chapter. I’m not sure Roast Mutton justifies cultivating the discipline, but I am sure it’s worth cultivating.