Aside – Epic Hosts

Near the end of Kate Elliott’s The Gathering Storm Sanglant looks over his army of foot soldiers from various lands, heavy cavalry, light cavalry from faroff steppes wearing griffon feathers, and centaurs, and thinks to himself

Few epics from heroic ages past ever sported such a strange array of beings and peoples. No poets had ever sung of such an army, many kinds joined together against a common foe.

As best I can tell, the Crown of Stars series casts Henry (Sanglant’s father) in the historical role of Charlemagne (so early 9th Century), and I’m not aware of any such diverse beings and peoples in older epics, but I was reminded of Torquato Tasso’s 16th Century Epic Jersusalem Delivered

He saw an infinite array of tents

and blue and red and yellow standards swaying

in the fresh breeze; heard diverse languages,

hear barbarous drums and horns and brasses braying,

and grunts of camels and of elephants

amid the great-spirited stallions’ neighing,

and said to himself, “They’ve moved the continent,

all Africa’s here, and Asia too!”

(Jerusalem Delivered, Canto 19.58, ed & trans. Anthony M Esolen)

Of course, we are rooting for Sanglant.  The army of diverse languages, barbarous drums, and camels and elephants in Jerusalem Delivered is the army of the Muslim King of Egypt come to reclaim Jerusalem – not the heroes of that epic poem.

Of the ways that Kate Elliott both leans into medieval European history and transforms it in Crown of Stars, this celebration of the people on the fringes (and their coming together) is one of the changes I appreciate most.

(That 16th C casting of diversity and the coming together of those on the margins as evil, by the way, is exactly the formation of the ideology we still live with)



I have a distinct and vivid memory from The Hobbit, soon after leaving Rivendell: While huddled in the mountains during a storm, Bilbo and the others watch one of those mountains begin to move. The lightning and thunder awakening the mountain itself, which is a giant. The giant roars, stretches (dislodging trees), and throws a boulder at another mountain which also turns out to be a giant. Soon, the mountains themselves are standing and playing catch with trees and boulders, driving Gandalf, Bilbo, and the others to seek shelter.

It’s a good memory, even if a mountain would probably make an over large giant. It’s also inaccurate.

when he peeped out amidst the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game.

There are giants throwing things, and poor Bilbo is terrified, but my key memory of this episode in The Hobbit is invented. The specific detail that I was invested in: the mountain slowly shifting & becoming animate amidst the lightning and thunder, is the part that doesn’t exist.

The natural progression for this blog post is the “grasping at profundity” section: how can I extrapolate from this specific instance towards a Larger Truth? (Ideally, I would also spend a few moments considering whether it’s worth grasping for profundity in this instance: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. In this case, I have let the draft sit while waiting for inspiration to conclude it, but never thought much about deleting it. So the thoughts below seem interesting to me. I have applied no rubric for their worth except that I didn’t want to delete this post)

The Lord of the Rings is famously full of ancient wonders, and plenty of other fantasy stories invest the spectacle of their fantasy with a slow and steady build until the vastness, be it the Dark Fae of Friedman’s Black Sun Rising, the Sorting at Hogwarts, or the dragons of Pern. The giants in The Hobbit are at least close kin to these wonders, but their inclusion is offhand. It is (in many ways) the mundane inclusion of the magical more familiar from children’s stories (I will generalize without any examples to hand) or at least more easily accepted by children (I can attest to this truth from personal experience with a few). I, as a child growing up with the conventions of Fantasy and the giants of The Hobbit, invested the giants with a ponderous evidence and greater weight than Tolkien’s story does, but maybe all that says is that if your spectacle is sufficiently spectacular, there’s less need for the Slow and Significant reveal.

“A good tale”

Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.

I would like to disagree with what is now conventional wisdom in the genre (which I suspect even in Tolkien’s era was an overused trope), but I’m not sure I can.

then again Tolkien later wrote about Gandalf telling History to Frodo, and later the Council …

They were elves of course

“Even decent enough dwarves like Thorin and his friends think them foolish (which is a very foolish thing to think)”

I just finished watching The Last Unicorn with the girls, and I’m entirely here for ridiculous (and foolish!) songs in fantasy. I’m not sure I’m prepared to defend “look and see her how she sparkles, it’s the last unicorn / I’m alive, I’m alive” but I will delight in it. And similarly, while Thorin may grump, I think I’ll join Gandalf I’m talking merrily with the elves while they sing.

O! What are you doing,

And where are you going?

Your ponies need shoeing!

The river is flowing!

O! tra-la-la-lally

here down in the valley!

O! What are you seeking,

And where are you making?

The faggots are reeking,

The bannocks are baking!

O! tril-lil-lil-lolly

the valley is jolly, ha! ha!

Bannocks, by the way, when cut into wedges, are scones. Bilbo and the dwarves will get to enjoy familiar meals (rather than lembas!) again.

Roast Mutton

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.

On a Path Towards Mutton

A series of quotes from Chapter 2 that seem worth noting.

So he put on an apron, lit fires, boiled water, and washed up.

Bilbo is both domestic and competent, which I usually forget.

“Great Elephants!” said Gandalf

(We’ll come back to this, and Oliphants)

“At first they had passed through hobbit-lands, a wide respectable country inhabited by decent folk … then they came to lands where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before. Now they had gone off far into the Lone-lands where there were no people left. … Not far ahead were dreary hills”

then the first of many adventure-reflections

Bilbo was sadly reflecting that adventures are not all pony-rides in May-sunshine


The old maps are no use: things have changed for the worse and the road is unguarded. They have seldom even heard of the king round here.

Which of course brings us to trolls, dialect, and Bilbo’s inability to “hoot even once like any kind of owl any more than fly like a bat.”

Interlude – Sharke’s

The Shadow Jury for the Arthur C Clarke award has reconstituted itself (with a somewhat-but-not- entirely different group). I found this a fascinating & thought-provoking project last year, and I’m looking forward to following along again this year. The jurors have introduced themselves. Below are quotes from each juror that I found worth considering about the art and practice of criticism.

This deeper kind of reading is a series of epiphanies, moments of revelation, and maybe of understanding, but it is also hard work. (Maureen)

More than anything else, community as a space for discussion and critique forces an awareness of frameworks.


how inclusion can be kindness and violence all at once, and how navigating that critically can be fraught. (Samira)

[Ursula Le Guin] provided a model of grace and clarity in critical writing.

I initially came to SF criticism through academia, where matters of grace and clarity are not always the highest priority. (Gary)

walking that line between undiscerning joy and the relentless caution of analysis. (Alisdair)

the point of criticism is not to use the literary text as a means of diagnosing the state of contemporary culture but rather to show how creative works invite and even, in some cases, demand us to not only change our attitude to the world around us but also to change it. (Nick)

while there’s something to be said for consistency, it’s my belief that critical practice, like any other discipline, should always be a sort of Theseus’s ship, willing and able to improve or change while still remaining coherent and functional. (Foz)

We’ll get back to The Hobbit (trolls!) soon.

A Gathering Well-Told

Among the “Good Morning’s“, kindled longings, and racial ideology in the opening of The Hobbit, it’s easy to overlook the fact that it’s a gathering well-told, and one that lends itself to retelling. Having retold the opening more than a few times, I’ve learned this experientially (neither Rivendell nor Mirkwood are nearly as accessible. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is particularly unsatisfying), but it should come as no surprise, since Tolkien was used to inventing stories for his children. The structure of the episodes, repetition of important details, and shifts in tone all add to this effect.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit … it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” You cannot butt these two lines up against each other, but you can put almost any hole-descriptors you’d like between them (we’re fond of contrasting vast cold dwarven drinking-halls and snake-infested tunnels). The opening lends itself to variation, and provides a clear ending phrase when you’re ready to proceed.

Similarly, when the Dwarves arrive, there are a whole series of encounters at the door, in which a variously flustered, composed, or overwhelmed Bilbo Baggins greets guests who happily invite themselves in and help themselves to his hospitality, all while hanging up cloaks, hoods, and instruments, some with one or another identifying characteristic: a blue beard, a bag of tools, or a favorite drink. At the end of it, of course, poor Bilbo is at his wits’ end, the party has gathered, and it is almost time to clean up – and burst into the first song in the book.

The singing is not the only shift in register in the first chapter. The style veers between Gandalf and Thorin’s excesses, straightforward narration, humorous asides like the description of the invention of golf, and of course dwarven verses. For any storyteller, there’s room to rush through, or draw out, one or another of these styles to keep the listeners engaged (or just make sure the episode will come to a convenient end in the school parking lot).

The patterns of repetition with variation in tone & episode continues throughout the first chapter as Thorin and Gandalf infodump while Bilbo vacillates between terror and determination and other dwarves make cutting remarks. This structure makes it easy for the tale-teller to improvise, using the dragon, notions of burglary, and the possibility of death to frighten poor Bilbo, and the map, music, and wounded pride to bring him back. Once all of the necessary information has been communicated (or one’s audience want to “get to the trolls daddy!”), Bilbo can fall asleep, an appropriate end to a well-told (and retold) chapter:

He was not now quite so sure that he was going on any journey in the morning.

As he lay in bed he could hear Thorin still humming to himself in the best bedroom next to him:

Far over the misty mountains cold

To dungeons deep and caverns old

We must away, ere break of day

To find our long-forgotten gold.

Bilbo went to sleep with that in his ears, and it gave him very uncomfortable dreams. It was long after the break of day, when he woke up.

But of course he will go on the journey next morning, uncomfortable dreams or no, and we will follow him.

The Tookish part woke up

In my last post I noted that there’s an ugly racist view of identity embedded in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Sometimes the logic of that racism is so inescapable as to damage any more whole reading of the texts, but in the opening chapter of The Hobbit, the metaphor of warring elements within Bilbo is encapsulated in a simple phrase: “then something Tookish woke up inside him”.

There are a whole series of transitions in this chapter to get us from the hobbit who “Good Morning’s” Gandalf to the one who chases the dwarf on their adventures: music begins “so sudden and sweet that Bilbo forgot everything else and was swept away”. Darkness intrudes. The dwarves sing of Smaug, and of their treasure, and “the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic … the desire of the hearts of dwarves.” The Tookish bit awakes, and then a flare of what might be dragon fire sends it away. “He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr. Baggins is Bag-End Under-Hill again.”

The notion of warring impulses within us is nothing new, and it’s a story that can be told without literally different races, but we can see its utility even in this first chapter as we watch everyone relate to the treasure of Erebor. Gandalf, of course, is Gandalf, but the dwarves are confined in a way ill-suited to them, “sinking as low as blacksmith-work or even coalmining” where once they had “the leisure to make beautiful things”. Bilbo “looks more like a grocer than a burglar”, and is brought back into the group not by promise of gold, but by the map: “He was getting excited and interested again, so that he forgot to keep his mouth shut. He loved maps.” Dragons, meanwhile “guard their plunder as long as they live … and never enjoy a brass ring of it. Indeed they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the current market value.”

The weaknesses in expressing these characters as types, making Bilbo a Baggins with a bit of Took peeking out, and reducing Dwarves to their relationship with gold, are legion: there is no psychological realism here (though the caricature of Thorin’s style is delicious), and racialized thinking hangs over the opening. I’m reminded of a quote from one of my podcast guests that if you’re going to show bigotry on the page, you’d better deconstruct it on the page. Tolkien is not deconstructing here.

But The Hobbit does express something important about the different ways we relate to treasure: as monetary value, mark of success, expressions of beauty, or excuse to pursue some other change. By expressing characters as types, and the idea of adventure as the kindled spark of Tookishness*, Tolkien is getting at a different story, and it’s one I’m happy to be carried off by.

*I would be remiss not to point out that Quakers are called to find “that of God in everyone” (which I often visualize as a spark), and any number of Christian writers (and probably plenty of others) have talked about a spark of faith being fanned into something greater. Many of these writings also carry with them the sense that this faith or awareness of God is a call away from the material world towards another. Not that there’s anything special about this gloss of Bilbo’s adventure that’s not already alluded to in Tolkien’s opening, but I note it anyway.

A pair of letters

There are a pair of rather spectacular early letters of Tolkien.  By which I mean (in part) that more than with others, I get the very distinct sense of being a spectator observing Tolkien performing in these letters.

In Letter 30, Tolkien refuses to make any declarations of aryan extraction for a potential German publisher of The Hobbit.  (He declared in a letter to his British publisher that he “should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print …. and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.”) (Letter #29)  In Letter 30, Tolkien’s academic background is on full display as he mocks the term “arisch“, pointing out that (at least based on an Indo-European language tree), he would have to declare himself Indo-iranian, or descended from speakers of “Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects.”  He later points out to the publisher that “if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.”  Letters of Note approvingly headlines this letter “I have no ancestors of that gifted people” [that is: jewish]

Meanwhile in Letter 43, addressed to his son Michael, Tolkien addresses relations between the sexes, and (again drawing on his academic background) specifically points out that many attitudes towards women are historically contingent:

There is in our Western culture the romantic chivalric tradition still strong, though as a product of Christendom (yet by no means the same as Christian ethics) the times are inimical to it.  It idealizes ‘love’ – and as far as it goes can be very good, since it takes in far more than physical pleasure, and enjoins if not purity at least fidelity, and so self-denial, ‘service’, courtesy, honour, and courage.  It’s weakness is, of course, that it began as an artificial courtly game … it still tends to make the Lady a kind of guiding star or divinity … This is, of course, false, and at best make-believe”

That’s right, Tolkien specifically cautioned his son against embracing chivalry, identified that it came out of a particular cultural context, and warned specifically that putting idealized women on pillars to be adored was false.

The rest of the letter, of course, is full of cautions that men are brutes ruled by physical lust while women “can in fact often achieve very remarkable insight and understanding, even of things otherwise outside their natural range: for it is their gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male. ”


It’s pretty boring (but worth saying) to note that Tolkien was both sexist and racist.  By which I mean he believed that women and men were fundamentally different and that women’s natural role was one of subservience.  Similarly, he believed (and was steeped in) an ideology that said skin color and the language your ancestors spoke could tell you fundamentally important things about the content of one’s character, and that some people were just better than others.  (I’m not really satisfied with either of these definitions, but it does seem to me that Tolkien’s attitudes were not generally about personal animus, but equally that he would not only consent to racist and sexist power structures, but also thought that they reflected, rather than shaped, reality).

Really, it shouldn’t be controversial to say that the guy who wrote about the struggles between the Baggins and Tookish halves in a book without women was racist and sexist, but since it seems to be, let’s be very clear that he was.

I’m still wrestling with what I want to do with that knowledge, since the racism and sexism are integral parts of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but more about that when I get further into the books.  What fascinates me about these two letters is Tolkien’s ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in his head at once.  Notions about men’s and women’s roles are historically contingent, but also women have “the servient, helpmeet instinct” (yes, there’s a lot here about Christianity and I’m skipping over what Tolkien probably thought was the meat of the letter, but still: women’s roles are historically contingent and also they are naturally inclined to behave exactly that way).  Similarly, the “race-doctrine” is entirely unscientific, but he has “no ancestors of that gifted people” and also his refutation is based on his linguistic scholarship – race is a real thing and one in which he claims expertise.

Also (and here capitalism rears it’s ugly head) – we have Letter 30 available because Tolkien did not send this brave denunciation to the potential German publisher.  “You are primarily concerned and I cannot jeopardize the chance of German publication without your approval. So I submit two drafts of possible answers.” he wrote to his publisher in Letter 29.  The note for Letter 30 tells us  “This is the only one preserved in the Allen & Unwin files, and it seems therefore very probable that the English publishers sent the other one to Germany.”

Let’s find another elder statesman to go out on, shall we?