Thursday, February 2, 2012

Re-Reading J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" - Chapter Two: Roast Mutton - Hoot twice like a barn owl...

This December, director Peter Jackson is finally returning to Middle Earth with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” and to celebrate, I’m revisiting J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved classic novel, “The Hobbit,” for the first time since second grade, and I’m inviting you, my readers, to follow along with me!  Every Tuesday and Thursday, I will be covering a new Chapter.  We set out on this journey two days ago, and today, we continue with Chapter Two: Roast Mutton.  I’ll give you some general impressions, a brief summary of the action, and then a long laundry-list of various specific thoughts about the story, the characters, Tolkien himself, and the upcoming film. 

Read along with me if you wish, and have Chapter Three prepared for Tuesday!  Today, let’s dive into Chapter Two – Roast Mutton….

In Chapter Two, “Roast Mutton,” Bilbo sets out on his great journey, and is surprised both at how fun and how dangerous adventures can be.  As we, the readers, follow along with him, we come to the same conclusion.  The chapter is delightfully light-hearted and oodles of fun from start to finish, whether it’s Bilbo running frantically to catch up to the Dwarfs (without a handkerchief!) or Gandalf slyly tricking three monstrous trolls into arguing until the sun rises and vanquishes them.  Tolkien is simply having fun in this chapter, and his clever use of wordplay, tremendous handle on all the main characters and their interactions, and a number of downright zany moments from the dwarfs had me laughing over and over again.  But adventures aren’t all fun – they are also dangerous, and when Bilbo encounters the Trolls, Tolkien is able to create a suitably scary situation without breaking his carefully established tone.  “The Hobbit” is a children’s book at heart, and as a kid, I remember being absolutely captivated by this chapter, feeling like I myself had set out on my own grand adventure.  All these years later, very little has changed.  “Roast Mutton” is another testament to the timelessness of this great novel.    

Let’s quickly summarize what goes down in this chapter, and then move into my specific thoughts…


Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit"
After the events of the night before, Bilbo wakes up late to find that the Dwarfs and Gandalf have already gone.  Thinking himself in the clear, he cleans up and makes breakfast.  Gandalf comes back, amazed Bilbo hasn’t left yet, and encourages Bilbo to go meet the Dwarfs at the Green Dragon Inn.  Without knowing why, Bilbo does so, without any supplies, provisions, or even a handkerchief, and begins his adventure alongside Thorin and company.  They travel through Hobbit and foreign lands alike, eventually arriving in the barren, sparse lone-lands, where a bad bout of rainy weather convinces them to stop for the night.

Once stopped, they spot a light up ahead, and convince Bilbo to investigate.  He does so, and discovers three monstrous trolls sitting around a campfire.  Bilbo tries to burgle them, but is spotted and barely escapes.  When the Dwarfs come to find him, they are all captured and put into sacks, and just as the Trolls decide to roast the Dwarfs, Gandalf reappears, stealthily tricking the Dwarfs into arguing until the sun rises.  Trolls can’t be out in sunlight, so they are all turned into stone.  Bilbo and Gandalf rescue the Dwarfs and the company continues on their way, Gandalf suggesting they head for Rivendell.


  • The opening to this chapter is such a spectacular pay-off to the hectic events of the first chapter, with Bilbo cleaning up for all fourteen dwarfs after they leave, making himself a nice breakfast, and relaxing comfortably in his Hobbit hole, thinking the adventure has passed him over, when all of a sudden, Gandalf walks in to berate him for lounging about.  Very, very funny, both because of everything Bilbo went through in Chapter One and because of how expertly, and patiently, Tolkien stages this scene.  Gandalf even uses the expression “Great Elephants,” which is the number one thing I want to see in the movie.  The words “Great Elephants” damn well better be coming out of Ian McKellen’s mouth this December…. 
  • I love the letter Thorin leaves for Bilbo, so professional and cordial, written like a contract, which serves as a nice contrast from the Dwarfs’ zanier behavior of the night before.
  • I could describe the thrill I feel when Bilbo sets out on his journey, but Tolkien does it so well, why bother?  You’ll feel that thrill yourself: “To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking-stick or an money, or anything that he usually took when he went out; leaving his second breakfast half-finished and quite unwashed-up, pushing his keys into Gandalf’s hands, and running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a mile or more.”  A few things to take away from that wonderful paragraph: first and foremost, I love the imagery of Bilbo rushing out the door this fast, so excited that he’s absent-minded.  Gandalf’s plan worked; Bilbo tries to resist, but Gandalf gives him a little nudge, and Bilbo’s off.  Second, this is another scene you can see in the trailer, and I love how it looks – totally captures the spontaneously triumphant spirit of the moment.  Third, this description of the Shire informs much of the film’s production design; particularly, the great Mill and the water, one of the first images in Jackson’ trilogy (Gandalf and Frodo go over the bridge near the mill in Gandalf’s wagon).
Bilbo Baggins sets out on his adventure in the trailer for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
  • Bilbo sets out without a handkerchief, another detail that’s always been fresh in my mind from the novel.  He is quite worried about it, and he also says something I found interesting: “…I haven’t got any money.”  That’s a rare instance in this series of hearing about money in a day-to-day use. We know Bilbo has money, and therefore Frodo has money, but we never see them or anyone else using it for transactions in the series, if memory serves me.
  • Bilbo begins feeling that “adventures were not so bad after all” after a day spent singing and eating on the road.  Of course he would.
  • “They had not been riding very long, when up came Gandalf very splendid on a white horse.”  White horse! That’s Shadowfax, yay!  I hope Jackson keeps this detail in the movie, because I loved Shadowfax in the films.  Beautiful horse.  Also: “He had brought a lot of pocket-handkerchiefs, and Bilbo’s pipe and tobacco.”  Aw, Gandalf is so thoughtful.  For some reason, I remembered Bilbo going without his handkerchief for a long while.
  • The geography of Bilbo’s journey seems a little different than Frodo’s – “At first they had passed through hobbit-lands, a wide respectable country…then they came to lands where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before.  Now they had gone on far into the Lone-lands, where there were no people left, no inns, and the roads grew steadily worse.  Not far ahead were dreary hills, rising higher and higher, dark with trees.  On some of them were old castles with an evil look, as if they had been built by evil people.” This is interesting.  It’s a beautiful description of the journey, but this definitely isn’t how the land is established when Frodo adventures.  Frodo doesn’t encounter any language barriers, there certainly aren’t any castles, and I’m guessing the idea of the Lone-lands was expanded to encompass territory like the Barrow-downs.  In any case, Bilbo makes better time than Frodo does (or, at least, Tolkien expands that above paragraph into many chapters for Frodo).
  • Gandalf disappears, not for the last time.  He’ll come back to help, but Gandalf is certainly a bit of a playful jackass in this book, isn’t he?  He doesn’t even bother to tell the Dwarfs he’s leaving.  There’s certainly some of this Gandalf in “Lord of the Rings,” but he’s older, calmer, a little more mellowed out.  This Gandalf certainly stands in stark contrast to the reborn Gandalf the White from “Two Towers” onward. 
  • Tolkien begins giving the Dwarfs individual, or at least paired, characteristics in this chapter, a smart move that starts paying off right away.  They are just little details at first, but they’re very fun: Dori and Nori “shared the hobbit’s views about regular meals, plenty and often.” Oin and Gloin, we then learn, are especially good at making fires.  Balin, meanwhile, is “always their look-out man.”
  • While discussing the barren lands they find themselves in, one dwarf mentions that“…they have seldom even heard of the King round here,” another early Middle Earth continuity problem.  Which King are they referring to?  I’m not hugely knowledgeable about Tolkien lore, but I do know that at this point in the history, Gondor would still not have a King, just a steward.  Rohan, the closest Kingdom, would have a King, but even then, he wouldn’t have jurisdiction where Bilbo and company are.  To the best of my knowledge, there’s no monarchy in the Shire or surrounding areas either, so I’m confused.  Obviously, Middle Earth wasn’t completely planned out when “The Hobbit” was written, so we get little inconsistencies like this, where Tolkien had based it more on England, where there would be one monarchy, than the larger land with many countries it would ultimately turn out to be by the time “Lord of the Rings” came around.
  • The Dwarfs are often tremendously unhelpful: “If you can’t, hoot twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl, and we will do what we can.” This of course befuddles Bilbo.  Tolkien wasn’t known for being funny, but damn, that’s hilarious, as is much of this book.
  • I also find it funny that the trolls are named, Bert, Tom, and William, and Bill even has a last name – “Huggins.”  Okay. 
  • When the Trolls ask Biblo what he is, he starts to say “burglar,” but stops himself and says “hobbit,” making him a “burrahobbit.”  Again, hilarious, this time thanks to Tolkien’s word play.
  • I love how terrible Bilbo is at his job in this whole section, failing to be a good burglar, accidentally giving his friends away to the Trolls before quickly trying to cover it up, etc.  He means very well, but he doesn’t do very well.  It’s material that Martin Freeman should excel with in the film.
  • Speaking of things I love, here’s this this sentence about the Trolls – “…they were fighting like dogs, and calling one another all sorts of perfectly true and applicable names.”  Damn that’s funny, a perfect example of droll British wit. 
  • All the Dwarfs are put in sacks, with the Trolls contemplating “[Sitting] on them all one by one and squash them into jelly,” among other terrible plans.  Pretty dark for a kids’ book, but that’s what makes it exciting, and it’s still light-hearted and ridiculous enough to keep within the established tone. 
  • Here’s the comic set-piece of the chapter: Gandalf tricking the Dwarfs into conversing until dawn is so, so funny, just the way their dialogue bounces off one-another, increasingly rapid-fire, with Tolkien interjecting Gandalf’s voice every once in a while to get things going again.  Really laugh-out-loud hilarious.  It also tells us something about Gandalf.  He’s a ‘wizard,’ yes, but he uses magic so sparingly, and prefers to solve problems with his mind, as he does here, simply being clever.
  • After defeating the trolls, the company finds their lair and recovers their plunder, including three swords, all of which go on to play a very important role.  “Two [blades] caught their eyes particularly, because of their beautiful scabbards and jeweled hilts.” Gandalf and Thorin take these, and we will discover a little later on that they are Glamdring and Orcrist, both of which play a large role in this book, and for Glamdring, in LOTR.  Meanwhile – “…Bilbo took a knife in a leather sheath.  It would have made only a tiny pocket-knife for a troll, but it was as good as a short sword for the hobbit.”  This knife, of course, is String, probably the most well-known of all Tolkien blades, and its introduction is so seemingly unimportant.  Bilbo simply finds a ‘knife.’ 
Bilbo finds Sting in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
  • Our final bit of wit for the chapter: Where did you go to, if I may ask,” said Thorin to Gandalf… “To look ahead, said he.” “And what brought you back in the nick of time?” “Looking behind,” said [Gandalf].  Funny, droll, clever…and again, Gandalf is kind of a dick.
And finally….I’m going to embed the following video with every “Hobbit” article, because it’s awesome, and you need to see it:

That’s it for today!

Come back on Tuesday, February 7th, with “Chapter Three – A Short Rest” read so that we may continue our epic quest!


  1. Mr. Lack,
    How may I contact you via email?
    Thank you!
    Randall Burns

  2. you should do a review of M.I.A.'s new video for her song "Bad Girls!" I'd like to see what you think!