Thursday, February 9, 2012

Re-Reading J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" - Chapter Four: Over Hill and Under Hill – There is nothing like looking if you want to find something…

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.  Today, we continue with Chapter Four: Over Hill and Under Hill.  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. 

Before we get started, I have a request: since the trailer for Jackson’s movie was mostly restricted to the first three chapters of the book, I’m running out of pictures.  I’ve included some images of my leather-bound copy of the novel today, but for the future, do any of my readers have suggestions for various images I could include?  What kinds of images would you like to see?  Would anybody like to paint a dramatic oil portrait of Bilbo Baggins?  If you have any ideas, sound off in the comments!

And remember, this is supposed to be an interactive adventure; if you’re reading along with me as we travel through the book, you should have Chapter Five prepared for Tuesday!  Today, let’s dive into Chapter Four: Over Hill and Under Hill…

The title page to "The Hobbit"
Click to enlarge!
Up until now, “The Hobbit” has been a fairly tame adventure.  Sure, the Trolls were dangerous, but the sequence isn’t particularly scary, and everything turned out fine in the end; Gandalf had no trouble whatsoever saving the day.  On the whole, this has been a fairly wondrous and fun adventure, one without considerable danger or fright.  In Chapter Four, that all changes.  Now Tolkien begins steering things into darker territory, delivering the first set of truly formidable, and frightening, adversaries, the Goblins, along with a terrifically riveting chase sequence that completely redefines the stakes of Bilbo’s journey.  Tolkien even leaves things on a devilishly intense cliffhanger, one that leaves the fates of all our characters entirely uncertain.

But it should be remembered that “The Hobbit” is, at heart, a children’s book, and “Over Hill and Under Hill” is therefore an excellent case study in how Tolkien uses language to carefully establish and control a tone that draws children in no matter how scary or intense the story may get.  I will get into specific analysis during my bullet-point section, but Tolkien’s clear, clean prose and bedtime-story style are crucial in keeping kids on board.  Indeed, the mess Bilbo and friends find themselves in with the Goblins isn’t any less dire than many of Frodo’s most harrowing troubles in “Lord of the Rings,” but where much of Frodo’s journey would probably be too much for children, Tolkien finds inventive ways in “The Hobbit” to maintain the target audience without ever pandering. 

One of the crucial tools in this chapter is foreshadowing: Tolkien seems to believe that kids can take any amount of scares so long as they are prepared, so just before the Goblins attack, we get this sentence: “And that was the last time that they used the ponies, packages, baggages, tools and paraphernalia that they had brought with them.”  It’s a striking bit of writing, simple and unconventionally forward, but it snaps the reader to attention and tells them to get ready.  Tolkien doesn’t spoil oncoming events, nor does he rob the Goblins of their power, but he does inform us that something is coming, and for children, that’s enough.  They’re now on guard, and can handle anything Tolkien throws at them.  Tolkien also works in some rather smashing bits of humor throughout the chapter; even in the darkest moments, he doesn’t completely abandon the lighter, welcoming atmosphere of the earlier sections. 

We shall dive in deeper to this remarkable chapter in a moment.  But first, for those needing a refresher, the summary:


Illustration of "The Mountain Path"
by J.R.R. Tolkien (Click to enlarge)
Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarfs head into the Misty Mountains, and even though they know where they are going thanks to Gandalf’s wisdom and Elrond’s directions, the journey still proves perilous.  A monstrous thunderstorm forces the Company to find shelter, and they retreat into a nearby cave.  It turns out, however, that this cave is the “front porch” for an underground lair of Goblins, and while the Company sleeps, those Goblins sneak up and kidnap everyone but Gandalf.  Bilbo and the dwarfs are forcefully led into a large chamber, where the Goblins discover Thorin’s sword, Orcrist – historically a killer of Goblins known as “Biter” – and decide to kill them all.  Just then, Gandalf uses his magic to incapacitate the Goblins, and the Company flees.  The Goblins eventually overrun them, but the Dwarfs fight valiantly, and their foes are forced to retreat.  The Goblins decide on a new strategy, and send out several of their light-footed kinsmen to stealthily attack the Company.  Just as Bilbo and friends think they’re in the clear, these quiet Goblins arrive and attack, and Bilbo falls into blackness, bumps his head on a hard rock, and is knocked unconscious. 


  • The first two paragraphs of this chapter are a beautifully written description of the mountain journey, sparse and matter-of-fact like Hemingway, as I discussed last time, but poetically lush in ways only Tolkien could deliver.  Here’s a sample: “It was a hard path and a dangerous path, and a lonely and a long.  Now they could look back over the lands they had left, laid out behind them far below.  Far, far away in the West, where things were blue and faint, Bilbo knew there lay his own country of safe and comfortable things, and his little hobbit-hole.”  It’s simply one of my favorite passages I have ever read.  In “The Lord of the Rings,” these two paragraphs would probably be expanded into a full chapter, but what makes “The Hobbit” unique from Tolkien’s other work is how he expresses similar amounts of beauty and imagination with far fewer words. 
  • I discussed Tolkien’s use of foreshadowing earlier, and here’s a lengthier, better example of this technique.  The Misty Mountains bear many dangers, and Tolkien comes right out and tells us that things aren’t going to be just fine: “Gandalf…knew how evil and danger had grown and thriven in the Wild, since the dragons had driven men from the lands, and the goblins had spread in secret after the battle of the Mines of Moria.  Even the good plans of wise wizards like Gandalf and of good friends like Elrond go astray sometimes when you are off on dangerous adventures over the Edge of the Wild; and Gandalf was a wise enough wizard to know it.”  Tolkien certainly relates a strong sense of foreboding, and he does so without pandering, without sacrificing the story’s integrity by insulting a child’s intelligence; he instead mildly cushions the language so as to best reach his target audience.  It’s brilliant.  I remember the oncoming sense of dread during this section when I read the book for the first time, so many years ago, and because Tolkien refuses to pander, that dread is still there when I read it as an adult. 
  • During the big thunderstorm, we heard about “stone giants” hurling rocks at each other for sport.  We don’t see these creatures ever again, do we?  What are stone giants, anyway?  I’m imagining monstrous creatures made of stone, but perhaps they are just regular giants, referred to as stone because they enjoy hurling boulders. 
  • As Fili and Kili are sent to find better shelter, we learn they are the youngest of the dwarfs, fifty years younger than their kinsmen.  It’s always good to flesh these characters out a little bit more.
  • Speaking of Fili and Kili, their task is given just as things are about to get overwhelmingly heavy – keeping in mind, again, the target audience – but Tolkien knows exactly what he’s doing with the tone, so he uses a vividly humorous line to lighten the mood: “…being the youngest of the dwarves by some fifty years [Kili and Fili] usually got these sorts of jobs (when everybody could see that it was absolutely no use sending Bilbo).”  Any jab at Bilbo, especially one this well written, is hilarious, of course, but Tolkien isn’t just poking fun at his protagonist; we need to understand who Bilbo is now – a bit of a useless coward, in all honest – so that his heroics will carry more weight later on.  Tolkien continues with another wonderfully witty bit of wordplay: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something (or so Thorin said to the young dwarves).  You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”
  • Now the Goblins arrive, and even they have a song to sing.  Though with lyrics like “Swish, smack! Whip Crack!/Batter and beat! Yammer and Bleat!” it’s considerably less pleasant than anything Bilbo, the dwarfs, or the elves have had to sing.  I sincerely hope Peter Jackson puts this song in the upcoming “Hobbit” movie; I can imagine the Orcs (referred to as Goblins in this book, but they are the same creatures) from the “Lord of the Rings” movies singing a song, and it’s horrifyingly awesome, wrong in all the right ways.
  • Lots and lots of dark material now that the Company is taken by the Goblins.  Bilbo and the dwarfs are whipped, and it’s implied the Goblins will use them for brutal forced labor.  Tolkien even describes that this is the last time the Company ever sees their ponies: “For goblins eat horses and ponies and donkeys…”  Damn.  That’s gruesome.  Again, it would be too much for kids if Tolkien didn’t create such a controlled, friendly tone through his prose.
  • One of the defining features of Tolkien’s works is his wartime allegories.  He fought in World War I, and that had a heavy influence on all his material, most notably “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion.”  LOTR, in particular, can be read as one big allegory about the horrors of war, the virtues of bravery in impossible situations, and the sanctity of the homeland soldiers fight to protect.  These themes aren’t hugely present in “The Hobbit,” but there’s a hint of it here in his description of the Goblins: “It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them…” The machinery of war in particular is something Tolkien focuses on in later works, for he was strongly against the industrialization of war and the destruction it wrought.  It’s interesting that he assigns the creation of such weapons to the Goblins.  At the time of the book’s publication, after England had survived WWI and was on the eve of WWII, saying that the Goblins invent such devices would be a very effective shorthand for making readers hate the creatures, because back then, these devices were revolutionary and, therefore, more horrific, not commonplace and desensitized (even outright celebrated) as they are today. 
Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
  • We get one of Thorin’s first great showcases as he exhibits all his bravery and intelligence trying to talk down the Great Goblin, coming up with eloquent excuses and being altogether calm and collected as he is interrogated.  Thorin, it goes without saying, is a badass.
  • Gandalf’s rescue is incredibly awesome: he turns all the fire in the room into a shower of sparks that rains down upon the Goblins, torturing them all and giving Bilbo and the dwarfs a chance to escape.  It’s a very cool passage to read, and if Peter Jackson does this in the movie, I suspect it will be a visual highlight of the series. 
  • The last few pages are a page-turning, full-blown action sequence, as Gandalf and the dwarfs run away frantically, are eventually overrun, and have to fight the Goblins off.  Absolutely riveting; I felt my heart pounding while reading.  If Peter Jackson does this scene right, capturing all the intensity and atmosphere, he’ll have a set-piece to rival the Mines of Moria sequence from “Fellowship,” still the fantasy highlight of the 2000s.
  • The cliffhanger is absolutely tremendous; Dori is pulled down, Bilbo falls, and that’s it – we don’t know the fates of any of our characters, and since they’re all in a mountain filled with Goblins, there’s no indication that this will turn out well.  The next chapter is largely Bilbo on his own, so we won’t know about the dwarfs and Gandalf for a while.  This entire chapter is simply Tolkien at his best.
  • The next chapter is “Riddles in the Dark.”  You know what that means?  We’re about to meet a certain iconic character, and Bilbo will start stepping up into his role as hero.  I can’t wait.

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 14th, with “Chapter Five – Riddles in the Dark” read so that we may meet that adorable creature known as Gollum!

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"Jonathan Lack at the Movies"

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