Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Strange Places in The Hobbit

Prompt from The Tolkien Society:  Carefully read the book you want to work from if you have not already done this. Note down and think about all the strange places. What makes them seem strange? Does anyone live in or near them? Are they like anything in our world? How do they add to the 'feeling' or atmosphere of the story?

Let's work through The Hobbit chronologically, shall we?

We start of in The Shire, obviously.  I suppose in 1933 when The Hobbit was first published, the idea of diminutive versions of human beings living in holes carved into hills might have seemed a bit strange.  Over the course of my Lord of the Rings experience, I have become quite immune to its quirks and it has become as natural as pumpkins in the fall to me.  Tolkien spends a fair amount of time describing it, and even begins his story with a Hobbit hole, so it must be important:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
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First off, what makes Hobbit holes strange?  Hobbits act very similar to humans so we would--understandably--expect them to have homes or some kind of dwelling like ours.  As for the second question posed, people to live in this strange place and have in fact built it up.  As for them being like something in our world, that is interesting.  Certainly there are no Hobbits living in holes--as far as I know--but there are many other creatures that live in "a hole in the ground" such as gophers (the bane of golf courses), bunnies, (the bane of my garden), and all sorts of mice, shrews, and moles.

Was Tolkien trying to create a parallel between Hobbits and those animals?  I think it might be too much of a stretch to identify Hobbits with one specific animal, but rather I would suggest that Tolkien is saying something about the Hobbits in a different way.  We know that bunnies, gophers, mice, etc. like to live in holes for warmth and protection and it is particularly a favorite spot for their hibernation.  Is this meant to suggest that Hobbits are similarly fond of curling up with food and staying relatively stable?  Perhaps.

The next particularly odd location is the goblin tunnels.  Again, we get an underground living space.  Only, this is much different from Hobbiton.  Rather than orderly little homes, the goblins live underground the way ants live in their hill.  There seems to be little system and it is a very messy and complicated place.  I believe this serves to draw a parallel between Bilbo's calm way of living and the evil, hectic ways of the goblins.

Mirkwood is perhaps the strangest place of them all.  It is strange because a) if you stray from the path you face ultimate doom b) if you drink from the water (or fall into it) you face ultimate doom c) creepy eyes stare at you in the night, threatening ultimate doom d) there are giant spiders which try and bring you to your ultimate doom and finally, e) you are likely not to make it out alive...or unchanged.

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Do people live in Mirkwood?  I suppose the Wood Elves live there, but more importantly, Sauron lives there.  In the south, Sauron opened up Dol Guldur once again which poisoned the entire wood.  Woods in many faery stories are often treacherous and confusing.  The added necromancy surely didn't help Mirkwood's case anyway.  There is no where in the world like Mirkwood, but there are plenty of places in other stores like it: the Wood of Error, the "Dark Wood" in Dante's Divine Comedy, and the woods that Gawain has to travel through in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  All of these forests add a certain sense of uncertainty and bewilderment to the stories they are in.

Laketown is also interesting.  Who would have ever thought of an entire city built atop a lake (besides the Aztecs whose city was right on top of  Lake Texcoco)?  I think one of the best things about Laketown being on an actual lake is the contrast between it and Smaug's fire, which is pointed out in the chapter title, Fire and Water.  Smaug came with his fire, but Laketown fought back--with Bard ultimately killing the dragon.  If Smaug is the fire, then Bard is the water that quenches it.

Additionally, Laketown is centered right on its source of profit, as I mentioned in another post which highlights the importance of this for the people of Laketown.

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In summary, there are many strange places in The Hobbit with different meanings and important aspects.  The Shire creates a parallel between the (at first) unrelatable characters of The Hobbit and familiar creatures we see every day.  The Goblin tunnels emphasize the difference between Bilbo's peaceful life and the hectic way of Goblins.  Mirkwood is another example of the forest motif in literature--a place to get lost and confused in.  Laketown's location creates further contrast between the people there and the fire breathing dragon who destroys it.

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