Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Animals 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 different kinds of animals Tolkien writes about. Are they friendly to the characters, or dangerous? Are they like the animals in our world, if not, how are they different?

First up, a bit of catch up.

Today's essay is about the animals in The Hobbit.  We are introduced to the following animals which I will discuss in this essay: Eagles, bees, a collection of animals belonging to Beorn, partially including Beorn himself, spiders, and a thrush.

First, the Eagles.  The Eagles are first described in the chapter Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire.
"There was a howl of anger and surprise from the goblins. Loud cried the Lord of the Eagles, to whom Gandalf had now spoken. Back swept the great birds that were with him, and down they came like huge black shadows. The wolves yammered and gnashed their teeth; the goblins yelled and stamped with rage, and flung their heavy spears in the air in vain. Over them swooped the eagles; the dark rush of their beating wings smote them to the floor or drove them far away; their talons tore at goblin faces. Other birds flew to the tree-tops and seized the dwarves, who were scrambling up now as far as they ever dared to go."
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 Since The Hobbit is told from the perspective of tiny Bilbo, the eagles are described as being scary and large, as well as "dark".  Notice some of the key words used in association with the eagles, many of which have negative connotation "beating wings", "smote", "talons tore", and "seized".  Bilbo expresses severe concern at the Eagle's eyrie, and mild distrust toward the large birds.  He is skeptical toward their promise not to eat him, and he even goes so far as to question their way of obtaining food, saying that it may not be entirely honest.

Later on in The Hobbit, Bilbo rejoices when the eagles return after the Battle of the Five Armies saying: "The eagles are coming!"  The Eagles serve as the eucatastrophe for this battle, turning the tide unexpectedly.  At that point, Bilbo has gone through so much that what was once a source of anxiety and skepticism has become a point of elation and joy.

Another point of note in relation to the Eagles, is how different they are from what we think of as Eagles.  They are much larger, as well as sentient and organized species.  They have a king and even a little crown for him.  Why didn't Tolkien just use a mythological animal such as a griffon as his eucatastrophic animal?  I think it all goes back to rediscovery, one of Tolkien's favorite things about fantasy.  The children reading this story about large Eagles who are really part of a (and I hesitate to use the following word) magical world are prone to rethink what they know about the eagles in every day life.  When little girls are told their dolls come alive at night and play when she's not looking, she will look at them with renewed interest.  They suddenly become much more interesting.

Who could forget about the bumble bee fields of Beorn?  Everytime I read this it strikes me as odd--why is this even relevant to the story?  What do bees have to do with anything.  Today was the first time the thought actually occurred to me that maybe Beorn keeps these bees for honey?  He is a bear...

The next animals we meet are the servants of Beorn.  According to Tolkien Gateway:
"There were servants in Beorn's Hall: four white ponies, several large grey dogs, and a small herd of sheep. Beorn could communicate with his animals in a queer animal-like language and they were able to take care of his guests."
These characters are friendly to the dwarves, Beorn, Gandalf, and Bilbo.  Bilbo does not seem intimidated by them, but rather intrigued.  He clearly sympathizes with the reader (or maybe it's the other way around) and expresses the shock and confusion we all feel when reading that.  Clearly they are not like the animals of our world, and once again, I think this adds charm to the story (a sort of childish whimsy any good kid's tale needs) and also provides the element of rediscovery that is integral to fantasy.

Beorn's servants are not the only animals around the Carrock.  Beorn himself transforms into a great black bear at night.  From Queer Lodgings:
"He is a skin-changer. He changes his skin; sometimes he is a huge black bear, sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard. I once saw him sitting all alone on the top of the Carrock at night watching the moon sinking towards the Misty Mountains..." 

Beorn is described as kind to the travelers, but unpredictable and wild.  The fact that he transforms into a bear at night highlights this characteristic of his.  It also adds some suspense to the story as the travelers are not quite comfortable or at home with him.

Beorn has a clear affinity for animals.  He employs them as servants instead of humans--who he resists the company of--and is very attached to the ponies he loans the travelers.  Gandalf even says that Beorn treats the ponies like his own children.

Next the company encounters the spiders of Mirkwood.  These are unambiguously dangerous creatures.  Their goal from the outset is to capture, sedate, and consume the dwarves and anyone else they can get their hands on.  Tolkien says that he put the spiders in the story more because his children were frightened of them and he thought they would make good villains.  Tolkien apparently did not harbor outright animosity towards the creatures, stating that would "remove them from the bath if I saw one" (Letters).  Personally, this "rediscovery" of spiders as large and vicious villains is not particularly appealing to me, but very compelling and disturbing.

The thrush is a very important character towards the end of the story.  He communicates messages from the Dwarves of Erebor to those of the Iron Hills, warning them of impending battle.  Something interesting about this Roac character, is that he has his family tree mapped out just as intricately as any Dwarf or Hobbit.  He knows his grandfather was friends with Thorin's grandfather, which seems, on the surface, irrelevant, but leads to him helping out the Dwarves.  This animal is one of the last to stick around after the "dragon-fall-out".  He reminds me of a) a messenger pigeon relaying Dwarven orders and b) a vulture, circling the dead "body" of the mountain, recently slaughtered by Smaug.

Tolkien's whimsical use of animals in The Hobbit adds charm to the story while also helping the reader to reconsider things they see in every day life.

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