Kevin Roger Black - Where the Shadows Lie
The Structure of the Myth: A Hobbit's-Eye View
MIRANDA O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O, brave new world,
That has such people in 't!
PROSPERO 'Tis new to thee.
(The Tempest [5.1.183-6])
Tolkien would surely have been distressed to see me begin the discussion of his story with a quotation from Shakespeare, as he thought the study of Shakespeare to be a waste of time except as a preparation for the spectacle of the plays in performance. But this scene from The Tempest seems to be an apt way to describe how Tolkien expected his trilogy to be read: as if we are being released for the first time from a small island into the wondrous and unknown glories of the world.
Tolkien went to a good deal of trouble in the creation of Middle-earthdrawing maps, inventing races, histories, and legendsso that the readers would be cut off from all reference to the world they knew. He had the option of setting his story in Europe's mythical past, as did the Beowulf poet, Homer, Malory, Virgil, and Spenser, to name a few, without constraining his ability to write about dragons, elves, demons, or forgotten wars between men. But to do so would have been to give his readers a sense of familiarity with the geography, traditions, or ambiance of the setting. But Tolkien wanted his readers to be as innocent as Miranda: ignorant of what customs or creatures the world contained beyond the small island of it that is familiar to them.
The island Tolkien created for the reader is called the Shire, the home of the Hobbits. Though not technically an island, it is bounded by the Brandywine River is on one side, and the empty lands leading to the Great Sea on the other. The nineteen-page Prologue to The Lord of the Rings is intended to acquaint the reader as fully as possible with the Shire before the story begins, talking about its origins, customs, political organization, and the temperament of the hobbits and their community. What the Prologue does not contain, amongst this trivia, is any information about the world outside its borders, besides what little can be gleaned from a short synopsis of the events of The Hobbit. The hobbits keep to themselves and have no more knowledge of the outside world than the reader. Neither does the outside world have any contact with the hobbits; for the Shire is a very minor land far away from the heavily populated and politicized realms of the South, and it does not appear on their maps.
Every detail about the Shire is designed to create the maximum impression of stasis. The Hobbits have very regular habits that revolve mostly around eating (six meals a day) and indulge in cozy, pacifistic activities such as smoking, singing, and throwing lots of parties (the birthday festival thrown by Bilbo and Frodo in the first chapter is the biggest event of the year). The first impression made by the Hobbits is summed up in this luminous detail: "they liked to have books filled with things they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions" (I: 28). There are no monsters or magic in the Shire. A less exotic setting could hardly be imagined.
There is another way in which the Shire is familiar: it bears more than a passing resemblance to rural England, or, at least, to the imaginary pastoral England that was romanticized by poets and city-dwellers. "Shire" is a old-fashioned but quite recognizable word for an English county, and the political organization is also familiar: it is split into boroughs (called "Farthings") with their own sheriffs, which are answerable to a central mayor, just like a traditional country village. Robert M. Adams, in an otherwise very wrong-headed essay, has suggested that the temperament of the hobbits is also distinctly English. Rather than argue the point myself, and bearing in mind that Tolkien sometimes colored the truth a little in retrospective, I will reprint his own explanation of his intention for the Hobbits, which he wrote to a perspective publisher in 1951:
The Hobbits are, of course, really meant to be a branch of the specifically human race (not Elves or Dwarves).... They are entirely without non-human powers, but are represented as being more in touch with "nature" (the soil and other living things, plants and animals), and abnormally, for humans, free from ambition or greed of wealth. They are made small (little more than half human stature, but dwindling as the years pass) partly to exhibit the pettiness of man, plain unimaginative parochial man... and mostly to show up, in creatures of very small physical power, the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary man "at a pinch." (LOT: 158)
Hobbits are ideal characters for Tolkien to use to lead the reader through the narrative. First, they are tabula rasa in knowledge of the outside world of Middle-earth; which has only crept in small ways into their fairy-tales, so on their journey they experience Middle-earth with the same surprise and wonder as the readeras a fairy-story. Their pert common sense brings a surprisingly modern perspective to Middle-earth, and they speak plainly in modern English, while most of the characters they meet on their travels use a more old-fashioned, King Jamesian pattern of speech, or some type of dialect (the Orc speech actually resembles Cockney, complete with the exclamation "Garn!"). Their small stature helps Tolkien to portray his landscape through their eyes as enormous and strangeeven a willow tree can become a malevolent spirit from the Ancient Days. And, as small Englishmen, the Hobbits guide the reader's response to the strangeness that confronts them.
Hobbits begin as being narrow-minded and provincial. Thereby, their journeys inevitably broaden their perspective, teaching them new lessons about the world, and Tolkien induces the reader to participate in these discoveries. They learn principally through encounters with a wide variety of richly imagined characters and creatures, many of which are complete inventions by Tolkien, and others that derive from folklore. The journey undertaken in The Hobbit, a simpler and less ambitious work than The Lord of the Rings, is plotted largely around a long series of visits, in which Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves experience the hospitality (not always friendly) of trolls eating roast mutton, elves in the Last Homely Home, the Goblin King in the Misty Mountains, the Lord of the Eagles, Beorn the shape-shifter, the spiders of Mirkwood, etc. with only minimal transition between these episodes. The plot of The Lord of the Rings defies this type of a summation, but the hobbits are again continually meeting new creatures even more varied and richly drawn than those of The Hobbit.
Living history is introduced to them through encounters with a number of deathless beings that have dwelt unseen in Middle-earth for millennia, acquainting them with the most powerful and significant forces of the past. The Lord of the Rings is much more racially conscious than The Hobbit, reflecting Tolkien's new concern for large societies instead of individuals, and the many races the hobbits encounter include Dwarves, Ents, two strains of Elves, three types of Orcs, and many groups of Men, who each have their unique characteristics and contributions to make to the narrative. Part Two of this thesis will "visit" many of these cultures and creatures, in the manner of the hobbits, to uncover their importance in the overall design of Middle-earth, and relevance to a reading of modern life.