Is it an introduction? Is it a preface? Is it a foreword? No, it’s an author’s note or so says at least one edition of The Hobbit. We’re going to start reviewing Tolkien’s The Hobbit, chapter by chapter next month, but before we do, I thought that it would be worth looking at this curious page at the beginning of the book. It should have one of the aforementioned titles at the top, but all we see is runes, as yet unexplained.
I mentioned in a previous post that my acquaintance with Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories came through reading The Hobbit while an engineering student in the summer of 1973. This was meant to satisfy my curiosity as to why so many of my fellow students were reading The Lord of The Rings. I have to admit that there were aspects of this foreword which I found off-putting. Having specialised in scientific subjects while at school, I was quite unprepared for the writings of Tolkien. I had no idea what to expect from a Professor of Anglo-Saxon. I had some basic studies in English Literature under my belt—a modern novel (Golding’s Lord of the Flies), a Shakespeare play (Macbeth) and Victorian Poetry (including Gerald Manley Hopkins)—but what was all this nonsense about how the characters in a fairy tale actually spoke so long ago, as if the story had been discovered by archaeologists? I thought Tolkien wrote it. Why this pretence?
What was going on in this introduction was something new to me. It was a myth: part of an art form based on the study of language at a level which I had not reached in my education to date. Tolkien was used to working among the roots of languages where the origins of words, their meanings and the histories of peoples mingled. Or, as his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, put it “he had been inside language.”
I would like to share these memories of my first impressions (and what I have learned since) with you by way of encouragement. If you haven’t read The Hobbit yet, I would urge you to do so and not be put off by the somewhat weird opening remarks. I’m so glad that I didn’t give up on the first page.
It has been noted elsewhere that the opening sentence of chapter one of The Hobbit book came into Tolkien’s mind exactly as it stands while he was otherwise occupied marking exam papers. He wrote it down for future use. Having completed his book, starting with those famous words, it appears that he thought something was missing by way of introduction. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Note H, Tolkien expresses his approval of the phrase “Once upon a time” as the starting point for such a story. Since Tolkien starts his author’s note with “This is a story of long ago,” it seems that he is using this page to set the events of his story in some suitably far off time.
Then he goes on to explain some fine points regarding the use of language in the book. He states that he will be spelling the plural of “dwarf” as “dwarves” not “dwarfs” to distinguish his old style characters from contemporary, possibly Disneyfied, representations. Well, since he was a language professor at Oxford University and someone who worked on the Oxford English Dictionary, I thought that he could make such changes without fear of contradiction. So, I was interested to read in The Annotated Hobbit, by Douglas A. Anderson, that Tolkien admitted much later in an interview that “Dwarves was originally a mistake in grammar…”. Well, really! Even the great professor could make a slip. However, what is even more interesting is how he used this error to his advantage, to add to the air of antiquity in The Hobbit’s world.
This seems to be the case again when he introduces the word “Orc” for goblin and hobgoblin, which he derived from older languages. It doesn’t occur many times in The Hobbit but if you are going on to read The Lord of The Rings, the sooner you get used to this word the better!
The remainder of the author’s note is taken up with an explanation of the runes in the book and a justification of their use. Now this bit did appeal to the technical part of my brain (as did the maps) and I soon had my own translation table “etched” in the back of my copy. Having read to the bottom of the page, with a little cross referencing of the text, you should be able to “read the runes” at the top. Perhaps, this is what got me hooked. But there was more going on or being transmitted than I bargained for.
Once Tolkien had started to introduce terms from outside contemporary English, there was an indication that he was using his knowledge of language to communicate things peculiar to his imagined world. To use an analogy from the world of pre-digital radio, it is as if the carrier signal of his story contains information which the reader doesn’t realise is there—unless you are a language scholar trained in such matters. And if that is true of words, I would argue that it is also true of character sets like runes. If you begin reading and writing runes, your brain is in some small way attuned to the world of sagas which ran before our own languages began to be written. This is just one way in which Tolkien adds the dimension of history to his story.
So there is reason in all these strange instructions, and I would say, don’t let them put you off. Try to see them as enticing. As C.S. Lewis said in his review of The Hobbit, this book admits you to a marvelous world which, once having visited, you will find unforgettable and indispensable. You will probably want to go back there again and again and perhaps read the “sequel” sooner than I did.
Having read and enjoyed more of Tolkien’s works, I can now see that he was dealing with the themes which I thought so worthwhile in my “O” level English Literature syllabus. There are the frailties of human nature and how they might be overcome, the supernatural effect of evil on social and cultural groups, and the enchanting beauty of the natural world. But Tolkien makes them come alive in a far more vivid way in his imagined world than is possible through reading of fictional events based in our “real” world, or dramatising such struggles in historical times. As for Hopkins’ poetry, Tolkien is on a par with his ability to capture the essence of the world he describes; but with The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, the enchantment lasts much longer.
Regarding the photograph above: It will be seen from The Wilderland map in The Hobbit book that there is a distinct boundary, called The Edge of The Wild separating the safe and homely world of The Shire and its neighbouring areas from The Misty Mountains and regions further on. Our hero, Bilbo Baggins undergoes many life changing experiences as he crosses that line into The Wild, “there and back again.” I can just about recall a certain trepidation, when I embarked on reading The Hobbit, that I was going to be changed in some way into one of those people who obsessively devoured those huge tomes of The Lord of The Rings. Well, it did happen eventually, but I insist that it is a positive thing: it involves the joy of reading (ideally reading aloud to others), rediscovering the pleasure and importance of stories and learning good English from an Oxford professor. And if you do end up carving runes to mark The Edge of The Wild at the bottom of your garden, where only family and friends can see… well, it’s all part of the fun.