We left our hero, Bilbo Baggins, at the end of chapter one, with doubts about whether to join Thorin and his company of dwarves on their adventure to steal back gold from the dragon Smaug. The second chapter begins the morning after. Bilbo’s unexpected guests have departed before he awoke and left him with a pile of washing up. Having done his household chores, Bilbo is enjoying a second breakfast while the morning sun streams in. He is definitely having seconds thoughts about adventures.
Just then, Gandalf, that great disturber of comfort zones, arrives again and chases Bilbo out of the house and off to meet the dwarves, who are now expecting him in the village. This was no simple act of bullying. Bilbo had been persuaded the night before that he should join Thorin and Company on their quest by an appeal to the adventurous Took family side of his nature.
Before he has time to worry about his clothes, his hat or walking stick, Bilbo finds himself mounted on a pony and heading off in the direction of Smaug’s lair. When the events of this children’s story are analysed, we may wonder if it is a good thing that Gandalf, who is something of a stranger, should take our home-loving hero away like this. But Bilbo is certainly old enough to make choices in these matters. He and his family have known Gandalf for years and found him to be wise. We should also note that this tale was written in a more innocent age when certain figures in authority could be trusted. From the time Tolkien’s mother died when he was 12, his guardian was a Roman Catholic priest. This care seems to have been very beneficial to Tolkien’s personal growth.
Meanwhile back in The Shire, Bilbo Baggins is enjoying the beginning of his adventure as he rides along with his companions in the spring sunshine. Life is not always so pleasant during outdoor activities, and eventually the weather takes a turn for the worse. Unfortunately, this coincides with their arrival among dreary hills near the unsafe mountains. Darkness falls as they cross an ancient bridge into dark woods. And just when a wizard would have been most useful, they realised Gandalf was no longer with them. Their attempts to make camp and light a fire fail mysteriously. Firelight in the distance attracts their attention and Bilbo is sent to test his burglary skills in an attempt to obtain food.
Things start to get scary as Bilbo finds that the fire belongs to three trolls who are roasting and eating sheep because they can’t find any humans, dwarves or hobbits to eat. This might have made for a very disturbing second chapter of a children’s story were it not for the humour which Tolkien gives to the scene. It would be tempting to think that Tolkien is playing fast and loose with literary traditions as we hear his protagonists talking like stupid bullies from the East End of London.* But we would do well to note the words of C.S. Lewis when he reviewed The Hobbit: “Professor Tolkien … obviously knows more about them than he needs for this tale”. Lewis was referring to dwarves, but the same would apply to Tolkien’s knowledge of any of the archetypes of fairy stories, particularly Scandinavian ones such as trolls. They were often portrayed as less than bright, bad mannered and greedy. Tolkien may have invented Hobbits, but these are real Trolls!
*To really appreciate the humorous dialogue between the three trolls, Bert, William and Tom, I recommend listening to the sound recording of The Hobbit made by the Shakespearean actor, Nicol Williamson. (It’s hard to find these days: last heard of on vinyl.) With all due deference to Ian McKellen’s worthy performance in the Lord of The Rings, Williamson could do a variety of voices which would make most career impersonators green with envy. But more importantly, he can be very serious when he needs to be. If Gandalf doesn’t sound scary when he tells you something important, then he won’t convince you that he has unimaginably important business to deal with. For example, when he tells Thorin, “Please be more careful next time or we shall never get anywhere!”, Tolkien scholars know that the survival of a large part of Middle-earth is riding on that. And the contrite “Thank you” from the enormously important Thorin says a lot, too. In my humble opinion, Williamson brings something to these roles that would not be out of place in The Silmarillion: a sense of eternal destiny.