Apologies for the interruption in transmission. Filming has begun so we must press on with our quest.
Rather like Gandalf was drawn away by other business at the end of the last chapter, I have been pre-occupied by activities which do not relate directly to The Hobbit story. But I would just comment that when one has seen a whole other reality like Middle-earth created by the genius of Tolkien, it is easier to question the version of current events presented by the Main Stream Media.
But to get down to business, if I was looking for excuses as to why it has taken me so long to get to grips with Chapter 8 of The Hobbit, I could mention that it is the longest chapter in the book and has spiders. In fact, “Spiders” might have been a better title for this chapter. It is the biggest theme in it. Flies aren’t mentioned much unless Tolkien was referring to flying insects such as the moths and butterflies which figure only briefly. Or perhaps, Tolkien is alluding to flies as the prey of spiders. Anyway, if you don’t like spiders, you may find this part of the story rather unpleasant. I’m thankful that I haven’t suffered from arachnophobia myself but, as with most of Bilbo’s escapades, you end up caught in Tolkien’s web of words and empathise with the danger that he and his colleagues find themselves in. Given the relative size of the spiders and their prey, I was beginning to imagine what it would be like to be a fly caught in a web. But, hey, it’s only a story.
Nevertheless, this chapter does beg the question as to whether Tolkien was scared of spiders himself. I think not—or at least he was very good at covering up. I base this view on a comment in The Annotated Hobbit:
On January 15, 1957, Tolkien was interviewed by Ruth Harshaw for an American radio show called “Carnival of Books”. He said, “I put in the spiders because this was you remember, primarily written for my children (at least I had them in mind), and one of my sons in particular dislikes spiders with a great intensity. I did it to thoroughly frighten him and it did!”
Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien mentions that he was bitten by a large spider while in South Africa before he was three years of age. There is no suggestion that this had any lasting psychological effect on him, but the fact that it had become part of his family folklore suggests that he may have been reminded of the incident more times than he cared for.
I would like to think that there were times when the Tolkien’s family sat around at home telling stories about their relatives before his mother became so regrettably estranged from them. Such verbal history helps to create a sense of belonging. Tolkien went on to develop a great love for story telling as he studied Old German and Old English (Anglo Saxon). We know this because he formed the Kolbitars (or Coal Biters) Club at Oxford to read aloud Icelandic sagas as the Norsemen would have done around their fires at night. Tolkien knew the power of storytelling as live entertainment and nothing would make such a performance successful as terrifying your audience. So it is no surprise that he puts an extra scary bit in this story for his boys.
As you begin to read Chapter 8, you are in no doubt that this is going to be creepy, especially if you have recently read the end of the previous chapter where Bilbo and the dwarves are given dire warnings by Gandalf not to stray off the path in Mirkwood. The first few paragraphs paint a picture of enveloping gloom and a place where all the surroundings seem threatening. From there, things proceed like a slow motion ghost train ride with creepers dangling down and luminous eyes peering from the darkness.
Is this chapter going to be the scariest part of the book? Well, if you don’t like spiders, it could be. But as with the trolls in Chapter 2, Tolkien relieves the tension with some humorous moments. So, I think I can maintain my theory that Tolkien had in his mind a “terror gradient” on which he is plotting his narrative. I would say he is still on course from that point of view but, oh dear, I think he wanders off the path when it comes to his target audience!
I am amazed as I return to reading The Hobbit after my “short rest” that Tolkien makes no concessions in vocabulary for the children for whom he was supposedly writing. That’s a good thing. You’re in the top class for English Literature when you are reading Tolkien whether it’s The Hobbit or The Lord of The Rings. However, Tolkien gets a bit carried away towards the end of this chapter and seems to be giving us a sales pitch for The Silmarillion with all his references to Light Elves and Dark Elves and the realm of Faerie.
Perhaps, I’m worrying unnecessarily, for, as C.S. Lewis says in his review of the book, a child will enjoy it anyway. An adult will only realise at the tenth or twentieth reading what deft scholarship has gone into it and that Tolkien knows much more about the material than he needs for this tale. Lewis as a grownup had the advantage of being a professor of English himself. I have found it very useful to refer to Douglas Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit for some help in appreciating the deftness of Tolkien’s composition. Having said that, I recall that when I first read Bilbo using the words, “attercop” and “tomnoddy”, I felt that there was something spidery and insulting about them. But I had no idea that Tolkien was playing at puns when he had Bilbo’s companions caught in spiders webs, since in Old Swedish they are dwarf-nets, according to Anderson.
My main complaint about Tolkien straying off the path with his young audience, though, is with all this talk of elves. It sounds like product placement—like James Bond conspicuously displaying famous makes of watches. In a way, you can understand him wanting to do this. By the time he wrote The Hobbit, he had assembled reams of manuscripts for his mythology of Middle-earth, and much of it was concerned with kindreds of Elves. So he wanted more people to take an interest in his work. I’m sure Tolkien’s children would have been too polite to complain and, like most children, let it go over their heads. Also, these references help to add a sense of history to The Hobbit which is developed so wonderfully in The Lord of The Rings. For me, they could have been cut from the book. But it seems that the film makers have seen an opportunity for product line extension here, and perhaps we should thank Tolkien’s ramblings in this chapter for giving us two Hobbit films instead of one!