The thing that stuck with me from my first reading of The Hobbit (nearly forty years ago, now), was Mirkwood. A place of darkness, where so little sunlight filters through from above it’s a shock when Bilbo climbs a tree and gets a reminder of what daylight looks like (plus a glimpse of Mirkwood’s weird, black butterflies). It’s as much a psychological gloom as a lack of light, with Bilbo and the dwarves having for the first time to do without Gandalf (who so far has been the one to rescue them from trolls, goblins, wolves, and hunger), and soon finding themselves helplessly lost in an unforgiving and almost alien environment, where even the water is dangerous. Mirkwood has its roots pretty clearly in classic fairy tales, but for me it’s the moment when Tolkien’s particularly Tolkien-ish invention kicks in. As he himself wrote in a letter to Stanley Unwin in 1937, the year the book was first published:
“Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it [i.e., his Silmarillion mythology] — so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge.”
Even before the spiders appear, Mirkwood feels like a ramping up of peril for Bilbo and the dwarves. But it’s not yet the sort of peril — the quality that leant its name to Tolkien’s term for Faërie, “the Perilous Realm” — that you find in The Lord of the Rings, which combines mortal danger with an addictive draw, and whose physical threat is secondary to its moral, psychological, or even spiritual danger. In The Lord of the Rings it’s embodied in the One Ring, but in The Hobbit, you feel it most around treasure, and in particular gold “upon which a dragon has long brooded”.
As I found out when recording The Adventure Film Podcast with my brother, gold pops up with surprising frequency in adventure stories, and almost always with the same result: it lures you on the adventure, but once you’ve acquired it, a whole new set of troubles begin. Adventure-gold has the uncanny ability to bring out the worst in people. (As in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or The Man Who Would Be King.)
Tolkien’s treasures come with an added dimension, though, as we find out when Bilbo & co. discover a cache of valuables acquired by the trolls. Casually lying there in a wayside cave are two legendary swords, Orcrist and Glamdring. Elrond, who identifies them, suggests how they might have ended up in such a lowly hoard:
“…one may guess that your trolls had plundered other plunderers, or come on the remnants of old robberies in some hold of the mountains.”
Treasure, in Tolkien, does not just have monetary value, it comes laden with historical associations, and in a world like Middle Earth, where old songs and stories are constantly being retold — often by long-lived beings who themselves witnessed them, or have family ties to their protagonists — historical weight can be just as compelling as monetary value, and can take on both deeply personal and highly political ramifications.
The basic effect is initially the same. Just as the One Ring makes you paranoid, secretive, and ashamed, so treasure, in The Hobbit, isolates, makes you selfish and suspicious. Gollum is the first example of this we see, a creature debased by “endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering”. Smaug is a dragon, therefore solitary and vengeful by nature, but he dwells in the heart of a place called the Lonely Mountain, just to underline the point. It’s when the “dragon-sickness” takes grip of Thorin we really see this effect at work. Thorin and company think of Smaug’s treasure as having been plundered from them, and so rightfully theirs, but as Bard points out, the dragon added to his horde over the years, so if they’re genuinely interested in restitution, some of it belongs to the descendants of Dale. It’s at this point Thorin starts calling everyone a thief:
“But none of our gold shall thieves take or the violent carry off while we are alive.”
The question of theft — of how treasure is acquired — is a complex one in The Hobbit. Every treasure has a history, of being discovered in its raw state (mined by dwarves or goblins), of being formed into objects of beauty by craftsmen, of being given or bought, of being used in heroic deeds, of being honoured in songs and stories. To whom does it belong? Is not all ownership — of treasure, at least — the result of theft, in Middle Earth? (Except for things freely given, such as Bilbo’s mithril shirt.)
Tolkien, though, finds a shade of difference. Dragons, for instance, are nothing but rapacious thieves:
“Dragons steal gold and jewels, you know, from men and elves and dwarves, wherever they can find them; and they guard their plunder as long as they live (which is practically for ever unless they are killed), and never enjoy a brass ring of it. Indeed they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the current market value; and they can’t make a thing for themselves, not even mend a little loose scale of their armour.”
Bilbo is several times called a thief, and in some cases (Gollum’s ring, for instance), may be acting as one, but he comes to think of himself as a burglar, and though it’s only a nicety that works in the fairy-tale world of Middle Earth, a burglar, here, is one who acquires treasure through a modicum of craft or skill, and perhaps bravery, and certainly through deeds around which a story might be told. This isn’t to say Bilbo doesn’t feel the “dragon-sickness” at times — as when he first sees the Arkenstone and is “drawn by its enchantment” (and how literally does Tolkien mean that “enchantment”?) — but crucially, he doesn’t give way to it when it comes to losing friendships or causing strife.
After all, Bilbo has no heroic notions about himself. All he wants, once the adventure is underway, is to get back home to his comfortable hobbit-hole, with perhaps a new tale or two to tell, and a nice-looking memento on the mantlepiece to dust off and reminisce about. He has no intention of installing himself as a king somewhere, and knows he has no chance of transporting a fourteenth-load of dragon’s gold all the way back to the Shire on his own, so he can’t see himself as a legendary hero. He knows he’s vulnerable, and still needs to rely on others. And this despite the fact that, once Gandalf leaves the dwarves, Bilbo is the one who takes over the heroic role, by saving the party every time they’re in danger. But whereas Gandalf saved them thanks to his magical power and wide-reaching knowledge, Bilbo does it through “some wits, as well as luck and a magic ring — and all three are very useful possessions”. Bilbo saves the dwarves not through Gandalf-style confrontations, but through using his wits, wits honed by knowing how helpless and unheroic he is, and so in full knowledge that only burglar-style tactics (or “sneaking”, as Gollum might put it) will work.
It’s almost impossible to read The Hobbit without feeling the weight of The Lord of the Rings bearing down on it. But it’s a fun book, and a neat little adventure which really starts to warm up once the dwarves and Bilbo get to Mirkwood, and then again once Smaug is dead and the Battle of the Five Armies draws near. It may be a toe-dip in the worlds of corruption and power that saturate the later trilogy, but I think that was all it was ever meant to be — there and back again, in time for tea.