“Goodbye, for the present, Bilbo! Take care of yourself! You are old enough, and perhaps wise enough.”
Welcome back, everyone! New Year, new re-read essay. And, of course, happy belated birthday to Professor Tolkien, who turned one hundred and twenty-four (or, if you prefer, twelve-ty four) this past week. This is nice and fitting. Let’s get down to birthdays.
We start off The Lord of the Rings with a pair of birthdays: Bilbo turning eleventy-one and his first/second cousin Frodo turning thirty-three. “A Long-Expected Party” is a transition chapter in the clearest sense of the term, gently guiding the reader from the charming brightness of The Hobbit to the more serious weightiness of The Lord of the Rings. This happens on a couple of levels: tone, subject matter, prose style. The clearest, though, is the fact that “A Long-Expected Party” essentially switches focus half way through: it’s one of the only books I can think of that introduces its protagonist, sends him off into the sunset 15 pages later, and picks up someone else entirely. It’s weird at first glance, and can feel wrong in the context of modern literary structures and expectations. But it’s purposeful. It sets up nice and clearly from the start that in a lot of ways The Ring itself is our protagonist, and whoever carries it becomes protagonist by proxy. If Frodo had dumped the Ring in a river, or lost it to Merry or Pippin in a bet, or if Lobelia had managed to steal it from him, the story would have followed It, not him. (Let’s all stop for a moment and imagine what might have been, in a Lobelia-centric Lord of the Rings). I’m not sure how well this will hold up for the rest of the story, but it was a really interesting choice by Tolkien in his opening chapter.
All in all, that’s what struck me the most about this chapter: how different it feels from modern fantasy, but also how clearly Tolkien knows exactly what he’s doing. There are endless ways to look at this, but for this chapter I’ll focus on three: his use of omniscient narration, the way he doles out backstory and information, and how he approaches magic and wonder in Middle Earth.
I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule – please tell me about them! – but omniscient narrators do not seem all that trendy in modern fantasy literature. There are a lot of reasons for this: if you want to build a nuanced character and you want to create suspense, it’s hard to beat a good, solid, limited-viewpoint perspective. Just go ask George R.R. Martin.
The Hobbit, though, is told through an omniscient narrator: it feels like Tolkien himself hovering over events and telling you about them, or perhaps telling you a bedtime story as you sit beside a fire and he smokes a pipe. This is one of my favorite things about The Hobbit, and it’s one of my favorite things about “A Long Expected Party.” It allows for the immediate establishment of a tone and authorial voice: Tolkien has a rambling and charming prose style in this first chapter, and his sentences often end in a kind of two-pronged self-deprecation. Take this as an early example, on Bilbo: “There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.” It’s a light, jaunty style that strikes me (an American) as a kind of low-key and charming English wit.
It also allows Tolkien to be really funny in this first chapter – it surprised me how many times I laughed out loud, and how much the tone reminded me, of all people, of Terry Pratchett. This reaches its height at the birthday party itself, as Tolkien’s narrator focuses on the reactions of the crowd of hobbits, including their desperate fear that Bilbo was going to use his status as birthday hobbit to launch into some awful round of poetry. We even learn that Tolkien beat Arrested Development to the punch by about fifty years: “My dear people, began Bilbo, rising in his place. ‘Hear! Hear! Hear!’ they shouted, and kept repeating it in chorus, seeming reluctant to follow their own advice.”
I’m intrigued to see, going forward, how this perspective changes. Things are obviously going to be getting more serious as we move along, but I don’t have a clear memory of how the narrative voice changes as we progress.
Tolkien’s Pacing and the Weight of Information
Another point in this first chapter that sets Tolkien apart from many other fantasy authors is his pacing. I don’t really think it’s an exaggeration to say that the opening to The Lord of the Rings is notoriously slow, and that the amount of information that gets dumped on the page is high. Let’s take an example from the first full scene in the chapter, as The Gaffer and a couple of other old hobbits are sitting around and chatting about Bilbo and Frodo in The Ivy Bush. With the mention that Frodo’s father Drogo had drowned, the Gaffer launches into this speech:
“You see Mr. Drogo, he married poor Miss Primula Brandybuck. She was our Mr. Bilbo’s first cousin on his mother’s side (her mother being the youngest of the Old Took’s daughters); and Mr. Drogo was his second cousin. So Mr. Frodo is his first and second cousin, once removed either way, as the saying is, if you follow me. And Mr. Drogo was staying at Brandy Hall with his father-in-law, old Master Gorbadoc, as he often did after his marriage (him being partial to vittles, and old Gorbadoc keeping a mighty generous table); and he went out boating on the Brandywine River; and he and his wife were drowned, and poor Mr. Frodo only a child and all.”
“I’ve heard they went on the water after dinner in the moonlight,” said Old Noakes; “and it was Drogo’s weight that sunk the boat.”
“And I heard she pushed him in, and he pulled her in after him,” said Sandyman the Hobbiton miller.
So: this is sort of ridiculous. On the surface level, none of this information really matters at all, and is certainly not integral to any kind of plot. If you brought your fantasy novel to a writing group today and insisted on having a paragraph explaining why two of your characters are both first and second cousins, it would probably not go all that well for you. But on the whole – including here – I’d argue that Tolkien’s sense of pacing in this first chapter is pretty fun and brisk. If you’re looking for Hemingway-style concision it will obviously not be your cup of tea, but this kind of paragraph is actually wonderful world building. Just look at how many things Tolkien is doing at the same time. He’s establishing that Frodo’s family heritage not only includes adventure-prone Bilbo but those Brandybucks who live over by The Old Forest (I mean, they’re the kind of people who go boating). He’s establishing how inward-looking and gossipy the denizens of Hobbiton can be. And he’s tossing in a couple of jokes, both by having the Gaffer’s answer to the question of “How did Drogo” drown by rapidly circling around to assure everyone that Drogo’s wife’s father kept a great table and then having two other hobbits assume the drowning must have occurred either by over-eating or by double homicide.
We’ll see how this goes (particularly in the next chapter) but I think the pacing and the way Tolkien doles out information in this chapter is really impressive. Leisurely, but intentionally so.
Magic and Wonder in The Lord of the Rings
This is the last thing I want to touch on for this essay, but probably one of my favorite topics. I think Tolkien is an absolute master at this: how to convey a sense of wonder and magic in a fantasy world. I also think that it sharply divides him from most modern fantasy. Tolkien’s magic lingers on the corners of his work, as if it’s hiding just out of the corner of your eye. It’s too big to see directly. I think it’s a major reason why Tolkien’s novels – rather than his mythological works – center on hobbits. Magic for them is foreign, inconceivable, something that sometimes infringes on their world, but also something that they don’t really understand or even process. The toys at Bilbo’s party are dwarven-made – from Dale! – but no one really knows what that means. Take his passage on the arrival of Gandalf:
Days passed and The Day drew nearer. An odd-looking wagon laden with odd-looking packages rolled into Hobbiton one evening and toiled up the hill to Bag End. The startled hobbits peered out of lamplit doors to gape at it. It was driven by outlandish folk, singing strange songs: dwarves with long beards and deep hoods.
After this, Gandalf arrives “in broad daylight” and people stream out to see him and his fireworks. His “fame in the Shire was due mainly to his skill with fires, smokes, and lights. His real business was far more difficult and dangerous, but the Shire-folk knew nothing about it.” Magic is big in Middle Earth, outside the scope of The Shire. It’s interesting that when the magic seems tangible – Gandalf’s fireworks – people stream out their doors to see it. When it doesn’t – when it’s deep hoods and strange songs – people stay in their doorways.
This sense of the scope of magic can be seen in the fireworks themselves: Gandalf starts out with flocks of birds, trees, flowers: all beautiful, but also very much in line with what would be seen in The Shire. But as they progress, they get stranger: pillars of fires that turn into eagles, sailing ships, a red thunderstorm and yellow rain, “a forest of silver spears.” This is transitional as well, as much as the shift in focus from Bilbo to Frodo: magic in this chapter begins as beautiful, enriching to the world. But there are hints throughout – those dwarves in their hoods, that forest of spears – that magic is also something stranger, something deeper, something more ambiguous and dangerous. That Tolkien can continually convey that without saying it directly is one of his greatest strengths as an author.
- How is everyone feeling about the timing of these essays? I was originally planning one per month, but I can try one every two weeks if that pacing seems better.
- Let’s talk about Bilbo for a second before he’s gone for a couple of chapters! What a guy. We learn in “A Long-Expected Party” that Bilbo enjoys reciting poems to his neighbors and that when he gets drunk he “alludes” to his previous adventures. He also shows a talent for passive aggression so pointed it almost becomes plain aggression as he uses his will to make fun of all its beneficiaries. Dora Baggins, “in memory of a LONG correspondence” gets a waste paper basket. Yikes, Bilbo. Lobelia handles this as only she could: she “took the point at once, but also took the spoons.”
- Merry makes his first appearance! And it’s a good one, as he and Frodo face down Lobelia.
“You’re no Baggins – you – you’re a Brandybuck!”
“Did you hear that, Merry? That was an insult, if you like,” said Frodo as he shut the door on her.
“It was a compliment,” said Merry Brandybuck. “And so, of course, not true.”
- Prose-Prize: I love Tolkien’s prose so much, so each chapter I’m going to pick my favorite section. Expect tons of alliteration. From “A Long-Expected Party”:
There were rockets like a flight of scintillating birds singing with sweet voices. There were green trees with trunks of dark smoke: their leaves opened like a whole spring unfolding in a moment, and their shining branches dropped glowing flowers down upon the astonished hobbits, disappearing with a sweet scent just before they touched their upturned faces. There were fountains of butterflies that flew glittering into the trees; there were pillars of colored fires that rose and turned into eagles, or sailing ships, or a phalanx of flying swans; there was a red thunderstorm and a shower of yellow rain; there was a forest of silver spears that sprang suddenly into the air with a yell like an embattled army, and came down again into the Water with a hiss like a hundred hot snakes.
See you all next time for “The Shadows of the Past!” I’d love to hear your thoughts.