Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Hobbit – Over Hill and Under Hill

Enter the goblins.

Chapter Summary

Crossing through the Misty Mountains, Bilbo and the dwarves are captured by the goblins. Gandalf comes in and saves the day, leading the dwarves to safety. However, in the final sentences, as they are making their escape, Dori loses Bilbo and the chapter ends there.

Analysis and Discussion

The Misty Mountains serve as a physical boundary that separates the civilized from the wild. On the other side of the mountains one can find the appropriately named Mirkwood, which implies something quite sinister, and of course the dragon. It is fitting that Rivendell represents the calm before the storm, as a terrible lightning storm confronts the party in the opening pages of the chapter.

One of the more interesting bits in The Hobbit is the description of the storm in which stone giants are tossing rocks at each other. This is the only place that I know of where the stone giants are mentioned. The mental image of the giants throwing rocks as the lightning flashes is quite vivid, and gives the storm a more ominous feel to it. It is as if the giants are part of the storm, not just merely passive spectators to nature’s fury. It also raises questions as to whether the storm is natural or unnatural. In the follow up Lord of the Rings, again the Misty Mountains serve as a barrier, and it is a snow storm that confronts Frodo’s party, forcing them to take an underground route. The implication in there is that the storm is a product of something malevolent, and not the work of the natural world.

As Bilbo’s party takes shelter from the storm, they are confronted and captured by the goblins. Throughout The Hobbit, the term goblin is used, while in the larger follow on work, the term orc is used. One frequently used explanation is that Misty Mountain goblins are smaller than orcs, and are more concentrated in the mountains, while the orcs range throughout Middle Earth. In The Hobbit, the goblins appear almost comical when compared to the orcs found in the Lord of the Rings. I suspect that nature of The Hobbit as a whole is intended for a younger audience, and the term orc is meant to imply something a bit darker and fouler than what is found the earlier work. This supports the claim that Tolkien meant for the Lord of the Rings to be a deeper work than what is found in The Hobbit, and as such tackles grimmer and grittier themes than those present in The Hobbit.

In the previous chapter, Elrond identifies the elven swords Orcrist and Glamdring. It is interesting to note that even Gandalf did not know of their names nor of their history. I suspect that he had a good idea of where they came from, but clearly the details eluded him. When Orcrist is presented to the great goblin after the dwarves were captured, he immediately knew what it was. I find this point very interesting, and worthy of some further discussion. Often in literature, the heroes of the story do not realize the tools that they possess to get some particularly difficult task accomplished. This is frequently used to create a story arc of discovery which unfolds as the heroes progress through the story. While the heroes may not understand what they possess, the villains always know. There is this theme in literature that suggests evil understands the power of good, and cannot stand before these instruments. They intuitively know, and shy away from these instruments. In this tale, the Great Goblin, and the rest of his pack understand what Thorin is carrying, even if Thorin does not. Their reaction is immediate.

“Also, he has not explained this!.....The Great Goblin gave a truly awful howl of rage when he looked at it, and all his soldiers gnashed their teeth, clashed their shields, and stamped. They knew the sword at once.”

This reaction is similar to how a vampire would react when confronted with a holy symbol. The reaction is immediate, as the revulsion is powerful.

“They hated it and hated worse any one that carried it.”

Gandalf appears, and rescues the dwarves from certain death. The goblins take chase, and Tolkien gives us an insight into the nature of goblins with his description of the chase. He uses the phrase, “..flap of the goblin feet, many many feet..” This gives an image of rodents scurrying through an underground tunnel, which I suspect was done on purpose. In the short story The Rats in the Walls, Lovecraft weaves a tale of horror based on the sound of rats racing behind the walls. While I am not sure if Tolkien ever read this tale, I can say that he was clearly tapping into this imagery with this choice of words, and the comparison between goblins and rats is an interesting one.

Monstrous Discussions – Goblins

For the record, I really like goblins. They are small creatures that inhabit caves and other dark places. They are not as fierce as their larger cousins, the hobgoblin or the bugbear, but there is still something special about them. They can be played serious or they can be played light and humorous, as they are meant to challenge low level players. I really like Paizo’s reimaging of the goblin that they did for Pathfinder #1, and expanded upon in their Classic Monsters Revisited.

In this chapter, I think Tolkien was looking for something in between sinister and comical. He was considerate of the younger audience when he wrote, yet he did not water the content down too much. The goblins in The Hobbit are not simply mindless beasts, but they do possess some level of rational thought. The Great Goblin could have had them killed right away, but he was willing to trade words with Thorin, before deciding that they would be better off dead.

This feel of the goblins still colors my image of them, and in particular, it is the animated version of the goblins that has stuck with me throughout the years. After the Fellowship movie, smallish creatures that can climb walls like vermin has given me another dimension to add to the goblins. This goes back to the comparison to rats, which resonates rather well with me. In some ways, I do consider goblins to be the rats of the dungeon.


Lior said...

I've always taken "goblin" to be the word used by Hobbits, "orc" to be the one used by Men and Elves (Yrch is used by an Elf in Lothlorien, for example).

Mr Baron said...

Thanks for the note. I would be inclined to agree, if it were not for the line in chapter 7 where Gandalf states that the Grey Mountains are "...simply stiff with goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs."

This implies that goblins and orcs are different, even if the difference is a very small one.

I think of goblins (from a Middle Earth perspective) as smaller orcs. To your point, it is quite possible that hobbits are not familar with orcs, because they have only fought against goblins and wolves. I need to check on this last comment, but it would explain the usage of the terms orc & goblin.

Lior said...

The quote is from the chapter "Lothlorien" in book II of the LoTR. After crossing the stream into the elven-kingdom, the fellowship spends the night up in the trees, the hobbits at the same felt as their elven-guides. A company of orcs comes out of Moria (and is later destroyed by the elves). As the elves leave to investigate Frodo asks "What's up?" the Elf answers "Yrch", "falling back to his own tongue". Frodo then draws Sting and its edges glow, confirming the presence of orcs.

On the other hand, I think the list of fireworks in Bilbo's 111th birthday has both "orc-xxx" and "goblin-xxx" fireworks.

I'll look both points up in the book and comment again.

Anonymous said...

Goblins as presented in The Hobbit have always been an influence on my fantasy rpg games. They are sneaky, villainous and perhaps a tad bit humorous, although the humor is lost on them and purely unintentional.

You do raise an excellent point with the swords, heroes often do not know what they have, but the enemies always know and have a deep seated hatred for these items. A very interesting aspect of the story.