Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Hobbit – An Unexpected Party

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

There are a number of books that one can recognize by the opening line, and The Hobbit is one of them, which just goes to show how popular this tale is. The narrator goes on to describe hobbits and their holes, which is painted on the page in a way that one can picture a comfy little home, not unlike what we can see walking through our neighborhood.

In my mind I see Bilbo as young adult that is moving closer to middle age, and in some ways he might already be there. I also picture Bilbo as slightly pudgy, and a tad out of shape, as his comfortable life is getting the better of him. The narrator makes it clear that hobbits are not ones for adventure. They like things that are comfortable. Men, elves and dwarves live beyond the Shire, and the hobbits are very happy about that. In short, they live in a suburbia that is removed from the hustle and bustle of the big city. It’s about two pages into the story when Gandalf shows up, and then Bilbo’s life gets turned upside down.

A nice little story, but one that I think hits very close to home. How many of us are in our middle ages and comfortable with the way things are? Gandalf, in The Hobbit, represents supernatural aid which is a concept that is found in all the great epics and a number of lesser works. He is a part of the world, yet separate, and clearly possesses powers and wisdom that are beyond the normal person. The book does not go into the details of Gandalf’s history or background, which is saved for The Silmarillion, and to be honest, it is not necessary for this book. When Gandalf comes visiting, he is not there just to catch up on the local gossip. He is there to call Bilbo to become something more than he is now, and that means moving out of his comfort zone. Bilbo struggles with this throughout the second half of the chapter. It’s his Tookish blood that contrasts sharply with his natural hobbit sense of proper being. While we do not have Tookish blood in us, we can still relate to Bilbo’s inner conflict.

One of the more interesting parts to this first chapter is that Gandalf not only chooses Bilbo, but also goes as far as to mark his door, so that the dwarves can find him. So, Bilbo is both chosen and marked, and as a result he is called to be a hero. The call of the hero is used throughout literature, and the examples are too numerous to count. In literature it is easy to identify the call, as this is clearly called out. In real life, it is a bit different, and sometimes not so obvious. Often the call comes unexpected times and in unexpected ways. I think inside each of us, there is part of us that wants the adventure and wants to move out of our comfort zone. However, we have the grid of life with bills and family to support and the responsibility of getting a job to take care of these things. Quitting the job to go off on a crazy lark, is not something that responsible folks do, and this prevents us from moving too far from that comfort zone. This is where Bilbo is.

Enter the dwarves. As an aside, I find it interesting that both hobbits and dwarves live in holes underground, and it serves as a sort of common starting point for character development.

In the second half of the books we get introduced to the 13 dwarves and their leader Thorin Oakenshield. Throughout the book, Bilbo and Thorin are the main characters and we see Bilbo grow while Thorin never moves past his own paradigm. The dialog between them provides a means for us to understand their outlook on how they perceive their situation, which provides an interesting commentary on personal growth and internal paradigm shifts (or the lack thereof).

Thorin quickly establishes himself as a dwarf on a misson, and he is really not interested in what others have to offer, nor is he interested in changing his view on things. When Gandalf pulls the map out, he immediately reminds Thorin that he should be thanking him, not accusing him. Gandalf is working to create value in the conversation however, Thorin continues to remain suspicious throughout the conversation.

“But apparently they made a map, and I should like to know how Gandalf got a hold of it, and why it did not come down to me, the rightful heir.”

The implication of privilege, rights and a bit of selfishness is clearly evident here, and a bit of verbal waste is being created.

As Bilbo gets into bed, he hears Thorin humming about their long-forgotten gold, and “…it gave him very uncomfortable dreams.” A bit of foreshadowing is present here along with a subtle jab at the selfish nature of greed. Apparently Thorin’s conscious is a bit less disconcerting than Bilbo’s, and already we see the gap between the two perspectives.

Game commentary

There are folks that say that Tolkien did not have a significant impact on the creation of D&D. This is a fairly held view as Gary remained adamant that Tolkien was not a significant source of inspiration. After rereading the first chapter, I would like to poke on this statement a bit.

The start of an adventure is usually a bit of a struggle for the DM. Why is everyone together, especially considering that a party normally consists of races and classes that are all over the place. The typical starting point is in a tavern sharing a beverage of choice, and there is nothing wrong with this approach, except of course that it remains very much over used.

When I look at The Hobbit, I see a bunch of dwarves (and a wizard) converge at Bilbo’s “tavern” for a bit of tea. They are looking for a burglar (thief/rogue) to round out their party to go off in search of treasure. They possess a secret treasure map and proceed to start to plan their journey to defeat the dragon and take its treasure, which they are claiming rightfully, belongs to them. They have to plan an overland trek followed by a small dungeon that contains the actual treasure and the dragon. I am summarizing a bit, but I think I have captured the essence of the main points. I think that most would agree that this feels a bit like the start of a D&D adventure.


Anonymous said...

An excellent summary to the beginning of the Hobbit and I like your gaming comments as well. I will never understand why EGG tried to distance himself from Tolkien, yet embraced Jack Vance's magic system openly with so many references to Tolkien's works (hobbits, balrogs, ringwraiths, non-magical dwarfs, non-Victorian elves [although I can cite three pre-Hobbit authors and various legends and myths that had these elves]) that really define the game.

I really enjoy the way Tolkien tells the Hobbit as well, like a kindly old gentleman holding your imagination while you stare off into the fireplace and listen intently to the tale as it unfolds.

Mr Baron said...

thanks for the comment.

I fully agree with your comment on the way Tolkien narrates The Hobbit. It has that kind of feel to it.