The Hobbit: The Art of Writing: Language and Reality

Tolkien was said to have written and rewritten and rewritten. The hard work resulted in a really fine, fun story, but there are places, if we read carefully, that are worth a pause and a certain paying of respect to genius. Ideas, certainly, draw our attention. The idea of Middle Earth seems so real because Tolkien built a world and inhabited it with creatures who had a history, culture, and ethos. Many people have not read either The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, yet are familiar with the idea of “second breakfast” from Pippin’s comment in the first Lord of the Rings movie, “We’ve had one, yes, but what about second breakfast?”

But it’s not ideas that I want to focus on here. It is words. Tolkien is both having fun and painting wonderful pictures. For example, as they are preparing to set out from the Green Dragon: “They were on ponies, and each pony was slung about with all kinds of baggages, packages, parcels, and paraphernalia” (39). The ponies weren’t just loaded down with stuff. The stuff was “slung about.” And it wasn’t just stuff. The four words Tolkien uses shout Dwarf! at us. He’s not just describing a scene as it might be. He’s seeing the dwarves coming around the corner.

But that’s not the best line in the chapter; though, it is one of them. No, the line that continues to pound the idea in my head that this is a real world occurs on p. 41: “It was nearly night when they had crossed over. The wind broke up the grey clouds, and a wandering moon appeared above the hills between the flying rags” (Italics mine). I’ve seen that moon appearing to wander. The mind knows that the moon doesn’t wander, but when the clouds are scuttling past the moon like rags blown by the wind, the moon really does seem to wander up there in the heavens. 

That’s genius, but it is the comment after that helps us feel what the party feels: “Then they stopped, and Thorin muttered something about supper, ‘and where shall we get a dry patch to sleep on?’ Oh, the temptation at this point to have some or all of the characters stop and speak of the majesty or beauty or wonder of the night sky. But that would have been false. The reality is that beauty often goes unnoticed when one is wet and tired and hungry. This is a real world with real characters on a real journey. We learn to believe in dragons because we’ve been taught to believe in Thorin and his company. 

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