Thursday, September 9, 2010

Musings on Bilbo Baggins the Bourgeois Burglar and Gandalf the Mythic but Door Challenged Wizard

It is interesting how one notices such different things when one has read a book more than once but less than half a dozen times, especially when the handful of readings spans the period of nearly ten years. In the case of The Hobbit, the last time I read it, I had not yet read Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle Earth and so the concept of an every day figure walking the path of the epic was something that had spoken to me as an every day person, but which I had not been able to name or put my finger on. As discussed in my Tolkien class , the journey of Bilbo the hobbit from the mundane world to the mythic is one of the key elements that allow the reader to slip into the world of Middle Earth and not really notice until they’ve already been carried away. For as Bilbo himself would later say, “if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”[1]

Bilbo at first is extremely conscious of the fact that he is not quite on the same level as the Dwarves, he knows he is not fierce, but “would go without bead and breakfast”[2] to be thought so. He gives his boast, Beowulf style to the Dwarves saying what he will dare and that it is in his lineage, which links him, if tenuously to the world in which the Dwarves belong. That is the mythic world. Similarly, when he encounters the trolls, he draws on what he has read of the mythic world and tries to apply it to the current situation with questionable effect. He has spent too long thinking of what a “really first-class and legendary burglar” would do.[3] In the tunnels of the goblins, Bilbo doesn’t have much time to think of what his heroic counterparts might do as he gets carried about by the goblins and Dwarves and then stumbles into Gollum’s cave. I would argue that this is truly where Bilbo begins coming into his own. He must rely solely upon his own wits, cunning and skill to save him and doesn’t have time to ponder what a heroic burglar would do in his situation, freeing himself to demonstrate these very traits on his own. By the time he arrives in the domain of the spiders, he is capable of coming up with fantastically audacious plans tailor made for his situation, without reference to past heroes, and not only of coming up with them, but carrying them out, proving that Gandalf is right. Bilbo does possess the necessary skills to take his place as a burglar and even a hero in the mythic world.

Speaking of Gandalf, there is no doubting that he is a great wizard. He is a learned lore master, is not above speaking to the “lesser” folk, and has the ability to make discussions that affect all of Middle Earth and change it for the better. But is it not odd that our dear and learned lore master either does not see the runes on Glamdring and Orcrist or cannot read them, and is unable to open a door (in this case the door to the troll’s lair) without the help of a hobbit?[4] Of course, one could argue that to the latter, there is the problem of a key, but given Gandalf’s use of magic in The Lord of the Rings one could imagine that if he could use magic to hold a door shut, he could perhaps use magic to open a door without it’s key. Yes, magic often has complex rules, so perhaps there are ways in which this would not be possible. In the door incidents, there is a good deal of comic relief as the wise wizard mutters furiously and attempts multiple complex incantations, only to be halted by the simplicity of a key or the elvish word for friend. Almost a reversal, if you will, of the Bilbo journey. Gandalf is firmly in the epic world, except when he has a “senior moment” and can’t recall the precise word for something. In fact, I would argue that Gandalf is the reverse of Bilbo. He is firmly placed in the epic world. He’s a wizard! What is more epic than that!? However, he makes mistakes. He is an old man, with some of an old man’s limitations. He is the ambassador of the epic and mythic to the bourgeois and mundane, just as Bilbo is the representative of the mundane and bourgeois to the epic and mythic. So these lapses of memory or inability to see things or read things bring the epic down to us, even as Bilbo’s deeds lift us closer to the epic.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, FOTR, p. 72, Houghton Mifflin paperback.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, p 18, Houghton Mifflin paperback.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, p. 33, Houghton Mifflin paperback

[4] This incident is very similarly mirrored in FOTR when Merry’s phrasing suggests the opening words of the Moria gate.

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