Saturday, January 8, 2022

The Hobbit

I realized I hadn't read much in the last year, and that I had been dancing around Tolkien, reading his Catholic British contemporaries (Ker, Chesterton, and Lewis' Screwtape Letters), and decided I ought to just go revisit the man himself.  I'm pretty sure my mother read The Hobbit to me and my brother when we were small but I don't think I'd read it myself (certainly not since coming across OSR D&D).  I have not seen the film(s?) and do not plan to.

It may be worth noting here that I am taking the text of The Hobbit alone, ignoring the whole rest of the canon from elsewhere as best I can.  I think I like it better this way.  I will probably read The Lord of the Rings next, but for now I want to consider only what is written in The Hobbit.  And I want to get it written down, so that after the trilogy I can look back in on it.  This may not be the "correct" way to read the The Hobbit, but it may turn out to be a worthwhile way nonetheless.

I found it delightful.  I wish more D&D were in the model of The Hobbit than in that of The Lord of the Rings.

They're not out to save the world.  They're very explicitly not heroes.  The motives of most of the characters most of the time are Thucydidean - "fear, honor, and self-interest".

There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.

That [attempting to slay Smaug] would be no good, not without a mighty Warrior, even a Hero.  I tried to find one; but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighborhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found...  That is why I settled on burglary.

Of the dwarves, only Thorin gives a consistently decent account of himself in battle (hitting a troll in the face with a stick,  holding the goblins with Orcrist, and shooting the white hart).  They get stuffed in sacks, chained up by goblins, webbed by spiders, and imprisoned by elves without offering any effectual resistance.  They sing better than they fight.  Their courage fails at the foot of the mountain and only Bilbo prods them on.  They worked as blacksmiths and coal miners before this; Fili and Kili are young and inexperienced, Balin at least is old, and Bombur is very fat.  These are not Dain's elite heavy infantry, "strong even for dwarves".  These are dwarven vagabonds with a map, a key, desperate scheme, a hobbit, sometimes a wizard, and a good deal of luck.  They are, in short, exactly what we might expect of low-level dwarven PCs in OSR games.

The mere fleeting glimpses of treasure which they had caught as they went along had rekindled all the fire in their dwarvish hearts; and when the heart of a dwarf, even the most respectable, is wakened by gold and by jewels, he grows suddenly bold, and he may become fierce.

He did not reckon with the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded, nor with dwarvish hearts.

And like my players of old, how loathe they are to give up what is theirs!  Though it be a great burden and a danger in itself!

The treasure is likely to be your death, though the dragon is no more!

How on earth should I have got all that treasure home without war and murder all along the way, I don't know.

And like a third-level character come suddenly into a great deal of treasure and a fortress, Thorin handles it ineptly and it is his doom - in contrast with Dain, who "dealt his treasure well". 

And like combat in the OSR, defeat is miserable and victory is pyrrhic.

I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious.  It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing.  I wish I was well out of it.

"Victory after all, I suppose!"  he said, feeling his aching head.  "Well, it seems a very gloomy business."

And then the setting (or at least the parts much described) is the sort of howling emptiness implied by OSR systems.  But working from just this text, there isn't much of an apocalypse.  The Wild was not ruined by any central force, no great, shattering event, no unveiling.  Most of it was ruined by just...  neglect.  Decay.  Entropy.  Nobody is putting in the maintenance.  Certainly there are evil forces at work, but for the most part they're opportunists filling a vacuum, not part of some grand plan.

The marshes and bogs had spread wider and wider on either side.  Paths had vanished, and many a rider and wanderer too, if they had tried to find the lost ways across.  The elf-road through the wood which the dwarves had followed on the advice of Beorn now came to a doubtful and little used end at the eastern edge of the forest; only the river offered any longer a safe way from the skirts of Mirkwood in the North to the mountain-shadowed plains beyond, and the river was guarded by the Wood-elves' king.

There were many paths that led up into those mountains, and many passes over them.  But most of the paths were cheats and deceptions and led nowhere or to bad ends; and most of the passes were infested by evil things and dreadful dangers.

The old maps are no use: things have changed for the worse and the road is unguarded.  They have seldom even heard of the king round here, and the less inquisitive you are as you go along, the less trouble you are likely to find. 

An argument could be made, of course, that Smaug is the relevant apocalypse.  But that hardly explains the lawlessness of the Lone-lands between Hobbiton and the Misty Mountains, unless the reach of Dale was once very great indeed.  The giants have the power to shut up the exits of the goblins, but they don't (unless Gandalf is able to "find a more or less decent giant").  The wood elves waylay travelers, hunt the white hart, and get drunk on Dorwinion wine, and the spiders multiply.  The eagles seldom take notice of the goblins.  Beorn keeps his territory clear but only goes so far.  What has Elrond done lately?  The Lake-men have surplus enough to outfit and feed the dwarves but don't seem to be pushing out either, as the Master is content to maintain his little bubble of peace.  Dain waging war on the goblins of Moria seems to be very much the exception in that he is active (with Gandalf being the other active player for good, setting the trip in motion and working on the problem of the Necromancer while they're in Mirkwood).

No, the real cause of the ruin of the Wild seems to me to be apathy.  Not so grand as a Dark Lord, but much more true to life.

I love the passage of the seasons; it is something that I always want to evoke in my open-world games and something that I never seem to get quite right.  The distances are so great!  To run a campaign in this style, one might be well-served by 24-mile hexes as the smallest unit, and wilderness turns of a week.  I love that the place-names are plain English - Misty Mountains, Lonely Mountain, Iron Hills, Blasted Heath, Rivendell / Riven Dale, Mirkwood / Murk Wood, Long Lake, Wood River, River Rushing, Dale, and Lake-town.  Moria, Gondolin, and Dorwinion are proper names but only referenced, never seen; only at the end does Tolkien sneak in "Esgaroth" as a proper name for a place seen (Lake-town) in the style of the names of places in the trilogy.  

I love the talking of all the animals; everything bigger than a bat seems to have a voice and a language.  How often have I bemoaned that animal encounters on the wilderness encounter table are a waste of time for a mid-level party of reasonable size?  How much less of a waste would they be if they could talk?  If they could be bargained with, asked for information, deceived, taunted?

"O Thorin son of Thrain, and Balin son of Fundin," he [a raven] croaked (and Bilbo could understand what he said, for he used ordinary language and not bird-speech).  "I am Roac son of Carc."

In the middle of the circle was a great grey wolf.  He spoke to them in the dreadful language of the Wargs.  Gandalf understood it.  Bilbo did not, but it sounded terrible to him, and as if all their talk was about cruel and wicked things, as it was.

In the silence and stillness of the wood he realized that these loathsome creatures [spiders] were speaking to one another.  Their voices were a sort of thin creaking and hissing, but he could make out many of the words that they said.  They were talking about the dwarves!

 Weapons, too, have a touch of soul to them:

It burned with a rage that made it gleam if goblins were about; now it was bright as blue flame for delight in the killing of the great lord of the cave.

Arrow!  Black arrow!  I have saved you to the last.  You have never failed me and always I have recovered you.  I had you from my father and he from of old.  If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!

When was the last time a magic weapon in your game was delighted?  Sure, sentient swords are in the tables, but how often do you even bother rolling for them, so seldom rolled and then so inconvenient to sort out and keep track of when you do?

It's just...  grounded, I suppose.  There is no cosmic struggle here.  Magic when it appears is mostly small wonders, in talking birds and delighted swords and water that makes you sleep.  Dwarves can be wicked, eagles can be cruel, Beorn and the Elf-king are very suspicious of visitors, and Thorin and the master of Lake-town are overcome by avarice not because there is any agent of a dark power whispering in their ears but just...  because of a moral failing.

I have dodged entirely talking about the hobbit himself and whether his desire the whole time to be home in comfort is of a kind with the apathy that is the ruin of the Wild, or wisdom, or both.

The stars are far brighter
Than gems without measure,
The moon is far whiter
Than silver in treasure;
The fire is more shining
On hearth in the gloaming
Than gold won by mining,
So why go a-roaming?

Maybe Bilbo's peculiar virtue is that he can be moved to adventure in the first place, and that once begun, he remains to see it through to the end in spite of his want of comfort and normalcy (which I suspect is quietly shared by almost every other "good" character but the dwarves).  And that like Rary as played by Blume, he knows when the job is done, rather than having his appetite for treasure become insatiable once whetted.

In any case, I am glad to have read it, and apologize for the rambling post (initially I had planned a series of more tightly-focused posts, but oh well).


  1. I agree. I don’t know if you’ve seen: <— following the link to the articles is well worthwhile if you haven’t seen them before.

    1. No, I hadn't seen that before, but skimming the blog post the articles certainly sound like they'd be of interest. Will read them tomorrow - thanks!

    2. No problem. I’m hoping I can have a go at implementing some of the ideas you’ve had, and on the blog I referenced. Maybe even try the game ‘There and Back Again’. Your post nicely reminded me of this at that trad time, New Year, when goals are firmed up. Thanks.

    3. Having read the linked posts: I should not be surprised that the OSR has had this idea before, because "what if we went back to the very beginning and started over working from there, ignoring everything official that came after" is *the* OSR move. At least I am in good company!

      I would be very curious to read the 1937 text and see just how it differs; the Gollum section definitely feels out of place in the version I read, in that it is allusive rather than direct.

      So thank you again for linking to that line of posts!

  2. Really enjoyed this one. I've read many posts on The Hobbit (like the ones Alistair linked to above). Seems there was even more to say. The points about the apocalypse and entropy and apathy... really insightful.

    I like the contained nature of each, er, "encounter" they have. Wrote about it:

    Talking animals are always great too. :)

  3. All very astute observations. Rereading the Hobbit inspired me to begin a new wilderness (should that be "wilderlands"?) setting, for exactly the reasons you list. The book does feel very OSR, but it captures both a wonder and a homeliness that are sometimes missing in the more grim and grimy OSR fare.

    1. > a wonder and a homeliness that are sometimes missing in the more grim and grimy OSR fare

      I absolutely agree, that there is a warmth to The Hobbit that is not well-represented in the prevailing heavy metal and weird fantasy strains of the OSR. I should like to see more of it! I suppose Beyond The Wall might be one exemplar?

  4. I also think the Hobbit is more gameable than the rest of Tolkien's stuff. I go on and on about it for a year or so here:

    1. Ah! The post that Alistair linked above linked to you; I very much enjoyed your post. The observation on guns brought back to mind my forgotten surprise at "It is not like you, Bilbo, to keep friends waiting on the mat and then open the door like a pop-gun!", spoken in-world.

      "for a year or so" - I had not looked for more posts in this vein; should I be looking mostly at the "wilderland" tag?