J. R. R. Tolkien spoke at great length, both in his letters and lectures, about what he called “secondary belief.” For Tolkien, reading fantasy wasn’t about a willing suspension of disbelief as much as it was a secondary belief in an imagined world. As long as that world holds to an internal logical consistency, its laws can be entirely different from our own while being every bit as believable. Through this secondary belief (which is only accomplished at the hands of a master storyteller) readers can easily accept things like elves and magic and dragons.
Due to the depth of Tolkien’s Middle Earth–its people, their languages, their cultures, their histories—this internal consistency became Tolkien’s hallmark. Until the wellspring of fantasy that arose in the ’90s (with Williams, Jordan, Martin, and others), Tolkien was basically alone—with a handful of lesser exceptions—in creating entire worlds that seemed to believably exist. Secondary belief is the reason people used to regularly spray paint “Frodo Lives” on buildings in the ’60s and ’70s.
What’s curious, then, is that there is a moment early on in The Hobbit that spits in the face of this internal consistency, this secondary belief: the dwarves’ musical interlude in Chapter 1. When the dwarves break out their instruments shortly after arriving at Bag End we’re experiencing a very unusual moment in a Tolkien narrative. He’s usually so careful not to jolt his readers out of their secondary belief, but he deliberately seems to be doing it here.
Given Thorin’s importance within dwarven culture (even as destitute as its become), I suppose it’s possible he could have been carrying a golden harp with him on his journey to Hobbiton. It’s believable that Nori, Dori, and Ori carried flutes in their coats. But we’re supposed to believe that Fili and Kili carried fiddles around with them? Bombur carried a drum. Others brought clarinets. Others still had violas as big as their bodies. Are we really expected to believe that a few of these dwarves travelled all the way from the Blue Mountains with cellos strapped to their backs?
Even in a world with elves and orcs and magic and angel-esque old men who mush teams of rabbits through giant spider-infested forests, the instrument scene is wildly implausible. It might seem like a trivial moment to harp on—especially given its place so early in the story—but it’s vitally important that it happens. Why did Tolkien do this, then? Why move from secondary belief to suspended disbelief?
Scenes like this are what separate The Hobbit from everything Tolkien wrote after it. He never again wrote a story meant for children, so it’s important to note the subtle ways in which he caters his story to his younger audience. This is a moment of silliness that works to set a light, comic tone early on in a novel that is very much in need of it. The rest of Chapter 1 involves the company speaking about some pretty dark business—adventuring across the world, through goblins and trolls and who knows what else—to seek vengeance upon a great fire-breathing dragon who has massacred an entire people (including the dwarves’ friends and families). Much of the dwarves’ talk is grim and dark, but this is a story intended for children.
The dwarves break out comically large instruments because Tolkien is making sure to lighten a situation that might otherwise be unsettling for his readers. As a result, much of Chapter 1 is concerned with keeping them at ease. Tolkien does so with larger set pieces like the instrument scene, but the chapter is also full of lighthearted quips like when Bilbo describes the dwarves turbulent visit as “the most awkward Wednesday he ever remembered.” Even the destruction of the dwarves and their home is played for laughs, when Smaug is described as being “too fat” to fit through the secret door in the mountain, given that he’s devoured so many of their kin. Even Gandalf gets in on the act when he describes the death of Thorin’s father, Thrain, as having happened “on the 21st of April, 100 years ago this Thursday.”
These choices aren’t simple whimsy. They reflect Tolkien’s view of what he thinks children’s stories should be. While on the one hand he’s sensitive to their fears and doesn’t want to send them fleeing into their parents’ arms, on the other he has no desire to shield them from some terrifying things. He doesn’t want his story to be rose-tinted, so he tempers it with humour and outright silliness, striking a balance between danger and entertainment. As he said in his famous essay, On Fairy Stories, “Children are meant to grow up, and not to become Peter Pans.”
(The impracticality of the instrument scene also draws attention to poetry and song, which play a vital role throughout the novel. But that’s a much larger topic for another day.)
What I love most about the opening of The Hobbit, though, from a creation standpoint, is how the book actually teaches its readers how to enjoy it. Tolkien is asking his young readers to leave their world behind, to abandon it in favour of a new world full of danger and fantasy. In order to do this, Tolkien makes this transition a part of the narrative itself.
Hobbits, while clearly different from us, have a lot in common with how we live our lives. They love all the comforts of home, as we do. They love food, and laughter, and they’re generally as mundane as Middle Earth is likely to get. They’re civilized, the very picture of comfort and ease. They don’t wage wars or conjure spirits or ride on the backs of giant eagles. In truth, they’re the antithesis of anything adventurous (just as most of us are). This is the world we’re shown at the start of the narrative.
For this reason, Bilbo is the perfect protagonist for child readers because just as they are being pulled from the mundane into the fantastic, so is Bilbo. He exists as a touchstone, a proxy by which we can invest ourselves.
But while Bilbo is the very soul of caution, there is another, very different, side to him: the Took side of his genetic makeup, which exists in stark contrast to his otherwise bland Baggins side. The Tooks seem to have an otherworldly quality to them, at least in comparison to their hobbit brethren. Not only was Bilbo’s great-great grandfather, Bullroarer Took, a great warrior (at least in hobbit lore), but Tolkien even goes so far as to speculate that a Took took (ha!) a fairy wife at one point (that is to say, a Took married an elf). Whether that’s true or not is unimportant. What’s significant is that, at any given moment, Bilbo is being pulled in two very different directions: toward Bungo Baggins (his father), and Belladonna Took (his mother). The differences in his parents’ names alone brilliantly tells us almost everything we need to know about Bilbo’s struggle. He is half habitual hermit, half natural adventurer.
When we first meet Bilbo his feet are firmly planted on the Baggins side of things, however. He describes adventures as “nasty, dirty, uncomfortable things that make you late for dinner.” But the turning point for him appears to be when he hears the dwarves’ song. As they start to sing of their plight and the quest towards the Lonely Mountain he is “swept away into dark lands under strange moons.” He is instantly transported away from his boring Baggins world and into the more Tookish world of the dwarves.
It’s at this point Tolkien brilliantly notes that, “Mr. Baggins wasn’t quite so prosy as he liked to believe.” Bilbo’s humdrum existence at Bag End is like prose, plain and straightforward. The intrepid and adventurous world of the dwarves (and the Tooks, to some extent) is like poetry. This metaphor continues throughout the novel as Bilbo becomes more more poetic, and less of the prosy gentleman he believes himself to be. (Consider, too, that when we meet an older Bilbo in Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings, he’s become such a famed poet that he’s nearly considered a nuisance for it, even among the elves.)
This early in the story, though, he still resists the Tookish part of himself. We’re told that he wishes “to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick,” but when you get right down to it Bilbo’s fantasy doesn’t include anything dangerous. Sure, he imagines himself wearing a sword, but he doesn’t once think about using it. This first fancy of adventure is, essentially, a really long walk.
So yes, while it is a gigantic leap for hobbit-kind when he leaves with Gandalf and Thorin, but it’s still one small step for a hobbit who is very much still a Baggins from Bag End.