Wednesday 5 June 2019

Prologue - Concerning Hobbits - First impressions on reading Lord of the Rings

I have previously written a post on the impressions created from reading the beginning of Chapter One of Lord of the Rings; and I would guess that many or most readers (such as my wife) always begin there, skipping the Prologue - Concerning Hobbits. But I didn't, and plenty will read the Prologue first and and on every re-reading; so it is well worth considering how the start of the Prologue 'sets-up' the coming experience of reading LotR. I will give my impressions of what is being signalled in the first three paragraphs.

This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history. Further information will also be found in the selection from the Red Book of Westmarch that has already been published, under the title of The Hobbit. That story was derived from the earlier chapters of the Red Book, composed by Bilbo himself, the first Hobbit to become famous in the world at large, and called by him There and Back Again, since they told of his journey into the East and his return: an adventure which later involved all the Hobbits in the great events of that Age that are here related.

Many, however, may wish to know more about this remarkable people from the outset, while some may not possess the earlier book. For such readers a few notes on the more important points are here collected from Hobbit-lore, and the first adventure is briefly recalled.

Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favourite haunt. They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skilful with tools. Even in ancient days they were, as a rule, shy of ‘the Big Folk’, as they call us, and now they avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find. They are quick of hearing and sharp-eyed, and though they are inclined to be fat and do not hurry unnecessarily, they are nonetheless nimble and deft in their movements. They possessed from the first the art of disappearing swiftly and silently, when large folk whom they do not wish to meet come blundering by; and this art they have developed until to Men it may seem magical. But Hobbits have never, in fact, studied magic of any kind, and their elusiveness is due solely to a professional skill that heredity and practice, and a close friendship with the earth, have rendered inimitable by bigger and clumsier races.

That first paragraph firstly provides a 'hook' for those who have come to LotR from reading The Hobbit, by promising more stories and information about Hobbits. It then immediately sets up the idea that both this forthcoming book, and The Hobbit itself, are based upon a real historical text called The Red Book of Westmarch.

So from the very beginning (unless we count the author's Foreword), the LotR is being presented as true.

In case this was uncertain, the third paragraph makes clear that not only did Hobbits exist in the past, but that some are still alive - very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today. And goes on to explain why - although Hobbits still live among us (at least, those of us who live in England, as he later states); they are shy and well able to avoid being seen or heard.

There follows a very interesting and suggestive section on magic - which is a topic seldom discussed explicitly in the main text of the LotR (except at the Mirror of Galadriel). ...this art [of disappearing swiftly and silently] they have developed until to Men it may seem magical.. The statement seems designed to suggest that at least some of the 'fairies', prone to disappear as if by magic, that Men have met over the centuries are Not, after all, truly magical beings, but instead Hobbits.

Then we are told that Hobbits have never, in fact, studied magic of any kind. I missed the implications of this comments for many years; but it suggests that the 'magic system' of the Lord of the Rings is one that could, in principle, be learned by Hobbits, and therefore presumably by Big People/ Men, given sufficient 'study'.

In other words we are told that Hobbits are not magic, but the reason given is not the obvious one that Hobbits can't do magic, but simply because they have not studied magic.

I find this surprising; because - on the face of it - the only magic we encounter among the Free Peoples of Middle Earth is among wizards (who are angelic Maia),  Tom Bombadil, the elves (and mostly the High Elves such as Galadriel), the specifically Numenorean Men with half-elven ancestors (e.g. Elrond, Aragorn, Denethor), and some dwarf technology is perhaps also magical. But we apparently see nothing magical from Hobbits, nor from 'ordinary' Men such as those of Bree and Rohan, or the 'ruffians'.

Yet there are hints... In the Hobbit, Bard seems to use a magical arrow to kill Smaug. And there are several hints (eg from Elrond, in his Council) that The Shire has had (as well as the vigilant Rangers) a kind of 'magical protection', perhaps based on the goodness and innocence of (most of) its inhabitants (this may explain the relative weakness of the Nazgul when they are in The Shire).

And there are also hints elsewhere that the decline of Shire Hobbits into narrowly materialistic cynicism exemplified by Ted Sandyman and his father; but immediately present even in The Gaffer and his cronies in the first main scene. I feel that this attitude may be related to the almost unresisting fall into collaborationism (by most hobbits) during The Scouring.

Significantly, the Druedain (Wild Men) are magical, as made explicit in the background facts and short-story printed in Unfinished Tales. Since these are meant to be the remnants of ancestral 'hunter gatherer' Men - perhaps as Men originally were before meeting elves and being taught various arts including agriculture; this suggests that Men (and therefore, presumably Hobbits) once were magical. And this may serve as the basis for later men (and Hobbits) to be able to 'learn' magic.

One Hobbit who does 'learn magic' is Frodo - who becomes a visionary and a prophetic dreamer after he is named 'elf friend' by Gildor. Of course, this is a consequence of an elvish blessing, and perhaps the effect of the One Ring - but it shows the capacity of the Hobbits to 'learn' magic.

In sum - the first three paragraphs of the Pologue tell us the the Lord of the Rings is real history about a real race of Hobbits, and also that magic is a real part of that history. It inserts Hobbits into folklore (sightings of very small men, who then disappear) and tells us that Hobbits are still with us now. And it (very indirectly) hints that 'magic' may also yet be possible, for those prepared to notice and learn.


Anonymous said...

Well-observed! Lots to ponder in these paragraphs! And in your review of magic and beings in the Red Book accounts (and elsewhere)!

One thought that springs to mind with your attention to the Druedain, and the recollection of Ethan Campbell's article (which I want to reread in this context, but have not paused to do):

is what of the beings and events recounted in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - who or what else may still be around if largely out of sight? - and with what connections to magic? And, what to say of the author of this Prologue and the editor of that poem for the OUP?

That "studied" is engaging, indeed - what are the implications for 'art magical' and 'science', for practical and academic 'study'? What 'technical' aspects are there to the use of 'magic' - for Istari on earth, or Luthien's mother, or Elves, or Bombadil and Goldberry, or who-all else?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Tolkien leaves his magic system very undefined - a 'soft' system as it would now be called. But it's fun to try and work-out.

BTW - Brandon Sanderson (a master of 'hard' magic systems, but highly appreciative of the other kinds) has written very well on this topic:

Anonymous said...

Wow - fascinating: thanks!

David Llewellyn Dodds