The Hobbit, Chapter 1

Book review

meta settings

I recently realised that reading Tolkien is a solo RPG. You read his work, you piece together the scraps of lore he sprinkled thnoughout the books and left to us in the form of letters, and you ponder it and map it out until you understand Middle Earth. If he'd been alive today, he'd have just gotten a job writing RPG source books, but back in 1937 he didn't exactly have that option (the notion of a "fantasy" genre didn't even exist yet, much less the idea of a fantasy roleplaying game). Having grown up with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I decided it was time to revisit them as an adult. I've finished The Hobbit but it's given me so much to think about that I decided to review each chapter of the book.

What happens

In this chapter, Bilbo Baggins is approached by Gandalf and 12 dwarves (Oin, Gloin, Dori, Nori, Balin, Dwalin, Kili, Fili, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Thorin) in hopes that he would help them retrieve their inheritance from a dragon. Why anyone believes that Bilbo, out of all the hobbits living in the Shire, is suited for this job is entirely unclear, and it's never answered. It seems that most people assume that it boils down to a sort of divine providence, or a mystical compulsion of Gandalf's. The book implies that Gandalf senses that Bilbo is capable, but that Bilbo needs to learn that for himself, so there's a hint that Gandalf is essentially calling Bilbo to action. Bilbo dutifully refuses the call inintially, but gives in because secretly he wants adventure in his life.

Much of the conflict between Bilbo's conscious desire to stay at home and remain comfortable and his subconcious yearning for adventure is put down to genealogy. Bilbo's mother was Belladonna Took, and the Tooks have a reputation for being uncommonly adventurous, at least for hobbits. This comes up a lot in this book, and it continues into later books, too (Peregrin, better known as Pippin, is also a Took).

This chapter covers the major character introductions, and ends with everyone going to bed with the resolution of leaving on the adventure the next morning.

What is a hobbit

It's no secret in roleplaying games that a "halfling" in most settings is an iteration of hobbit. The original Dungeons & Dragons rules (the pamphlets that preceeded the actual rulebooks) listed "hobbit" as a playable character option. Some settings intentionally make halflings different from hobbits, but in the most popular settings (Forgotten Realms, Golarion, Krynn, and so on) there's a sort of centrifugal pull toward hobbit despite the differences. And if you're not sure just how similar your setting's halfling is to a hobbit, the first chapter of The Hobbit lists the defining traits that are probably skills or traits or feats that your halfling gets at 1st level:

  • ...a little people, about half our height
  • There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along...
  • dress in bright colours
  • wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair
  • have long clever brown fingers

Of course, Bilbo is immediately recruited as a burglar by the wandering wizard Gandalf, so the hobbitish reputation (earned or not) as being, essentially, cheerful thieves is set up from the start.


Gandalf's reputation preceeds him in the Shire, and Bilbo recalls him as a storyteller and party magician. It can be surmised, from the difference between how Bilbo perceives Gandalf and the obvious authority Gandalf has among the dwarves, that the reason Gandalf was just a curiosity to the hobbits is because in the Shire there was never a need for Gandalf to be anything more. The Shire has its share of drama and conflict, but it's predominantly a place of homely innocence, and there a powerful wizard can just blow a few self-animating smoke rings, set off a few minor fire spells, and otherwise relax. Wizardry is a curiosity in the Shire because the wizard the hobbits happen to know keeps his cantrips simple and entertaining.

In The Lord of the Rings, we get to see how the Big Folk perceive sorcery, and it's quite different.

The magical charms attributed to Gandalf in this chapter, as recalled by Bilbo from the days of his youth:

  • A pair of magic diamond studs that fasten themselves and don't come undone until ordered
  • Excellent fireworks that went up like great lilies and snapdragons and laburnums of fire, and hung in the twilight all evening

Otherwise, Gandalf seems to have a reputation for hiring, or at least inspiring, hobbits to go out on great adventures.

Background characters

Bullroarer Took: So huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of goblins during the Battle of the Green Fields, and literally knocked king Gol-firnbul's head off with a wooden club.

Thrain: Thorin Oakenshield's father.

Thror: Thorin Oakenshield's grandfather.

Azog the Goblin: Killed Thror in the mines of Moria.


I think one of the many plotlines that the movie version failed to detect or convey is the back and forth volley of esteem between Bilbo and the dwarves. What the book lacks in interpersonal chemistry between the heroes, it mimics with a running tally of who respects whom.

By the end of this chapter, Bilbo scores 0 Victory Points for inspiring confidence in his ability as an adventurer, much less a specialized burglar. The dwarves score 0 Victory Points for personal charm and manners. In short, the dwarves have their doubts about Bilbo and Bilbo views the dwarves as an inconvenience at best.

  • Bilbo: 0
  • Dwarves: 0

Chapter 1

Tolkien's writing style is casual and easy in this book, which I feel he loses for the Lord of the Rings. I guess it wouldn't have worked quite the same way for that series, but I enjoy it in The Hobbit.

I don't think it's a stretch to surmise that the very foundations of fantasy are established right here in the first chapter of The Hobbit. It establishes the concept of having a "quest" you must do in exchange for a payment (which you must extract yourself) of treasure, but there's more to it. The world that Tolkien creates in just one chapter is one where there's adventure and magic and danger and history and wonder just over that hill. It's never here, at home, but out there. You have to get up before breakfast, go out there, and find it. It's exactly the right mix of intrigue and intimidation.

What an amazing hook. What an amazing start to a story.

Next up, chapter 2.

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