The Hobbit, Chapter 2

Book review

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I'm reading The Hobbit again, as I live-action roleplay as a Tolkien scholar in an attempt to understand Middle Earth, its lore, and its effect on modern gaming. I'm reviewing each chapter of the book as I read, and this is my review of Chapter 2: Roast Mutton.

This review contains spoilers.

What happens

In this chapter, Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves begin their travel, and quickly end up with their food and themselves besodden by rain. To make matters worse, Gandalf has wandered off. Conveniently for them, Balin spies a campfire nearby and so they prompt Bilbo to investigate. He does, and discovers that three trolls are feasting on very appetizing mutton. He decides to try his hand at a little burgling, and manages to get the dwarves captured.

Everyone's rescued by Gandalf, who returns in the nick of time..


In terms of story structure, this chapter is the part where the main character embraces the call to action that he previously declined. This is sort of a classic staple of storytelling, but it feels unusual here because Bilbo refuses the call in Chapter 1 and then quickly accepts just a few pages later, and then not for any good reason other than social obligation. We don't exactly get a view into Bilbo's thought process, but what we do know by this point is that he doesn't consider himself a burglar and doesn't really want to go adventuring.

Except, actually he does. It's made clear, at least once in the previous chapter and at least once in this one, that Bilbo secretly does want to go adventuring, qualified or not. So in this chapter, he does the unthinkable, and rushes out of his front door without his handkerchief or hat, to steal treasure from a dragon.

I'm pretty sure that if Tolkien had asked me to review these two chapters (and I don't know why he would, because I'm in no way qualified), I'd have told him this was too undeveloped. Why bother having Bilbo refuse the offer only to have him accept in the next chapter without so much as a debate? It would be more sensible, I'd have theorized, to have Bilbo want to go adventuring but to be held back by some great obligation, maybe to nasty ol' Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. The dwarves leave the next morning, and it seems Bilbo's not going to realise his full potential after all. But on his morning constitutional, he encounter Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and notices that she's "accidentally" walked off with a silver spoon after their tea together yesterday. He manages to pickpocket the spoon back into his own pocket, and realises he is a burglar after all, and suddenly finds himself running after the dwarves.

Or something like that.

Obviously, being compelled to review the book chapter by chapter 90 years after it was written, I would have been wrong. Tolkien's got the rhythm, and there's not one misstep in this book, even though I can't comprehend by what obscure inverted law of storytelling it succeeds.

Middle Earth or Alternate History

Some of the language Tolkien uses in The Hobbit makes me suspect that Middle Earth, in the very beginning, wasn't exactly a different place but a sort of alternate history. It is, after all, called Middle Earth.

In Chapter 1, Tolkien wrote things like "I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us." and "By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous..." It's not outright admission that the world described in this book is meant to be Earth or Terra (that is, the real world, the planet you and I are on right now) but I detect an assumed familiarity, as if the author believes the reader is native to the place being written about.

In this chapter, he suggests that the reader exists in the book's world again: "But at any rate hobbits can move quietly in woods, absolutely quietly. They take a pride in it, and Bilbo had sniffed more than once at what he called 'all this dwarvish racket,' as they went along, though I don't suppose you or I would notice..."

I don't know whether he uses this language as a narrative trick to bring the reader into the fictional world, or whether he imagined that Middle Earth was the fantastical history of England. Or both. Either way, I'm not entirely used to it but I do remember it from my childhood, for better or for worse. This sleight-of-hand had two effects on me, as a kid. First, it inspired me to make regular attempts to reach the Misty Mountains from my house. I never got more than a block down the street, because I was 8 at the time, but I remember blithely assuming that if I stepped out of my house and followed the map in the front of the book, I'd reach the Misty Mountains and be back in time for dinner (because I never once took food with me). I clearly felt included in the tale, as intended. However, I think one reason I considered Tolkien "low fantasy" for so long was because I subconsciously felt like his fantasy world was just our world. And I don't know, maybe it is, I don't mind so much any more, but compared to the deliberate cosmology of the Forgotten Realms and Krynn and Golarion, the idea of boring old Earth just didn't intrigue me much. In my own defence, I felt the same way about Conan until I read Robert E. Howard's own history of The Hyperborian Age. For me, I guess the "realness" of a fictional world depends much on its history. As long as it's sufficiently different from reality, it's also "real". If it's too similar, I guess it just doesn't feel pretend-enough. It's probably one reason I've never sat down to read any of the legends about King Arthur (aside from not knowing where to begin, anyway).


Bilbo pickpockets a purse from one of the trolls, and to Bilbo's surprise the purse cries out to the troll when it realises it's been stolen.

Some objects are animate, at least within limits, in this world.


My theory is that Bilbo's journey is partly revealed by how the dwarves feel about him, and how he feels about the dwarves. For that reason, I'm keeping track of the respect they have for one another over the course of each chapter.

At the end of Chapter 2, Bilbo scores 0 Victory Points for getting the dwarves captured by the trolls. However, he gains the first Victory Point of the game by pickpocketing a key off one of the trolls, which opens the troll cave and produces a treasure, including some fine elven blades.

  • Bilbo: 1
  • Dwarves: 0

Chapter 2

This was a good start to the big adventure. It seems to me that a lot of people dismiss The Hobbit as "episodic", which I guess is objectively true because there are chapters and many of the chapters are sort of self-contained encounters. For me, though, it doesn't come across that way. Sure, they're hitting specific points on the map, but that's how my road trips happen, too. It feels natural, and like good opportunities for character development. The Bilbo we see in this chapter is bad at what he thinks he's supposed to do, and when he's captured he accidentally gives away that he has friends nearby for the trolls to eat. He'll get better at it soon.

As a gamer, it feels even more familiar. This wasn't an episode in a disjointed narrative, it's the familiar journey of a player character working to level up.

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