“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”…So begins one of the most iconic adventure stories, in the humblest of settings. Tolkien afterwards explained that this was a random line he scribbled on the back of an exam script, with no real idea of what a ‘hobbit’ actually was, or why it lived in a hole. It just came to him, and the story grew organically from the spontaneity of words, rather than the other way round.
This is a wonderful beginning – literally, for the simple story of The Hobbit; but also creatively for the greater epic that would eventually flourish from it. Really, it is one of the themes at the heart of the hobbits’ tales (Bilbo’s and Frodo’s) – the theme of Home, of simplicity, of being grounded (both physically and in character), of being close to the earth and nature, of living. It is what makes the hobbits so endearing and the ones that (for me at least) one can relate to the most. The juxtaposition between the hobbits and their apparent mundaneness, with nobility and grandeur, is what creates the awe and mystery and majesty in the tale: we are seeing great events unfold from the perspective of simple hobbits, peering out – right from the start – from the round windows of their cosy, homely smials.
Another thing I reflected on, is the home being symbolic of hospitality. The very first words of the entire tale begin with a description of Home – I realised we are introduced to Bag End before we even get introduced to Bilbo Baggins! And though it is Mr. Baggins’ home, it is in fact us, the readers, who are being invited to also make it our home as we embark on this adventure with him. It’s worth quoting the first passage more fully here:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
The description, or rather reassurance, of this comfortable hobbit hole serves to welcome the reader: there is somewhere to sit, and you’ll find something to eat here. And know that, “there are lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – because the hobbit was fond of visitors”. So in fact, our stay at Bag-End has been expected all along, indeed it feels like we are being invited by the host! Which is true, since the narrator of this passage is none other than the host himself. He goes on to tell us that the best rooms are all on the left, because they have windows overlooking the garden, and the meadows, and the river. My guess is that the best rooms are always offered to the guests, which is why we are pointedly being told this fact, so we can choose the room we’d like to stay in.
The first passage is a clear message to make ourselves at home, because we’ll have nothing to fear. Bag-End becomes our reference point of safety, stability and calm throughout the tale, because it’s where we too began our journey, within an atmosphere of simple and warm hospitality. The reference to food – kitchen, dining room, and pantries (“lots of these”) provides the most obvious symbolism of this hospitality – a happy guest is always one who has been well-fed! Tolkien informs us that hobbits love food – they love their meals, teas and second breakfasts. But for me, the reason why this is so forgivable, in fact endearing, is because we are told hobbits also love having guests and love family gatherings: so the love of food does not reflect a habit of greed, but rather the habit of sharing.
I sketched this picture using a very basic ink pen on scratchy printer paper! As is fitting for the theme of ‘Home’ and hospitality, it turned into the kitchen, where I imagined Bilbo and Gandalf would sit chatting away on many spring mornings and evenings, with tea and homemade seed cake. 🙂