Narratology and The Shire

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Perhaps one of the most delightful holidays of the year (for members of the Tolkien fandom) is September 22. This particular day is the birthday of two of the most important hobbits in Tolkien’s works: Bilbo Baggins and his nephew Frodo Baggins. Dedicated Tolkien fans all over the world remove their shoes and eat a second breakfast in honor of the beloved shire-folk. For that reason, a post concerning hobbits (even one sadly posted two days after the actual date) seems rather fitting.

Tolkien was a highly skilled narrator, and there are some fascinating literary tricks behind his portrayal of hobbit culture, particularly in The Fellowship of the Ring.

The very first few pages of the entire saga are dedicated to explaining a few key aspects of hobbit culture (perhaps the most piquing of which are the one and a half pages dedicated to the history of pipe-smoking in the hobbit world).

The fact that Tolkien thought it necessary to include a prefatory chapter on hobbits raises the question of who is narrating, and who is being narrated to, which I will call for the sake of simplicity the “audience.” By referring to it as the “audience” I refer to the person(s) that the narrator is directly addressing. In imaginative fiction, the author is often different from the narrator, and the reader is different from the person being narrated to. The author assumes another identity in the narrator, and the reader in being narrated to. A narrative becomes especially tantalizing when it assumes information that the reader doesn’t have, but the one being narrated to does. It can also go the other way too, when an author references information the readers have, but the audience or the characters do not.

This sort of narrative requires a much higher level of intellectual engagement with a story than a simple historical narrative, where the author and the reader are not assuming pseudo-identities, nor possessing assumed and unexplained knowledge.

For example, we are merely readers of Homer now, whereas Homer’s audience can only be the ancient Greeks. Homer was really aimed at an audience of Greeks, and he references a lot of things which he assumes only his ancient Greek audience would know. Part of a classicist’s job is to reconstruct the audience to enhance understanding of the literature. Tolkien understood this very well, and exploited its power for his own narrative. The Shire narrative is one fascinating example of this sort of storytelling.

In the prologue, Tolkien very matter-of-factly describes the hobbits by giving us a list of their characteristics. The order of these characteristics, however, is very important. One of the very first nouns associated with them in this explanatory prologue is: unobtrusiveness. The first thing Tolkien and the narrator wants both reader and the ones receiving the narrative to understand is the inconspicuous nature of hobbit-kind. He then goes on to say that they love peace, quiet, and their well-ordered world. This then sets the tone for everything else that is to follow concerning hobbits. This will also set up the most marked contrast in the entire saga: the contrast between the quiet, well-ordered hobbit world and the dark, chaotic outside world.

Again, before Tolkien gives us anything to visualize, he tells us that the hobbits are very unmagical. They possess the ability to disappear and elude notice, but this is due more to their close kinship with the earth than any sort of magical study. This again sets them apart from much of what is to follow, taking place in the mysterious outer world. After this, Tolkien gives us more for our visual imagination: their shortness, their large bare feet, their curly hair, their good-natured faces, and so on.

Once Tolkien has situated us in hobbit culture, he then plunges the readers and those receiving the narrative right into hobbit culture.

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” The main reason for all the excitement is because of Bilbo’s odd character, and all the rumors surrounding him. Legends have arisen concerning Bilbo, who is an oddity in the calm, peace-loving hobbit community. Bilbo, of course, had returned from his adventures in The Hobbit a very different person than he was when he left. None of the hobbit folk seem to know anything at all about those adventures, except that Gandalf the wizard was involved.

If we have read The Hobbit, we the readers have knowledge that many of the characters do not. It is difficult to speculate what the audience would have known about it. Presumably, they know something about it because Tolkien makes reference to it. However, the readers know why Bilbo is so odd. That gives us the power of assumed knowledge within the narrative (if you have read The Hobbit), as we the readers are not entirely in the dark.

One of the best narrative tricks, in my opinion, is assumed knowledge. An author can use that trick to create a tapestry, without overdoing details, or wasting long paragraphs in arduous description.

Returning to the actual narrative, Tolkien turns his attention to a conversation that takes place between several old hobbits, including Ham Gamgee (Samwise’s father), and they reminisce about the history of the Baggins family, and particularly about Bilbo. This is all appropriate, considering how much of a stir Bilbo was causing.

One example of the assumed knowledge of the audience is the feud between the Baggins and the Sackville-Baggins families. It is never made explicit exactly what the feud is about, but the assumed audience knows apparently. The first reference comes on page 1 of The Fellowship of the Ring: “except for the Sackville-Bagginses, of course.” The phrase “of course” is in this instance the big clue. Even though we tend to ignore phrases like that due to overuse, in this case, it has a very particular purpose. It’s essentially saying “as you already know” or “there’s no need to explain.”

There are several more scattered references to the Sackville-Bagginses throughout, brought up in similar ways. They come up in the first conversation of the book mentioned above, as well as on the first page. References to them are fairly frequent, though easy to overlook.

Another example comes from Bilbo’s speech at his and Frodo’s birthday party. After some preliminary remarks, he also speaks about the day as Frodo’s birthday. He says, “’I should say: OUR birthday. For it is, of course also the birthday of my heir and nephew, Frodo. He comes of age and into his inheritance today.’” After the quotation, the narrator says, “The Sackville-Bagginses scowled, and wondered what was meant by ‘coming into his inheritance.’” This is one of the few slightly more explicit references to the Sackville-Bagginses and their desire to take over Bilbo’s estate after he dies. Their hopes were “dashed” when Bilbo adopted Frodo as his heir.

It is never fully explained exactly what is going on between the Bagginses and the Sackville-Bagginses, but one can guess that it is a simple matter of family greed. Probably a relatively common occurrence in our own lives. You may ask: Why is this so important? What has it to do with the story? Well, it is because it is so unimportant a detail that it is important. It is that unimportant detail that affords the audience and the reader enhanced understanding of hobbit-folk, and helps us further appreciate the contrast that is to come. Petty, intergenerational feuds aren’t spoken of in the rest of the saga, because the rest of Middle Earth has better things to worry about than eccentric relatives and their supposed fortunes. The unimportance of the feud provides a jarring contrast once the hobbits leave the Shire and become involved in much greater doings.

It is quite likely that your family has a Sackville-Baggins-like branch, or perhaps your own immediate family is made up of Sackville-Bagginses. Tolkien’s readers (and perhaps his audience too) have almost certainly had experience with this sort of family feud. Most of us know what it is like to have at least one eccentric relative, who perhaps has a bit more money than he or she ought to have.

We are, as readers, perhaps meant to identify more fully with the hobbit-folk. As modern readers to whom these books still apply, we understand hobbit-folk more than we understand wizards and elves, whose ways are explained much less and are meant to be less understood.

This is perhaps one of the many reasons why we find The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings so fascinating and enduring, because of the Tolkien’s close attention to detail and his use of such devices.

This sort of writing does not apply merely to Tolkien’s works, or to imaginative fiction. It applies to historical narrative, biography, and any number of works you may run across. Understanding these distinctions can illuminate a narrative text of any kind; they add depth and significance. For readers, and writers as well, knowledge of these narrative tricks can increase understanding of anything you might encounter in the literary realm, or even in the realm of conversation and live storytelling.

For members of the Tolkien fandom, perhaps this post gives readers yet another excuse to reread the trilogy in a whole new light. There is an underlying cleverness beneath the hobbits that goes undetected very easily, yet it links us, the readers, with the text itself. Tolkien fans don’t need to remove their shoes and eat a second breakfast in order to identify themselves with hobbit-folk; the author has already identified them with hobbit-folk in many ways. We, as readers, get to experience the adventures of danger and darkness alongside the hobbits rather than as mere spectators. Like them, we are new to the adventures and very quickly become immersed in them, and changed by them.

A shorter version of this post may also be found on this excellent site, along with other amazing articles on a wide variety of topics: http://www.goodtruebeautiful.net

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