Reading report: ‘The Hobbit,’ by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Hobbit

I keep bellyaching about having a difficult time with my latest Erling book. And this continues to be the case. I make progress – don’t get me wrong – but it’s kind of like punching my way through sand.

So I said to myself, maybe I haven’t spent enough time with fantasy lately. Maybe it’s time to read The Lord of the Rings again, to get my mind onto a different track.

And behold, I did even according to my word. Reading the Trilogy and its prequel, of course, is a time-consuming project. And it’s a little late in history to review the books. So I figured I’d blog my way through them. I can’t compete with the real Middle Earth geeks who’ve memorized Bilbo’s genealogy and know how many miles it is from Buckleberry Ferry to the Grey Havens. But perhaps my modest expertise in Norse mythology and legend may help illuminate one or two points for you, rendering the exercise not entirely worthless to mankind.

I’ve made it through The Hobbit already. There are definite Norse elements in this book. Some of the ones that struck me on this reading were these:

The names of the dwarves. Many people can tell you where Tolkien got the dwarf names (and that of his wizard), but I’ll quote you the original passage.

This comes from Edda, by Snorri Sturlussson, translated by Anthony Faulkes, published 1987 by Everyman. It’s in the section called “Gylfaginning,” (The Deluding of Gylfi). I’ve emboldened the names I recognize from Tolkien, whether members of the Company or not. Sometimes spellings differ.

And the names of the dwarfs, say the prophetess, are these:

Nyi, Nidi, Nordri, Sudri, Austri, Vestri, Althiolf, Dvalin, Nar, Nain, Niping, Dain, Bifur, Bofur, Bombor, Nori, Ori, Onar, Oin, Modvitnir, Vig and Gandalf, Vindalf, Thorin, Fili, Kili, Fundin, Vali, Thror, Throin, Thekk, Lit, Vitr, Nyr, Nyrad, Rekk, Radsvinn.

But these are also dwarfs and live in rocks, whereas the previous ones lived in soil:

Draupnir, Dolgthvari, Hor, Hugstari, Hlediolf, Gloin, Dori, Ori, Duf, Andvari, Heptifili, Har, Siar.

It’s interesting that Gandalf’s name comes from a list of dwarfs. But it’s a mysterious name, since it means “Staff-Elf,” and one wonders why a dwarf has “elf” in his name. However, “Alf, ” meaning elf, is a common element in human names, especially among the Anglo-Saxons, so maybe there’s no reason for a dwarf not to have the name-element too. In fact, why would any elf parents name their kid “Elf,” any more than a human would name their kid “Person?”

Another obviously Norse element is Beorn. His name is clearly the same as Bjorn, which to this day means “Bear” in the Scandinavian languages. More than that, his hall is very clearly modeled after a Norse or Anglo-Saxon hall of the heroic age. The idea of a shape-changer who is also a hero is not uncommon in the legends. An obvious example is Bodvar Bjarki, one of Hrolf Kraki’s chief warriors in the kingdom of Denmark. Also Sigmund, father of Sigurd/Sigfried, the dragon slayer, is sometimes a shape-changer. And many scholars suggest that Beowulf, whose name probably means bear, may have been a were-bear at some point in the development of his legend.

Finally, there was an interesting point in the run-up to the Battle of the Five Armies. The wise old raven who speaks human speech tells the elves, “We would see peace once more among dwarves and men and elves after the long desolation….”

I wonder what Tolkien meant in writing that. To the Norse (and the Anglo-Saxons), the raven was a harbinger of, and inciter to, war. Poets spoke of warfare as “feeding the ravens,” and one would expect the ravens would approve of that sort of thing.

I can only assume that this raven is meant to be a voice of wisdom, reminiscent of Odin’s ravens Hugin and Munin, who whispered news into the great god’s ears.

6 thoughts on “Reading report: ‘The Hobbit,’ by J. R. R. Tolkien”

  1. I read that the Professor Tolkien was originally going to name the dwarf king Gandalf and the wizard had another name, but he decided it was a better name for a wizard because of the meaning of the name

  2. I wrote this a few year ago for the fanzine Mythprint:

    When the door of the Coos Bay, Oregon, public library closed behind me that day in (probably) the second half of 1966, my pre-Tolkien world had just moments of existence left.

    Once through the doorway, one turned right, to the children’s section, or left to the adult section. If, aged 11, I poked around the children’s section first, then the moment that day when I crossed over to the adult section (not for the first time) was a turning point in my life.

    A memory: the Ballantine Tolkien paperbacks displayed with the Barbara Remington Middle-earth map and/or the “Come to Middle-earth!” poster. The artwork caught my eye. I liked it (still do). It looked science-fictiony.

    So I read The Hobbit. It connected with my existing love of Scandinavian mythology and folklore. As a boy, Tolkien desired dragons with a great desire. I desired trolls. (Look at the troll-drawings by Werenskiold and Kittelsen, in the Asbjornsen and Moe collection of Norwegian Folk Tales.) True, Tolkien’s trolls talk like Cockneys. But they have the authentic troll-qualities of ill-gotten wealth, largeness, stupidity, coarseness, and dangerous appetite. Yes, I relished the hobbit, the dwarves, the wizard, the dragon-talk. It seems people usually don’t say much about Bert, William, and Tom, though; but I was delighted: something new for me about trolls.

    And in a book displayed in the adult section! Who could have expected such a thing?

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