There be dragons!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tolkien : His Genius

The genius of J.R.R. Tolkien seems often overlooked when referring to his "children's story" of The Hobbit. The story, however, reveals powerful depth of thought and construction. Tolkien was very familiar with dragons and dragon imagery saying of his own youth that he once sought to encounter a dragon; "I desired dragons with a profound desire." After the Somme he undoubtedly lost such a desire. However, Tolkien seems to intimate in his work that the encounter with a dragon is actually an encounter with oneself; the anagogical level of self-reflection that reveals a man to himself.

The dragon imagery dominates the work of The Hobbit. Tolkien frequently drew dragon images and designs and incorporated the imagery even into his map of the geography of Middle Earth. In this map the dragon tail curls from out of Hobbiton (under Bilbo's doorstep) running north into Ered Luin and the Forodwaith; the spine of the dragon consists of the Misty Mountains running south to Rohan and the spike of Orthanc tower where the "dragon rider" (Saruman) would sit; the neck of the dragon, the White Mountains, runs East to the head composed of the mountain range around Mordor (Ered Lithui & Ephel Duath), and the incessantly burning fires of Orodruin are the eye of the dragon. The ranges of Ered Mithruin and Ered Nimrais are the splayed left back leg and right front leg respectively.

Tolkien was drawing on an ancient tradition of Anglo-Saxon artwork that depicted coiling, spirallic dragons doubling in upon themselves in a series of twists and turns. These images were, in turn, an artistic depiction of the solar spiral which can be mapped using a simple gnomon with a magnifying glass on it. The pattern that emerges from spring equinox to fall is one of a double spiral - the dragon. Since most Anglo-Saxon cultures reveal sun worship as an essential component of their religion, this comes as no surprise. As early as neolithic architecture we find solar imagery dominating the artistic imagination of the British Isles. The dragon of Anglo-Saxon art was the solar path, or mirrored in it at least.

But Tolkien seems to employ the imagery to an even greater level. His dragon imagery embodies the action of self-reflection that emerges in serious intellectual inquiry. The essential questions of "Who am I?" "What am I about?" "What am I capable of?" lie at the heart of the spiritual quest to know ourselves. Consequently, the pattern of the Hobbit, which is itself a spiritual journey of self-discovery, displays this mirror doubling in its imagery.

The episode with the trolls is mirrored in the episode with the spiders. The trolls are a comic representation of the Trinity who threaten to "consume" the dwarves and hobbit even as divinity "consumes" the spirit. They, or more accurately, William's purse, ask the question "'Ere! Oo are yoo?" In this encounter Bilbo is defined by who he is and in his flusteration cannot answer correctly. Consequently his response accidentally becomes a riddle prompting the trolls to ask the followup question "what's a burrahobbit?" This is the divine question - "what is man?" = the question of the sphinx and of the psalmist and of any pilgrim setting out on the mystical journey. The encounter with the trolls is like that first terrifying encounter with the other/god in the dark. Yet when dawn comes, the threatening protean images have become manageable and still; turned to stone. From this encounter Bilbo gains strength and knowledge as a burglar, but also acquires his blade, Sting; a small sword but powerful - emblematic of the keenness of intellect and inquiry.

Similarly, the multitudinous spiders are divine, otherworldly creatures of nightmare and darkness. They attack the dwarves and the hobbit in the darkness of Mirkwood when the company tries to seek help from the elusive wood elves and wrap them in the eternal shroud of webbing to be "consumed" later. But Bilbo's encounter with the Trolls has prepared him for this meeting and he saves the dwarves with the help of Sting. The spiders ask "what is it?" in reference to Sting. Here Bilbo is not defined by who he is but what he does. As such he helps the dwarves escape after a great battle with the spiders.

The visiting of the beneficent high elves in Rivendell in which Thorin and company are the voluntary guests of Elrond is mirrored by the "visiting" of the hostile wood elves in Mirkwood in which the company are involuntary guests of Thranduil. Rivendell is a place of joy and light, rest after their encounter with the trolls. The wood elves are a place of darkness and treacherously alluring bounty which imprisons the company. Both are representative of the capacity for creative thought; the first in its benevolent form of comedy, the second in its malevolent form of tragedy. Bilbo leaves from the first riding on ponies and escapes from the second riding on barrels; a fact that later will confuse Smaug and help to save Bilbo.

The episode of intruding on the home of the goblins parallels the episode of intruding on the home of Beorn. The former, an image of depravity in the dark, involves the kidnapping of the dwarves and Bilbo while the latter, an image of solitary abundance in the open country, involves the necessary invasion of Beorn's privacy. Though they have kidnapped the group, the goblins claim they have been intruded upon "sitting on our front porch" and Thorin and company must assume a suppliant posture before the great goblin king. Ultimately they are saved from their imminent death by Gandalf. Though they don't want to intrude on Beorn, the company must if they are to continue their journey. Again they are saved by Gandalf who encourages Thorin and company to assume a suppliant posture with the giant skin-changer. Both episodes involve dwarves barging in on the home of a stranger and consequently echo the initial chapter of "Unexpected Party" and the latter chapter of "On the Doorstep". Bilbo, who fades in the goblin and Beorn section, is mimicked by the goblin king (whose front porch he has intruded upon) and by Beorn (who is the big man to Bilbo's little man).

At the heart of the story, and in the very bowels of the dragon lies Gollum. Gollumis an interesting doppleganger of Bilbo. Once hobbit, or hobbit-like, he lives in a hole in the ground, eats alot, loves riddles, and has one very great treasure; the ring of power. Bilbo's meeting with him, and the pity invoked therefrom, forces the hobbit to face what he too might become. Solitary, miserable, imprisoned and tortured by his own mind, gollum is a "non-living man" - a manikin or "golem". He aquires from Gollum, then, insight, reflection, the power to be self-critical and examine his own heart through the cyclic thought that goes round and round (or "there and back again"). This power, limited to certain individuals, allows them to slip from the vision of the rest of the world, escape the slavery that normalcy and daily existence impose on most people, and become the outsider - the catcher in the rye. It is a power that can lead one to be able to create law, art, music, myth or fashion the norms that govern society. In short, it is the power that leads to autonomy; "self-law". But the power is dangerous b/c it also can give delusions of grandeur which exceed the proper realm of the wielder making him think he is a dragon rather than a man. In doing so, the wielder does not really become a dragon but an "unman", a golem, wrestling with himself in a schizophrenic slavery to the one ring that rules them all.


This sort of pathos is just what Bilbo must feel, confront, and leave behind. It poses an obstacle to his escape from the nightmarish womb of primordial existence in which Gollum dwells. No great leap for a man but a great leap for a hobbit. Nor is the escape without consequence as Bilbo hears behind him "Thief! Thief! Baggins! We hates it. Hates it forever!" Ever after the curse of becoming the manikin/doppleganger will dog Bilbo's domestic bliss (his Baggins side) pursuing him throughout Middle Earth, trying to join again the two halves that share the ring.

Bilbo's character as well has a dual element to it. He is both the domestic sedentary Baggins and the adventurous Took. He has elements of rabbit imagery but also of dragon imagery. He lives in a hole in the ground, likes comfort, likes to eat, has vast stores of treasure stowed away neatly in his hole, likes to blow smoke out of his nose, wears brightly colored clothing, is small and has hairy feet. Throughout the book the rabbit imagery appears again and again (with the trolls, the eagles, Beorn) but so too does the dragon imagery (riddles with Gollum, climbing the tree in Mirkwood, escaping the elves, facing Smaug, stealing the Arkenstone). Indeed, Bilbo's transformation in the novel is from the timid, domestic, rabbit straggling behind the dwarves into the bold, adventurous, dragonlike hero who leads the band in the end. Though Bilbo does not become a dragon in full (the threat of such an end appears only in LOTR when he begins to become like Sauron, the dragon) he nevertheless acquires characteristics that are "dragonlike" - loses his respectability among the hobbits and becomes a loner in Hobbiton, despite his wealth. He moves from grocer (fat, amiable, giving to others what they need in broad daylight; Barliman Butterbur) to "burglar indeed" (lean, solitary, taking from others under cover of darkness) when he steals the Arkenstone.
Moreover, Bilbo's nature seems to mimic the dragon, Smaug, in his propensity for riddles - he outriddles the dragon - his ability to acquire treasure, and his ability to see above all these "earth bound" individuals who live out their mundane lives in the Shire. At one point in Mirkwood, Bilbo climbs a tree and looks out over the vastness of the forest. There in the sunlight he sees thousands of little flying moths and the beauty of the moment strikes him as timeless. He experiences that other world beyond this in an almost angelic moment in which he is superior to the dwarves (little men). This response parallels the dragon's ability to fly above the earth, but without the contempt of a dragon for the small things and for beauty. A dragon, after all, cannot enjoy his own treasure; merely spoils it for others. But Bilbo does end up "soaring" above others. He is dubbed "elf friend" by the king of the wood elves, and proclaimed a prince by Bard. Indeed, he does fit the elvish Mithril armor better than many elf princes before him. Upon his return to Hobbiton he finds the cloddish Hobbits going about their material existence of selling his worldly goods at an auction. Tolkien makes a particular point that many were sorry he was not dead (a typical cloddish response) and that Bilbo had to take great pains to buy back his own silverware.

Ultimately Bilbo's confrontation with Smaug is the thing that allows him to soar even higher than the dragon. Though he acquires dragonish qualities his ability to confront and outriddle even this great terror breaks the dragon spell on him. Smaug asks him who he is and Bilbo, rather than reveal who he is tells what he has done. He hides behind the invisibility of his deeds and thus, when the despairing nature of the wyrm tries to catch him he can escape. What is a burrahobbit? Nothingness? Darkness? What is at the heart of man's existence? If it is nothingness then despair sets in and we become dragons or naught. But Bilbo's response, "I am what I have done" is something of a salvation. We may not be much, but we can do much and much for good. Thus when Bilbo steals the Arkenstone it is in an attempt for peace, not (as is paralleled in the Master of the Laketown) in a desperate attempt to save himself. This use of the treasure to help others allows him, in the end, to accept his smallness not as curse but as blessing. In the end we are admired by elves, men, dwarves, wizards who all like us very much; but are just little fellows in a very large world. And thank goodness for that.

1 comment:

  1. This is a remarkable blog you have created here. I've linked to this post in a post I've written here:

    Are you familiar with Hamlet's Mill (1969) by de Santillana and von Dechend? I think you would find it quite fascinating. I haven't read all of your posts yet but I intend to start.