There be dragons!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Considering Trolls in Tolkien

Consider Tolkien's map of Middle Earth.

See the dragon embedded in the geography? Dragonishness was a central issue in both "The Hobbit" and the later work of "Lord of the Rings". Specifically in Hobbit the crisis of the work is whether or not Bilbo will become a dragon himself. Dragons are inhuman creatures, ancient, crafty, who delve in riddles and non-linear thought of all sorts. They are powerful, violent, hoarding of their wealth (both material and otherwise) and they seek to dominate over other creatures by sowing the seeds of despair, sorrow, discontent and doubt. To become like this snaky creature is to lose one's humanity and become an "unman" or Golem in the Yiddish. Bilbo must, therefore, travel to the heart of the dragon and confront the potential for dragonishness himself. Every encounter throughout the novel prepares Bilbo for that final encounter with the dragon.

Why, therefore, does Tolkien include the encounter with the three trolls in book 2, right out from Hobbiton? Are these images of dragonishness in some way? Certainly the trollness of the trolls is taken out of Norse myth and the great troll story of Beowulf. Yet, why are there three trolls (and not, say 2 or 14)? Do the names have significance? Are there other stories with sets of 3 in them to which Tolkien is referring? Tolkien's character "Treebeard" says of them in LotR,

"Trolls are only counterfeits, made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves."

It seems that Tolkien frequently thought in these dualistic terms, that for every thing of goodness there was a dark and malevolent side as well, a counterfeit or doppelganger that mirrored something in the world of light yet abhorred the light. Why do the trolls get turned to stone by sunrise at the end of the chapter? What in the psyche of the reader is "troll-like", counterfeit & made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, anyway?

The art at this website is good. Captures nicely that fireside quality Tolkien himself had in his painting. Interesting that Tolkien puts the three figures OUTSIDE the ring of firelight as creatures dwelling in the dark periphery of human subconscious; shadow monsters. This one brings them into the firelit circle of the conscious.

I conjecture that the names are a bit like "Tom, Dick, and Harry" - common names meaning "Everyman". The threeness of the crew, though, reminds me of that great story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears which is about a careless child meeting the triune divinity for the first time. Her negligence and sense of being owed something lead to "falling asleep" (spiritual lethargy) and waking up to the terror of the divine bearness looming over her. This terrifying encounter leads her to flee from the home in the woods (subconscious) and never go back there again; in other words, the divine becomes for her set in stone as a place only of terror.

In Bilbo's story, though, the trolls are not wise inhuman powers bearing familial connections but stupid, blundering monoliths hell-bent on rampaging through the land. Gandalf himself wonders what has driven them from their mountainous homes, their Olympus. Unlike the positive aspect of the Trinity these trolls are slow and dim, comical in there Three Stooges shtick. Nevertheless, they represent an aspect of the divine AS BILBO PERCIEVES IT. Is God stupid? Do we consider Him stupid? Do we percieve religion as monolithic and predictable? Are we surprised by its potential for violence or its renditioin of bloodshed? Do we consider God as though He were in a box; the familial creative force of the Trinity forever under our thumb? Yet lurking in the shadowy periphery of the subconscious that maybe this is a force we need to reckon with, beyond our control, unexpected and ferocious. And then suddenly it looms up in front of us in the dark, or the alarm goes off when we try to steal from it sounding out the eternal religious question "Ere, oo are you?"

Who are we? Especially when faced with such immense, petrolithic images of nature's divine force - we are small and scared and trembling - more like a rabbit than a burglar. And will the divine force now have mercy on the poor little blighter or find a way to smash it into a pie? Bilbo attempts to confront this dark, protean fear in the firelight on his own, but must be saved first by the doggedly linear dwarvish aspect which determinedly and blunderingly wanders into the firelight and blinds one of the trolls, then by the power of the wizard himself, Gandalf (the Bilbo grown large) who riddles the trolls to linger until the new dawn & resurrection.

For Bilbo the facing of the divine power (or its terrible negative aspect) drags that power into the light of day and renders it innocuous. It's Bilbo's first meeting with the potential dragon in him.

Trackback = Tolkien: His Genius

Tolkien's own ink illustration of the trolls for "The Hobbit".

1890 Illustration of the Three Bears by Batten


  1. This at facebook:
    Alex Montgomery Johnson "I always thought that dragons were known primarily for their greed. They hoard gold and kidnap women (both of which are completely useless to them). Cunning always seemed to be secondary attribute. Also, in Tolkien's dualistic view of good and evil (elf and orc), who mirrors the dragon? Bilbo?"

    William Joseph Kendrick Lasseter
    "in answer to the second question, yes and no. Bilbo has the potential for becoming a dragon. but the foil to the dragon is actually the Maiar (the lesser Valar). This isn't an exact identity, of course, b/c there are also the Valaraukar ...(Balrogs) and the fallen Maiar (Melkor and Sauron) but Dragons, Valaraukar, and Morgoth/Melkor & Sauron are all similarly conceived beings (Melkor, Sauron and the Valaraukar conceived by Ea, dragons conceived by Melkor in his dissonant song. but note that Melkor and Sauron share with dragons this intense knowledge and penchant for riddles. Sauron himself is described as a dragon-like eye in his third incarnation. And Balrogs share the fire/darkness that also engulfs dragons and Morgoth/Sauron.
    All dragons are first and foremost intense intellects who use the power of speech to dominate and destroy. They spread despair (as does the great dragon, Glaurung in Silmarillion) and doubt (as does Smaug in Hobbit) and they speak in riddles. Their knowledge is ancient and vast and they see nuances that most creatures do not. They represent non-linear thinking (as seen in the trickster figure) that has gone horribly bad; normally due not to self-indulgence but due to despair. The hording of treasure is merely an outward symbol of what they actually horde which is knowledge; done so as an attempt to stave fof the despair of annihilation which they see as inevitable. Bilbo (and Frodo & all the characters in LotR) have a choice btwn becoming more dragonlike (or Sauron-like) and becoming more like Gandalf, who doesn't seek domination or his own self-preservation but rather humbles himself to appear as a weak old man in ME in order to help the residents there protect themselves from the dragonishness of Sauron. He is, therefore, the non-linear thought working the right way - not scaring the little children (Hobbits, as Saruman, the dragon man, does at the end of LotR) and not destroying the things of beauty in ME but rather putting himself at risk, not revealing his full power, and consciously limiting himself in order to be able to reject the tremendous power offered to him (in the ring)."

  2. It's been quite a while since I saw these prints. Brings back memories. Yunno, I never really made the connection Sauron = Saruman = Greek Sauros (as in 'dinosaur'). Thanks for helping me spot that. And for this tribute to Tolkein & to dad.