The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 221-223
The history of Dwarves and Elves in Middle-earth has been a long journey that has often taken dark turnings. The memories of both peoples are long and so these things are not forgotten and can rise dangerously to the surface at any moment. Later in the tale Celeborn of Lothlórien will speak bitterly of Dwarves and will seek to repent of the welcome given to Gimli, son of Glóin, but here in Rivendell this same Glóin sits in a place of honour at the table of Elrond next to the Ringbearer. Thus, in the scenes before the great Council of Elrond takes place, Tolkien draws together many essential threads of the great story.
“Am I right in guessing that you are the Glóin, one of the twelve companions of the great Thorin Oakenshield?” asks Frodo of his fellow guest at Elrond’s table.
“I have already been told that you are the kinsman and adopted heir of our friend Bilbo the renowned,” replies Glóin.
And in an age that is more formal than our own not one word spoken by either is wasted or without content. Each word conveys the honour that each feels appropriate to the other and which each wishes to give. And in their greetings to one another both place the other and also themselves within the great story of how Gandalf the Grey brought together Thorin Oakenshield and his twelve companions with a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, in order to regain Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, from the grip of Smaug the Dragon.
Anyone who has read The Hobbit will know that much of that tale is told as a child’s fairy story and much is even comic in style befitting the character of the hobbit who plays so essential a part within it. For it was only a hunch upon Gandalf’s part that led him to recommend Bilbo to Thorin, persuading him that he had found an excellent burglar who would be useful as a stealer of treasure from a dragon’s hoard. Bilbo’s complete lack of any of the qualities thought necessary for a hero makes Thorin wonder if Gandalf is merely playing some unpleasant trick upon him but, perhaps by a carnivalesque invasion of Tolkien’s heroic legendarium, it is this figure who Thorin regards as being little more than a clown who finds the Ring of Power by pure chance.
It was the great Russian cultural theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin who developed the idea of carnival within life and literature, a situation in which the world is turned upside down and the first become last while the last become first. I have written before of how I believe that hobbits took Tolkien completely by surprise and how that surprise simply would not let him go. There is nothing in The Silmarillion that prepares us for the moment when hobbits enter the tale and after the success of The Hobbit Tolkien tried to persuade his publisher that there was nothing more to be said about them. It is my belief that the whole world owes an incalculable debt to a publisher who in seeking another commercial success made hobbits essential to the creation of a mythology that is subversively enriching the world of our day.
Of all the retellings of Tolkien’s tale of Bilbo Baggins I have an especial affection for a Russian film of The Hobbit from the Soviet era that, to me, captures the spirit of the story perfectly, telling it as the kind of folk tale that the mighty always feel that they can ignore safely. Self important literary critics from the great universities and even heads of government or state feel that they can laugh at such nonsense until the moment comes when they get the terrible sense that they might be the butt of the joke as Smaug does when Bilbo steals the Arkenstone from his treasure or Saruman is driven from his mighty fortress by creatures who he has treated with contempt.
Where do we end with this reflection? Of course we end as Frodo and Glóin do in acknowledging the greatness of the other. Both carnival and heroic epic come together here bowing respectfully to one another, taking pleasure in one another’s company, sharing news and wisely waiting for the right time in which to speak of weightier matters such as the destiny of the whole world. That can wait for the next day.