“Father Knows Best:
The Narrator’s Oral Performance as
Paternal Protector in The Hobbit
Scholar, Philologist, Writer, and. . . Father?
Who Am I Talking About?
• While men play an important role within the
mythology of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the
usual assumption is that there is no connection
between the humanity of that place and our
• But in fact there is, and that person is the
narrator of both The Hobbit and The Lord of
Especially in The Hobbit, the Narrator
is an Active Character.
• Jane Chance in “The King Under the Mountain:
Tolkien’s Children’s Story“ affirms that “The narrator,
like a tale-telling [Canterbury] pilgrim must be
regarded as one additional character” (Chance 60).
• Also Paul Thomas in “Some of Tolkien’s Narrators”
affirms that “the narrator is, from one perspective, just
as much a character as Bard, Balin and Bilbo. And yet
the narrator is a special character: as a third-person
narrator, he is merely a voice, and he is the story but not
in the plot, and of course his voice has a much closer
relationship to Tolkien’s voice than that of any other
character” (Thomas 162-163).
What is the Problem?
• There are some who do not like the narrator
nor his (or her) tone at all:
• “The arrogant, unimaginative, and very ‘adult’
narrator assume this story about little Hobbits
must be relegated to an audience of little
creatures—children” (Chance 60).
• Several note that Tolkien himself seems to
have regretted elements within the narrator
From the Biography
• Carpenter says of the tone of the narrator
that Tolkien intentionally made it to be
appealing to children and then says this:
• “Indeed he did this too consciously and
deliberately at time in the readers’ remarks
such as “Now you know quite enough to get
on with” and “as we shall see in the end.”
He later removed many of these, but some
remain in the published text—to his regret,
for he came to dislike them and even to
believe that any deliberate talking down to
children is a great mistake in a story” (179).
What is the problem Specifically?
• Too Condescending
• Too Chatty
• Gets in the way of the action
But these problems vanish
when the nature of the
narrator is understood.
Who is the Narrator?
• Is it Tolkien?
• Similar but not
• Like the guy
• Tolkien is a
Writer. . .and a
The Opening Lines
Is the speaker condescending? Well
• The narrator of The Hobbit does know a lot.
Actually makes his (her) first appearance not in
the text but in the preface, speaking as a
professor: “This is a tale of long ago. At that time
the language and letters were quite different from
ours of today” (8) This opening is a bit of a
glimpse of the speaker who clearly behaves as if
all the languages within the narrative are true and
all people particularly the dwarves whose spelling
needs explaining are all real.
• Note: In spite of Thomas’ claim of a masculine
voice there is no gender specific self reference.
• This scholarly narrator makes an
appearance one more time in the
prologue of The Lord of the Rings
in the chapter “Concerning
Hobbits” found at the beginning of
The Fellowship of the Ring. Once
again he identifies himself with the
human race noting as he did in The
Hobbit that hobbits “were, as a
rule, shy of the ‘Big Folk’ as they
call us, and now they avoid us with
dismay, and are becoming hard to
find” (FOTR 10).
Anyone who has Told Stories to
children—especially young children--
knows that generally they require the
• Definitions followed by Note how these match
often repeated the complaints:
explanation • Too Condescending
• Engagement with • Too Chatty
listeners • Gets in the way of
• Assurance the action
The voice -- chatty
• The mother of our particular hobbit—what is a
hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some
description nowadays since they have become
rare and shy of the Big People as they call us.
They are (or were) a little people about half
our height, and smaller than dwarves. Hobbits
have no beards (10).
• Why chatty? This is an in text a portrayal of
an oral experience.
• Gandalf came by. Gandalf! If you had heard only
a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I
have only heard very little of all there is to hear,
you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable
tale. Tales and adventures sprouted up all over
the place . . .(11)
• As in the case of someone who is telling a story
the narrator at times is limited. (Doesn’t know
where Gollum Came from either--82)
• I do not know how long he kept on like this,
hating to go on, not daring to stop (81)
• Now certainly Bilbo was in what is called a
tight place. But you must remember it was not
quite so tight for him as it would have been for
me or for you. Hobbits are not quite like
ordinary people; and after all if their holes are
nice cheery places and properly aired, quite
different from the tunnels of the goblins, still
they are more used to tunneling than we are,
and they do not easily lose their sense of
direction underground – not when their heads
have recovered from being bumped (80-81).
• The narrator is protective
• So began a battle that none had expected; and it
was called the Battle of Five Armies, and it was
very terrible. Upon one side were the Goblins
and the Wild Wolves, and upon the other were
Elves and Men and Dwarves. This is how it fell
out. . . .292
• It was a terrible battle. The most dreadful of all
Bilbo’s experiences, and the one which at the time
he hated most – which is to say it was the one he
was most proud of, and most fond of recalling
long afterwards (294).
The changing tone
• When he began its sequel he rapidly realized
that the new work would be told in a more
adult tone. He says in a letter to Sir Stanely
Unwin that the sequel was “running its course,
and forgetting ‘children’ and becoming more
terrifying than the Hobbit.” “It may prove
quite unsuitable. It is more ‘adult’--but my
own children who criticize it as it appears are
older. . .” The darkness of the present day has
had some effect on it (Letters. 41).
The Narrator when speaking to adults
is fully capable of bringing up
At that moment some dozen Orcs that had lain
motionless among the slain leaped to their feet,
and came silently and swiftly behind. Two flung
themselves to the ground at Eomer's heels, tripped
him, and in a moment they were on top of him.
But a small dark figure that none had observed
sprang out of the shadows and gave a hoarse
shout: Baruk Khazad! Khazad ai-menu! An axe
swung and swept back. Two Orcs fell headless.
The rest fled (The Two Towers 139).
The assault on the gates was redoubled.
Against the Deeping Wall the hosts of Isengard
roared like a sea. Orcs and hillmen swarmed
about its feet from end to end. Ropes with
grappling hooks were hurled over the parapet
faster than men could cut them or fling them
back. . .
. . .Hundreds of long ladders were lifted up.
Many were cast down in ruin, but many more
replaced them, and Orcs sprang up them like
apes in the dark forests of the South. Before
the wall's foot the dead and broken were piled
like shingle in a storm; ever higher rose the
hideous mounds, and still the enemy came on
(The Two Towers 140).
Even in the description of Landscape
there is a holding back. Here is the
description of what is called “the
desolation of the dragon:”
They knew that they were drawing near to the
end of their journey, and that it might be a very
horrible end. The land about them grew bleak
and barren, though once, as Thorin told them,
it had been green and fair (216).
There was little grass, and before long there
was neither bush nor tree, and only broken and
blackened stumps to speak of ones long
vanished. They were come to the Desolation of
the Dragon, and they were come at the waning
of the year. . .They marched under the grey and
silent cliffs to the feet of Ravenhill. There the
river, after winding a wide loop over the valley
of Dale, turned from the Mountain on its road
to the Lake, flowing swift and noisily 216.
Its bank was bare and rocky, tall and steep above
the stream; and gazing out from it over the narrow
water, foaming and splashing among many
boulders, they could see in the wide valley
shadowed by the Mountain's arms the grey ruins
of ancient houses, towers, and walls (216).
"There lies all that is left of Dale," said Balin.
"The mountain's sides were green with woods and
all the sheltered valley rich and pleasant in the
days when the bells rang in that town.“ (217)
This is pretty awful, but compare this with a
similarly blasted landscape in the Two Towers:
Frodo looked round in horror. Dreadful as the
Dead Marshes had been, and the arid moors of
the Noman-lands, more loathsome far was the
country that the crawling day now slowly
unveiled to his shrinking eyes. Even to the
Mere of Dead Faces some haggard phantom of
green spring would come; but here neither
spring nor summer would ever come again.
Here nothing lived, not even the leprous
growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping
pools were choked with ash and crawling
muds, sickly white and grey, as if the. . .
. . .mountains had vomited the filth of their
entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of
crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth
fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an
obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly
revealed in the reluctant light.
They had come to the desolation that lay
before Mordor: the lasting monument to the dark
labour of its slaves that should endure when all
their purposes were made void; a land defiled,
diseased beyond all healing unless the Great Sea
should enter in and wash it with oblivion. 'I feel
sick,' said Sam. Frodo did not speak (239).
Isn’t Changing the Story Lying?
• Not at all. How often do those of faith take the
raw elements of scripture and make them
presentable to children?
In The Two Towers, Tolkien affirms the
importance of telling tales to children
within the experience of a wise story
teller by having Frodo and Sam
imagine a father narrating the
• Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs
or tales. We're in one, or course; but I mean: put
into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read
out of a great big book with red and black letters,
years and years afterwards. And people will say:
"Let's hear about Frodo and the Ring! " And
they'll say: "Yes, that's one of my favourite
stories. Frodo was very brave. wasn't he, dad?"
"Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and
that's saying a lot."
• (Two Towers Book IV Chapter 8 -321)
• The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo:
adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they
were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and
looked for, because they wanted them, because they were
exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you
might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that
really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem
to have been just landed in them, usually --their paths were
laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of
chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if
they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been
forgotten. We hear about those as just went on--and not all
to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a
story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming
home, and finding things all right, though not quite the
same --like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren't always the best
tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed
in! I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into?‘(320-321)
What Happens If there is No Narrator?
• In point of fact it appears as if there will be no
protective narrator in the upcoming film The Hobbit
due out this December.
• Thus the story which was originally a children’s
narrative will be presented in a form appropriate for
• In fact-- if the trailers are accurate--as it stands now
the opening comments by Bilbo make it clear that the
time for protection is over.
– “My dear Frodo, you asked me once if I had told
you everything there was to know about my
adventures. While I can honestly say what I told
you was the truth, I may not have told you all of
• Thus this version of The Hobbit is, unlike the
original, NOT a child’s version of the history but is
instead a revelation given to one who has come of
• Would that have bothered Tolkien? I do not
know, but I suspect not. Years earlier when he
first began to lay out the idea of this sub-
creation (the term he would come to use for
the fantasy setting he’d discovered) he said
– “I would draw some of the great tales in fullness,
and leave many only placed in the scheme, and
sketched. The cycles should be linked to a
majestic whole and yet leave scope for other minds
and hands, wielding paint, music, and drama.
Absurd.” (qtd. in Carpenter 90).
• Absurd then; prophetic now.
Some Interesting sites
• YouTube example of the 1977 animated version of
the Hobbit. John Huston provides the opening voice
which turns out to be the voice of Gandalf.
• YouTube features The BBC version of the Hobbit—
the narrator is turned into two narrators, Gandalf and
Bilbo, who interrupt one another (very funny):