Jan 13

Bedtime Story Watch II: Beorn Again

FT/4 comments • 590 views

Reading The Hobbit to Lytton (just turned 6) – Beorn has just sent the party Mirkwood-bound and re-ponied, and this (plus recent Hobbit-discussion on here) seems a good place to take stock.

The Hobbit is a degree tougher going for kids than anything I’ve read aloud so far – there’s notionally 19 chapters but many are very long and the whole thing might well take three times as many nights to finish. I read it absurdly young – yes, I was precocious, but I must have done an outrageous amount of skimming. I’ve read it since – including aloud, to my wife – but as ever reading to kids, with their infinite potential for not listening, really forces you into an awareness of the pace of a book: all the bits I’ve etched into my head happened, but quite a lot happens (or doesn’t really) around them or in between too.

Case in point, the Beorn chapter (“Queer Lodgings”): one of several sections where the heroes get to enjoy a pit stop, and Tolkien gets to limn out a few details of his world – though Beorn and his household of walking dogs and copious mead feel like they have wandered in from a different part of the Medieval entirely. From the rescue by the eagles to the entry into Mirkwood will end up taking me five nights viz.

1. Eagle journey to Gandalf’s announcement that he’s leaving.
2. Discussion of Beorn, trip to the edge of his bee-pastures.
3. Two-by-two intro of dwarves to Beorn*, recap of story so far.
4. Feasting and sleeping at Beorn’s gaff.
5. To the edge of Mirkwood and Gandalf’s actual departure.

This is a dense five nights of story, but not really in terms of action. I remember finding Beorn’s hall as strange and haunting an intermission as JRRT probably intended it, but I think the impact is greater taking the chapter as a whole, and while useful plotwork happens here (Beorn introduced; Goblin military plans discussed), there is also a sense that the entire chapter is devoted to introducing and promising a dude who turns into a bear who then very much does not turn into a bear ‘on camera’.** (I did notice L’s eyes widen at the snuffling and growling at the door – a foolproof ghost story trope – so this slight anticlimax was diverted)

Despite the occasionally langorous pacing The Hobbit still feels packed with incident. This read has really brought home how well Tolkien portions out his world to us – each chapter introducing at least one thing new until the Dwarves get to the Mountain and all the various elements can be stewed up together. Hobbits and Dwarves; Trolls; Elves; Goblins; Gollum (and the Ring); Wargs and Eagles; Beorn; Spiders; Wood-Elves; Men – and then we’re at the dragon. This episodic storytelling is sometimes held up as something that makes the Hobbit a lesser achievement than Lord Of The Rings – a sense perhaps that Tolkien was improvising. But a) he wasn’t and b) the gradual drawing back of the curtain – “expanding wonderment” as Swanstep neatly put it on the film comment thread – is enormously effective, not least because it gives this Dad plenty of carrots to dangle if the bee-pastures or Elfsongs prove less than thrilling.

*read oneself this is funny, read aloud it induced great restlessness, so either my delivery was off or there was no real need for a recap quite yet.
**though I’m sure he will.


  1. 1

    In a straightforward plot-required sense, Beorn provides (a) expertise and advice about the locale how to pass through it (gandalf hasn’t been in that neighbourhood for some years), (b) rest and recuperation and cream and honey, (c) provision and carriage animals, and (d) rear-guard protection, so that the expedition only have to worry about what’s ahead. All of this is good solid material narrative-support: Tolkien isn’t exactly what marxists call a materialist (bcz magic rings, wizards, necromancy etc), but he is remarkably attuned to issues of portage, supply lines, the realistic transmission of information, the fog of war, even in a book primarily aimed at small people unlikely to mind much about such stuff (though quite likely beguiled by descriptions of feasts which so very much tidily alternate with periods of foodless hunger).

    The various cultures nice and nasty are at least partially defined by their attitudes to and tastes in food. To the extent that (looking forward a little), one of the ways Bilbo’s hobbitshness scores over the dwarves in wisdom is that he recognises sooner than they that love of gold and dwarvish cultural nationalism won’t feed them in erebor — that despite their obvious valour and determination and loyalty to thorin and one another, and their bottomless passion for their recovered home (and gold), they have no provisions to speak, supply lines are non-existent, and etc.

    There’s also a degree of recuperation for the reader or small listener after adventures of mounting magnitude, complexity and peril (“out of the frying pan into the fire” explicitly underlines this, that where the troll peril was a single episode, the goblin peril is two-fold… and the next will perhaps be three-fold. Having quiet periods isn’t just the striation of contrast in psychology or texture, so that we don’t get exhausted and blase, it re-grounds us (and bilbo) : this is what the good life is actually about (this being tolk’s small p politics, more or less) — good food and drink with good companions, a nice relaxing pipe.
    Descriptions of feasts aren’t just a reward for the reader, they’re a kind of subtle moral orientation.

    the next will perhaps be three-fold: despite these descriptions — and the care taken to note the landscape they are passing through — the book feels surprisingly tightly written. The attention to locale is in effect a way to get them from place to place, terrain to terrain — it pushes them onwards, connecting the stops. And the narrative voice is relentless in providing anticipatory hints what kind of thing is coming — sometimes a long way forward (the Battle of the Five Armies is mentioned during the first Eagles episode), but in general getting us hopped up a little for what’s just round the corner.

    All this is of course classic storytelling, which is one of Tolkien’s primary interests. Indeed, The Hobbit can be seen as a bit of a masterclass in the modes and uses of storytelling (and of course riddling and sometimes just bullshitting); in most episodes some kind of storytelling (or shall we say oral spell-casting) happens, whether it’s Gandalf tricking the Trolls or Bilbo goading the spiders — or backstory infilled in various modes and registers, from various perspectives. Here, with Beorn, it’s a recap of the story so far — a not unuseful thing itself for some listeners — but it’s also an instance of storytelling for the pleasure of it, which is exactly how Beorn responds.

  2. 2

    Didn’t think of this till later — it’s not the way I usually analyse books — but there’s actually a distinct larger symmetry to the peril-feast-peril-feast pattern in The Hobbit.

    Episodes that directly affect all 14 are as follows (in bold the de-stressy episodes):
    Bag End — Trolls — Rivendell — Giants — Goblins — Wolves — Eagles
    Magic Stream — Spiders — Elves — Barrels — Laketown — Dragon — Battle for Erebor

    Diagrammatically the symmetry is clearer: (BE)-T-R-gGWe-B-mSEb-L-D-(B4E)

    In detail:
    entwined perils: Goblins/Wolves –> Spiders/Elves (Gandalf is thought-leader to escape the peril during Goblins/Wolves, Bilbo during Spiders/Elves)

    risky getaway: Eagles –> Barrels !!

    restpoint: Rivendell –> Lakeland

    Trolls –> Dragon (Invisible Gandalf lulls the Trolls to stonedom, Invisible Bilbo goads the Dragon to Laketown-attack and Doom)

    The Battle for Erebor is the FARTHEST DISTANT POLAR OPPOSITE of Bag End in every regard, sensual, textual, tonal, moral… except that now Bilbo’s refusal to take charge and be a hero, instead of making him look foolish, makes him look wise (the dying Thorin admits as much).

    So the Beorn episode is actually where Gandalf hands over to Bilbo, though the fact that this is so will only emerge gradually — partly by default and the failure of the Dwarves to thrive on their own. So perhaps all this adds to the rhythmic need for it to be so long and so evocatively out-of-time and stand-alone. [Adding: as I just noticed it got lost while I tinkered with this post, that the Beorn episode is thus in this array the central resting moment…]

    I have no idea whether JRRT plotted diagrammatically this way: the symmetries you can find seem to suggest he did, but once you start analysing this way you find what you want to find, and can quickly mislead yourself I think.

    (The actual centre-point of the book page-wise is when Bilbo climbs the trees to the roof of Mirkwood and sees the black butterflies — you could argue that this mirrors the ring-riddling passage, but I’m not sure what you get from saying this.)

  3. 3
    jim5et on 7 Jan 2013 #

    Deeply jealous here – my son has always been fiercely resistant to being read the Hobbit and at 7 has passed the reading aloud window. I’m going to get the BBC audiobook version next time we have a long drive – that’ll show the little fucker. Actually maybe the whole LOTR recording.

  4. 4
    Tom on 8 Jan 2013 #

    I suspect, bcz I have two sons and they share a room, his bedtime story window will be longer than most, i.e. he’ll have to hear his brother getting the same books. All the more time for a PROPER APPRECIATION OF BEORN.

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