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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Hobbit-holey-space

Posted by Adam Roberts on 06/13/09 at 07:12 AM

Below the fold is a paper on The Hobbit written by Stefan Ekman, Joerg Hartmann, Agnieszka Jedrzejczyk-Drenda, Paul Kincaid, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Sandor Klapcsik, Tuomas Kuusiniemi, Chris Pak, Adam Roberts, Andy Sawyer and Douglas Texter.

***
It is remarkable how hollow are the landscapes of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings—which is to say, how often individuals pass under or through the landscape instead of traversing its surface, how often Tolkien thrusts his characters into holes.  What, after all, is one of the most famous first lines in English literature?  It is, of course: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ What is there to say about holes in The Hobbit?

Bilbo lives in a hole called Bag.  He emerges from this (or is propelled from it by Gandalf and the dwarves) to travel east; but when they come to the Misty Mountains the party goes not over but under them, through a warren of stone caverns, corridors, spaces, holes and hollownesses.  It is in this location, fleeing goblins, that Bilbo finds conventional space radically loosening around him, just at the moment when he finds the crucial holey-artefact, the ring itself:

He guessed as well as he could, and crawled along for a good way, till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it. He put the ring in his pocket almost without thinking; certainly it did not seem of any particular use at the moment. [The Hobbit, 90]

Navigating the holey-space beneath the mountains brings Bilbo to Gollum, and it is in this space that the two engage in an unwitting battle of wits—unwitting in the sense that (as LotR makes plain) upon the result, and the ownership of the ring, depends the entire fate of Middle Earth.  Each party riddles the other, but the unguessable riddle that wins Bilbo the contest is the invocation of another holey-space: ‘What have I got in my pockets?’ In fact I have some sympathy with those who argue that Gollum’s last guess (after ‘hands’, knife’ and ‘string’, he shrieks ‘nothing!’, 104-5) actually answers the riddle tolerably well.  The ring, after all, in its physical form but also in its theological and metaphysical potency, is precisely negation, the un-doing, nothingness.  More to the point, the one physical effect of the ring the readers learns about in The Hobbit is its ability to make the wearer invisible: in effect, tucking the bearer into a hole in plan sight, turning even open-ground or air into a holey-space.  This, in this sense, is what the ring is, at least initially: a portable cache, a means of evading surveillance.

After the Misty Mountains the topography of the novel becomes increasingly holey: walking down a ‘rough path’ leads them to a sudden chasm (‘they were sliding away, huddled all together in a fearful confusion’, 125).  They stay with Beorn, who lives inside a series of embedded chambers (‘inside the forest … soon they reached a courtyard … following him [further inside] they found themselves in a wide hall [with a] hole above it … and came through another, smaller door’ [151]), and who keeps ‘hives and hives of angry bees’ (and what are hives if not archetypal matrices of holey-space?).  Beorn himself is a shape-shifter, and shifts from time to time into a giant bear.  That is to say, rather as Bilbo’s pocket contains within its humble lining something of enormous magical power, so Beorn contains within his human-seeming skin a much larger magical entity.  When they first meet him the bear is, as it were, hidden inside the man.

Bilbo and the dwarves pass into Mirkwood, a forest-space that is consistently described in terms of subterranean hollowness: ‘the entrance to the path was like a sort of arch leading into a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together … soon the light at the gate was like a little bright hole far behind …’ [174].  They pass through the various perilous cells of this topography until they are captured by wood-elves, who themselves inhabit ‘a great cave, from which countless smaller ones opened out on every side.’ The dwarves are imprisoned ‘in inmost caves’ and ‘dungeons’.  Bilbo uses the magic ring to evade capture, and gets his friends free by hiding them in wooden barrels, holey-spaces that can be floated down the river.  Finally the book takes us to another mountain interpenetrated with caves, holes, crawl-spaces, corridors and hollownesses: the lonely mountain.

In describing these things as ‘holey-spaces’ I am of course invoking Deleuze/Guattarian espace troué, from 1980’s Mille Plateaux [A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (translated by Brian Massumi, London: Continuum 2004)].  ‘Transpierce the mountains instead of scaling them!’ D-G insist, in Hobbity mode [456].  And what of the one-ring, the product of a great agent of evil (Sauron) who is also, as the physical expression of his evil, a metallurgist, a smith, forging many rings as well as the one ring and disseminating them through the land to effect his control?  The one ring is, in Tolkien’s mythology, an externalisation of sin, the sign of Cain, and wholly holey:

The sign of Cain is the corporeal and affective sign of the subsoil, passing through both the striated space of sedentary space and the nomadic ground (sol) of smooth space, without stopping at either one, the vagabond sign of itinerancy, the double-theft and double betrayal of the metallurgist …[Deleuze/Guattari 456]

What is Baggins if not a double-thief (stealing both from subterranean Gollum and subterranean Smaug); and what The Hobbit if not the narrative of a progress from the striated space of the Shire to the nomadic holey-space of the subsequent territory?  And what is holey-space?

The ‘third space’ of the machinic phylum (of matter-flow), inhabited by itinerant metallurgists, and by extension the ‘underground’ space that can connect with smooth space and be conjugated by striated space (Thousand Plateaus, 415).  Holey-space is the subsoil space of ‘swiss cheese’ (413) that bypasses both the ground [sol] of nomadic smooth space and the land [terre] of sedentary striated space (414).  In this bypassing, holey-space is suspect: for Deleuze/Guattari the mark of Cain is not the Biblical mark of the soil, but a mark of the subsoil [sous-sol] (414), since holey space is conceived of by surface dwellers as created by theft and betrayal.  [Mark Bonta and John Protevi, Deleuze and geophilosophy (Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 95]

This is to go some way towards addressing the curious features of the landscape of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.  So, in The Hobbit the journey from the shire to the Lonely Mountain is enormously laborious and dangerous, takes a long time and involves all manner of obstacles to be overcome (or undercome).  But the journey back happens in a few pages, despite the fact that on this return leg Bilbo must move not only himself but a large supply of precious metals.  It does not address matters to say (within, as it were, the logic of the narrative frame) ‘nothing of interest happens on the return journey, therefore it is not worthy of narration.’ The book is called There and Back Again, after all, and the core narrative logic of the whole is that travel—the quest, ‘adventures’—is a high-friction, high intensity process.  The effect of shortcutting the return is to create a kind of narrative topography of tremendous flexibility: the space of the novel is hugely elastic, such that A to B is very long and knotty, where B to A is very short and smooth.

This is part of a core spatial logic in the text, a developed and focussed fairy-tale logic of scale that construes The Hobbit as a novel.  Big things are made small—the protagonist, after all, is a full grown adult (with his own house, his pipe and his middle-aged inertia) who is not only child-sized but infantiform in various ways: his love of food and drink, his lack of a sexual dimension, his love of play, from riddles, climbing, hiding and so on.  This deliberately miniaturised hero is surrounded by a troop of dwarves, also (of course) diminutive, although rather bigger than hobbits.  Their encounter with the goblins in the misty mountains is liable to surprise readers familiar with the towering seven-foot ‘orcs’ of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, a surprise enhanced by Tolkien’s rhetorical strategy of emphasising precisely their great size:

Out jumped the goblins, big goblins, great ugly-looking goblins, lots of goblins, before you could say rocks and blocks.  There were six to each dwarf, at least, and two even for Bilbo. [The Hobbit, 80]

The goblins, in other words, are half-hobbit-size (and one-sixth-dwarf).  There is, of course, a level on which this studied diminution of scale is appropriate in a children’s novel, the readers of which are liable to be smaller, and to be interested in a smaller-being’s perspective of the world.  Alongside the description of things that we might think of as fairly big in terms of the small, the novel is full of things that we think of as small rendered on a very large scale: the spiders in Mirkwood are colossal; the eagles are large enough to carry a man; the wolves are big as horses and so on.  This reaches a climax with the very large scale of the dragon at the end, and the supersized war (a battle not of two armies, as is usual, but five armies).  Again, as with (say) Alice in Wonderland there are practical reasons why a children’s novel might be interested in dramatising surprising and lurching shifts of scale—for this is, of course, children’s perspective on the world.  But I would say there is something more going on here.

There are other senses in which ‘landscape’ in Middle Earth has strange qualities.  It is protean—The Silmarillion describes the history behind The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings; but the map included in the volume is, disorientingly, of a completely different landscape.  Sometimes water in Middle Earth facilitates travel (think of the ease with which the Fellowship of the Ring pass from Lothlorien down the river); sometimes it places an absolute barrier to travel (as between the western coastline and the lands over the ocean).  But of course I’m not talking of only a geographical surface logic; the symbolism of ‘land’ in the novels in interesting in various ways.  Lord of the Rings describes an international war; yet where actual historical experience is that war is generally fought for territorial gain—to conquer and subdue land—the war of the ring seems to float free of such ends.  It is true, of course, that victory for Sauron is supposed to be followed by his domination of the whole of middle earth: but he does not prosecute his war as wars are usually prosecuted—by invading and subduing territories one after the other.  Rather everything depends upon one large set-piece battle, by which everything stands or falls.  More, hostility between Rohan and Gondor has not lead to the latter invading and occupying the former.  Land is, on the one hand, presented as something improbably stable; just as—on the other—it is presented as extraordinarily mobile and fluid (the very forests do not stay in one place, but are liable to up and march off).

How does this holey-space, this Middle Earth so ubiquitously interpenetrated by holes from the size of pockets, barrels and hobbit-holes to the size of vast subterranean caverns, underground palaces and kingdoms, its barrows and dells, its Moria and Balrog-nests, its Helm’s deeps mounatin cities, its forests and marshes, its ‘paths of the dead’ and its Shelob-lairs—how does this holey-space operate, in the larger sense, semiologically?  To ask this question is, I think, to ask something crucial about Tolkien’s subcreation.  I’ll once again quote Mark Bonta and John Protevi, on Deleuzian geophilosophy:

The previously positive relation of holey and smooth space has turned around, however, now that States are able to create a smooth space of surveillance and global military intervention.  Holey spaces have flourished, for the only way to escape the spying eyes of State intelligence is to go underground: ‘Do not new smooth spaces, or holey spaces, arise as parries even in relation to the smooth space of a worldwide organisation? Virilio invokes the beginning of subterranean habitation in the “mineral layer” which can take on very diverse values (Thousand Plateaus, 480; emphasis added) [Bonta and Protevi, 95-6]

Bonta and Protevi go on to make a number of contemporary geopolitical connections—from the tunnels of the Vietcong to the pos-9/11 war launched against the ‘holey-spaces’ of Afghanistan’s Al-Qaeda cave network, adding that ‘the bunkers and tunnels of the American establishment’ pretend to be exempt from suspicion, although ‘a study of the paranoid tunnelling in Cold War suburban backyards to create “fallout shelters” would yield yet another aspect of the interrelations of smooth, striated and holey spaces, as would the innumerable urban legends concerning sewers, subway tunnels and the like’ [96]. 

They also note that ‘cyberspace and forest space may also be seen as holey spaces rather than smooth spaces in that they provide protective cover for “underground” operations’; a perhaps counterintuitive connection (forests, internet) that put me in mind of, simultaneously, wood elves secreted from the larger dangers of Sauron’s power and Tolkien fans staging guerrilla interventions and reappropriations of the textual universe they love against the surveillant and active central power of Tolkien’s copyright-holders, who are notoriously hostile to what they see as infringement of their property.

This is to say, then, that the topography of Tolkien’s Middle Earth operates in thoroughgoing, even a defining, dynamic between unitary panoptic surveillance and the holey-space ‘underground’ evasion of that surveillance.  This, of course, is not a new position:  Jane Chance’s Foucauldian reading of Lord of the Rings in terms of power, knowledge and surveillance is only one of several critical interventions that explore this feature of the book.  [Jane Chance, The Lord of the Rings: the Mythology of Power (2nd ed., University Press of Kentucky, 2001)].  But one effect of such a reader is to focus attention away from questions of invisibility as such [see for instance Robert Eaglestone, ‘Invisibility’, in Eaglestone (ed), Reading The lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkien’s Classic (Continuum, 2006), 73-84]—and towards an understanding of the way these books articulate their dynamic precisely in terms of their landscape and topography.  This is the core logic of Tolkien’s ‘worldbuilding’: for despite his Catholic-conservative reputation, his is a guerrilla aesthetic.  Hobbits and dwarves—allies in The Hobbit—are delvers, aware of the logic of the universe in which they find themselves.  To quote Deleuze’s famous words from The Fold: ‘Matter thus offers an infinitely porous, spongy, or cavernous texture without emptiness, caverns endlessly contained in other caverns: no matter how small, each body contains a world pierced with irregular passages … ’

We could map a reading of Lord of the Rings that renders the novels in terms of those moments when key characters learn this core, holey truth of the world they inhabit (a truth we can take hobbits, and dwarfs, and even orcs as already grasping): Gandalf only fulfils his potential when he falls at Khazad-dûm, and is compelled to fight his way through a vast network of subterranean caverns, corridors, shafts and ways.  From this he returns as Gandalf the White, re-energised and more fully wise about his world.  Aragorn, likewise, can only fulfil his detsiny after passing through the subterranean paths of the dead; and Sam’s brief experience as ringbearer happens in the holey-spaces of the mountains of shadow.  Evil lurks in holes, from the barrow wight to Saruman, inside his tower; but at the same time the agents of good must make the fullest of holey spaces to be able to negotiate the devastating panoptic power with which they are in contention.  This, in other words, is the very stuff of Middle Earth itself: an endless, embedded space of holes, gaps, valleys, caches, absences, caverns and hollownesses that is shaped by the a conflicted ontology in turn determined by the dialectic of surveillance (the novelist’s allseeing eye) and the escape from surveillance—the transporting enchantment, the dream of escape, the road going ever on, that has so much to do with these novels’ enduring appeal to do many readers.
___


Comments

"Out jumped the goblins, big goblins, great ugly-looking goblins, lots of goblins, before you could say rocks and blocks.  There were six to each dwarf, at least, and two even for Bilbo. [The Hobbit, 80]

The goblins, in other words, are half-hobbit-size (and one-sixth-dwarf).”

Preetty sure you’ve misread this passage. He means there were lots of goblins.

By David Weman on 06/13/09 at 09:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

IE, six could attack each dwarf, and two would still be left to attack the less formidable Bilbo.

IIRC, hobbits and dwarves were the same length.

By David Weman on 06/13/09 at 09:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Navigating the holey-space beneath the mountains brings Bilbo to Gollum, and it is in this space that the two engage in an unwitting battle of wits—unwitting in the sense that (as LotR makes plain) upon the result, and the ownership of the ring, depends the entire fate of Middle Earth.

This isn’t quite right-- when the book was first written, nothing much depended on the battle of wits.

Riddles in the Dark was recast after the LOTR books were written, and portions of the Hobbit were changed to reflect the new and more important status of the scene. But originally it was just a chance meeting between two characters (who, if I remember correctly, actually ended up parting on good terms).

By on 06/13/09 at 10:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmm: interesting.  Or maybe it means that a dwarf are three times as fierce as a hobbit, irrespective of size ... after all, it might well take two policeman to subdue one (equally sized) protester.

Still: they are all small, that’s the main thing.

By Adam Roberts on 06/13/09 at 11:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

’...that a dwarf is three times as fierce ...’

Prof. JRRT would be horrified.

By Adam Roberts on 06/13/09 at 11:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with David Weman about the goblin-passage.  I read it as saying that the party was highly outnumbered, by foes of probably roughly equal size.

The bit that Cruss brings up is interesting, about the Riddles passage being rewritten.  But I don’t see why the original version of the passage (or, indeed, the author’s intention) should necessarily bear on an interpretation of the passage.  There’s a lot about The Hobbit that is incomprehensible unless you know that it’s a children’s book later uneasily grafted onto a much longer adult fantasy, but once the graft has taken place, it creates its own interpretations.

How did you possibly get this to be written by so many people?  From the alphabetical listing of names, I suspect (without Googling anyone) that this is Adam and his students.  How did that go?  It’s a good paper, though I suspect that most academic writers would have been content to try to dazzle with mentions of Deleuze/Guattari and not really spell out what they mean, so it lacks a certain kind of authentic stupidity.

Also, talking about holeyness and surveillance might be a good reason to bring in Temporary Autonomous Zones.  LOTR lacks such, doesn’t it?  It may have a guerilla aesthetic, but it also seems to very much have a sense that there is a proper place for everyone.  Its holes are not really semipermanent mixing-points, they are passages through which people pass, but really proper dwelling places for hobbits, dwarves, or monsters.  When the dragon takes over the dwarf mine, or the Balrog, there isn’t some kind of uneasy sharing or mixing—dwarf refugees staying behind, orc captives being taken along, dwarves being recruited to work in a monster-controlled mine—one just displaces the other.

By on 06/14/09 at 01:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I don’t know as much Hakim Bey as I ought: but hasn;t he modified the Temporary Autonomous Zones idea with a Permanent Autonomous Zones concept?  This latter describes Middle Earth pretty well, at least before the King actually returns, right at the end—although of course there’s a right-wing libertarian version of this idea as well as an left-anarchist version, and of course it’s likely Tolkien’s version leans towards that.

How did you possibly get this to be written by so many people?  From the alphabetical listing of names, I suspect (without Googling anyone) that this is Adam and his students.  How did that go?

Last week myself and two other professors taught a Science Fiction/Fantasy Criticism Masterclass at Liverpool University: this thing in fact.  It was fun.  Each session was three hours long, and in the last one I taught, on the Friday, we picked a text everyone in the class happened to have read (harder to find one than I thought it would be, actually) and group-extemporised a paper.  I wrote up our lucubrations, and here it is.

By Adam Roberts on 06/15/09 at 06:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"This isn’t quite right-- when the book was first written, nothing much depended on the battle of wits.”

It raises an interesting question, doesn’t it?  How does one read such a text?  I teach The Hobbit in a high school science fiction and fantasy course, and many of my students often get so caught up making connections between The Hobbit and LotR that they stop seeing the former for the cohesive text that it is (even if it was later revised to fit the whole sub-creation).  There are two ways (at least) to read this text: in isolation, or intertextually with the larger LotR, which exerts such a gravitational pull on so many critics.

I happen to think that Roberts et. al. have done a good job of balancing both types of readings here (examining how the smaller novel is constructed as a whole, and how it resonates with the larger Tolkien mythos), which is to say I don’t think “This isn’t quite right--when the book was first written...” is a particuarly effective or productive critique.

Although it does raise an interesting question: if one wishes to analyze TH in isolation, ought it be done with the original, unrevised text, or is Tolkien’s post-LotR revision the authoritative version?  For that matter, ought TH be read in isolation at all, or must one read it in context with the other Middle-earth texts?

By on 06/15/09 at 09:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Still: they are all small, that’s the main thing.

No, they’re not. They’re described as “big goblins, great ugly-looking goblins”. They carry Bilbo and the others without much trouble. Everything in the text suggests that they are larger than Bilbo, and probably larger than the dwarves too.  The passage means that they were outnumbered, nothing more.

The suggestion that they are a sixth of the size of the dwarves - which would make them, what, eight or ten inches high? - is simply ludicrous. ("Dwarves! Horrible dwarves! Quick, bite their knees!") This is Middle-Earth, not Lilliput, guys. Come on. Pay attention.

It’s not even consistent. The (many) authors go on to suggest that the book involves wolves as big as horses. Presumably this is because they are ridden by goblins. But they’ve already asserted that the goblins are ridiculously tiny! The pocket-size goblins that the authors seem to believe in could easily ride on normal-size wolves - or, for that matter, on Jack Russell terriers.

Lord of the Rings describes an international war; yet where actual historical experience is that war is generally fought for territorial gain—to conquer and subdue land—the war of the ring seems to float free of such ends.  It is true, of course, that victory for Sauron is supposed to be followed by his domination of the whole of middle earth: but he does not prosecute his war as wars are usually prosecuted—by invading and subduing territories one after the other.  Rather everything depends upon one large set-piece battle, by which everything stands or falls.

This is rubbish as well.

More, hostility between Rohan and Gondor has not lead to the latter invading and occupying the former.

Well, most “hostility” doesn’t include a treaty of mutual defence.

By on 06/15/09 at 10:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Evil lurks in holes, from the barrow wight to Saruman, inside his tower;

A tower isn’t a hole. It’s the opposite of a hole. It’s a bit of something stuck into the middle of a lot of nothing, while a hole is a bit of nothing stuck into the middle of a lot of something.

By on 06/15/09 at 10:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

”...rubbish...”

Well, that’s us told.

OK: Goblins.  The consensus is that the goblins are dwarf-sized, and I can see the logic.  Nevertheless the thing about ‘big goblins’ (’... big goblins, great ugly-looking goblins, lots of goblins ...) is that ‘big’ is a relative term.  The passage could mean ‘big for goblins, which everybody knows are usually fairly diminutive.’ I challenge the assertion that ‘everything in the text suggests that they are larger than Bilbo, and probably larger than the dwarves too’ (everything?) and I’d stick my initial reading of the passage to the extent that ‘big goblins, great ugly-looking goblins, lots of goblins’ does not mean the same thing as ‘fierce goblins, bold ugly-looking goblins, lots of goblins...’ although that’s how the thread here prefers to read it.  More, I’d suggest that a sentence about their size, followed by a sentence about how many goblins it took to grab the dwarves and Bilbo, suggests that it is size that is the determinant.

The suggestion that they are a sixth of the size of the dwarves - which would make them, what, eight or ten inches high? - is simply ludicrous.

A sixth of the height of dwarves would make them ten inches high, yes.  But that’s not what I suggested.  Say a four-and-a-half foot tall dwarf weighs 70 kilos (they’re stocky, and muscular, after all).  A being one sixth the size might weight 12-15 kilos, and since goblins are notoriously skinny, could be three-and-a-half to four feet tall.

A tower isn’t a hole. It’s the opposite of a hole. It’s a bit of something stuck into the middle of a lot of nothing, while a hole is a bit of nothing stuck into the middle of a lot of something.

The salient in the phrase “Saruman, inside his tower” is the “inside”. Saruman hides inside his tower, where nobody can get at him.  The tower is a prominence, but Saurman himself is not a prominence.  He is hidden, cached, in the holey rooms of his fastness, inside.  Did I mention that he was inside?

I can see that you’re not persuaded that the topography of Middle Earth is a holey-space; and maybe you’re right not to be convinced.  But these examples don’t really support that counter-argument.

Come on. Pay attention.

Good advice.

It’s not even consistent. The (many) authors go on to suggest that the book involves wolves as big as horses. Presumably this is because they are ridden by goblins. But they’ve already asserted that the goblins are ridiculously tiny! The pocket-size goblins that the authors seem to believe in could easily ride on normal-size wolves - or, for that matter, on Jack Russell terriers.

This part, at least, is quite right.  Although on the other hand, the accusation of inconsistency is rather tangled up in its own, um, inconsistency.  Because if the goblins are as large as ajay insists, then the wolves than carry them must be correspondingly large also ...

By Adam Roberts on 06/15/09 at 05:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wonder if Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches in WWI had any influence on his later depiction of landscapes full of subterranean spaces?

By on 06/15/09 at 07:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A being one sixth the size might weigh 12-15 kilos, and since goblins are notoriously skinny, could be three-and-a-half to four feet tall.

And about three inches thick. Basically a sort of pipecleaner or hatstand in big iron boots.

I can see that you’re not persuaded that the topography of Middle Earth is a holey-space; and maybe you’re right not to be convinced.

Actually, I rather liked the general approach of the paper - I’d never thought of the degree to which the books are set in a “holey-space”, but I’d say that’s a very good point. The Lord of the Rings is also full of more examples than you had space to cite: the overgrown and overhanging gully in the Old Forest that leads the party down to Old Man Willow; Old Man Willow himself; if not Orthanc itself, then the tunnels beneath it, and the burrowed rooms in the walls of Isengard where the kidnapped hobbits find sanctuary; even Rivendell, perhaps, deep in its hidden valley. Not to mention that the worst parts of the journey are often in clearly hole-free country. The desert plains inside Mordor, say, or the Dead Marshes. You can’t dig holes to hide in if you’re in a marsh, because they fill up with water, as Tolkien was bitterly aware from personal experience.

And that’s another interesting point: how much is this imaginary landscape the result of Tolkien’s own years in a holey-space where to be outside one’s hole, and exposed to hostile view, meant instant death?

I would say, though

a) I think it’s stretching it a bit to say that Orthanc counts as a hole - because then you have to include every other character who lives in any kind of building, and I think that proves rather too much. (Beorn? Edoras? Minas Tirith? Barad-Dur?) Surely the essence of a hole is concealment and protection? The essence of a tower is visible strength and observation.

b) The point about continual surveillance is a good one, but remember that it only applies to Lord of the Rings, not to the Hobbit - there’s no Eye of Sauron in the Hobbit.

By on 06/16/09 at 04:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"And about three inches thick. Basically a sort of pipecleaner or hatstand in big iron boots.”

Yeah, that sounds right.  Three-and-a-half to four feet tall, 12-15 kilos: pretty much the dimensions of my seven-year-old daughter.  The only thing preventing her from looking like a sort of pipecleaner or hatstand in big iron boots is that she would never wear big iron boots.  Unless the iron was pink.

Surely the essence of a hole is concealment and protection?

I agree.  I’m surprised you don’t agree that concealment and protection are precisely what Orthanc offers Saruman.  Not even the Ents can winkle him out.

...there’s no Eye of Sauron in the Hobbit

Quite right, and a good point.  There is the eye of the author-narrator, though; and one of us (in the seminar, I mean; Stefan if you must have names) pointed out how different in tone the naratorial voice of The Hobbit is to LotR, in terms of its cosy interventionist discursiveness. (eg in the riddles chapter: ‘I imagine you know the answer, of course, since you are sitting comfortably at home and have not the danger of being eaten to disturb your thinking.  But poor Bilbo etc.’ .. there’s lots of stuff like that).  This in turn connects the novel with a kind of cosy nineteenth-century bourgeois omniscient narrative idiom (’reader I married him’), which I’d be tempted to read via Miller’s The Novel and the Police as being, actually, about the problematic of the panoptic surveillant ideological drive for social control.  But I’ll stop before I become too abstruse and oblique.

Your point (and h. goldsmith’s too) about the trenches is a good one.

By Adam Roberts on 06/16/09 at 06:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If your seven-year-old daughter weighs 12-15 kilos, then you should seek urgent medical attention for her. Alternatively, you are living on Mars, in which case her weight is perfectly normal. But her mass should be double that. :)

As for Orthanc - it offers protection (just as Barad Dur and Minas Tirith do) but it doesn’t really offer any concealment, though, does it? Everyone for miles around knows where it is and they know Saruman lives there. It’s not a refuge, it’s a regional stronghold, a base for power projection, to use the jargon of fortification.

You could divide the space of Middle Earth rather neatly into the open battlespace - which is dominated simply by superior organised force (good or evil): Nazgul, tall towers (one entire book is called “The Two Towers”, for heaven’s sake), cavalry, oliphaunts, massed armies and so on - and holey-ground, the complex urban/jungle/cave system battlespace, which is used by the weak to avoid detection, but contains its own less organised threats such as wights, Old Man Willow, fire, flood etc.
And surviving and succeeding in the complex battlespace requires knowledge and negotiation as well as force - Bilbo and Gollum being the best example.
Basically, it’s Rupert Smith’s “traditional war/war among the people” division.

By on 06/16/09 at 08:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t read “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun” yet, but reading some reviews of it online, I wonder: is there any evidence that Tolkien’s “holey” spaces were inspired by similar spaces in Norse, Anglo-Saxon, or Icelandic literature?  (It wouldn’t be surprising, but it would certainly be interesting to see how such spaces might have been construed in Northern legend, and how Tolkien in turn construed such spaces in his translations of those poems).

By on 06/16/09 at 08:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"...it doesn’t really offer any concealment, though, does it? Everyone for miles around knows where it is and they know Saruman lives there. It’s not a refuge, it’s a regional stronghold

I hate myself for not letting this go, and I hate you for provoking the pedantic little nerd inside my head, but: it’s a regional stronghold and a refuge, surely.  The fact that everybody knows where it is doesn’t prevent it being a place in which Saruman can hide very effectively; just as the fact that the US knows where the Tora Bora network is didn’t stop Bin Laden hiding in it very well indeed.

Alternatively, you are living on Mars...

We are the answer to a David Bowie song.

Terry: that’s a very interesting question you ask there.  My initial reaction would be: not so much as The Hobbit/LotR, by a large margin (there are some caves etc., but not many) although maybe that’s quite wrong.

By Adam Roberts on 06/16/09 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My completely amateur impression of the Icelandic sagas (of which I’ve read maybe six, in translation), is not one of holey spaces at all.  On the contrary, in fact.  It’s possible, in them, to go sea-roving, but that feels very different than holes to me, which after all have approximate locations.  And the Icelanders on land seem very, very exposed.  Everyone knows where everyone lives, and there is no hiding when the retaliation for the last batch of retaliation comes around.  People try to hide out in their houses, but their wife refuses to supply them with the hair they need for a bowstring, or their house gets burned.

By on 06/16/09 at 03:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting stuff!

On “holey” spaces in OE/ON literature--

There’s a memorable sequence in Beowulf where the hero goes down underwater to fight Grendel’s mom (a.k.a. Angelina Jolie, according to the recentish movie). That seems like holey-space. And there’s a parallel passage in Grettir’s Saga (which Tolkien must have known about) where Grettir fights a troll-wife who comes up out of the water, and Grettir later swims down under the water and fights a fiery giant in a cave he finds there.

By James Enge on 06/16/09 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thinking of Beowulf, there’s also Herot, which is quite an inadequate “holey” space against Grendel (but an effective one at driving out the dark and the cold, no?).  I seem to recall a metaphor somewhere in the OE canon that describes life as the flight of a sparrow through the mead hall. 

The concept of “midgard” might be an interesting one, too, in this context… a kind of hole carved out of the surrounding cosmic chaos for man to dwell in?  Interestingly enough, Tolkien’s own Middle-earth always struck me as quite different, possibly because there seems to be little focus on the heavens and the underworld as places for the divine; rather, the divine forces of that world dwell in the “West,” while the “heavens” and “underworld,” populated by the gods in other traditions, esp. Greco-Roman (and maybe to a lesser extent in OE/ON), are quite (Middle-)earthly in Tolkien… eagles (and towers?) in the sky, goblins below ground, and so forth.

Pardon my musings if they’ve lost coherence!  This Hobbit-holey-space has got my wheels turning.

By on 06/16/09 at 10:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I hate myself for not letting this go, and I hate you for provoking the pedantic little nerd inside my head

“You see, Frodo, he hated and loved pedantry as he hated and loved himself. Pedantry had become part of him, and over the long course of the years, it had consumed him.”

I think we’re just quibbling over definitions now, to be honest, so I’ll let it go.

By on 06/17/09 at 05:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ajayses! We hates it! We hates it forever!

By Adam Roberts on 06/17/09 at 09:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I wish you’d become a pedant, Mr Gandalf. You’d put right all those people who are wrong on the Internet.”

“I would indeed. That would be how it would start. But it would not stop at that for long, alas.”

By on 06/17/09 at 10:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There are a lot of Anglo-Saxon barrows in the British Isles, and a lot of old folklore surrounding the barrows. Beowulf, Gawain and the Green Knight, and Anglo-Saxon mythic narrative in general use these barrows. Beowulf’s dragon is under one, and the Green Chapel is one.

A barrow is a tomb. Dudes, the holey space in Tolkien is first and foremost using these mythic tomb-spaces. It may be all the other stuff the article finds, but it seems wrong not to acknowledge the most obvious symbol and literary allusion first.

By on 06/21/09 at 12:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael Chabon, in The New York Review of Books:

Most great stories of adventure, from The Hobbit to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, come furnished with a map. That’s because every story of adventure is in part the story of a landscape, of the interrelationship between human beings (or Hobbits, as the case may be) and topography. Every adventure story is conceivable only with reference to the particular set of geographical features that in each case sets the course, literally, of the tale. But I think there is another, deeper reason for the reliable presence of maps in the pages, or on the endpapers, of an adventure story, whether that story is imaginatively or factually true. We have this idea of armchair traveling, of the reader who seeks in the pages of a ripping yarn or a memoir of polar exploration the kind of heroism and danger, in unknown, half-legendary lands, that he or she could never hope to find in life.

By Bill Benzon on 07/02/09 at 09:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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