A Grammatical Journey down the Hobbit Hole

Grammar/Editing/Rhetorical Analysis & Interpretation

By Amelia Turkette
March, 2019

Written by the linguist J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: There & Back Again is picturesque in its simplicity. While appealing to an audience of middle-grade readers and setting the foundation for more mature novels to come, Tolkien managed to expertly capture emotions and even play with grammatical rules. In particular, he used the grammatical concepts of rhythm, repetition, and word-function to highlight the personality of his characters, set the tone of each scene, and emphasize specific concepts. These techniques elevate the prose beyond a mere narrative to a complex genre-experience. By picking apart the grammar of this wordsmith, one can discover how the rhythm of phrases, the twist of a preposition functioning as an adverb, the repetition of adjectives, and even the momentum of a series of infinitives, can propel the reader forward into an adventurous tale that resonates. 

The first pages of The Hobbit contain information about who the Hobbits are (an agricultural people who love the comforts of home and their furry feet), so I began my analysis on page 3, where Bilbo’s peaceful existence is shattered by the approach of a particularly disruptive wizard.

“By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reach nearly down to his woolly toes (neatly brushed)—Gandalf came by.” (Tolkien 1986, 3)

This 59-word sentence is the longest one within the section I analyzed. If one were to view this scene visually, it would pass by within a matter of seconds. But in written form, Tolkien takes his time and allows the reader to settle into a cozy scene of a “morning long ago in the quiet of the world”. On this fine day, long ago, “there was less noise and more green.” Could this day get any better? The lingering repetition of adjectives paints a picture of peaceful perfection. The ongoing rhythm of the sentence is propelled by the nested clauses and coordinating conjunctions. It expresses to the reader the harmony of a lazy day. One of those days where you might start talking, before you really think about what you’re saying and, before you know it, every sentence runs on and on…. only the occasional comma breaking your stride. Time enough to enjoy a favorite pastime (in this case, a pipe) and revel in your good hair day (or “woolly toes”). All’s right with the world and then… EM DASH… “Gandalf came by” (Tolkien 1986, 3). Cue foreboding music.

In a piece with an average sentence length of 19 words, Tolkien was clearly aware of how the rhythm of this particular section would impact his readers. Whether they liked his long, loping sentence, or fought yawns with every comma, the em dash, combined with the short clause of Proper Noun + Verb + Adverb would certainly = Attention! This ending is abrupt, and yet the entire sentence is cyclical. It begins and ends with the word by. In the beginning, by simply fulfills its form by functioning as the preposition it is. In the end, by the preposition functions as an adverb. Its form changes, similarly to how Bilbo Baggins changes by the end of the story. He begins as a simple hobbit, functioning as hobbits do. By the end of this story, he is still a hobbit, but fulfills the role of burglar during a faceoff with a dragon. The by and by invites the reader, before they are aware of Bilbo’s impending character development, to subconsciously reflect upon the scene and consider the implications of Gandalf’s critical interruption of a fine, green, morning in the quiet of the world.

Bilbo, lulled into complacency by his surroundings, isn’t as suspicious as the readers as at this point. He doesn’t realize that Tolkien has placed a gerund of unsuspecting in front of his name. All he sees is a wizened old man, aptly described in a series adjectival, adverbial, and prepositional phrases. The introduction humorously sets up the dialogue between Gandalf the wizard, and Bilbo the hobbit. On the one hand, you have a tall, old man with a long beard and pointy hat, standing on Bilbo’s porch in “immense black boots.” Opposite him stands Bilbo, smoking a ridiculously long pipe over his bare “wooly toes” (Tolkien 1986, 4). The 17 adjectives in this section strongly contrast and hint at future conflict.

“Good Morning!” exclaims Bilbo, in the present absurdity of Gandalf’s arrival. This is followed by a repetitive description of the day. “The sun was shining, and the grass was very green” (Tolkien 1986, 4).  Why would Tolkien repeat this phrase? We already know that grass is green and it was already written that, “there was less noise and more green” (Tolkien 1986, 3). What is the point of emphasizing green? In the first case, green was presented as a noun—the name of the color.  In the second use, green is used as an adjective. By now, the reader has been presented with 6 colors as adjectives in the text (green, blue, grey, silver, white, black). Green is the only one which was used twice, with two different functions. I believe Tolkien is emphasizing this adjective to impress the reader with the agricultural sanctuary surrounding Bilbo’s home. Although the reader doesn’t know it yet, Bilbo will end up in places that are scorched, barren, and dark. The darker colors are reflected in Gandalf’s garb, which is appropriate since he’s traveled through the dark places of Middle Earth; places which have not tainted the green goodness of the Shire. Tolkien wants the reader to remember the Shire as the story continues, Hence, the repetition of green.

The next case of repetition takes place within the dialogue, and is much less subtle. As Bilbo wishes Gandalf a good morning, Gandalf is not quick to accept the passing pleasantry. Instead, he breaks into Bilbo’s relaxed state-of-mind with a series of questions.

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?” (Tolkien 1986, 4)

For anyone, this would be an abrasive response to a casual, “Good Morning.” Even with the concept of morning pleasantries, Gandalf is pushing Bilbo to think critically by setting up a series of questions for Bilbo to compare; as the or conjunctions imply. He also repeats the noun morning. He takes something that Bilbo is familiar with, (a common pleasantry) and encourages him to think about it in different ways. Gandalf next introduces the first infinitive verb phrase, to be. This is significant, as infinitive phrases introduce potential. They are present, active, and hint at current development.

Does Bilbo take the hint? No. Rather, he dodges with a duo of prepositional phrases.  “All of them at once,” said Bilbo.” He then launches into a verbal celebration of all that exists, in that very moment, that he has. His first sentence doesn’t even contain a verb, rather, the verb is implied. “And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain.” This emphasizes Bilbo’s lack of action, for he is not a hobbit of action. He is content to sit by his hobbit hole and, in a paragraph full of prepositional phrases, blow a “beautiful grey ring of smoke” over The Hill. He encourages Gandalf to do the same. Instead, Gandalf responds with a series of infinitives that feel very active in contrast to Bilbo’s lackadaisical phrases. Gandalf appears in a present attitude of searching.  “I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning. I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” (Tolkien 1986, 4)

As a whole, this quippy dialogue and rhythmic narrative well represents Tolkien’s style, and his purpose for the story. The personality contrast between Gandalf and Bilbo is established directly in the grammar itself, and this sets the stage for future character development. Whether the reader is aware, or not, they are being encouraged to think critically and consider the themes Tolkien is emphasizing. Each word adds up to a memorable scene which celebrates the peacefulness of sanctuary and the epic nature of adventures that will take place when Bilbo goes there and back again.

Tolkien, J.R.R. 1986. The Hobbit or There and Back Again. Revised Edition, New York: Ballantine Books.