I was not magnificent: The Craft of Imagination in The Hobbit

A song frequently heard from my playlist is Bon Iver’s “Holocene.” It’s one of those rare songs where the music video contributes meaningfully to the song’s poignant call to imagine the holocene – the period of time since the last ice age, 11,700 years, the brief moment in which human history can be found in the vast timeline of the earth.

I recommend listening and watching before reading more.

The chorus runs, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent/Strayed above the highway aisle/(Jagged vacance, thick with ice)/I could see for miles, miles, miles.” In the video we watch a young boy awakening in his small, comfortable, Hobbit-like home, as he prepares to go outside. As he looks out the window, we can see a bird flying past. The boy leaves his modest abode, walking with stick in hand, and the grassy home fades as he encounters the surrounding landscape, the hawk circling overhead.

Imagining for Miles and Miles

Bilbo was no child when the boisterous dwarves came calling at the Unexpected Party, and he was also not, like the child, looking for adventure in wild places. The call to adventure had fallen asleep in him; memories of Gandalf from his childhood stirred those thoughts for a moment as the wizard visits uninvited him on a good morning:

“Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that fastened themselves and never came undone til ordered? Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons? Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those!” (19)

Bilbo quickly remembers his Hobbitish disinterest in such “mad adventures,” though he is too polite to refuse the wizard for tea, and still too polite to question a troop of dwarves inviting themselves as the old man’s plus thirteen. It is really not Gandalf or any argument from the dwarves, I think, which woos Bilbo into the approaching adventure. It’s not the smith-craft of the dwarves, but their song-craft, which resonates with the Hobbit’s Tookish heartstrings:

“And suddenly first one and then another began to sing as they played, deep-throated singing of the dwarves in the deep places of their ancient homes; and this is like a fragment of their song, if it can be like their song without their music” (26).

They sing of mountains, dwarven kings and treasure, elflords and dragons, a lost home and the harps that filled their halls with music. Like the crowns they made that “meshed the light of moon and sun,” the song alloys sadness with beauty, casting a somber light like that from the fireplace to create half-seen wonders in the imaginations of those who will listen:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”

Their song opens his mind to see more, to see further, to stray high above the homely comforts of his hobbit-hole and encounter the magnificence that the world has to offer, and to bear the symbol of encounter with that magnificence, to exchange a sword for a walking-stick.

The Craft of Imagination

This is my third time reading through The Hobbit, and I am struck yet again by Tolkien’s craft of imagination. We may often think of imagination as something that is a given; simply imagine a dragon, a wizard, an elf, a dwarf – it seems easy. But just as our capacity for rational thought or sensory experience gives us the potential for philosophy and science, greater effort is needed to obtain the discipline of the imagination – deep, stirring encounters with transformative beauty. Of what are our imaginations really capable? Tolkien, as he dims the light of our comfortable assumptions at the fireside of his magic song, does not merely present his own craft of imagination, but shares it with us, mentors us, like Gandalf mentors Bilbo and the Dwarves, to let our minds soar.

I think this has something to do with the reason why Eagles and other birds play such an important role in his stories, especially The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which are more pedagogical in their desire to teach readers how to read the story than the more austere Silmarillion legends. It would be easy enough to imagine Eagles meeting Bilbo at his door and sweeping him off to the Lonely Mountain, but to do so would be to miss the texture of Middle-earth and the presence of the Eagles themselves. There is an author mapping the story, but he withdraws from Bilbo at times and lets him think he is alone in the dark, comforted not even by his best companion, his pipe:

“After some time he felt for his pipe. It was not broken, and that was something. Then he felt for his pouch, and there was some tobacco in it, and that was something more. Then he felt for matches and he could not find any at all, and that shattered his hopes completely” (77).

I am more sympathetic to this passage now, as a casual pipe smoker, than I was as a younger, more puritanical sort (no offense meant of course). At other times we see Gandalf, Bilbo, and the Dwarves smoking their pipes; it is a simple form of camaraderie and is a muted way in which Gandalf’s magical abilities can be hinted at without becoming excessively utilitarian. Mere utility quite ruins the fun of magic, and for that matter ruins pipe-smoking: that would be what we call addiction (we’ll speak of the Ring some other time, which is more like an always replenishing pack of Newports – yum). Striking a match just then, as the narrator assures us Bilbo comes to realize, would have been a bad idea in any case. The goblin tunnels are a poor place to show off your ring-blowing skills, even poorer than showing off to Gandalf, and it is a mistake (though one with small consequence in this case) rooted in a failure of imagination.

To Everything There is a Season

Pipe tobacco and Eagles have their place, and it is a poor, uncrafted imagination that seeks to have the pleasure and the majesty of both at all times. “Holocene,” like The Hobbit, uses the passing of seasons to express the texture of our encounter with the small concession Nature, in its sheer presence, makes to our little lives. From Halloween to Christmas human celebrations attempt to pierce the seasons with meaning, and Bilbo’s journey takes a year, though it only takes nine months, from April to December, for his duties as Burglar to become resolved. This seasonal quality to the texture of imagination as it unfolds through story is something lost on the dwarves in the midst of their most grotesque behavior (especially Thorin’s) – their occupation of the hoard under the Lonely Mountain.

When the dwarves first sang their song, it was partly to bring Bilbo into harmony with their intentions, and also to reignite the fellowship that would unite all of them. It’s Springtime (April to be exact), proverbial rather than cliche as a fitting time to recollect their identity and begin the mission. With summer grown old, they sing their song again in Beorn’s hall – somewhat unseasonably, since Beorn seems to find no interest in songs about treasure (127). Whereas the song in Bilbo’s home served as a call to adventure in a place that had little enough of it, Beorn’s home, surrounded by goblin-infested mountains and spider-crawling Mirkwood, needs no such call.

The song related by the narrator is not quite the same, a varied reiteration that reaffirms the journey’s purpose for the dwarves and Bilbo, and which focuses more on the restless wind rather than the dwarven “dungeons deep and caverns old”:

“The wind was on the withered heath…
…It passed the lonely Mountain bare
and swept above the dragon’s lair…
It left the world and took its flight
over the wide seas of the night.
The moon set sail upon the gale
and stars were fanned to leaping light.”

Weary travelers in brief respite meet the wind as fellow traveler as well as a sometimes tiresome obstacle; the wind becomes here a means to imagine a cosmic journey, providing a consoling solidarity moving through Nature itself.

Maturity of Imagination

In the first two songs, the dwarves were more experienced than Bilbo in the world, and their wisdom contained the means to push Bilbo’s imagination past a comfortable place where the best rooms are conveniently always on the left. But by the end, their last song is a deadening of imagination, a conflation of imagination with mere possession of ill-gotten gain:

“Now call we over mountains cold,
‘Come back unto the caverns old’!
Here at the Gates the king awaits,
His hands are rich with gems and gold.” (249)

When the gems and gold were across the Misty Mountains cold, past Mirkwood damp and dangerous, and encrusted under the dragon’s belly, their summons was a summons to poetry and adventure, but as Bilbo recognized, gripped in hand such dragon-tainted treasure meant the narrowing of dwarven imaginations to violence: “But Bilbo’s heart fell, both at the song and the talk: they sounded much too warlike” (249).

Bilbo’s reiterated desire to go home, as each new challenge and even each place of respite, transforms from whine to wisdom in the trying fire that lay out of the frying pan. He had peered from mountain-tops for miles and miles, his imagination had soared, and like the wind could alight but could never rest on mere gold. The gold-gleam was for Bilbo a fuel, not an object, of imagination, and there was its true value. Thorin’s imagination was tied to his own importance from the beginning (as we hear from the narrator even during the Unexpected Party), and so able to ignore a small detail such as he did not slay or even arouse from slumber the dragon who had occupied his hoard. Thorin could not see past his own magnificence, and he could not understand the language of the thrush, only that of the more warlike ravens (though even the old raven proved wiser than a gold-sick Thorin).

Bilbo grew into his imaginative appreciation for things magnificent with the insight that he was himself not. The last song of The Hobbit is the hobbit’s own, about the return to that home he had so longed for and the roads that go between his and all homes, those visited and those not:

“Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at least to home afar.” (284)

Returning from the flights of imagination where we have learned to be passengers to Eagles and conversant with Thrushes, as readers we are left somewhat in Bilbo’s shoes, unable to return to our world without something of elven songs and dwarven chants echoing in our dreams. The easy story of a journey that relied upon Eagle-flight alone would reaffirm the fantasy of our own grandeur, but such vain self-centered fancies blind us to more fulfilling and self-realizing experiences of which our wandering minds can obtain, in higher reaches where songs are carried on the wind.

Instead, through a more profound craft of imagination we are invited to feel that we, our lives, are not magnificent – and what a relief, for the encounter with true magnificence lies out there, if our imaginations are awake enough to thirst for it. Like hobbits, Tolkien reminds his readers of their magnificent smallness to affirm the big wonders that lay in wait down future roads.

As Gandalf said to Bilbo, “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“‘Thank goodness!’ said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar.” (286-87)