Mar 29 2009, 5:21pm
A. Is the narrator male or female?
Long story made longer...
I had always considered the narrator to be male, and most likely Tolkien.
B. If the narrator’s personalized comments were eliminated from The Hobbit, would it be a better book?
The narration is rather homely and familiar, and a perfect pairing for a tale told by a grandad with a wink and a nudge.
C. Why do apparent anachronisms in The Hobbit like coffee, the morning post, the mantle clock, and tobacco arouse so many objections from readers? What are they anachronistic in reference to?
Well, we often view The Hobbit in reference to Tolkien's larger mythos; therefore, the anachronisms are more jarring given the descriptions of life and society in the corpus as a whole. The mention of mechanical beasts at the Fall of Gondolin aside, the technology of Middle-earth certainly predates the Renaissance in real-world terms. There is a reliance on chainmail, swords and bows (no crossbows), and the use of gunpowder by Gandalf and Saruman take on sorcerous proportions ('devilry' is a good term). Even Tolkien took measures to reduce the amount of anachronisms when marrying The Hobbit to Middle-earth material, editing out many but obviously forgetting a few. Really, the Shire itself is anachronistic to the rest of Middle-earth -- a squirearchy more relatable to 18th or 19th century England in attitude and operation than the more medieval lands of Gondor and Rohan.
E. Is class a red herring, brought up for the critic’s pleasure but having no relevance to the story as it’s written?
Class is evident in The Hobbit and LotR, but class-consciousness is a modern conception (or at least, politicized to a great extent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). But Tolkien's conservative view of England embraces class distinctions, and such distinctions were readily discernible in the first half of the 20th century, and more accepted in England. In comparison, class is even more pronounced in the works of Dickens or Austen, where a poor or middle-class hero or heroine would never consider pretensions of exceeding their status, or at least they only became successful within the stratified means of society. Class is only a red herring when critics inject a modern and decidedly negative view of the subject where it clearly would not apply.
F. What class was Tolkien? Would he be unconscious or conscious of the question, and his choices about writing it in his fantasies?
Tolkien would have been upper middle-class. He was not knighted in his lifetime, nor did he achieve the fortune that would be deemed necessary to reach the upper strata of British society.
G. Did Tolkien employ household servants? Do you? Is the example of Sam enough to raise the question here, or should we not think about this level of reality in a fantasy story unless the author asks us to?
Yes, Tolkien did have servants, and at least one that I know of in particular. Her name was Arndis but she was known as ‘Adda’ and was a maid for the Tolkiens in the 1930's. The original interview of 'Adda' was published by the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið on February, 28 1999, but I cannot find it on any site on the net. The gist of the interview is as follows (and I thank Lalaith from another Tolkien site for the paraphrasing of the story – the documentation is hers):
‘Adda’, was a doctor’s daughter from the West Fjords, who went to work with the Tolkiens when she was twenty, in 1930. She got the job because the Tolkiens had two mothers' help from Iceland previously, Aslaug and Runa, and Aslaug had been a classmate of Adda’s. Tolkien collected her from Oxford station and greeted her in Icelandic. She then talks about her working conditions – she was meant to be one of the family, but she never had a holiday. The youngest of the children (presumably Priscilla) was in her second year.
She says that the Professor was a really lovely man, very easy and comfortable to be around, he loved nature, trees and everything that grew. The house they had just bought had an asphalt tennis court and the first thing they did was rip it up and put down grass. This is an example of how JRR and Edith hated modern things – another thing they both hated was central heating and boilers.
Edith loved flowers, and not only had splendid flower beds in her new home but kept going back to the old one to get plants. Adda puts this down to English upper class eccentricity – the Tolkiens she says, loved flowers and writing letters. She has lots of letters from them, including decorated Christmas cards from the Tolkien children. The oldest son, Johnny, was now 14 and in the new house he had his own room. The rest (including Adda) kept themselves to the nursery. The lady of the house (Edith) had a difficult nature, she wasn’t sociable and disliked most people. Then Adda talks about how she was meant to come there to learn English and help Tolkien practice Icelandic but Edith got jealous if they talked in a language she didn’t understand. “She was never unkind to me, but she was never a friend either. And she was very over-protective.”
Adda says Oxford was at that time completely class-ridden – professors were a class unto themselves. Edith was also a snob – when the char (cleaning lady) went awol for a fortnight, Edith was furious when Adda decided to wash the doorstep. “You’re one of us, you must never be seen doing work suitable for servants.”
The Tolkiens rarely if ever entertained, and Adda was not impressed with their hospitality...”once a couple who were old friends, just back from many years in India, called round and they hadn't seen them for years, but just gave them tea in the morning room, with only one cake!”
Adda thinks that Tolkien was much more sociable by nature than Edith. She got to know Edith’s lovely old nanny, a Miss Gro (not sure they got this name right) who joked that Edith would always have a migraine whenever there was a university ‘do’. Miss Gro also explained why Edith was so difficult – she blamed their traumatic courtship years. They faced opposition for years and ended up having to practically elope. They had stood firm together against all the odds, even though they may not have had much in common. Adda said Edith spent a lot of time upstairs during the day but didn’t know what she actually did. She was a very promising pianist at the time when she married, had become an organist in a church. There was a parlour in the house which no-one ever went into, there was a piano there but Edith never touched it. None of the children learnt an instrument.
Whenever Tolkien had had a drink or two he was not allowed to sleep in the bedroom, he had to go into the guest room. She couldn’t stand the smell of drink on him. Tolkien was a lovely, comfortable man, didn’t talk much. He always came home to lunch every day, and went into his study after the meal. He would have a bottle of beer and a dry biscuit. Adda was very fond of the children. She took them fishing in a nearby canal, put them in the bath every night and put them to bed, they loved to hear Icelandic folk tales about trolls and such, and often Tolkien would come and listen too. “He took lots of ideas from Icelandic folk stories...and he really believed that all of nature was alive. He lived in a kind of adventure/fantasy world.”
Adda still loves reading the Hobbit (which he started writing at the time she was working for him). Tolkien always wore a tweed jacket and pale grey trousers, but loved to wear colourful waistcoats. And he always wore white tie (tails) at the Oxford dinners. He always wanted to go to Iceland but thought he couldn’t afford it.
Adda eventually left because of the restrictive life she was forced to lead. She got friendly with a girl called Betty, one of Tolkien’s students, who invited her to go punting but Edith never found it convenient to let her go, even on a Sunday. Edith once showed Adda her wardrobe upstairs, it ran along an entire wall and was completely full of clothes. But she never went anywhere at all, except perhaps to the library. She sometimes did go with me and the older boys to a matinee (afternoon theatre performance). The Tolkiens thought the theatre an acceptable leisure activity but hated the cinema, and they really hated the Morris car factory that had been recently opened south of Oxford.
John, at 14, was most like his father. Edith stopped Adda from bathing him. (editor’s note – I should hope so too!) Michael, the next son, was such a beautiful child, that people would stop his mother in the street to admire him. His mother wanted him to be a priest. Christopher was often squabbled over by his parents. He was a rather whiny child, fussy with food. But his father adored him and realised that he needed different handling than the others. Tolkien had started writing the Hobbit while I was there but was really writing it for Christopher, reading him out chapters.
She then says that she had close contact through letters with the family until the war disrupted the correspondence.
H. Is The Hobbit a fairy tale?
Yes, certainly. All the elements are there, either imagined by Tolkien or reworked from previous mythos (right down to borrowing Dwarvish names from the Voluspa). It follows the themes noted by Joseph Campbell quite naturally.
Read the ongoing serialization of MONTY PYTHON'S 'The HOBBIT', found here: