Oct 4 2012, 1:25am
Shippey's discussion of the contract uses it as an exemplum of a slightly different but related point. It does come from "The Bourgois Burglar" chapter of The Road to Middle-earth, the main theme of which is the contrast between Bilbo's modern mindset and that of the heroic-age world which he inhabits:
The early moves of The Hobbit depend very much on this tension between ancient and modern reactions. It begins almost as a satire on modern institutions, with Mr. Baggins language particularly taking some shrewd knocks: the more familiar it seems, the more fossilized it is. […] Against this the dwarves' ceremonious style of salutation—'At your service!' 'At yours and your family's' 'May the hair on his toes never fall out!'—may seem pompous and indeed be insincere, but at any rate, it is about something, not just semantically empty. Similarly Bilbo, trying to be business-like, flees to abstractions, only to have the narrator expose them: '"Also I should like to know about risks, out-of-pocket expenses, time required and remunerations, and so forth"—by which he meant: "What am I going to get out of it? And am I going to come back alive?" THorin, though long-winded enough, does not talk about calculations, but things†: the dwarf-song which opens their conclave centres on the misty mountains cold and grim, on harps, necklaces, twisted wire, pale enchanted long-forgotten gold. […] While he focuses on Thorin's preoccupation with solid specifics vs. Bilbo's nebulous nothings, he takes it for granted in the note that the contract is a response to the latter. I, like you, have always assumed that he was poking fun at Bilbo with the language.
†The contract which he finally does deliver on p. 33 is typically more practical than Bilbo at his most business-like had thought. It covers profits, delivery, travelling expenses, but also defrayal of funeral expenses, 'by us or our representatives, if occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for'. This means, 'you or all of us may die, and also be eaten'. [pg. 73 in the 2d ed.]
Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream.