August 12, 2010

The Hobbit

What I'm Reading Today:  The first couple of pages of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

The past is another country, they say.  I was thinking about this, and I thought since I'm working on historical fiction I would read a little scifi/fantasy to see about world-building.  And of course, who doesn't love The Hobbit?!  How can you not just be swept away by it?  Here's how it begins.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tubeshaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats - the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill - The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it - and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours' respect, but he gained- well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

The mother of our particular hobbit ... what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be at in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it). Now you know enough to go on with. As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit - of Bilbo Baggins, that is - was the fabulous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, head of the hobbits who lived across The Water, the small river that ran at the foot of The Hill. It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them, - and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer. Not that Belladonna Took ever had any adventures after she became Mrs. Bungo Baggins. Bungo, that was Bilbo's father, built the most luxurious hobbit-hole for her (and partly with her money) that was to be found either under The Hill or over The Hill or across The Water, and there they remained to the end of their days. Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his makeup from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out. The chance never arrived, until Bilbo Baggins was grown up, being about fifty years old or so, and living in the beautiful hobbit-hole built by his father, which I have just described for you, until he had in fact apparently settled down immovably.

Questions of the Day:  Any tips on world building?  Without making a dry boring thing?


Brad Green said...

Precise, realistic details not normally noticed. It works no matter the genre. It's wonderful that the mind will explode one concrete detail in a narrative into a fully realized environment for you. I'd look at Cormac McCarthy for this. People talk about setting being primal in his work, yet he doesn't actually describe many things, but those things he chooses come weighted with other, inferred details.

Tamara said...

Cool! That's especially nice because people tend to forget world-building in non-scifi fiction.

Which Cormac McCarthy would you recommend? I know The Road just grabs you by the, uh, neck and holds you, just by description.

Brad Green said...

For place, Blood Meridian. The landscape is forceful in that book. Also check out Don Merritt's Possessed by Shadows or The Common Bond. He comments on my blog regularly. He has an interesting theory about Geology as Ontology. You can find a post about it here.

Don's books use place very well to establish and convey mood. Possessed by Shadows is my favorite.

Tamara said...

I love how Don explicates that old saw about "place being a character" in a novel. I was thinking as I read it that it's a character ~ it matters ~ because it matters to the protagonist(s). It's a character to her/him, so therefore it's a character.

I have not read Blood Meridian or any of Don's books! I'll check them out. Thanks!

Brad Green said...

Blood Meridian might be a hard one for you. It's the toughest McCarthy to get into because the style is the thickest there. The Road conveys place in a similar, but subdued manner. It's a full-bore assault in Blood Meridian, along with the violence and a lack of plot. Be prepared.

Tamara said...

(Having grown up on a ranch, Blood Meridian may make me feel right at home. :-) )