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Old 08-18-2023, 09:37 AM   #1
Arvegil145
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Bilbo: an unreliable narrator?

Where does the idea that Bilbo is an unreliable narrator come from?

Because on the web, more often than not, you'll find people downplaying or outright dismissing many of the weirder scenes in The Hobbit.

Such as, for example:

1) the talking purse and the cockney Trolls (which are, funnily enough, still found in Tolkien's aborted 1960 rewrite of the story - the only substantial deletion in the '60 rewrite is the abandonment of the Narrator)

2) the Giants! Even though Gandalf himself mentions finding a 'more or less decent' Giant to help him close the Goblin trap-door

3) Sassy, singing Elves - again, even though in the LOTR you find both sassy and singing Elves

4) anthropomorphized 'animals' - such as those found in the house of Beorn; or Carc the raven...and, at the risk of repeating myself, you can find such 'animals' in both the LOTR and The Silmarillion (I'm putting the airquotes around the term animals because I don't think they were just ordinary animals to begin with)



With all these things said: is Bilbo an unreliable narrator? Judging by the chapter 'The Council of Elrond' in the Book II of the LOTR, I'd say no.


Here's a quote from that chapter:

Quote:
"Very well," said Bilbo. "I will do as you bid. But I will now tell the true story, and if some here have heard me tell it otherwise" – he looked sidelong at Glóin – "I ask them to forget it and forgive me. I only wished to claim the treasure as my very own in those days, and to be rid of the name of thief that was put on me. But perhaps I understand things a little better now. Anyway, this is what happened."

To some there Bilbo's tale was wholly new, and they listened with amazement while the old hobbit, actually not at all displeased, recounted his adventure with Gollum, at full length. He did not omit a single riddle. He would have given also an account of his party and disappearance from the Shire, if he had been allowed; but Elrond raised his hand.

It seems to me that, other than the fable he told of his meeting with Gollum (influenced by the Ring), Bilbo seems to be a pretty reliable author.
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Old 08-18-2023, 09:54 AM   #2
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Well, we know that Bilbo was an unreliable narrator in at least one instance - in the version of "Riddles in the Dark" that appeared in the first edition of The Hobbit. Of course, this was not an element of the story originally planned by Tolkien, but was rather an ingenious solution that Tolkien hit upon when he was faced with his plans for the Gollum and the Ring in The Lord of the Rings contradicting what was said in The Hobbit. (We talked about this a little bit in a thread about Tolkien and postmodernism a couple of years ago.)

But that's a particular and peculiar instance. I agree with your larger point. Tolkien never seems to have considered those elements apocryphal, and in fact took pains not to contradict The Hobbit in his later writings. Indeed, the very fact that he bothered to invent the conceit that Bilbo initially lied about how he got the Ring shows that he did not consider the material in The Hobbit to be more generally unreliable.
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Old 08-18-2023, 10:05 AM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Aiwendil View Post
Well, we know that Bilbo was an unreliable narrator in at least one instance - in the version of "Riddles in the Dark" that appeared in the first edition of The Hobbit. Of course, this was not an element of the story originally planned by Tolkien, but was rather an ingenious solution that Tolkien hit upon when he was faced with his plans for the Gollum and the Ring in The Lord of the Rings contradicting what was said in The Hobbit. (We talked about this a little bit in a thread about Tolkien and postmodernism a couple of years ago.)

But that's a particular and peculiar instance. I agree with your larger point. Tolkien never seems to have considered those elements apocryphal, and in fact took pains not to contradict The Hobbit in his later writings. Indeed, the very fact that he bothered to invent the conceit that Bilbo initially lied about how he got the Ring shows that he did not consider the material in The Hobbit to be more generally unreliable.

Well, of course, there's the instance where Bilbo straight up lied about how he got the Ring: but, as you seemed to suggest anyway, that instance was an exception, not the damn rule!

Also, the instances where I find such rationalizations are usually when some Tolkien fan can't elegantly square some circles (or worse, things that they just find weird) in Tolkien's writings; such as: Well, these creatures in 'The Hobbit' don't neatly fit in my conception of the legendarium, therefore it must be one of Bilbo's fables.
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Old 08-18-2023, 01:09 PM   #4
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"(. . .) If "composed" is a just word. Bilbo was not assiduous, nor an orderly narrator, and his account is involved and discursive, and sometimes confused: faults that still appear in the Red Book, since the copiers were pious and careful, and altered very little."

JRRT, The Lord of the Rings, first edition Foreword
I suppose the problem of the "path to the Stone Trolls and so on" (the problem as laid out in The History of The Hobbit) can fall under such a general "out". JRRT worked on a proposed solution for the 1960 Hobbit, but for whatever reason, didn't fully incorporate this for the Third Edition Hobbit.

That said, I often end up disagreeing with folk what think Hobbity X or Y doesn't "fit" within the world of Middle-earth, like, as already mentioned, the giants and the singing of the Elves at Rivendell.

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aside: I realize Tolkien wrote a new Foreword to The Lord of the Rings.

I don't care

And I actually disagree with JRRT's reason for thinking the original Foreword needed to be replaced. The original, author-published Foreword is the version for me, as it's internal -- the second Foreword is Tolkien as author, not translator.
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Old 08-19-2023, 06:50 AM   #5
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So, I really don't buy "Bilbo is an unreliable narrator," but I do like playing the devil's advocate, so let's see if we can make some plausible counter-arguments:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Arvegil145 View Post
2) the Giants! Even though Gandalf himself mentions finding a 'more or less decent' Giant to help him close the Goblin trap-door
Ah, but it's the narrator who tells us what Gandalf says! If the narrator can lie in the narration, why can't he lie in what he recounts other people said?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Arvegil145 View Post
3) Sassy, singing Elves - again, even though in the LOTR you find both sassy and singing Elves
If sassiness or singing is the argument, I don't think there's a single thing Tolkien wrote that wouldn't impute these traits to the Elves... so let's give a little credibility to the Unreliable Narrator people: they're not complaining that Elves aren't singing or sassy: they're specifically complaining about "tra-la-la-lally."

The Unreliable Narrator explanation for that: Bilbo didn't speak much Sindarin at the time of his adventure and rather than cop to that when writing his account, he just pretended all the text he didn't understand actually WERE nonsense syllables.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Arvegil145 View Post
4) anthropomorphized 'animals' - such as those found in the house of Beorn; or Carc the raven...and, at the risk of repeating myself, you can find such 'animals' in both the LOTR and The Silmarillion (I'm putting the airquotes around the term animals because I don't think they were just ordinary animals to begin with)
Well, there's animals with a clear metaphysical explanation (Thorondir), and then there's the fox in LotR... but on that note, where did Bilbo stop being the narrator? We know he attempted to write Frodo's adventures down before he ran out of steam and Frodo took over the task. Maybe Bilbo got as a far as the fox (or--more seriously--as far as whatever point in FotR you think the resemblance to The Hobbit's style lasts).

Do I really think Bilbo is unreliable? No. But it's a fun game to play.
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Old 08-19-2023, 09:49 AM   #6
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where did Bilbo stop being the narrator?
Yes, this may be the point! In the recent A Question of Tone thread http://forum.barrowdowns.com/showthread.php?t=19709, this is the argument I was reaching, though I failed to actually follow up.

Tolkien dedicated a lot of text in LoTR to his role as the "translator," going so far as including in the appendices a note on translation where he compares the "original" languages. As Galin mentions, the early forward included more on his role as translator. But what was he translating? He makes it clear that he was translating a copy of the Red Book and its affiliated books of lore. And who wrote them (in Tolkien's subcreation)?

Bilbo clearly wrote There and Back Again. He likely wrote, at least, the beginning of LoTR, which details events through the time that Frodo and his companions reached Rivendell. So an argument (wholly speculative) exists that JRRT, who was detail-oriented (to be polite), had assumed the role of the "translator," and had identified Bilbo as the original author, intentionally conformed his writing style in the opening chapters of LoTR to the more whimsical style (Bilbo's) he employed in The Hobbit. Because Frodo wrote the balance of LoTR, his tone was different.

The inclusion of giants, silly trolls that turn to stone, and Elves singing nonsense? These elements, possibly inconsistent with the otherwise consistent recitations of Middle Earth nature, could be explained as intentional. A combination of Bilbo's writing style (he was crafting a story, not a history) and Bilbo's lack of education, at least until later in his life. Hobbits, and Bilbo, were rustic.

So Tolkien included these elements in his "fairy story," originally written primarily for young readers, and retained them as part of the feigned nature of the narrative. Utter speculation, but a potential explanation.
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Old 08-19-2023, 10:13 AM   #7
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Let's also not exclude scribal corruption. The work Tolkien "translated" was not the original Red Book!
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Old 03-12-2024, 07:46 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mithadan View Post
Yes, this may be the point! In the recent A Question of Tone thread http://forum.barrowdowns.com/showthread.php?t=19709 basket random, this is the argument I was reaching, though I failed to actually follow up.

Tolkien dedicated a lot of text in LoTR to his role as the "translator," going so far as including in the appendices a note on translation where he compares the "original" languages. As Galin mentions, the early forward included more on his role as translator. But what was he translating? He makes it clear that he was translating a copy of the Red Book and its affiliated books of lore. And who wrote them (in Tolkien's subcreation)?

Bilbo clearly wrote There and Back Again. He likely wrote, at least, the beginning of LoTR, which details events through the time that Frodo and his companions reached Rivendell. So an argument (wholly speculative) exists that JRRT, who was detail-oriented (to be polite), had assumed the role of the "translator," and had identified Bilbo as the original author, intentionally conformed his writing style in the opening chapters of LoTR to the more whimsical style (Bilbo's) he employed in The Hobbit. Because Frodo wrote the balance of LoTR, his tone was different.

The inclusion of giants, silly trolls that turn to stone, and Elves singing nonsense? These elements, possibly inconsistent with the otherwise consistent recitations of Middle Earth nature, could be explained as intentional. A combination of Bilbo's writing style (he was crafting a story, not a history) and Bilbo's lack of education, at least until later in his life. Hobbits, and Bilbo, were rustic.

So Tolkien included these elements in his "fairy story," originally written primarily for young readers, and retained them as part of the feigned nature of the narrative. Utter speculation, but a potential explanation.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this matter.
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Old 03-20-2024, 04:05 PM   #9
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Unreliable narrator? Or perhaps we are ill-educated readers?

The source and mythology behind the stone-giants is most likely River Legends, 1875 by Edward Knatchbull-Huggesen (one of Tolkien’s favored authors) and the tale of The Giant Bramble-Buffer. Within that story we have colossal rock throwing mountain giants who are also characterized as shouting a lot and depicted to kick folk high in to the air. Those constituents match up splendidly with attributes featured by The Hobbit stone-giants, as does them dwelling in the Swiss Alps which correlates to Tolkien’s 1911 alpine journey (to which he professed inclusion of elements).

I’ve recently dealt extensively with what I believe is the fairy-story behind Tolkien’s stone-giant mythology as well as a ‘decent’ real-world source of the Carrock (again, from Tolkien’s 1911 adventures) on a ‘sister’ website:

http://www.lotrfanaticsplaza.com/for...pic.php?t=1165

Along with stone-giants, there might be a ‘reasonable’ explanation for those discordant troll names:

https://priyasethtolkienfan.wordpres...lorful-pair-4/

So perhaps we should not be too hasty at judging our very learned Professor!
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Old 03-27-2024, 10:30 AM   #10
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Again, Tolkien himself from his original (published) foreword to The Lord of the Rings:

Quote:
"(. . .) If "composed" is a just word. Bilbo was not assiduous, nor an orderly narrator, and his account is involved and discursive, and sometimes confused: faults that still appear in the Red Book, since the copiers were pious and careful, and altered very little."
But obviously being labelled unreliable doesn't mean "everything" (hyperbole noted) has been confused, or is mere invented Hobbit fancy. Nevertheless, Tolkien knew there were elements in The Hobbit that didn't line up with The Lord of the Rings, or were problematic in some way, and we can see him wrestling with the issues he thought needed fixing, looking at the all too short (in my opinion) 1960 Hobbit.

For some "in story" considerations see The History of The Hobbit's Timelines And Itinerary, where Tolkien is concerned with distances, dates, phases of the Moon, and even the size of Mirkwood. He includes a timetable from Rivendell to Lake Town as well.

And with a later revision, here's a chance to niggle with other details too: like adding dried blood on the famous swords so that Gandalf "couldn't" read the runes on them (couldn't, and didn't immediately read them, that is, and the "task" is still given to Elrond), or introducing place-names from The Lord of the Rings, and a detail like the name of Gandalf's horse. Not to mention a chance to smooth over tone, including removing narrator asides.


In 1954 Tolkien wrote that if The Hobbit had been more carefully written, and his world so much thought about 20 years ago, he should not have used the name William for a troll (noting that he'd at least begun The Hobbit as an oral tale for his children, of course). But as has been pointed out, Tolkien retained the name in 1960, and I'm guessing this is at least partly due to Appendix F (published in 1955) now being part of the scenario, wherein a Hobbit-name like "Tom" is not short for "Thomas" for instance, nor even "Samwise" a true name for "Sam" back in "Frodo's" day.

In shorter, now the names could be generally "explained" as being translations, even if not specifically explained. Aside: also in the 1960s there appears a troll what bakes bread for a Hobbit called Perry-the-Winkle. In a poem.



I personally don't have a problem with giants (along with giant Ents and Little People) in Tolkien's world, or bear-based skin changers, or certain Elves teasing Dwarves in Rivendell, or singing the way they are depicted in The Hobbit. I could go deeper as to why, but recently (elsewhere) Tar-Elenion made a suggestion with respect to the "singing Elves" scene, and I hope he doesn't mind me reposting it here:


Quote:
"At last one, a tall young fellow, came out from the trees and bowed to Gandalf and to Thorin. "Welcome to the valley!" he said."

This and the initial encounter with the Elves would have been great for a re-write or re-imagining. The tall young fellow could introduce himself Estel, and the Elves could all be Elf-children and his playmates, thus singing the silly songs, and teasing 'father Thorin' and the other Dwarves.
I like!

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