And Unexpected Party, Baggins, Beorn, Bilbo, Bilbo and Gollum, Chico Marx, doors, Dwarves, Gandalf, Goblins, Groucho Marx, hidden door, Hobbit door, Horse Feathers, Into the Fire, Lake Town, Lonely Mountain, Mirkwood, Out of the Frying-Pan, password, Smaug, speakeasy, Swordfish, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Marx Brothers, Thranduil, Tolkien, Took, wargs
Welcome, dear readers, as always.
Recently, we’ve been thinking about Bilbo’s remark to Frodo:
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 3, “Three is Company”)
What makes this true in Tolkien, we wondered? As an experiment, we began to list all of the significant doors in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and what happened at each of them and we believed that we could see that they fell, roughly, into two categories: doors (and we include gates here) which are the approach to danger, as Bilbo says, and doors which at least seem to offer safety. There are so many, in fact, that we have decided to break them down (no pun intended) and, in this posting, we’ll examine those we found in The Hobbit.
Our first door is Bilbo’s own, in front of which he is sitting when Gandalf first appears
and which he dodges behind, to escape Gandalf—or so he thinks:
“With that the hobbit turned and scuttled inside his round green door, and shut it as quickly as he dared, not to seem rude.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)
This door, of course, is hardly a barrier to Gandalf, who scratches a rune on it, turning it from what Bilbo hopes is a “no trespassing” sign to a “welcome” mat.
We then get a scene which reminds us of one in the Marx Brothers’ movie, Horsefeathers (1932)
—or maybe it’s just an excuse on our part to bring up the Marx Brothers, who, in our opinion, are never brought up often enough. It’s a scene from the days of Prohibition, when hard liquor had been outlawed in the U.S. by an amendment to the Constitution (1920-1933). It was clearly a batty idea and, very soon, many people (some of whom must even have voted for the amendment), were looking for ways to skirt the federal law. One way to do so was to visit an illegal bar, called a “Speakeasy”, presumably because you could say what you wanted there, including criticizing a stupid law. These were secret places, with guards at the door and a need for passwords, so that people on the inside could detect attempts by the police to raid them. In the movie, Chico (pronounced “chick-o’’—as he was said to be an avid pursuer of girls)
is the guard on the inside and Groucho
is a potential customer.
As is typical with the Marx Brothers, the scheme collapses and they both end up on the outside of the door, but, before that happens, there is a lot of knocking and attempts (full of bad puns) to guess the proper password.
The door, then, is really only a prop, a site where Chico and Groucho can practice one-liners on each other and not much else (as if that matters with the Marx Brothers!). In the next door scene from The Hobbit, however, JRRT uses Bilbo’s door for larger purposes: to show Gandalf’s subtle understanding of Bilbo’s psychological make-up, as well as the beginning of his plan to turn Bilbo from a staid Baggins to a much freer Took, as Bilbo is forced to confront a gang of dwarves and their mission.
Gandalf’s method, as readers will remember, was to send the dwarves to Bilbo’s door one or two at a time. Gandalf repeats this trick when he and the dwarves (and Bilbo, of course) take refuge at Beorn’s,
after their escape from the pursuing wargs and goblins.
Whereas we might say that the second door scene at Bilbo’s led to danger, this scene leads to safety, although only temporary security, as Bilbo and the dwarves must set out again, even if refreshed and refitted.
(Readers note: this second time has been replaced in the second Hobbit film with a scene which misses both the quiet comedy of the original and its use in the story as a way to provide us with a more rounded picture of Beorn, as well as JRRT’s use of a repeated folk motif perhaps to reinforce the fairy tale-like structure of what was originally an oral tale turned children’s book.)
The dwarves had encountered the goblins through a hidden door (clearly a “danger door”), outside of which they had taken shelter. They are made prisoner
but Bilbo, being lost, finds the Ring, meets Gollum,
and escapes by a door which certainly offers safety. (Although, as the title of the next chapter puts it, not for long, being “Out of the Frying-Pan, Into the Fire”.)
This, of course, not only leads us back to Beorn, but also on to Mirkwood and our next door, that of the Mirkwood Elves and their king, Thranduil (who does not ride an elk, as the movies would have it—and really silly-looking that is, in our opinion). This is one of a number of versions by JRRT himself.
Although this door leads to the dwarves’ imprisonment, the danger appears to be minimal. Thranduil threatens them, but, except for locking them up and putting them on short rations, he does them no harm. (And there is another backdoor escape—this time in barrels—one of JRRT’s own favorite illustrations—and ours, too).
The barrels led us to the lake and to Lake Town (a colored version of another JRRT illustration),
through the gate of which the dwarves had to pass. A strong theme in so many of these entryways is that they are a form of challenge: those who would get in (or out) must deal with a guardian—Bilbo, goblins, elves–and Lake Town is no different. Here, there is a squad of lax gate guards, who are rather easily impressed when Thorin announces who he is and that he wants to see the Master. As the dwarves persuade the Lake Town people to supply their expedition, we would label this one of the doors to safety—the last thing we would say for the final two: the back door and the front gate of the Lonely Mountain.
So far, we have had two front doors (Bilbo’s and Beorn’s), one hidden door (goblins), two sets of gates (elves, Lake Town), and two back doors (goblins and elves). Now we have a door with a spell cast upon it and the riddle of the spell acts as the guardian. It is, of course, the door most desired by the dwarves, but it’s hardly a door to safety as, at its bottom lies the reason they abandoned the mountain to begin with: Smaug.
The front gate is hardly better, as it soon becomes a defensive work for the dwarves as they prepare to fend off those who either try to seek recompense or are simply goblin attackers.
But wait—we’ve left out a final door, haven’t we? “the door where it began”—and, in front of it, Bilbo experiences one more trial: finding that he’s been declared dead and his property is up for auction—and just when he believes he is “back again”. But there is a happy ending and The Hobbit itself ends with Bilbo, some years later, answering that same door
and entertaining Gandalf and Balin. (Although in the drawing above, Bilbo bears a certain resemblance to someone else…)
In our next post, we’ll continue by looking at doors and gates in The Lord of the Rings.
Thanks, as always, for reading!