• Alex

Learn English with The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (Chapter 1)


"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."


This is the opening paragraph of The Hobbit, the classic fantasy novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. While many fantasy novels have been written since The Hobbit was first published in 1937, the epic adventure of Bilbo Baggins has endured in the imaginations of readers, and will likely continue to endure for generations to come.


Why is that?


It could be because Tolkien is considered the father of modern English fantasy, and The Hobbit was his first published novel. However, being the first to write something does not necessarily mean that an author is guaranteed popular success.


So, what else could the appeal be?


I like to think there is something in the story itself that still resonates with people: A mysterious wizard visiting the home of a curious humanlike creature; a group of mischievous dwarves; and a journey for lost gold that is guarded by a dragon. If you enjoy books that carry a spirit of adventure--with riddles, traps, escapes, dramatic speeches, and battles big and small--The Hobbit might be for you.


This page is meant as a resource to help you enjoy the first chapter of this novel in its original language, and to see if the book is a good level for you. The book is recommended for upper intermediate and advanced learners of English, as it has a lot of uncommon vocabulary and formal grammatical structures. With that in mind, I always recommend that second language learners read a page or two of a book in their target language to see how well they understand the text.


Finally, books are a wonderful way to feel language and culture. In addition to learning grammar and vocabulary, books allow us to experience the flow of a language, and to bring us into a new world. The Hobbit is no different. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do! Read on to begin your adventure.


Chapter 1: An Unexpected Party


Where Bilbo lives (paragraph 2)

The main character of The Hobbit is a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. Hobbits are not real. They are short, usually fat, and they usually have hairy feet. They live in what are called hobbit holes, similar to how rabbits live in tunnels in the ground. However, a hobbit hole is much nicer than a rabbit tunnel. Here is an image followed by the paragraph 2 description of Bilbo's home. If you have seen either The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit film trilogy, you will be familiar with this:

"It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened to a tube-shaped 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."


As you can see, a hobbit's home is large and comfortable, and surrounded by nature. Do not worry if you do not understand every word or structure in the text above. Just try to get a sense of what Tolkien is describing.


Bilbo's character (paragraph 3)

Bilbo was like most hobbits: He liked to stay at home, his habits were predictable, and he had no desire to go on any grand adventures. Tolkien says exactly this in paragraph 3. Read the text, then read my vocabulary notes to understand the text better:


"The hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses have 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."


well-to-do: rich; wealthy (formal)


for time out of mind: a very long time (for so long that no one can remember when something began) (formal phrase)


The Hobbit is a story about how a hobbit leaves his comfortable home and goes on an adventure that tests his character.


More about hobbits and Bilbo's family (paragraphs 4-5)

The physical appearance of hobbits is described in greater detail in paragraph 4. As I mentioned above, hobbits are short, but they also do not have beards, and they can be very quiet when necessary. This is a character trait that Bilbo also possesses, and which becomes useful later on in the story.


In paragraphs 4 and 5, we also learn about Bilbo's mother and father. His mother was Belladonna Took, and his father was Bungo Baggins. Tolkien mentions that people who come from the Took family are not exactly "hobbitlike" (which means they are not exactly like other hobbits) because they liked to go on adventures. Note the description below:


"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 hobbitlike about them, and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures...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."


While Bilbo is more like his father than his mother at the beginning of the book, as the book progresses, the Took side of his character shows itself more.


The wizard Gandalf (paragraphs 6-23)

"He had a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which his long white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots.


'Good morning!' said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under his long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.


'What do you mean?' he said. 'Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?'"


The Hobbit truly begins when Gandalf knocks on Bilbo's door. Who is Gandalf? A wandering wizard who knows a lot about the world, and the person who calls Bilbo to go on his adventure. It takes a minute, but when Gandalf tells Bilbo his name, Bilbo recalls the stories he has heard about the great wizard.


"Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widow's sons? Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those!"


widow: a woman whose spouse/husband has died (common, neutral)

Fireworks

Bilbo and Gandalf have a long and playful conversation. Gandalf tells Bilbo that he is looking for someone to help him with an adventure that he is arranging. Bilbo immediately tells Gandalf that he is not interested ("We are plain quiet folk and I have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!"). Bilbo eventually shuts the door after telling Gandalf that the wizard can return the next day for tea, but that Bilbo is not at all interested in any adventures. After leaving, Gandalf leaves a secret mark on the outside of Bilbo's door.


The party of dwarves arrives (paragraphs 24-51)

"Just before tea-time there came a tremendous ring on the front-door bell, and then he remembered! He rushed and put on the kettle, and put out another cup and saucer, and an extra cake or two, and ran to the door.


'I am so sorry to keep you waiting!' he was going to say, when he saw that it was not Gandalf at all. It was a dwarf with a blue beard tucked into a golden belt, and very bright eyes under his dark-green hood. As soon as the door was opened, he pushed inside, just as if he had been expected.


He hung his hooded cloak on the nearest peg, and 'Dwalin at your service!' he said with a low bow.


'Bilbo Baggins at yours!' said the hobbit, too surprised to ask any questions at the moment."


Bilbo is a polite hobbit, so when 13 dwarves--a few at a time--and Gandalf arrive at his home the next morning, he allows them to enter, not quite sure of what is happening, and still unaware of the secret mark on his door. The dwarves in The Hobbit are not too distinct from one another except for Thorin, who is clearly their leader. The dwarves eat and drink in Bilbo's home, as Bilbo stays busy going from his kitchen to the dinner table. Bilbo feels bewildered (confused and dizzy) by everything that is happening around him until at last, Gandalf makes his entrance and says:


"'Now we are all here!' said Gandalf, looking at the row of thirteen hoods--the best detachable party hoods--and his own hat hanging on the pegs. 'Quite a merry gathering! I hope there is something left for the late-comers to eat and drink! What's that? Tea! No thank you! A little red wine, I think, for me."


The adventure explained (paragraphs 52-end)

Gandalf, Thorin, and the other 12 dwarves continue to eat, drink, and sing songs. Songs are a regular part of The Hobbit, and their lyrics are printed throughout the book. To be direct, not all readers of The Hobbit enjoy the songs. Some readers even skip some of them! In truth, not all of the songs are necessary to understand the main story, but they do add context for those who read them carefully, or for those who simply love living in the world that Tolkien has created.

"Hobbit Panorama" by David T Wenzel

The main song in chapter 1 tells us about the dwarves' history and their desire to find their "long-forgotten gold." Here is the key section of the lyrics as they are written in the book:


"Far over the misty mountains cold

To dungeons deep and caverns old

We must away ere break of day,

To claim our long-forgotten gold."


ere break of day: Before the morning; before the sun rises (or "before the day breaks") (formal)


As the dwarves finish singing this solemn (serious, grave) song, something happens inside Bilbo:


"As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick."


This feeling only lasts a few moments, however, as Bilbo becomes a little scared thinking about these things, and he has to lie down on the sofa when Thorin speaks about the adventure that is ahead of them. When Bilbo feels a little better, he discovers that Gandalf had tricked him, and that he had put a sign on Bilbo's front door that meant "Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward." A burglar is a thief, and since hobbits are known to be quiet when they need to be, Gandalf chose Bilbo to join the adventuring party as their thief.


The dwarves doubt Bilbo's abilities, but Gandalf speaks for Bilbo:


"Let's have no more argument. I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you. If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself."

a deal more: much more; a lot more; short for "a good deal more"

Finally, Thorin speaks about his grandfather and how he and his family were pushed out of their home in the North, so they traveled and found a mountain (called The Lonely Mountain) where they dug tunnels and built great halls. In that mountain, they also found a lot of gold and jewel. His family became rich and lived very well. Thorin continues:


"Undoubtedly, that was what brought the dragon. Dragons steal gold and jewels, you know, from men and elves and dwarves, wherever they can find them; and they guard their plunder as long as they live (which is practically for ever, unless they are killed), and never enjoy a brass ring of it...There was a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm called Smaug."


The dragon Smaug killed all of the dwarves who lived inside the halls of the mountain, and piled all of the gold and jewels together, sitting on top of them, and making the Lonely Mountain his home. The dwarves who managed to escape, including Thorin's father and grandfather, made new lives all across the land. "But we have never forgotten our stolen treasure," Thorin says to Bilbo.

Thorin wants Bilbo to get inside of the mountain using his skills as a burglar, to help the dwarves retrieve their old treasures and their former home. The chapter ends with the dwarves telling Bilbo what they would like for breakfast before leaving for their adventure in the morning, and with Bilbo falling asleep while listening to Thorin humming the song the dwarves had sung earlier. The final paragraph of the chapter reads:


"Bilbo went to sleep with that in his ears, and it gave him very uncomfortable dreams. It was long after the break of day, when he woke up."


Now, your adventure begins

I hope you have enjoyed this brief journey through chapter 1 of The Hobbit, and that you feel more confident to continue the adventure by yourself. I would love to hear your thoughts on this blog post in the comments. Were you already familiar with The Hobbit in some way before you read this post? How did you feel about the difficulty of the language above? Let me know, and enjoy your trip into the misty mountains...


"Far over the misty mountains cold

To dungeons deep and caverns old

We must away ere break of day,

To claim our long-forgotten gold."


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my video where I teach nature vocabulary using The Lord of the Rings. Until next time, I wish you many successful language learning adventures!

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