As I was setting forth into rereading Chapter 1 of The Hobbit, I started getting a sense of … remindedness. What was this chapter reminding me of?
The first sentence, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” is very direct and brisk in getting to the story, and right after that you expect should follow something like “…named Bilbo Baggins. One fine morning as he stood by his door…” etc. But that is not what happens at all. We are told what the hole looks like and what a hobbit is, and that “the Bagginses have lived in the neighborhood of The Hill for time out of mind,” and who his parents were, and even a bit about his Took ancestors. And all this preliminary background is finished off by a very firm placing of the story in a legendary past:
By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous…
Aha! Now I know what it reminds me of: the opening of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which first looks far into the past — at the momentous event that caused a chain of consequences leading forward in time to the (still in the legendary past) event of the story that will be told. That is, it begins with the siege and assault of Troy and its smoking ruins, leading to Aeneas’s founding of Rome and the spread of its civilization until Felix Brutus, banished great-grandson of Aeneas, becomes the founder of Britain. All of this has nothing materially to do with the story of King Arthur’s court that the poet goes on to tell. It runs counter to common storyteller advice to start the story as quickly as possible.
Why begin the story of Sir Gawain with the fall of Troy? And why put in all that beside-the-point stuff about Belladonna Took and the Old Took and the gossip about a long-ago Took ancestor taking a fairy wife? (I have a German language audiobook of The Hobbit that, in fact, leaves all that out.)
Well, it makes the story being told part of a larger story: in the case of “Sir Gawain,” part of the story of England, and in the case of The Hobbit, part of the larger world. That bit about young Tooks running off and having adventures is the beginning of that idea, and throughout the whole story of The Hobbit Bilbo is discovering the greater world, which is not yet called Middle Earth. This is a way of proceeding that was evidently instinctive to Tolkien, as can be seen clearly when we get the entire Lord of the Rings story which itself is just one part of a much larger story.
This placing of a story in a larger context also gives Bilbo and Sir Gawain heroic predecessors and heroic standards to measure themselves by. Throughout the novel Bilbo repeatedly either brings up the Old Took, or the narrator does.
At the end of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” the narrator comes around again to where he began:
Thus in Arthurus day this aunter bitidde,
The Brutus bokes therof beres wytteness.
Sythen Brutus the bolde burne bowed hider fyrst
After the segge and the asaute was sesed at Troye
[Thus in Arthur’s day this adventure happened
Brutus’s book thereof bears witness
Since Brutus, the bold man, came hither first
After the siege and assault was ceased at Troy]
So after giving the big picture, then narrowing in to focus on one event (Gawain’s “There and Back Again” quest, like Bilbo’s), at the end the view expands again to the larger context. It is somewhat reminiscent of the conclusion of The Hobbit, when Gandalf reminds Bilbo of the larger context of his adventure, saying “…you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”