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  • Writer's pictureA.K. Lee

First Lines| The Hobbit

Updated: Dec 29, 2021

This is the first in a planned series where I examine the first few lines of a novel I enjoyed.

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’

The very first line of JRR Tolkien’s classic, The Hobbit, has stuck in my brain since I first read it at fourteen years old. Now, as a writer, I see it for how crisp and effective it is. It introduces the concept of a hobbit; a hobbit is a living being; a hobbit lives in the ground.

Then, he goes to elaborate what sort of hole it was not:

‘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.’

At this point, we the readers still do not know what a hobbit is, but whatever it is, it lives in a place that is comfortable - not wet, not dirty, not smelly, not dry, not bare, not sandy. A hobbit-hole is clean, with furniture to sit on, and food to eat.

With that, Tolkien captured our imaginations. He gave us enough to create a picture of a hobbit hole, gave us space to fill with what we think makes up a cozy place, and that first paragraph suffices as a hook. The rest of the first page goes on with details about the hobbit-hole, replete with colors and textures, while also providing an insight into the owner of this hobbit-hole. Only after we have been shown around the place do we get to meet Bilbo Baggins.

By now we are invested in Bilbo, though we know very little about him. We have gone on a tour of his home. It’s cozy and comfy and warm, full of good things that we may like in our own homes.

But more importantly, Tolkien has put Bag End into our hearts. It’s not the person - excuse me, the hobbit - that we are meant to meet right off the bat. It is Bag-End, the home, the center of this character; he thinks of it frequently throughout the journey. The dwarves are going to reclaim their home, to be rid of the dragon, Smaug.

Home is the center of the book. Bilbo leaves his home, and encounters homes belonging to an assortment of other creatures: the trolls' filthy murder hole, Beorn's wooden house (a log cabin, perhaps?), the Last Homely House of Rivendell, Thranduil's palace in Mirkwood, Laketown, and finally to the dwarves' Lonely Mountain. And despite being welcomed in most of these, Bilbo returns to his own little hole in the ground, because to him, that is comfort.

Later, in the Lord of the Rings, Bilbo titles his own adventures as ‘There and Back Again: A Hobbit’s Tale’. It is not in the going, but the returning, that makes the adventure worth reading. The joyful ending of The Hobbit is Bilbo’s triumphant return to Bag-End, the tragedy of Frodo’s story is that he could not live in his home after all he experienced.

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’

There are many powerful first lines, and many impactful first paragraphs. But Tolkien opened his story by showing us a hole in the ground, a comfortable, warm, and welcoming home to a creature called a hobbit, and from there revealed to us Middle Earth, full of joy and sorrow, fear and courage, despair and hope. It was a hobbit-hole, and that indeed means comfort.

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