Of Homely Houses and Dangerous Dwellings

An unsuspecting hobbit is minding his own business, smoking his pipe while standing outside on a glorious morning when an unexpected wizard in a blue hat arrives and sets in motion a fantastic and perilous adventure.  A curious little girl and her siblings are exploring a stately English country home when she stumbles through the coats in a wardrobe and finds herself in a magical world of talking animals and terrible dangers.  In the first few pages of The Hobbit and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the reader is presented with both the familiar and the fantastic.  Tolkien and Lewis both do a masterful job in these stories of weaving the mundane and the magnificent together in compelling ways.

The familiar locations of homes and dwelling places play an important role early on in both stories.    With his comfort laden description of Bilbo’s home, Tolkien endeavors to make the reader relate in a positive way to the concept of hobbits.  Describing the hole in the ground he says “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.” [1] Any apprehension a young reader may have about a creature that lives in a hole starts to fade as the reader is presented chiefly with comfort.  Tolkien goes on to make the situation appear more familiar by describing the interior of the hole and showing that it contains many familiar things; carpet, chairs, hat pegs, bedrooms, bathrooms and wardrobes, all of which help the reader understand that this strange, fantastic creature may not be entirely different from himself.

Leaving Middle-earth for Narnia, one notices a similar use of a home to convey comfort.  Prior to entering Narnia, a stately country home is used to provide a safe and comfortable contrast with a war-ravaged London.  Lewis writes, “It was the sort of house that is mentioned in guide books and even histories; and well it might be, for all manner of stories were told about it, some of them even stranger than the one I am telling you now.”[2]  When Lucy first encounters a character in the woods of Narnia near the lamp post, the fantastic nature of meeting a faun is interspersed with descriptions that speak of comfort.  Mr. Tumnus, the faun, is described as holding an umbrella, a scarf, and some neatly tied up packages, looking “as if he had been doing his Christmas shopping.”[3]  He is described as pleasant and is startled by an unassuming little girl.  Even though he has horns, cloven hooves, and a tail he is hardly the stuff of nightmares.  After a brief chat, Mr. Tumnus invites Lucy to come to his home with comforting words and some playful pomp.   “Daughter of Eve from the far land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe, how would it be if you came and had tea with me?”[4]   Mr. Tumnus’ description of the house is inviting and comfortable.  There was the familiarity of a roaring fire and the tasty (to some, apparently) promise of toast and sardines.  Once at the house, the terms used to describe the cave have the comfort of familiarity.

“Lucy thought she had never been in a nicer place.  It was a little, dry, clean cave of reddish stone with a carpet on the floor and two little chairs (“one for me and one for a friend,” said Mr. Tumnus) and a table and a dresser and a mantelpiece over the fire and above that a picture of an old Faun with a grey beard.  In one corner there was a door which Lucy thought must lead to Mr. Tumnus’ bedroom, and on one wall was a shelf full of books.  Lucy looked in these while he was setting out the tea things.”[5]

It is while reading the titles of these books that the reality of the fantastic begins to reassert itself in a humorous way.  “They had titles like The Life and Letters or Silenus or Nymphs and Their Ways or Men, Monks and Gamekeepers; a Study in Popular Legend or Is Man a Myth?[6]  In both instances the authors drew on things that were familiar and comforting about homes to help the reader feel at ease in new surroundings.

This sense of comfort that has been created by both Lewis and Tolkien makes the breaking in of the fantastic seem more jarring.  Back at Bag-End, the serene normalcy of Bilbo’s hobbit-hole is invaded by the fantastic.  With the words “Dwalin at your service!”[7] the mythic had crashed upon this little corner of Hobbiton.  Things get progressively worse for poor Bilbo as twelve more dwarves arrive at his home and proceed to eat his larders bare, causing him to “…wonder whether a most wretched adventure had not come right into his house.”[8]  The climax of the invasion occurs when the dwarves begin to play their instruments and sing.  The dwarves all retrieve their instruments from the various places they had stashed them and Thorin unwraps his harp.  “It was a beautiful golden harp, and when Thorin struck it the music began all at once, so sudden and sweet that Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons, far over The Water and very from his hobbit-hole under The Hill.”[9]  The song is what awakens the Tookish side of Bilbo and fills him with the desire to adventure; to “wear a sword instead of a walking stick.”[10]

The cozy home of Mr. Tumnus undergoes an invasion of a much less metaphorical sort.  When Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy all finally make it into Narnia at the same time, they travel to Mr. Tumnus’ house and are met with a horrible surprise.  “The door had been wrenched off its hinges and broken to bits.  Inside, the cave was dark and cold and had the damp feel and smell of a place that had not been lived in for several days.”[11]  Everything that made the cave a cozy home had been broken or destroyed.  Even the picture of the Faun’s father had been shredded.  The children find a notice posted by Fenris Ulf, the Captain of the Queen’s Secret Police.  The Pevensie children quickly realize that they have been thrust into a magical, mythical story.  This story, too, uses the setting of a home as the place where the perilous mythical adventure envelopes the characters.

Both Lewis and Tolkien crafted brilliant sub-creations that have a magical effect on the reader.  Both stories are crafted in a way that uses both the familiar and the fantastic to take the reader on a journey deep into the world of myth.  In the final pages of the books Bilbo is home again, sitting at Bag-End, smoking with Gandalf and Balin.  After completing the adventure, his home had once again become a place of peace and comfort.   While not explicit in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, one would be well within their sub-creative rights to imagine that when the newly crowned kings and queens of Narnia were giving “rewards and honours to all their friends, to Tumnus the Faun…”[12] that this included restoring his cave to the cozy home it once was.   After hunting the White Stag and returning through the wardrobe, the Pevensie children are back in the familiar country home sharing the adventures with the professor.  In a sense, Bilbo’s poem sums up both stories nicely.

Roads go ever on and on

                Under cloud and under star,

Yet feet that wandering have gone

                Turn at last to home afar.

Eyes that fire and sword have seen

                And horror in the halls of stone

Look at last on meadows green

                And trees and hills they long have known.[13]

[1] Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit or There and Back Again. New York: Del Rey, 2012. [1]

[2] Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. New York: Scholastic, 1987. [49]

[3] Ibid, [8]

[4] Ibid, [11]

[5] Ibid, [12]

[6] Ibid, [12]

[7] Tolkien. The Hobbit or There and Back Again, [7]

[8] Ibid, [11]

[9] Ibid, [13]

[10] Ibid, [17]

[11] Lewis. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, [54]

[12] Lewis.  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, [179]

[13] Tolkien. The Hobbit or There and Back Again, [302]

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