"I'm a roving Jack of all trades Of every trade and all trades And if you want to know my name They call me Jack of all trades… In Swallow Street made bellows-pipes In Wharf Street was a blacksmith In Beak Street there I did sell tripe In Freeman Street a locksmith In Cherry Street I was a quack In Summer Lane sold pancakes On then at last I got a knack To manufacture worm cakes"
Birmingham folk song.
Birmingham at the turn of the twentieth century was a hive of small manufacturers and workshops. Unlike some other industrial districts in Britain and around the world the characteristic of Birmingham trade was flexibility. Like the Jack of All Trades of the folk song, it wasn't surprising to find a particular enterprise doing buckles one week, buttons the next and bed posts the week after that.
Frequently adapting machinery no doubt left little time to optimise it for efficiency or make it run smoothly. Intense competition bore down on the workers forcing them to long and unhealthy hours. Coal was the energy source, so everything was black with a covering of soot. The long hours and poor diet coupled with the haze from all the smoke meant rickets was endemic. The inhabitants of London who had similar conditions to contend with are even today known as 'cockneys', a nod to the way their soft bones deformed their knees to resemble those of a cock.
Bow Legs - A characteristic of rickets victims and goblins
It must have been a confusing and chaotic place to grow up. But what has it got to do with the Hobbit?
Well on leaving Rivendell the party heads over the Misty Mountains. They have been given a lot of help by Elrond in the form of ponies, supplies and equipment. They manage to hang on to it for about 4 pages. This party's ability to lose its gear is astonishing. The problem this time was sheltering in an apparently unoccupied cave which turned out to be the entrance to a goblin cave. They get kidnapped and dragged down to Goblin Town.
Goblin Town turns out to be a dark maze of tunnels inhabited by goblins. Like the Birmingham Tolkien grew up knowing, it is very easy to take a wrong and find yourself completely lost. Goblins turn out to have quite a few common characteristics with the inhabitants of Victorian Birmingham. For a start they like machines. If you read out the song the goblins sing during their abduction you can pick up a really strong rhythm that is highly reminiscent of factory machinery.
Clash, crash! Crush smash! Hammer and tongs! Knocker and gongs! Pound, pound, far underground! Ho ho, my lad.
Goblins make no beautiful things, but many clever ones. They are inventive. But they tend to invent things that it would be better if they weren't invented like weapons for killing lots of people and instruments of torture. We don't get a good description of what a goblin looks like here but in the Lord of the Rings we hear that they are squint eyed and bow legged. This is reminiscent of the rickets ridden industrial workers who rarely saw the sun that must have been a common sight when Tolkien was growing up. So the goblins, later rebranded as orcs, are inspired by the workers he saw as a boy.
If you have a connection to Birmingham's labouring classes - which as it happens I do - you might be pardoned for taking offense. But don't worry, you are in good company. Tolkien's attitude to modernity generally is a pretty negative one. He rarely expresses this explicitly. But we do get pretty close to it in this chapter. In general goblins like engines and machines with wheels and are very good with them. But these particular goblins "in those days and those wild parts had not advanced (as it is called) so far." The assault on the Twentieth Century takes many forms in Tolkien's work, usually obliquely. But I wonder if the root of it is simply that as a boy he just found industrialisation in its raw form really frightening, and we see those fears surfacing in this chapter.
Tolkien would of course dismiss any attempt to read anything like that into his work. He always claimed to be motivated purely by a desire to tell a good story. And he can almost always be relied upon to do just that. It is very rare to find a weak plot line. But I think this is one of those rare instances. Having been introduced to the goblins, and getting a bit of their back story - most importantly that they have a personal feud on the go with the family of Thorin Oakenshield - they are then rescued by Gandalf. He does this by turning all the lights out by magic and killing the great goblin using the famous elvish sword he picked up from the trolls, that is instantly recognised by his enemies. He then leads the dwarfs out of the cavern as thy are chased by the mass of goblins.
It isn't very imaginative but I bet it will feature prominently in the film when it comes out. What film can't use a chase scene.
The only thing that goes wrong with the plan is that during the escape, Bilbo gets lost. This sets up the next chapter nicely. The episode with the goblins turns out to be important to the later stages of the story, and it is also our first introduction to the wider political situation of Middle Earth. Goblins are free agents able to make alliances with other peoples when it suits them. They have worked with dwarfs for instance. But they have a particular animosity towards elves, which is manifested by their intense dislike of elvish swords which are fitted with a goblin detecting feature. They glow when goblins are around. Thorin's particular dwarf clan has recently been involved in a war with the goblins.
It is a world where there is good and evil, but it isn't entirely a world of black and white. Goblins are clearly evil but do have an organised society and can pick and chose their friends and enemies. They are also intelligent and have something of a sense of humour. And although they use their inventive powers to bad ends, at least they have some kind of creativity. They'd probably fit in well enough in most factories or offices.