Dickens’ short story that inspired a Tolkien chapter
This is somewhat a Tolkien paper I had written a while back, with the expressed intention to publish it one day. When that day never seemed to arrive, I thought it would be suitable to post an edited version on this blog.
The following, although much abbreviated from the original, is still pretty long. So proceed with caution but, as always, please enjoy 🙂
In one of his many letters, J.R.R. Tolkien expressly wrote “I have never been able to enjoy Pickwick…” (Tolkien, 1990, p. 349). He was, of course, referring to the main character who gave his name to one of Charles Dickens’ most famous works: The Pickwick Papers. Uninteresting as it may have been to him, it is clear that particular aspects from the book have somehow found a way into Tolkien’s own method of writing: often incorporating similar dialogue styles and character qualities; not to mention particular moments that elicit the same emotional resonance within its readers.
One cannot fail to spot the intriguing resemblances between Tolkien’s own Fellowship and the close-knit gatherings of Pickwick and his friends; not to mention (among a variety of examples) the opening speech of Dickens’ protagonist during the group’s first meeting, bearing close similarity to Bilbo’s birthday party speech in the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Amidst the daily-chronicled narrative of Dickens’ novel, one finds a panoply of short stories somewhat ‘dethatched’ from the main storyline: providing further exploration into other themes and motifs of Victorian life. One such narrative is the fantastical account of Gabriel Grub in ‘The Story of the Goblins who stole a Sexton’. A clear-cut precursor to his more famous A Christmas Carol, Dickens explores the transformation of a solitary and unkind individual (Ebeneezer’s twin brother, one would venture to state), into a wiser, more-appreciative character.
It is my belief that Tolkien found something more in Dickens’ short story and helped shape one of the first engaging adventures of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. The purpose of this article is to analyse in detail Dickens’ short story and draw parallels with elements and events in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
In order to provide a clear understanding of the nature of this argument, the essay shall tackle ‘The Story of The Goblins who stole a Sexton’ in chronological order – whilst “pulling out” different aspects and moments from Tolkien’s chapter in order to assimilate and analyse the two together. Thus, the main sequence of events shall follow according to Dickens’ short story.
The Function of Dreams
Throughout many of his novels, Dickens applies the notion of a “dreaming state” as motivation and impetus for his characters to change the way they live, and reverse the established “sourness” of the narrative. Most often, they take the form of visions and subconscious prophecies that relate a present or foretell a future that significantly alters the behaviours of the individual. Furthermore, these dreams are often metaphorically represented and inhabited by supernatural beings: be it ghosts in A Christmas Carol and ‘The Bagman’s Uncle’ (in The Pickwick Papers) or goblins in Gabriel Grub’s short story. Each character transforms from being passive to an active participant that ultimately changes their way of life.
In Tolkien’s stories, especially The Lord of the Rings, dreams also serve as warnings or as a tool for visions. This is seen most clearly through the character of Frodo. Although their purpose does not necessarily affect the storyline and directly alter the hobbit’s journey, they nonetheless provide a glimpse into what may happen. Unlike Dickens, however, some of the dreams do become a reality and events such as Gandalf’s escape from Orthanc, and the vision of the Undying Lands, become part of the storyline.
Gabriel Grub and Bilbo Baggins
Having clarified the notion of ‘dreams’ within the context of this essay, it is important to establish the strong parallels between Dickens’ short story and Chapter IV of The Hobbit, ‘Over Hill and Under Hill’. In the former, we find the character of Gabriel Grub, a lonely and grim figure who shuns Christmas and everyone who celebrates it. His own comfort is his work as a sexton and on this particular Christmas Eve he finds himself hard at work digging a grave in the local churchyard.
He was so well pleased with having stopped the small boy’s singing, that he took little heed of the scanty progress he had made, and looked down into the grave, when he had finished work for the night, with grim satisfaction, murmuring as he gathered up his things. (Dickens, 1992)
As he finds himself digging the grave (aided by copious amounts of alcohol), he is taken aback by the appearance of a goblin sitting on one of the tombstones. Gabriel is taken to the goblin’s cavern and subjected to visions of daily life where people find solace and happiness in each other. Much like A Christmas Carol, the goblin acts as the three different ghosts that visit Scrooge: showing him the everyday happenings of the world around him.
Our first glimpse into the close associations between the story and the chapter come at different instances in the narratives. At this point, after a few gulps of his alcoholic drink, Gabriel Grub finishes digging and begins delivering a few lines of song.
Brave lodgings for one, brave lodgings for one,
A few feet of cold earth, when life is done;
A stone at the head, a stone at the feet,
A rich, juicy meal for the worms to ear;
Rank grass overhead, and damp clay around,
Brave lodgings for one, these, in holy ground!
‘”Ho! ho!” laughed Gabriel Grub […]
The cold-heartedness, grim and horrid descriptions of physical corruptions on the human body after death, and the claustrophobic sense of the trapped individual underground, resonate intrinsically with the goblins’ song as they drag the hobbit and the dwarves deep into their caverns below the Misty Mountains:
Clap! Snap! the black crack!
Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!
And down down to Goblin-town
You go, my lad!
Clash, crash! Crush, smash!
Hammer and tongs! Knocker and gongs!
Pound, pound, far underground!
Ho, ho! my lad!
Swish, smack! Whip crack!
Batter and beat! Yammer and bleat!
Work, work! Nor dare to shirk,
While Goblins quaff, and Goblins laugh,
Round and round far underground
Below, my lad!
The clever use of onomatopoeic words, in order to recreate the same auditory and visual atmosphere that currently surrounds Tolkien’s characters, is a brilliant exposition for the readers in explaining the nature of these vicious goblins and their lack of empathy towards prisoners. Interestingly enough, Dickens’ Gabriel Grub assumes the role of Tolkien’s goblins in both their wickedness and crude nature. Whereas Grub’s descriptions are more humanistic in nature and deal with the effects on the body after death, the goblins in The Hobbit provide a different context: one bent on violence and torture before death itself; however, both songs serve the same purpose of outlining the harshness of these individuals/creatures.
It is at this point that Grub’s encounter with a goblin will change both his life and the rest of the narrative. Amidst his drinking and singing, the sexton finds himself taken aback when he witnesses the presence of “a form that made his blood run cold” (Dickens, 1992). From now onwards the parallels between the chapter in The Hobbit and this short story run almost concurrently – albeit in a different chronological order. The first comes in the form of both the goblins’ appearances (as well as being both creatures of high stature and authority, Dickens’ creation is the king of the goblins and Tolkien’s is referred to as the Great Goblin).
Seated on an upright tombstone […] was a strange, unearthly figure […] On his short, round body, he wore a close covering […] the goblin looked as if he had sat on the same tombstone very comfortably, for two or three hundred years. (Dickens, 1992)
In The Hobbit, Tolkien gives us a fairly similar description of the creature that our characters encounter underground:
There in the shadows on a large flat stone sat a tremendous goblin with a huge head. (Tolkien, 1993)
In both cases, an interrogation ensues that sees the goblin protagonist asking persistent questions to the characters, occasionally accompanied by wild howling from the rest of the goblins. Questions such as: “What do you do here on Christmas Eve?” and “What man wanders among graves and churchyards on such a night as this?” (Dickens, 1992) replicate the same attitude and atmosphere in Tolkien’s chapter, with the Great Goblin similarly proclaiming: “Might I ask what you were doing up in the mountains at all, and where you were coming from, and where you were going to?” (Tolkien, 1993).
However, both goblins have different motives for their actions. Whilst they both reflect a similar aggressive and heartless nature (such as is typical of a goblin in literature), Dickens’ creatures serve as a learning curve: a warning tool towards the reshaping of Gabriel Grub’s life. In The Hobbit, the goblins simply act as yet another obstacle that our heroes have to overcome – but ultimately, though it be more indirectly than in Dickens, it starts to shape the relationship between Bilbo and the dwarves, and plants the seed for the evolution of the hobbit’s character which.
After a rigorous session of questions and answers, Grub witnesses the emergence of goblins running and jumping around the graveyard. Soon after:
[…] the sexton’s brain whirled round with the rapidity of the motion he beheld, and his legs reeled beneath him […] when the goblin king, suddenly darting towards him, laid his hand upon his collar, and sank with him through the earth. (Dickens, 1992)
Grub finds himself within the goblins’ lair deep underground, surrounded by many of the creatures. Going back a few moments before their capture, Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves find themselves sheltering in cave from a raging storm in the Misty Mountains. It is at this point that the concept of dreams becomes an important element in the narrative; a prophetic-like vision is laid on the hobbit as he rests from the day’s struggle. This particular dream will eventually spur him into action and alter a fate that would have proved far more terrible.
[…] he dreamed that the floor of the cave was giving way, and he was slipping-beginning to fall down, down, goodness knows where to. (Tolkien, 1993)
By the end of the dream, the imaginary events turn out to be true and therefore, Bilbo is able to warn Gandalf of the imminent danger at hand. Thus, what was prophetically presented to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, happens also with Bilbo over 70 years prior. One can only speculate as to the nature of these dreams, but there is the strong possibility that they are mainly attributed to the concept of Fate. In Tolkien’s Middle-earth canvas, Fate plays a pivotal role in many instances that help shape and drive the story.
We must also take note of the similarities by which the characters of Bilbo and Grub end up underground with the goblins. In both instances, this dream-like state takes hold of the characters, making them believe that they are sinking through the ground. This theme of descent is discussed briefly in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, where Michael Drout states that this notion presents itself many times in Tolkien’s work. It is a transitional moment whereby the characters cross-over into a kind of underworld:
This journey through the Goblin caves mirrors three distinct motifs of the underworld. First, caves can serve as entrances to the underworld […] Second, within the caves/underworld there exist monsters, in this case the Goblins. Lastly, within the underworld there are guardian figures, […] such as Gollum did with the ring. (Drout, 2006)
In Dickens’ short story, one can observe similar elements. As Drout explains, once the first stage is over, the second motif introduces the element of the monsters within the cave – in this case, also the goblins. The final motif is the presence of “guardian figures” (Drout, 2006), and the only character that embodies this role is that of the king of the goblins: who is ultimately a form of keeper of the visions of the world that are presented to Grub near the end of the narrative.
Both narratives then throw our characters into the midst of the goblin worlds and the dynamism in both instances is clearly evident through the brisk descriptions provided. Gabriel Grub’s own metaphorical and physical (within a dream-world context) descent takes place as he eventually finds “himself in what appeared to be a large cavern, surrounded on all sides by crowds of goblins, ugly and grim” (Dickens, 1992). In comparison, as soon as Bilbo wakes up and notices the actual crack in the wall, the company is attacked as “[o]ut jumped the goblins, big goblins, great ugly-looking goblins, lots of goblins […] and they were all grabbed and carried through the crack, when they stumbled into a big cavern” (Tolkien, 1992).
One can also find ample comparisons between the two main characters: not least the abundant references to holes in the ground. As Tolkien clearly pointed out in his narratives, hobbits are hole-dwellers. With Dickens’ character, we already know that being a sexton and a grave-digger, there is this very close connection (albeit, morbid) with the idea of cracks and caverns leading underground.
The surname “Grub” is actually a word referring to the process of excavation or uprooting which, once again, bears resemblances to what hobbits ultimately do. So in both cases, the two characters have parallel ties with underground caverns and holes, but in very different contexts. This is interesting, considering that both individuals are then taken on their respective adventures that involve having to “dwell”, as it where, within other creatures’ own caverns and holes deep under the surface of the earth.
Also, if we were to look at the name “Baggins”, as readers of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings will know, it is easy to spot the common wording between the surname and Bilbo’s own house: Bag-End. Yet again, the references to underground dwellings resonate strongly.
Yet another event in Middle-earth bears a close resemblance to Grub’s current predicament. At this point in Dickens’ story, after having sunk into the earth and found himself surrounded by goblins, the grim-hearted protagonist is offered a drink.
“Cold to-night,” said the king of the goblins, “very cold. A glass of something warm here!” […] half a dozen officious goblins […] returned with a goblet of liquid fire […] one of the goblins held him while another poured the blazing liquid down his throat; the whole assembly screeched with laughter, as he coughed and choked, and wiped away the tears which gushed plentifully from his eyes, after swallowing the burning draught. (Dickens, 1992)
One cannot help but notice the striking similarities found in an episode in The Two Towers, where Merry and Pippin find themselves captives of the Uruk-Hai and are soon subjected to the same routine:
Several Orcs laughed. Uglúk thrust a flask between his [Merry’s] teeth and poured some burning liquid down his throat: he felt a hot fierce glow flow through him. The pain in his legs and ankles vanished. He could stand. (Tolkien, 1993)
Same occurrence, same reactions and similar result. In both situations, the orcs (or goblins) subject the individual to a seemingly torturous act, only to find out that the drink itself is of a satisfying and reinvigorating nature. Tolkien describes another drink with special qualities: miruvor (the cordial of Imladris), the Elvish equivalent (and significantly more effective) to the substance used by the orcs:
As soon as Frodo had swallowed a little of the warm and fragrant liquor he felt a new strength of heart, and the heavy drowsiness left his limbs. (Tolkien, 2007).
After the goblins show various visions of daily life, Grub is once more subjected to a rigorous set of questions posed by the king of the goblins. Once more, strong comparisons can be gleaned with the confrontation between Thorin and the Great Goblin. “‘You miserable man!’ said the goblin, in a tone of excessive contempt” (Dickens, 1992); to which a similar question is asked in The Hobbit upon the capture of the Company: “‘Who are these miserable persons?’ said the Great Goblin” (Tolkien, 1992).
It is fascinating to notice that, as mentioned earlier, Dickens’ goblins act as tools for the betterment and reshaping of an individual, and indeed the “miserable” reference is directly opposed to Tolkien’s statement. In the former, the offence is clearly meant as a description of the negative aspects of human beings (represented by Grub); whereas in the latter, the Great Goblin’s proclamation creates an irony as to who in reality are the miserable persons (or creatures) – in Tolkien’s case, these are the goblins themselves, rather than the other way round.
However, it is also important to note that, although the goblins in Dickens’ story are purposely trying to change (for the better) the lifestyle and attitude of Gabriel Grub, they do so in a mischievous and physical way as they “kicked him without mercy” (Dickens, 1992), which is more in tune with the nature of the same creatures in Middle-earth.
In the final stages of the story Dickens prepares to bring back his main character to consciousness and reintroduce reality after the fantastical vision. Tolkien concludes the encounter with the Great Goblin in a fairly similar way that reflects the same atmosphere in both situations:
[…] the cloud which had closed over the last picture, seemed to settle on his [Grub’s] senses, and lull him to repose. One by one, the goblins faded from his sight; and, as the last one disappeared, he sank to sleep. (Dickens, 1992)
[…] all the lights in the cavern went out, and the great fire went off poof! […] the hobbit rolled off […] into the blackness, bumped his head on hard rock, and remembered nothing more. (Tolkien, 1993)
Thus, in both instances, the current narrative ends with a transition that sends our principal characters out of consciousness, thereby progressing the storyline into a new context. It so happens that both Gabriel Grub and Bilbo find themselves lying on the ground (obviously for very different reasons and in opposite circumstances).
In Dickens’ short story, the sexton finds himself alone in the graveyard, with no sign of the goblins, except “the acute pain in his shoulders” (Dickens, 1992). Bilbo finds himself alone as he realises “his head was so sore” (Tolkien, 1992). However, unlike Gabriel Grub, the hobbit’s adventure is not yet over; it will take Bilbo a longer time to ‘come out of the dream’ and re-emerge on the other side of the Misty Mountains.
The evolution of the main character at the end of a narrative is part of every good story and in these two examples this is no different. However, it is curious to note the way in which both transformations are received by the rest of society, when the main hero returns home as a changed man (or hobbit, as it were).
Both stories delve into the realistic implications of the returned character within society and the reintegration into a previous lifestyle. The sudden disappearance for both the sexton and the hobbit result in the creation of fabulous stories and wild rumours that try to explain and clarify the sudden vanishing of these well-established individuals.
Unfortunately, these stories were somewhat disturbed by the unlooked-for reappearance of Gabriel Grub himself […] a ragged, contented, rheumatic old man. (Dickens, 1992)
Although his return is well received, not everyone is contented – especially those same people who had speculated wild stories about what actually happened to Gabriel Grub, so much so that these individuals:
[…] shrugged their shoulders, touched their foreheads, and murmured something about Gabriel Grub having drunk all the Hollands, and then fallen asleep on the flat tombstone […] (Dickens, 1992)
The people from the “old abbey town” (Dickens, 1992) share a common resemblance in attitude with the hobbits of the Shire. Indeed, Bilbo’s return journey from his adventure results in a worse set-back than he had imagined, and his sudden reappearance:
[…] created quite a disturbance, both under the Hill and over the Hill, and across the Water; […] t was quite a long time before Mr. Baggins was in fact admitted to be alive again. (Tolkien, 1993)
The similarities between both situations is intriguing. Similar to Garbiel Grub, the rebuttal of the hobbit’s return is shrugged at, and his positive attitude proves that the transformation his character has gone through was successful; and although Bilbo might have been shunned in the very place he lived most of his life, “he did not mind. He was quite content” (Tolkien, 1993), content as much as Grub himself is when he returns.
The purpose of this paper was to outline the many parallels that exist between two very specific examples from Dickens’ and Tolkien’s vast works.
Ultimately, whether Tolkien did indeed see something attractive in Dickens’ novels or not, it is clear that associations between the two exist, and the evidence is available for readers of both authors to bring them to light and discuss them.
Charles Dickens. The Pickwick Papers. Wordsworth Editions Ltd. (1992).
Michael Drout. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Routledge. London. (2006).
J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit. HarperCollins. 9th edition (1993).
J.R.R. Tolkien. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 349. Unwin Paperbacks. London. (1990). ed. Humphrey Carpenter.
J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. HarperCollins. (2007)
 In case of The Hobbit, reference is made to the whole book now rather than the single chapter just analysed.
 Referring to both the characters’ initial opposing reputations.
Copyright of illustrations belong to their respective artists.