“back again.” bilbo baggins of tolkien’s the hobbit.

so once again i sit down to write my process & research blog of the latest faerie tale feet painting for you.  and i’m staring at a mere four books (+ an essay) that i used for research, and yet (sans hyperbole), there are 65 post*it flags sticking out of their pages, vying for my attention and begging to be the snippets and details and fun nerd facts i share with you that i learned along the way.

but hold tight, i shall endeavor to edit myself.  it is “only” a 305 page story, after all.

but first, what i take from the tale & why i wanted to paint it?  as much as i LOVE to be home and cozy and content, we are undeniably all the richer for travel.  even if anxious to be home again while we’re gone (“why, o why did i ever leave my hobbit-hole!” cries bilbo only four chapters in), we inevitably learn somethings along the way.  not just about other creatures (or people) different than ourselves, but about how we fit into the world.  and what role Providence may have for us to play in it.  and, of course, we grow stronger as we learn about our own self-prescribed limitations we inevitably stretch when we are required to adapt &/or survive the journey.

corey olsen said it well in his book exploring j.r.r. tolkien’s the hobbit:  “Bilbo has come to see that, though adventures may in truth be ‘nasty… uncomfortable things’ that ‘make you late for dinner,’ as he said back in Chapter One, it can also be rather grand to be a part of one of the great stories.”  (pg. 109)

so let’s start with a few images of my “back again” painting in process, and later, i shall endeavor to whittle down the trivia and story embellishments.  cool?  🙂

hobbit halthegal blog 1
so every month on instagram, i share my favorite books i read the month prior. (i used to show the whole stack, but it got too unwieldy.) nonetheless, in august, i began researching my next faerie tale feet piece and was delighted to gobble up douglas a. anderson’s notes accompanying tolkien’s text in “the annotated hobbit” (pub. 2002 by houghton mifflin; i highly recommend it.)
hobbit halthegal blog 2
i also get out of the house/studio (occasionally) and take my research and planning stages to coffee shops about town. i had tolkien’s “on fairy stories” recommended to me, and vigorously highlighted all the things that warmed my soul and confirmed my beliefs about why i read so much magical fiction.
hobbit halthegal blog 3
and here’s a haphazard stack of my research materials and my trusty l’il moleskine in which i go back through all my books, taking note of marginalia and icons i want to include in the pattern background to help tell the tale visually. i created a thumbnail sketch for the final painting’s layout (which came to me while reading the book) on a vibrant post*it as you can see. 😉
hobbit halthegal blog 4
i decided to paint this piece on arches watercolour paper, so i began with a light brown wash (composed of three m. graham gouache colours) to give a cohesive underpainting to the pattern background.  i mix my paints on paper plates so i can reuse the colours for other pieces and to go back when necessary to build up contrast.
hobbit halthegal blog 5
and then i steadily filled in each shape with its respective layers of colour. (yes, each of the thirteen dwarf heads are painted according to what colour cap they had on when they arrived at bilbo’s house for the first time. tolkien tells us each one!)
hobbit halthegal blog 6
here’s a broader look at the piece as i try to work up the background shapes evenly, leaving bilbo, his pony, the arkenstone’s shine, and smaug for last.
hobbit halthegal blog 7
and we’re still building in details here, continuing to build up dozens of layers of colours to make each figure as unique as possible.
hobbit halthegal blog 8
here’s a little detail shot of the pony’s fur. there’s a video somewhere on my instagram feed if you’d like to see… 🙂


“if fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults… [children’s] books like their clothes should allow for growth, and their books at any rate should encourage it.”  ~ from j.r.r. tolkein’s essay “on fairy stories.”

so how do we begin to summarize the scope and brilliance of the hobbit?  perhaps you know the tale.  but how can i credit the vast knowledge of norse myths and allusions to andrew lang’s collected works and tolkien’s deep grasp of linguistics that he so expertly & effortlessly wove into this perilous tale of a solitary hobbit in the company of more experienced, aggressive, adventurous Dwarrows (the correct plural for dwarf, so says the genius professor of literature!)?

tolkien credits a couplet from cynewulf as “rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of [his] mythology.”  as for the entire idea itself for the hobbit?  that came while he was grading papers at oxford and came across a “mercifully” left-blank page in a student’s assignment.  on it, tolkien wrote down “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”  and thus set forth for himself to find out what a hobbit was.   he published the work in 1937, and edited a number of times before and after The Lord of the Rings trilogy began releasing 18 years later.  a humble book that was the gateway to a full realm, a true realm of myth and history, echoing owen barfield’s influence on tolkien, “that myth, language, and man’s perception of his world are inseparable… man in his beginnings has a vision of the cosmos as a whole, and of himself as a part of it, a vision which he has long since left behind…” (please do find those extended margin notes on pg. 271 & 272 of the annotated hobbit.  it’s the same sweeping truth that makes madeleine l’engle’s works resonate with me as well.)

so here are the icons, objects, and characters i used to tell the tale in the background pattern and elsewhere of this faerie tale feet painting:

  • the thirteen dwarf heads (dwalin, dark green hood; balin, scarlet hood; kili & fili, blue hoods; dori, nori, ori, oin, gloin- 2 purple hoods, 1 grey hood, a brown, & a white; bifurcation, bofur, bombur- 2 yellow hoods & 1 pale green; & thorin, in a sky blue hood with a long silver tassel)
  • gandalf’s tall, pointed blue hat (he had bilbo join the league of thirteen as their burglar, also to off-set the unlucky number of journeying dwarrows.)
  • silver key (thorin wore it around his neck until they got to the mountain)
  • the finger pointing is a reference to the map with the moon letters the elves help them read by the light of the moon
  • wargs (the old word for wolf as an outlaw, a hunted criminal; they had their own spoken language and were therefore not just the mounts of the goblins, which i was too scared to paint)
  • the Lord of the Eagles i alluded to in the blanket on bilbo’s pony
  • the bear, for “beorn,” the old english word for “man, warrior” and the old norse word “bjorn” meaning “bear.”
  • the purple emperor butterflies in mirk wood that were dark, velvety black, a twisted, corrupt forest with a heart of darkness
  • sting, bilbo’s sword
  • the elven king’s crown of berries and red leaves i indicated as a small branch above my rune signature beneath smaug’s right claw
  • smaug, the “vast, red-gold dragon”
  • two-handled cup hidden in smaug’s vast gold piles that bilbo attempted to steal first
  • arkenstone (the heart of the mountain, a great white gem; “silver in firelight, water in sun, snow under stars, rain upon the moon” with its own “inner light.”)
  • the thrush (a deeper significance to the whole prophecy vs. luck balance, explained well by olson on pgs. 66-67, “‘Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks…the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.’ Notice that it doesn’t just say a thrush; the message seems to foretell the knocking of a particular thrush.  the sense that what we are reading is not advice but prophecy is deepened by the reference to Durin’s Day…”)
  • the barrels the dwarrows escape from the forest elves in, thinking they’re empty wine barrels to be refilled in boat town
  • nard’s black arrow that bring’s down smaug (with a helpful hint sent from bilbo via the thrush)
  • the two chests, one of silver, one of gold, bilbo carries home as the spoils of his adventures to the misty mountain
  • the gold bag is when he went back to the troll’s cave after staying with beorn for a few months on his journey back home
  • the rabbit (there are a lot of allusions to hobbits’ rabbit like-ness)
  • the daisy with the ring center (one of the riddles from the game between bilbo and gollum when seeking his escape and when he comes upon the ring!)
  • there’s a teapot in smaug’s stash to remind us of the comforts of home
  • bilbo’s pipe
  • the silvers spoons that went missing, even as bilbo arrives home to see his own relatives pilfering his home for things to keep, assuming he was gone for good

er… i think that’s it!  🙂

while we long to be “back again,” our adventures have gained us not just a deeper appreciation for the comforts of home, but bilbo i think would also go back again through the adventures to become the new, honest burglar of a hobbit he has become.

olsen summarizes bilbo’s revelations well commenting on the last lines of the book:

“you don’t really suppose, do you,” [gandalf] asks, “that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?” gandalf confirms that what bilbo and the narrator have been calling “luck” the whole time was more than simply chance.  bilbo’s adventures have been “managed” by divine Providence for a purpose far greater than the enrichment of one small hobbit.  as we have seen, bilbo was one of the chief instruments of Providence in this story, but bilbo’s story has been thoroughly blended with the voices of many other instruments, contributing to a symphony whose score incorporates everything from the tea parties of hobbits to the motions of the moon and stars.”  (exploring j.r.r. tolkien’s the hobbit, pg. 304)

so here’s not just to tea time, but here’s to adventures.  (but in moderation for me.)

“yet feet that wandering have gone, turn at last to home afar.”

the hobbit, pg. 302

bonus galdalf fun nerd facts:

“nearly all of the dwarf names in the hobbit were derived from a list of dwarf names in the old norse poem “voluspa” (the prophecy of the seeress)…. the name Gandalf also appears and would be translated as “wand-elf” or “sorcerer-elf”– hence, “wizard.”  (the annotated hobbit, pg. 77)

“in the lord of the rings, we learn that gandalf is called by the elves Mithrandir, which is Sindarin for “grey pilgrim.”  (the annotated hobbit, pg. 287)

“may you ever appear where you are most needed and least expected!” 

the hobbit, pg. 295


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published works referenced: