Monday, December 16, 2013

Bilbo Tittlemouse: Beatrix Potter and the Unexpected Party

So my kid recently brought home a Beatrix Potter book called The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse from his school library.  This book is remarkable for a few reasons, one being that this particular copy has apparently occupied the shelves of his elementary school library since at least 1971--it's rare to find books there that have been on the shelves since the late 90s, much less the early 70s.  However, another aspect of this book is even more noteworthy to me and perhaps some readers of this here blog: the story is a near-exact blueprint of the first chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

It's the tale of a woodmouse--the titular Mrs. T--who finds numerous uninvited guests mucking up her tidy home in a hole under a hedge.  The interlopers--mostly bugs of various sorts, though also a bloated, inconsiderate frog--make all manner of ruckus, demanding food and/or shelter and leaving footprints all over her well-kept home.  Eventually she expurgates them all and spends an entire fortnight cleaning and securing her domicile against future invasion.  Once she's accomplished this feat she throws a party for her other mouse friends, which the frog attempts to crash with only partial success.

The comparison with Thorin and company is obvious, but it's really the description of the house itself that is most evocative of Bilbo's home, describing the tidiness and vast number and purpose of rooms littered throughout the subterranean passages.  Significantly, her home is described as sandy, something which Bilbo's hole full of larders and parlours and pantries was described as most certainly not being.  Also, her description of the spider seems like it might have had an influence on the malevolent rendering arachnids received in Tolkien's work.

The book was published 27 years prior to the publication of The Hobbit.  Seeing as Tolkien fathered several children in the intervening years, and since this was probably the only children's book available in England back then--besides the other 400 books in Potter's catalog; apparently she was the Dr. Seuss of the pre-war era--it seems entirely unlikely that Tolkien was not intimately familiar with this story.  Maybe the academics have already chewed this connection to pieces, but if not, here's a freebie to any student of 20th Century British Literature looking for a thesis topic.  You can thank me in cash or money order.


Daddy Grognard said...

Very interesting. I wonder if there are any Tolkien scholars out there who can shed some light on this?

grodog said...

I pinged John Rateliff on this, and this response is @


Timrod said...

Hey Allan, thanks as always for your advocacy. You're really earning your retainer.

Now I gotta read up on K. Graham.

Red Orc said...

You should check out the section of 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit' where our hero gets the shiny buttons of his jacket caught in the gooseberry net, when pursued by Mr McGregor. I think it's widely seen as being the inspiration for the scene where Bilbo gets stuck in the doorway exiting the Goblins' stronghold.