WELL! We are off to a rip-roarin' start with this whole Puttin' the Blog in Balrog madness. Be sure to check out everybody else's posts on this score. EssJay has a good little clearing-house at the bottom of her entry (see the "Related Reading" list at the end). We'll try and keep everyone updated as new posts appear. We're really getting a nice range of input from serious Tolkien grognards, complete Middle Earth tenderfoots (Tender Feet, shouted Odo...) and everything in between. Middle Earth is a great place to spend the summer.
In particular, we've discovered that lots of people grew up singing "That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates" when our moms made us do the dishes. Chip the glasses and crack the plates, everybody!
Now, onwards with The Hobbit!
Bilbo is really starting to feel his stuff in this chapter, isn't he? But after outwitting Gollum and escaping from a cave full of goblins, who wouldn't feel like a bit of a badass, with or without his or her original complement of beautiful brass buttons?* So I'm sure it surprised no one that he decided to seize the opportunity to make a very dramatic entrance, right in the middle of Gandalf and the Dwarves bickering over whose fault it was he'd been lost and whether or not they needed to go back and get him. "And here's the burglar" indeed!
Reading as a fully-informed Silmarillion-totin' adult, I've found myself sort of hyper-vigilant about how the Ring might be influencing Bilbo's behavior, even at this early stage. We had an interesting conversation over at EssJay's blog about whether it was the Ring or Bilbo's survival instinct that prompted him to pounce on the opportunity afforded him by Gollum's misunderstanding of "What have I got in my pocket?" I like the latter theory; we Tolkiephiles know that Hobbits are made of surprisingly tough stuff and I balk at the notion that the Ring would be messing with Bilbo's head already, just an hour or two after he's found it. I find my argument strengthened by the fact that before Bilbo discovers that everybody else made it out alive, too, he is ready to go back and try to rescue them all on his lonesome. "He had just made up his mind that it was his duty, that he must turn back, and very miserable he felt about it."
When reunited with his party, of course, he lies his head off about how he got away from Gollum and the goblins, but by that time he has actually worn the Ring for a while, so I pin down this fib-fest as the Ring's first foray into Bilbo-bothering.
BUT, none of that is exceptionally germaine to this story, is it? And certainly not this chapter, because this is the chapter of the wolves. And no, I'm not excited about the wolves because I'm one of those wildlife freaks who swoons at the very thought of them and wears that stupid tee shirt on my off days.
This guy would have to be very quick with that stick
to stop me from kicking him in the crotch.
I'm from Wyoming, okay? Wolves are still a very real fact of life out here. They aren't beautiful and they aren't noble and they aren't misunderstood. They are vicious predators and they hunt in packs like bullies and if cornered they'll rip out your throat as soon as look at you. Plus they kill livestock, poop all over the place and carry fleas and worse. There's a reason they're the villains and the monsters in all the old fairy tales, peeps.
So when the wolves start howling in the eastern foothills of the Misty Mountains, Bilbo and the Dwarves should be pretty much peeing their pants. And hey, they are! "Even magic rings are not much use against wolves, especially against the evil packs that lived under the shadow of the goblin-infested mountains."
"What shall we do, what shall we do... escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!" And Gandalf is all, I know, up in the trees everybody, even though that's pretty much a one-way escape so it isn't an escape so much as a very slow-acting and delayed sort of trap. Unless you're Katniss Everdeen and there's a nest full of trackerjacks up there, but no, except yes because see after the pic of the scary cannibal man below.
Yeah, I didn't sleep for like a week after this part, you guys. When I was a kid, I mean. Now I just rant and rave and foam at the mouth and look for guys in stupid tee shirts to kick in the crotch.
And then it gets worse, because here come the goblins, who have a serious hate-on for our heroes now because the dwarves and Gandalf killed the Head Goblin while they were escaping the cave, and who sing the best song maybe ever. I like this one even more than the I Hate Dishwashing song, but I had far fewer occasions to sing it, at least until I was in high school and on the speech team and was sometimes confronted with an array of types about whom it was entirely appropriate to muse "What shall we do with the funny little things?" Except for the eating them part.
Though on second thought, you funny little things...
Of course before the goblins get there, we are treated to some very detailed descriptions of exactly what "birds" are in what trees, because Tolkien cannot pass up any opportunity to wear us down with scenery porn. So Dwarves 'N Da Hood are up in a larch and Dori, Nori Oin and Gloin are in a pine and Bifur, Bofur. Bombur and Thorin are in another pine and Dawlin and Balin are in a fir and Bilbo is running around like a rabbit in seventeen different types of grass each with its own special growth patterns and seed shapes and medicinal uses and dude, Mr. J.R.R. sir I don't mean to interrupt but there are wolves down there, can we have some focus please?
Sorry, got carried away a bit. It might only have been sixteen kinds of grasses, except that one kind actually has two different cultivars and they're well on their way to speciation in fact I wonder if we have time for a little plant breeding experiment here and
Oh yeah. Which Gandalf deals with rather cleverly but irresponsibly by starting a forest fire (see, this is the Katniss Everdeen bit, amirite?). Dammit, Gandalf, I like you and all but I grew up in the middle of a major National Forest (well, with forest on three sides, anyway) and if there's one thing I can't stand it's a firebug.
But at least that catches the attention of the eagles, Tolkien's favorite flying dei ex machinae, and now my shoulder sockets are aching in sympathy for Bilbo. I always thought hang gliding would be fun, and I bet I'd enjoy it more than Bilbo did, but still ow, ow, ow.
Oh, and just as a last by the bye for this chapter -- did anyone else expect that there would maybe be fewer than 13 dwarves in the party by now? Any other author, and some of these guys would be absolute red shirts, troll food, goblin slaves, eagle poop, but no. Dwarves are badasses who can survive anything as long as they have a wizard and a hobbit around, apparently. But that is cool, yes?
Ah, Beorn. BEORN. If you do not share my love for Beorn, you might as well skip on to the next bit, because Beorn, Beorn, Beorn.
A curious thing I noticed for the first time this reading is that in the lead-up to meeting Beorn, Gandalf, who at this point is still just referring to Beorn as The Somebody, comes up with a very careful and cautious approach to bringing his party (whom he has just announced he is going to leave very soon so he can gang up with the rest of the Wise to kick Sauron out of Mirkwood and, though he doesn't know it yet, take his first crack keeping Saruman from becoming a complete bastard) to Beorn's house:
This Somebody I spoke of, a very great person. You must all be very polite when I introduce you. I shall introduce you slowly, two by two, I think, and you must be careful not to annoy him, or heaven knows what will happen.Does this not remind you a little bit of how the dwarves first gathered at Bilbo's house? Did they not also approach that beautiful green door two by two, or at least in very small groups? I like the sort of rhetorical equivalency this gives to Beorn and Bilbo, though Beorn's greatness lies mostly in past deeds while Bilbo's is (mostly) yet in his future at this point.
Like fairies (some hobbits believe that a Took ancestor had a fairy wife) and giants (like those hurling rocks around in the storm in the mountains), skin-changers like Beorn seem to exist only in this children's tour of Middle Earth, which is something else I always found curious. As Beorn is the only one we encounter even in this book, we have no way of knowing whether there are a lot of these or just a few or maybe just Beorn and his descendants. Anyway, they're pretty cool:
Some say that he is a bear descended from the great and ancient bears of the mountains that lived there before the giants came. Others say that he is a man descended from the first men who lived before Smaug or the other dragons came into this part of the world, and before the goblins came into the hills out of the North.And here I will pause to let all you George R.R. Martin fans have your mental snigger about Jorah Mormont and "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" and all that nonsense.
And no, really, I don't like bears anymore than I like wolves. I respect both, but my form of respect consists of staying as far away from them as possible, keeping the lid firmly on my trash, and hoping I never, ever encounter one outside of a zoo. And the people who cause traffic jams in Yellowstone Park and other such places so they can feed bears send me into crotch-kicking rages also, thag you bery much.
But Beorn, Beorn is a badass. He can turn into a bear at will but lives mostly on cream and honey because he's a Good Guy. He keeps livestock -- for conversation partners, not for food (well, except for the cream of course. But I'm sure he has a nice chat with the cow as he milks her. Shut up).
Also, Beorn keeps lots and lots of bees, in pastures set aside just for them, bees "bigger than hornets... and the bands of yellow on their deep black bodies shone like fiery gold." I'm pretty sure this is the sole entomological reference in all of Tolkien (the giant spiders don't count because those are arachnids, not insects) and I treasure it as such. Happy sigh.
Oh, and his house is pretty awesome, too, as you would expect of the manliest, beariest hippy ever to inhabit a semi-magical kingdom.
I am, however, a little disappointed that he didn't bitch out Gandalf for starting a forest fire (yes, yes, with goblin help, but still). But we know, we know, he's not a tame bear, and he did go back and give the goblins who fanned Gandalf's flames a proper thrashing. And then, because now that he knows the synopsis Gandalf gave while the dwarves arrived at his house is true, he lets the crew borrow his pony friends for a while to give them a leg up on their journey. But only as far as Mirkwood.
Oh boy. MIRKWOOD. Stay on the path, Beorn says. And don't drink any of the water you find there, especially not in that nasty enchanted stream. No foreshadowing there, of course.
Bye bye, Beorn! You're the bestest! I wish you'd at least gotten a cameo in LOTR! But at least you're being played by an appropriately badass dude in the film!
Mikael "Hamilton" Persbrandt will be an interesting Beorn.
Though it looks like Beorn is a grizzly instead of a black bear.
So. Mirkwood. And I was wrong: there's some more entomology, first when Bilbo and the boys try having a fire at night and it brings "thousands of dark grey and black moths, some nearly as big as your hand, flapping and whirring round their ears" and later when the party starts losing hope of ever getting out of the densest, darkest forest that ever was, and send Bilbo up a tree to see if he can see the Forest's edge (I feel like this common noun, "forest" needs capitalization when we're talking about Mirkwood) and he sees lots of black butterflies flitting about the tree tops.
But insects aren't really their biggest concern, in Mirkwood, because the deer really have it in for them. First one comes at them, makes them waste a lot of arrows, and knocks Bombur into the enchanted stream that Beorn warned them against (don't drink or bathe in it, he told them, or you'll fall asleep and forget everything), and then later a white doe (called a hind in the British fashion here, natch) and her fawns happen along and make the boys waste the rest of their arrows. "Now the bows Beorn had given them were useless," the narrator observes, though I don't see where they were all that useful before, what as they only thing anyone managed to shoot was a black squirrel that tasted so horrible they never shot another one.
Of course, bows and arrows are pretty damned important much later in the story, but not in these guys' hands, amirite?
Nor are the troubles with wildlife over, especially not if you belong to the school of "the appearing and disappearing torchlight is a trap by the spiders." I'm not sure I do, but I don't have a better theory, either. At any rate, Bombur's stream-stoned dreams of a fancy woodland feast get everyone else all worked up and they start thinking they see rings of torchlight and partying way off the path. You know, the path that Beorn told them not to stray from. But as soon as our gang tries to crash the will o'the party, yoink, total blackness and no way of finding the path again. Are the Elves just messing with them, or what?
Not that this matters for much longer because SPIDERS! Who fortunately make the mistake of taking on Bilbo last so that when one of the SPIDERS! starts binding up his legs while he's dozing, Bilbo busts out his little knife-sword-thing and kills that SPIDER! which, when he finally gets around to realizing that he's done so, makes him feel like a badass and since badasses always name their knife-sword-things, names his knife-sword-thing Sting. I had, by the way, totally forgotten how Sting got its name! See why it's good to re-read once in a while?
Then it's just a matter of putting on the Ring (d'oh!) and sneaking up on the rest of the SPIDERS! who have all of his friends trussed up and ready to envenom and dissolve and slurp up like Dwarf-smoothies "after they've hung a bit" because oh yeah, these SPIDERS! can talk. In English. I was finding this odd, on this re-read, as hey, neither Ungoliant (Silmarillion) nor Shelob (LOTR) ever talk, but then again, this is a children's book and talking animals are a common narrative convenience in those, right?
Not that you want your kids reading too many children's books with giant malevolent SPIDERS! in them, I'll reckon.
Anyway, it turns out to be pretty fortunate that these SPIDERS! can talk, so when Bilbo starts chucking rocks at them and insulting them in doggerel they give chase and clever Bilbo can then sneak back and free everybody else. Attercop, indeed. What?**
Did anyone else ever wonder what all these SPIDERS! eat when they can't get wandering Dwarf? Especially when they can't get wandering Dwarf, even when they can? I mean, sustaining bodies that big (and no, no, I'm not going to go there. I'm NOT. I'm not going to be tempted into mystandard rant about how invertebrate land animals that size defy the laws of physics, nope, nope, nope. Because I know you'll all just tell me to let it go, nerd, it's fantasy) takes quite a lot of food...? Anyone?
Anyway, it is a very thrilling escape they have. Of course, "escaping goblins to be caught by wolves" (heh), because ELVES! Uh, cave-dwelling Wood-Elves, who still think Dwarves are guilty of stealing their treasure. Poor Dwarves.
You've got to feel for the dwarves. They're all still staggering around the dark forest, high on spider venom, slowly starving to death, depending on a little guy with a little sword to protect them... I think I'd be glad to get captured, too. Especially since the little guy is smart enough to go invisible at the first sign of trouble!
I love how they claim their beef with the Dwarves is that they kept trying to crash the Elves' woodland feasts, and that Balin, gonnabe Lord of Moria, manages to climb the high horse about it. "Is it a crime to be lost in the forest, to be hungry and thirsty, to be trapped by spiders?"
Apparently, yes, yes it is. Or at least it's a crime to be DWARVES lost in the forest...
Man, this time around reading these, I'm all about spotting the parallels. Like now, I can't stop thinking about how Tolkien describes Thranduil, the king of the Mirkwood Elves (and also Legolas' daddy), as living in what amounts to a great big cave, and being hopped up on treasure most of the time, and wanting more, and hating dwarves because they also like treasure and so have to be there to steal his, and gosh, doesn't he sound like someone else we have a date with later in this book?
Of course, he's a bit nicer. A bit. I mean, at least he has his soldiers untie them. They're not, he judges, an escape risk because "There is no escape from my magic doors."
ANYWAY, Bilbo winds up spending a crazy long time wearing the Ring, which is kind of horrible to contemplate for those of us who know about that Ring. Good thing certain parties are distracting certain other parties in another part of the forest. Funny to think, though, that this is as close as You-Know-Who (couldn't help myself, there, heh) will be to the Ring before Bilbo's nephew destroys it years later. Hmm!
"I am like a burglar that can't get away, but most go on miserably burgling the same house day after day" he says to himself at one point. But since this is his first time actually, you know, burgling, it's good that he's getting lots of practice, I say.
But of course, none of that matters, because this is the chapter that's all about BARRELS and how Bilbo goes from burglar to smuggler in just a few easy steps. This was one of my favorite parts when I was a kid, because I love rafting and all I ever really thought about was Bilbo's experience but this time, with my newfound overwhelming sympathy for the Dwarves, all I could think about was how much it would suck to be nailed helpless into a barrel and sent down the river to who-knows-where. Hello, claustrophobia!
Well, the secret is out now, isn't it? Thorin doesn't even hesitate to tell the Master of Lake Town that he is, in fact, that Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror and the rightful King Under the Mountain, and since Lake Town doesn't get a lot of celebrity visits, everyone pretty much turns into 24 hour party people, as if his merely showing up is going to undo all the bad stuff that has happened since Smaug came to stay.
And thus are some very bad seeds planted, because of course some of Thranduil's people are in town and of course they're very interested to learn that this is what the Dwarves have been up to all this time and of course they rush home to tell their treasure-happy king all about it.
Everyone's been happy to let the dragon use all that gold as his giant posturepedic, but now that one snotty dwarf has shown up, each is even happier to start dreaming about what he'll do with his share of the loot, because of course, as the Master tells Thorin, he's sure the New Kingz Under Da Mountain will show proper gratitude later on, if you know what he means. But for now, by all means, help yourself to the food, the clothes and the barber shops (and *cough* some other services that we'd hear all about if George R. R. Martin were writing this instead of J.R.R. Tolkien and let's just all give thanks for that right now).
This should be a bit of a wake up call for everybody. Just because so far no one has held out a hand and said "ahem" after helping the party along doesn't mean everybody's as nice as Elrond or Beorn. But only Bilbo worries about what this big welcome means.
Good bye, Lake-Town, hello desert. Smaug totally trashed the place when he moved in, and keeps everything nice and blackened and crispy. Our boys ride through the Desolation without much worry, except for Bilbo, who first got a look at Erebor (the Lonely Mountain) from astride a bucking barrel and never got over the shock of it.
I'm not going to spend a lot on this chapter. It's mostly about everybody getting nice and frustrated trying to find a way into the Mountain, because they've apparently decided that Elrond didn't know what he was talking about when he showed them the moon-runes and what they said. Had I been writing this book, someone would have come out to clobber them for making the racket they do, banging away on the rock with every tool they've got, but I guess Smaug is a sound sleeper. He would have to be, since he's scorched the landscape for miles around and ruined any chances of easy pickings when he gets peckish. He must drop into serious energy conservation mode between faraway raids on Men's livestock, is my guess.
Anyway, of course good old Bilbo finds The Stone which is covered in Snails and waits around for many days until one evening a Thrush shows up and starts knocking the Snails against the Stone like Otters with Shellfish. Which means it's finally Durin's Day! Because everyone... knows that Thrushes only try Escargot... on Durin's Day... Yeah, that still bothers me. It bothered me when I was seven apparently I still haven't gotten over it. Worst plot device ever.***
And then, and then, we have to prolong the suspense anyway and the sun sets behind a cloud and for a moment we're supposed to think "oh no, this is the one Durin's Day when the last ray of the setting sun won't shine on the keyhole!" but of course one very determined red ray shoots through the clouds and hits that keyhole anyway.
Open sesame. Belloc.
So now it's time for Bilbo to enter the Mountain all by himself, after a nice pompous speech by Thorin and a tart observation on the part of the author about the character of Thorin's race: "Dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money." SaraJean and I have been exchanging a lot of back-channel observations about how the Dwarves are the Jews of Middle Earth, but I think I'm going to save that for another post (or let her do it), since this one is getting long, and it's not what this chapter is really about.
It's time for Bilbo to Do His Job, after all.
Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.Bizarrely, we have a sort of Princess and the Pea situation after Bilbo hobbits up. He pinches a cup and takes it back to show it off to the Dwarves and Smaug notices the cup's absence almost immediately, even though it is small and Smaug is enormous. Dragons are serious about hoards.
As for the actual meeting between Smaug and Bilbo that follows, I think the Rankin-Bass cartoon did a wonderful job on the primary scene of this chapter. Who are you, and where do you come from?
Though the searchlight eye thing seems a little weird to me as an adult. Perhaps this was the inspiration for the stupid searchlight Sauron in the LOTR films?
Anyway, Bilbo's handling of the dragon, again via misdirection and riddling talk, is a nice parallel to his meeting with Gollum back under those other mountains a while back, isn't it? And Sneaky Bagginses would have been an hors d'oeuvre had he not "won" the Ring away from Gollum.
Of course, this time around, the consequences of Bilbo's tricksy victory are much, much greater. The dragon is amuck, and is angry and very shrewd and pretty sure the Thief came from Lake Town. Watch out!
*Man, when I was little, I felt the loss of those buttons as keenly as anyone ever felt the loss of anything. It was emotionally a very complex moment for me. I was very, very, very sad that Bilbo's buttons all popped off when he was squeezing through the gate because all I could think of at the time was how many hours of overtime his daddy must have had to work to afford those buttons, but I also giggled quite a lot at the image of them whizzing off InvisiBilbo's gut and winging goblins in the head. Pop! Ping! OW! Hee hee.
**From Michael Quinion's World Wide Words: The word is Old English, from attor, poison + cop, the head. (Cop, or coppa, was also used by itself to mean a spider, so cobweb ought really to be spelled copweb.) The name was given to spiders in the mistaken belief that they were all poisonous to humans. By the sixteenth century it had begun to be applied to a cross-grained, ill-natured, figuratively venomous person. There, see, you learned something didn't you?
***And yes, I know it is a very special Thrush, from a long-lived line of Magic Thrushes that ran messages for the original Dwarf kingdom and whatnot. None of that adds up to "only knocks snail shells against a rock on Durin's Day." Grr.