As promised by the last short rest, this chapter is filled with adventure — none of it to our protagonist’s liking.
…when they had said good-bye to Elrond in the high hope of a midsummer morning, they had spoken gaily of the passage of the mountains, and of riding swift across the lands beyond…Gandalf had shaken his head and said nothing.
At this point, it’s safe to say that the dwarves talk a good game; but, for all of their mocking of Bilbo (“He looks more like a grocer than a burglar!”), they’re not really any more prepared for this adventure than he is. Bilbo, at least, has had the good sense to be terrified and uncertain from the beginning.
So, I suppose it’s a bit surprising that he manages to become even more terrified when the storms start. I really love the description of the storms here: “…storms come up from East and West and make war.” And then he goes on to describe a horrific mixture of thunder, lightning, and pelting rain.
And then the giants show up and start tossing boulders around. Because every good storm needs giants tossing boulders around; otherwise, it’d just be too boring, I guess. The giants are actually somewhat mysterious in Tolkien’s legendarium. Though there are a couple of other references at other points, this is the only place where giants actually appear in the canon. So I encourage you to enjoy this unique moment in Tolkien lore.
And, in this lone appearance, they just serve to drive the story forward and press our party to finding shelter in the cave. And while our friends make themselves comfortable, I always like to take a moment to remember those poor ponies. It’s a tough life for a horse in Middle-earth, often both short and cruel.
As the goblins start grabbing dwarves left and right, Gandalf seems to use more magic: “there was a terrific flash like lightning in the cave, a smell like gunpowder, and several of them fell dead.” It’s hard for me to imagine real fire magic actually smelling like gunpowder, so I’ve always assumed the Gandalf actually was using gunpowder; the same sorts of chemicals that go into his often-remarked-upon fireworks.
As a corporeal spirit being, Gandalf has access to an enormous amount of supernatural power but he always prefers to use more natural and indirect ways to influence events and solve problems. He only brings his real magic to bear when he runs out of other options. So I like to think that Gandalf has some kind of wizard utility belt where he stashes stuff like high-proof fireworks powder for just the sort of occasion where he might need a flashbang1.
Unfortunately, Gandalf only manages to save himself and his companions are marched to meet the Great Goblin, who not a pleasant character by any stretch. He (along with the rest of his people) is, however, an expert at identifying thousand year old Elven swords. Even Elrond had to examine the runes on this blade before positively naming it, but the goblins know it immediately as Orcrist, or Biter — despite the fact that it was probably one of thousands made during an ancient war and despite the fact that any orc who saw it in person during that war was probably not long for the world.
It’s possible that goblins share immortality with the elves2, but it seems highly unlikely that more than one or two in any gathering of goblins would immediately recognize a particular sword from such an old war. Still, here it is so it must be true.
And, as the goblins are starting to get really worked up over this sword, Gandalf shows up to save the dwarves. Which I think is a valuable lesson for us all: when adventuring, be sure to carry a literal deus ex machina with you in the form of a wizard whenever possible.
Gandalf’s heroics lead to one of the best scenes in the book: the dwarves running as fast as they can down dark tunnels while tossing Bilbo around so they can take turns carrying him around on his back. It’s a subtle sort of comedy that doesn’t fall back on obvious jokes or clever wordplay. Instead, it relies on us, the readers, to imagine the scene and provide the comedy for ourselves. And I think it works brilliantly, especially when it’s placed so seamlessly into this dangerous and tense situation. I sincerely hope that this scene makes it into Peter Jackson’s film adaptation. I’d love to see it.
It should also be noted that the goblins recognize Gandalf’s sword, Glamdring, as they are spilling their blood on it. There’s a joke to be made here about the goblins giving up their orcish ways and setting out to make their fortunes with a Middle-earth version of Antiques Roadshow, but I don’t know what that joke is.
Instead of putting their talents to that more noble use, the goblins wage a fierce battle with Gandalf and the dwarves. Dori is grabbed from behind and Bilbo is lost to our party. And that’s all he knows of their fate.
To find out his own fate, Bilbo will need to read the next chapter with us. And he’s in for a treat because it’s the chapter I’ve been looking forward to since starting this project. But that will have to wait for next week.
It should be noted that I have no authority whatsoever to speak on these matters. It’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that Tolkien once wrote a letter where he explicitly said that Gandalf used magic in this instance and that magic just happens to smell like gunpowder. One of the many problems with being a dilettante is that I often don’t know what has and hasn’t been published. Still, this is how I like to think of it. ↩
Morgoth originally bred the orcs from captured elves as a mockery of their fairness. ↩