This is another chapter that doesn’t do a lot for moving the story forward and contributing to the lore. But, unlike A Short Rest, there’s at least a lot of action going on here. Unfortunately, that’s all that’s almost all that’s really going on. This is Tolkien’s Die Hard 21.
What little development there is happens at the very beginning. So that’s where I will focus my attentions today as I flit from small topic to small topic.
Bilbo, as you may recall, has found himself in possession of a magical Ring (though he doesn’t know about the capital-R just yet) that can make him invisible. After using this ring to escape the goblins, he starts to wonder where his friends are. He’s concerned that they’re still lost in the goblin tunnels and feels that it’s his duty to go back and look for them. It’s not something he’s eager to do (“…and very miserable he felt about it…”), but he knows it’s the right thing to do and so sets his resolve.
Thus is Bilbo’s character (and, by extension, the characters of all of our heroic hobbits) revealed: he’s quiet and unassuming and just wants to be left alone. But there’s steel at his core and he can be counted on to not leave the helpless behind when he’s the only one around who can step up. Yes, it helps (of course) that he has a magic ring of invisibility. But that only lessens the risk to his person: it doesn’t remove it. Without the Ring, I think Bilbo would still have resolved to go back. It just would have taken him a little longer to talk himself into it.
For whatever reason, this core of steel is found in many (if not most) hobbits. Gandalf knew about it (which, presumably, is why he chose Bilbo for this little expedition in the first place). Frodo will show it in a few decades when he agrees to take the Ring from the Shire and later agrees to bear the Ring to Mordor. Sam will show it by refusing to leave his side. Merry and Pippin will show it by going on that quest merely out of friendship. We see it when the entire Shire is roused to defend themselves in “The Scouring of the Shire”2.
I personally aspire to being as brave as a hobbit. I fall far short of that mark3.
After Bilbo reunites with the dwarves, he uses the Ring to play a trick on them and then tells the story of his escape while omitting any mention of the Ring (“…’not just now’ he thought…”).
Though we don’t really know it in The Hobbit, this is the first instance of the Ring starting to affect Bilbo’s mind. Though this is a mild instance, it’s a darkness where he starts seeking to deceive people he trust him. In the long years that Gollum had the Ring, he convinced himself that it was “his birthday present”. Similarly, even now, Bilbo’s mind is starting to craft the reasons and excuses why the Ring truly belongs to him and only to him. He keeps it secret since the Ring is driving him to jealously guard even the knowledge of its existence.
After Bilbo finishes his Ring-less story, Gandalf says “Mr. Baggins has more about him than you guess.” and “…gave Bilbo a queer look from under his bush eyebrows, as he said this, and the hobbit wondered if he guessed at the part of his tale that he had left out.”
I’m not sure if Tolkien ever gave an “official” answer to this, but I think the extent of Gandalf’s guesses here would be the realization that Bilbo must be leaving something out (since the story would be highly improbably otherwise) and noting that this kind of deception is strictly atypical for Bilbo’s character. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf notes that he had to pressure Bilbo later to get the real story which I think leads credence to this. Further, if Gandalf knew (or even suspected) that Bilbo had a magic ring, I think they would have quickly found themselves marching back to Rivendell.
Anything else would have just been a result of Bilbo’s Ring-driven paranoia.
Our friends eventually find themselves cornered in trees by evil wolves. Strangely, Gandalf’s best plan at this moment seems to be to burn the forest down. This shows a conspicuous lack of forethought. I don’t really know what to make of that.
Fortunately, this mistake doesn’t really matter since the greatest plot device and greatest deus ex machina in Western literature soon appears: the Great Eagles once again save the day!
I’ve got to tell you: I don’t love the Eagles. Tolkien had exactly one “I’ve written myself into a corner and don’t know what to do” button and it was labeled the word “EAGLES” written in big red letters4. “Oh no! I don’t know how to save the dwarves! I’ll send the Eagles!” “Oh no! I don’t know how to save Gandalf from Saruman! I’ll send the Eagles!” “Oh no! I don’t know how to save Frodo and Sam from lava! I’ll send the Eagles!”
Which, of course, leads every fan to eventually ask, “Why didn’t Gandalf just get the Eagles to drop the Ring into Mt. Doom?”. Everyone has their own pet theories about that (I have mine, of course) and it can make for rousing discussion. But the fact that it’s a question that even needs to be asked is, possibly the sloppiest bet of storytelling that Tolkien ever did.
Which is a pretty small complaint, really, compared to all of the absolutely wonderful storytelling that was his more usual forte. So I’ll forgive the Eagles.
But I couldn’t let this chapter pass without at least mentioning their great big plot holes.
This is how I know there aren’t ghosts: after I typed that sentence, Tolkien did not come back to attack me. ↩
Which you will regrettably not know about if Peter Jackson is your sole source of Ring-lore. It’s astounding how that giant ommision was capable of changing the entire story. But I digress. ↩
Though I’m making pretty good progress on the “six meals a-day” aspect of hobbitness. ↩
This may have been a little too abstract. ↩