Like A Short Rest, this is another chapter where our friends get to rest and relax in a fantastical setting.
Which is to say that, once again, not a lot happens. Tolkien does mention a few things which are probably worth pointing out, however.
He mentions Radagast the Brown, another wizard of Gandalf’s order. In his film adaptation, Peter Jackson is expanding Radagast’s part from a mere mention to a full-fledged character played by the great Sylvester McCoy. Radagast, of course, also has the distinction of being insulted by Saruman in The Lord of the Rings.
He mentions the Necromancer who has set up shop in Mirkwood. Gandalf will later reveal (at the end of The Hobbit, I believe; but it might also have been in The Lord of the Rings. I suppose we’ll find out when we finish this book!) that he leaves the quest at the edge of Mirkwood to go convince the various powers to force the Necromancer out of his stronghold there. I believe that Jackson is going to make this a larger part of his The Hobbit film as well. And, of course, The Lord of the Rings will eventually tell us that the Necromancer was really Sauron, the great Enemy of the Age.
We meet Beorn. Beorn is unique in Tolkien’s universe. He’s clearly magical but it is not at all clear from where that magic stems. Is he a Maia like Gandalf? Some other nature spirit? Something else entirely? I do not know. He’s at least as much an enigma as Tom Bombadil, but I’ve never seen him discussed at length.
And that’s it. The party hangs out at Beorn’s house for a bit and then they head into Mirkwood after being warned repeatedly to not stray from the path.
There’s not even a good hook in this chapter for me to tell a different story. Next week should hopefully give me something a little meatier to write about.
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. ↩
Out of everything that Tolkien has written, this is my favorite chapter. I suppose it’s only fitting (and probably causal) that it’s also one of the major lynchpins that the entire universe hangs on.
Because this, of course, is the chapter where The Hobbit finds The Ring. (I get chills just writing that sentence.) But, aside from being a moment of epic important in the universe (and a moment of pretty major importance in the story of this book), it’s also a delightful chapter because it introduces Gollum.
I don’t really remember what it’s like to read this chapter without knowing who Gollum is. That’s got to be so weird. Because, if that’s you, you don’t really know about the poor and pitiable wretch twisted by ages and ages of the Ring’s whisperings in his mind. You don’t know about the pleasant days of a certain Sméagol going fishing with his best friend. You don’t know about that little spark of good that still survives in his black and decaying heart. You just see a creepy little creature who hisses a lot.
Like I said, that has to be weird. If that is you and you decide to follow up this reading of The Hobbit with the much more serious Lord of the Rings, I strongly encourage you to come back to this chapter when you’re done. You might be surprised at just how much of Gollum is lurking beneath the surface of these pages.
But, I’m getting rather ahead of myself. Because before Bilbo (and we) can meet Gollum, he has to find the Ring.
He guessed as well as he could, and crawled along for a good way, till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it.
The author understates things here: Bilbo finding the ring was a turning point for far more than his career as a burglar (of course, that belongs to another story). Knowing that larger story, however, we can see the common refrain of world events turning on the smallest of chances.
Here, it’s Bilbo finding a small ring and absentmindedly slipping it into his pocket. Popularly, this idea is often referenced by the phrase “For want of a nail…“. We’re all familiar with it because it’s such a common part of our lives. “I was ten minutes later than usual getting to the coffee shop and I meant my wife of fifteen years standing in line.” “On a whim I ordered chicken instead of a burger and avoided that outbreak of food poison that was in the news.” “The boss really liked the tie I picked out for the interview and offered me the job.”
As humans, this is mostly just selection bias at work. If you hadn’t been late to the coffee shop that day, you’d have met someone else somewhere else and tell stories about that funny coincidence. As a rule, we ignore all of the little details that don’t lead to something extraordinary and we can’t account for all of the many possible worlds where those details were just a little bit different.
This idea comes up in history class as well, with our teachers providing a sort of authority to it. We learn about some almost random guy, Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand but almost completely ignore the fact that Europe was a powder keg that was set to go up at any moment. If Princip hadn’t killed the Archduke, World War I would still have started and we’d be learning about some different little chance that caused it.
But we like the narrative of a singular (maybe even coincidental) small event having dramatic effects, so we keep telling our stories that way.
Yet, here in The Hobbit, it’s almost exactly the opposite. Dear, sweet, practically uncorruptable Bilbo Baggins being in those mountains and stumbling down that tunnel where Gollum had been so recently is a billion to one chance; yet in that billion to one chance, the fate of the entire world would change in a way that it could never have been otherwise. In this moment, that one small person with that one tiny and insignificant action made earth-shattering history.
And, where this is a major theme for our lives, it’s barely touched on by Tolkien. Indeed, most of Tolkien’s world is shaped by Great People doing Great Things: Melkor working against Ilúvatar, Fëanor crafting the Silmarils, Fëanor and his sons later swearing their terrible Oath, Eärendil braving the Valar’s wrath, and Sauron crafting the very Ring that’s in question are all some of the more prominent examples of this. With the exception of Frodo and Sam1 (and to a much lesser extent, Merry and Pippin, and maybe Bard of Laketown), the role of the less important people in Middle-earth is to be stalwart and faithful in their loyal service to their leaders.
And then there’s this moment. This moment, where Bilbo is scrabbling around on the ground, may be the most important moment in Middle-earth since Fëanor created the Silmarils. And all that Bilbo does is unthinkingly shove his hands into his pockets.
Other than to point out that it exists, I don’t know what else to say about it. Heck, it’s entirely possible that I’m misreading every word that Tolkien has written. If so, I beg you to correct me. But, maybe I’m right. Maybe this is a strange aberration in the legendarium. If so, is this an egalitarian side of Tolkien shining out from behind his class-based views of the social hierarchy? Or is this an artifact that The Hobbit started as a simple and self-contained children’s story and only later “grew in the telling”?
I won’t try to assign motivations to the Professor. But I do think it’s a fascinating departure from the rest of his writings that’s worth noting.
At any rate, Bilbo does lay hands on the Ring. And then he wanders down to the edge of an underground lake and meets Gollum. I love Gollum. I love the way he talks and I love the way he thinks and I love the way he moves. Gollum never just “walks” somewhere, no precious. He “slinks” and he “sneaks”. I can find faults with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films all day long, but the Gollum that he gave us was spot on. More than the other characters from those films, when I read Gollum’s lines I can’t help but hear Andy Serkis delivering them in my head.
(The admission fee for Jackson’s The Hobbit film this year will be worth it just to hear Serkis perform the “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!” bit. My patience until it comes out is wearing thin based on that single line.)
But, as much as I love Gollum, there isn’t that much to talk about in his appearance in The Hobbit. Here, he really serves to scare Mr. Baggins good and proper, explain what this new magic Ring does, and lead Bilbo to the way out of the Goblin caves. Along the way, he and Bilbo have a good old-fashioned riddle game2 which, while fun to read3, doesn’t have a lot for me to write about.
Eventually the riddles conclude, Gollum decides to eat Bilbo anyway and Bilbo makes his escape. It’s at this point that he discovers that his new Ring is magic and can turn him invisible. It’s at this point that Bilbo starts to wonder, just a bit, about fate.
It seemed that the ring he had was a magic ring…but it was hard to believe that he really had found one, by accident.
If Tolkien didn’t spend a lot of time on the minor chances that make up our lives, he more than made up for it by writing about Providence. I talk a lot about Tolkien’s ideas of Providence because I think it’s one of the most important themes in his writings (though it’s rarely stated overtly.). As Gandalf says in a different book, “I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”
As I can’t help but keep stressing because it’s so important, Tolkien’s Catholicism made him extremely comfortable with — even dependent on — the idea of a divine plan. Yes, Melkor’s wickedness brought terrible darkness with it, but it was all part of the Plan. And yes, Fëanor’s Oath had dire consequences, but it was all part of the Plan. Yes, Smaug has killed countless numbers of dwarves and me, but it was all just another part of the Plan. Because for every Melkor there is a Manwë and for every Fëanor there is an Eärendil and for every Smaug there is a Bilbo Baggins of Bag End.
For, in Tolkien’s world, all of that darkness is another opportunity for the light in the hearts of the stalwart to shine all the brighter. And that’s all according to plan.
There’s more to it, of course. Sauron forged the ring and it was cut from his hand and taken by Isildur who lost it in the Anduin where it was found by Gollum who carried it deep under the Misty Mountains where he lost it in a Goblin tunnel where Bilbo Baggins of all people stumbled in and picked it up so that he could leave it to his heir Frodo who would carry it to Mordor. It’s an unbroken chain of those small coincidences, but each and every one of them was another step in the Plan.
Even when the Ring acts of its own volition and slips out of Gollum’s reach in the the tunnel or off of Bilbo’s finger when he’s trying to go unnoticed by the Goblins (or, indeed, when it slipped off of Isildur’s finger at the end of the Second Age), it can’t help but follow the Plan.
Tolkien lived through two world wars, seeing the horrors of the first one from the front lines. It’s small wonder that he drew a great deal of comfort in his knowledge that the All Knowing was overseeing everything and that good would triumph in the end. As such an important part of his life philosophy and character, it’s also small wonder that his secondary world shows such strong evidence of a divine Plan — even when it’s in something as small as a little hobbit picking up a little metal ring.
And even with the exceptions of Frodo and Sam, Tolkien makes a large point that they both *became* larger-than-ife heroes in the process of fulfilling their missions. In the end, they weren’t small people doing a small, but important thing. They were bonafide heroes saving the world. ↩
This scene will be referenced (I assume) in Stephen King’s The Wastelands, book 3 of The Dark Tower saga, with much better riddles (not to mention an insane monorail; gotta love King!). ↩
If you’re alone in the house (or live with tolerant people), I *highly* suggest you do a dramatic reading out loud. Tons of fun! ↩