Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, part 17

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– Originally published at Part Time Monster as “The Mirkwood Affair, pt. 3.”

Bilbo’s encounter with the giant talking spiders is one of the most important episodes in The Hobbit for a number of reasons. I’ll focus on three of them today, and look at specific passages where Bilbo puts on and removes the Ring as I move through this episode.

  • In his encounter with the first spider, Bilbo saves himself without the help of any other character, including the Ring.
  • He locates and rescues the captured dwarves. He has the help of the Ring, of course, but it is really his wits and bravery that save the day.
  • The battle with the spiders leads to the dwarves discovering that Bilbo has the power to become invisible, and he tells them about the Ring.
Map by Deviant Artis silentrageleon

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

After being separated from the dwarves in the confusion of the elf-feast, Bilbo sits down and dozes. He wakes to find a huge spider binding him with webs. He manages to pull his sword and kill the spider all by himself. I can’t be sure without carefully parsing the goblin chapters again but I think this is Bilbo’s first kill, and it’s the encounter that prompts him to name his sword Sting. It’s clear that this is a significant moment for Bilbo:

Somehow killing the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath. (1)

Bilbo is more confident now than he’s been since he left Hobbiton, and the Ring has nothing to do with it. He’s also in a position to search for the dwarves. He takes a lucky guess about the direction he heard their last screams come from, having first “slipped on his ring.” The role-playing nerd in me is thinking Bilbo just gained a level of experience. (2)

He finds the dwarves trussed up in webs. A swarm of giant spiders is having a conversation about how best to kill and eat them. This whole encounter echoes the incident with the trolls – only this time it’s Bilbo instead of Gandalf who comes to the rescue. (3)

Invisible Bilbo kills two spiders with thrown stones, then leads the spiders away from the dwarves just as they are about to kill Bombour. He taunts the spiders with silly rhymes, leads them into the forest, then circles back, surprises and kills the one spider who stayed behind to guard the dwarves, and frees the dwarves from their webs just as the rest of the spiders return. There’s a battle. Aside from their knives, the weary, poisoned dwarves have only sticks and stones. The spiders begin to encircle the whole group with a fence of webs. (4)

Bilbo, having taken off the Ring to free the dwarves, sees that he’s going to have to put it on again to win the battle, and has no way of doing it without the dwarves seeing him disappear. So he warns them:

I am going to disappear, he said. I shall draw the spiders off, if I can; and you must keep together and make in the opposite direction. To the left there, that is more or less the way towards the place where we last saw the elf-fires.

It was difficult for them to understand . . . but at last Bilbo felt he could delay no longer . . . He suddenly slipped on his ring, and to the great astonishment of the dwarves, he vanished. (5)

This is the first time Bilbo uses the Ring as part of a strategy. Up to this point, in every instance that he’s worn it, it’s either slipped onto his finger (seemingly) of its own free will, or he’s used it to hide from danger. In this instance, the invisibility is a sort of armor. And of course, now there must be a conversation about it with the dwarves when all this is over.

He tries to lead the spiders away again, but some of them pursue the dwarves, who are in no condition to run or fight. Bilbo circles back, flanks the pursuing spiders, and goes total badass on them.

He darted backwards and forwards, slashing at spider-threads, hacking at their legs, and stabbing at their fat bodies if they came too near. The spiders swelled with rage, and spluttered and frothed . . . but they had become mortally afraid of Sting and dared not come very near . . . It was a most terrible business, and seemed to take hours. But at last, just when Bilbo felt that he could not lift his hand for a single stroke more, the spiders suddenly gave it up, and followed them no more, but went back disappointed to their colony. (6)

Bilbo changes so much by the end of this story, it’s increasingly easy to forget he’s the same polite, nervous, comfort-loving creature Gandalf approached in An “Unexpected Party.” I locate the most drastic part of the change in this battle. Bilbo’s been lucky (I’d love to know how many times the word “luck” appears in the text – it seems to be on every page) and clever all along. Now he’s found his physical courage and proven he can keep his wits about him in a crisis. The dwarves are fortunate to have him, because they seem to have trouble with that. (7)

image by lucasmt

image by lucasmt

What I can’t say, really -– because the language of the text doesn’t give me much to go on – is how much the Ring influences Bilbo’s behavior here. Certainly, the invisibility is required to make his plans work. But the Ring seems to be lurking in the background and functioning as a simple magic item. If I did not know the story of The Lord of the Rings, I would probably have forgotten all that slipping on and off Bilbo’s finger from “Riddles in the Dark” by now. (8)

When the spiders flee, the company finds themselves in one of the circles where the elves had been feasting the night before. Bilbo explains the finding of the Ring to them. He’d told them about Gollum just after the escape from the Misty Mountains, but left the Ring out of the story. (I missed this one, and I am sure there are interesting things to say about it.) (9)

The conversation shifts to finding food and figuring out what to do next, and we get this gem.

These questions they asked over and over again, and it was from little Bilbo that they seemed to expect to get answers. From which you see that they had changed their opinion of Mr. Baggins very much, and had begun to have a great respect for him (as Gandalf had said they would). Indeed they really expected him to think of some wonderful plan for helping them, and were not merely grumbling. (10)

The dwarves are suddenly looking to Bilbo for leadership. And this is interesting: if you follow the dwarves through the first half of this novel, they do not change. The trouble with the elves and the spiders is the same sort of trouble they had with the trolls. They are prone to being out-witted and vulnerable to ambush. In the absence of Gandalf, Bilbo is the smartest, most savvy person in the group at this point.

Sadly, Bilbo is too exhausted to think of anything, so they all pass out in the elf-circle. At some point later, Balin pops open an eye and realizes no one has seen Thorin since the confusion with the elves the night before and the narrative shifts to a descriptive passage explaining that he’s been carried off to the dungeon of the Wood-elves. (11)

We’ll leave them for here for now.

Notes (Bibliography)

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Throwback Thursday My Endless Tolkien Series, part 16

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Originally published at Part Time Monster as “The Mirkwood Affair, pt. 2”

This is part 16 of an ongoing series. You can find previous installments here, and catch early installments on Thursdays at Sourcerer. I’m reading the One Ring as a character and looking at its interactions with various other characters to see what it tells us about the nature of good and evil in Middle Earth.

I was a little surprised to find, as I scanned The Hobbit for passages where Bilbo interacts with the Ring, just how important the Mirkwood chapters are. Before we dive into “Flies and Spiders,” though, one earlier passage that I’ve missed deserves a little attention.

After Bilbo escapes the Misty Mountains with the aid of the Ring, he discovers Gandalf and the Dwarves talking about having lost him. He sneaks past Balin, who is on sentry duty, and right into the middle of the party before taking off the Ring.

“And here’s the Burglar,” said Bilbo stepping down into the middle of them and slipping off the ring.

Bless me, how they jumped! Then they shouted with surprise and delight. Gandalf was as astonished as any of them . . . It is a fact that Bilbo’s reputation went up a very great deal with the dwarves after this. If they had still doubted that he was a first-class burglar, in spite of Gandalf’s words, they doubted no longer.” (1)

This passage is important for three reasons.

  • This is the first instance I can find where Bilbo is clearly acting on the Ring. All through the previous chapter, Bilbo’s interactions with the Ring are written to suggest that the Ring is deciding when to slip on and off of Bilbo’s finger.
  • That last sentence is the point at which the dwarves begin to take Bilbo seriously as a burglar, and in the Mirkwood chapters we’ll see them asking his advice and even following his lead at times. Bilbo’s come a long way since he left Bag End, and the adventure isn’t even half over yet.
  • It is the first time Bilbo makes a choice about how to use the Ring. When he decides, a page earlier, to slip into their midst before removing it, he says to himself “I will give them all a surprise.” This tells us something about Bilbo’s character – he’s getting up to some mischief here, but it’s not malicious. He’s doing it for the laughs. This is a clue as to why the Ring doesn’t affect Bilbo as quickly, or as drastically, as it does Gollum. Bilbo just doesn’t have any malice for it to work with. (2)

Once the company is reunited, they are nearly done in by pursuing goblins and are rescued by the Great Eagles. The eagles deposit them between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood. The shape-shifting Beorn feeds and shelters them, and allows them to ride his ponies to the edge of the forest. When they reach Mirkwood, Gandalf announces that he has business elsewhere, but will not say anything more about it. He rides away, leaving Thorin and Company to traverse the forest without his aid and with a warning not to stray from the path he’s led them to. (3)

It’s immediately clear that Mirkwood is not a happy forest:

It was not long before they grew to hate the forest as heartily as they had hated the tunnels of the goblins, and it seemed to offer even less hope of any ending. (4)

They travel for so long they begin to run out of food. I haven’t been able to pin down exactly how long this journey though Mirkwood takes, but it is a substantial amount of time. This timeline extrapolated from dates mentioned in the text and references to phases of the moon indicates that they enter the forest in mid-July and arrive at Lake-town on September 22. So we’re possibly looking at a period of eleven weeks, during seven of which the Dwarves are imprisoned and Bilbo wears the ring continuously.

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

During the early part of this episode, they come to an enchanted river, which Beorn has warned them not to touch or drink from. They find a small boat and use it to cross, but Bombour falls in and when the others pull him out, he is comatose. And we get our first hint that Wood-elves are about:

They were standing over him, cursing their ill luck, and Bombour’s clumsiness . . . when they became aware of the dim blowing of horns in the wood and the sound as of dogs baying far off. Then they fell silent, and as they sat is seemed they could hear the noise of a great hunt going by to the north of the path, though they saw no sign of it. (5)

This is the first of several passages that introduce the elves of Mirkwood. The picture of them that emerges is much different than Tolkien’s depictions of elves in the other texts, so I’m quoting them extensively as I work my way toward Bilbo’s encounter with the spiders. We get a bit of foreshadowing a couple of paragraphs later:

Yet if they had known more about it [the forest] and considered the meaning of the hunt and the white deer that had appeared upon their path, they would have known that they were drawing towards the eastern edge . . . (6)

When the white deer referred to in the passage crosses the path,  the company is already so low on food they waste their last arrows shooting at them. Bombour remains asleep for days, during which time the others lug him along. Eventually, the food runs out entirely and Bombour wakes up. He’s had a curious dream

“I dreamed that I was walking in a forest rather like this one, only lit with torches on the trees and lamps swinging from the branches and fires burning on the ground; and there was a great feast going on, going on forever. A woodland king was there with a crown of leaves, and there was a merry singing, and I could not count or describe the things there were to eat and drink.” (7)

The picture of the wood elves that begins to resolve as these passages build on one another is straight out of Faerie. The dwarves spy fires in the distance and forget Gandalf’s warning to stay on the path in hope of finding help. They discover that there are indeed feasting elves about and we get another Faerie-like description.

. . . they peered round the trunks and looked into a clearing where some trees had been felled and the ground levelled. There were many people there, elvish-looking folk, all dressed in green and brown and sitting on sawn rings of the felled trees in a great circle . . . they were eating and drinking and laughing merrily. (8)

So we have a woodland host hunting white deer and a character who’s been under an enchantment having a prescient dream about a king with a crown of leaves. Then the heroes are drawn off the path in search of aid and discovering a circle of feasting elves. It gets even better.

They try three times to enter the circle and speak to the elves. The first two times, the fires go out suddenly, they are plunged into darkness and confusion, and the lights reappear in the distance. On the second attempt, the dwarves shove Bilbo into the light before he has time to slip on the Ring. He falls asleep when the fires go out, and when the dwarves wake him up, they discover he’s had a dream similar to Bombour’s. (9)

The third time, the feast is huge and the elven king is there. Thorin himself steps into the light, and the darkness falls again. This time, the dwarves are blinded by ashes and cinders and Bilbo is separated from them in the confusion. That is the last we see of the Elves until after the encounter with the spiders, but a few pages later, there is this notable passage:

The feasting people were Wood-elves of course. These are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though their magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them . . . were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West. (10)

image by lucasmt

image by Deviant Artist lucasmt

There’s much more about elves in that passage, but I am quoting it here to note that Tolkien is actually using the word Faerie for Valinor here. The mythology was obviously not fully-formed at the point Tolkien published The Hobbit, and that makes reading The Hobbit as part of a seamless set of historical narratives a challenge. But it also makes the book more interesting.

There is not much to learn about the Ring in the early part of there chapter, but there is all manner of nerdy goodness here. These passages are important background to the encounter with the spiders, which is a huge turning point in Bilbo’s development as a character, and the escape from the dungeon of the Wood-elves. I’ll discuss those in the next two installments, and hopefully we’ll be out of Mirkwood before I pause to do the A to Z Challenge.

Notes (Bibliography)

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Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series part 15

Orignally published at Part Time Monster as “The Mirkwood Affair, pt. 1”

The two obvious places to start with Bilbo are his first encounter with Gandalf in “The Unexpected Party” and his finding of the Ring in Riddles in the Dark. I am doing neither because if I go back to the beginning of The Hobbit, I’ll still be writing about Bilbo next year; and because I covered the essentials of “Riddles in the Dark” when I discussed Gollum. (1)

The Significance of the Mirkwood Passages

I am going straight to Mirkwood for two reasons.

1. As I was reading and thinking about how to approach Bilbo, I got the idea that “Flies and Spiders” is under-discussed, and one of the jobs of a literary scholar is to find passages that haven’t been analyzed to death already and write about those. So I am giving quite a bit of attention to “Flies and Spiders” and the following chapter, “Barrels out of Bond.” (2)

2. The Mirkwood adventures are the point in the story where Bilbo’s transformation becomes so evident as to be undeniable. In “Riddles in the Dark,” Bilbo is not much different than he was when he left Hobbiton.

Bilbo walks into Mirkwood a Hobbit who’s been roped into an adventure by Gandalf and the Dwarves regard him as little more than baggage for most of the early journey. He pops out of his barrel in Laketown out a more confident adventurer and, to Thorin and Company, a respectable professional burglar. It’s impossible to understand Bilbo without understanding these chapters.

The journey through Mirkwood is important for another reason, as well. Southern Mirkwood is the domain of Sauron. I am not sure when he actually completed the Dark Tower of Dol Guldur, but his shadow fell on Greenwood the Great in TA 1050 – nearly 2000 years before the events of the Hobbit take place. During “Flies and Spiders,” the Ring is not that far away from Sauron. (3)

Leaving aside the fact that The Hobbit is the earliest published text, and so a bit of retconning was required to fit it seamlessly into the canon, this is a point in history at which things could have gone very badly for Middle Earth. Sauron is completely unaware that the ring has surfaced despite the fact that Bilbo wears it continually for weeks to evade the wood elves. It’s a good thing this is occupying Sauron’s attention while Thorin and Company are struggling to deal with their spider and elf troubles:

So, these are a doubly-important chapters. Add in the fact that they’re also complex, and they require a bit of setup before we dive into the reading. Here is a brief summary of significant plot points prior to the Mirkwood chapters and a few things to look out for once I start on the texts in the next installment.

There are two significant details from “Riddles in the Dark” to bear in mind. First, in every passage of that chapter where the Ring is slipping onto or off of Bilbo’s finger, the sentence structure and verb choices suggest (at the very least) that the Ring is acting on Bilbo rather than the other way around. Second, Bilbo chooses not to attack Gollum because he is armed and Gollum is not, so it wouldn’t be a fair fight. (4)

There’s also the incident with the Orcs and the Eagles after the company escapes the Misty Mountains and their subsequent encounter with Beorn. These set up an important plotline for later, but they do not tell us much we don’t already know about Bilbo or the Ring, so I’ve skipped them. (5)

Things to look out for in “Flies and Spiders” and “Barrels of Bond.”

There are several threads to follow here. I’ll list them today and discuss them in the next couple of posts.

  • Bilbo’s interactions with the spiders show him to be both clever and capable of being calm in a desperate situation.
  • The Dwarves’ interactions with Bilbo clearly indicate by the end of these chapters that they are see him in a new light.
  • Bilbo deals well with being left to his own devices once the Dwarves are captured, and finally orchestrates their escape.
  • Bilbo’s explanation of the Ring and his power of invisibility to the Dwarves is interesting.
  • Tolkien’s depiction of the Wood Elves in The Hobbit a bit different than his depictions of Elves in LOTR. Elven history and culture was not quite settled yet when the final manuscript of the Hobbit was produced, so there is more of Faerie in the Elves of The Hobbit than there is Tolkien’s later work.

I’m at 800 words already, so, not enough room to read any passages today. Do tune in next week!

Bonus Post Idea

Our friends over at Write On! Sisters have been talking about what makes a good heist story recently. I think it would be an interesting and not-very-difficult thing to do to read the Hobbit as a heist caper. I wonder how Thorin and Co. would shake out if you look at them as a heist crew. I won’t say I will never get around to this because I love the idea just that much. But it certainly isn’t happening this year. So feel free to borrow it, and drop us a link if you do.

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Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, part 14

Originally published at Part Time Monster as “The Remarkable Mr. Invisible Baggins.”

I’m focusing on the relationships between the One Ring and the other characters, with reference to The Hobbit and The Silmarillion as needed. Because the construction of Tolkien’s narrators is so complex, I’m reading the books as historical documents first, and as a fictional narrative second. I have two goals.

image by lucasmt

image by lucasmt

  • To establish that it is valid to read the Ring is an independent character rather than merely an appendage of Sauron; and
  • To examine how various characters interact with the Ring and the consequences of those interactions with an eye to developing a better understanding of the nature of good and evil in Middle Earth.

Isildur connects the narrative of LOTR to the events of the First Age chronicled in The Silmarillion. Gollum makes the story work. Without Gollum to drive the personal conflicts that are actually depicted on the page, LOTR would be a brilliant piece of constructed history, but it would not be a well-developed novel.

Meet Bilbo

Bilbo is not central to the plot of LOTR, but he is as significant a historical figure as Isildur and Gollum. He brings the Ring back into the light of day after two-and-a-half millenia of darkness and is profoundly changed by its influence. Isildur and Gollum tell us much about the nature of evil in Middle Earth, but Bilbo is the touchstone for Tolkien’s concept of good.

Bilbo is born in the Shire in TA2890. His adventure to the Lonely Mountain with Thorin and Company takes place over the course of about a year in 2941-42, and he returns to the Shire with the Ring in the same year Sauron returns secretly to Mordor. He leaves the Ring to Frodo and departs the Shire for Rivendell in 3001, where he lives for the next two decades before sailing into the West with Frodo and the three keepers of the elven rings in September, 3021, at the age of 131. (1)

Here is a timeline of important events of the late Third Age to help you place Bilbo’s life in the larger historical context. By the time Bilbo is born, Osgiliath has been left to decay and Mordor unguarded for twelve centuries. The Nazgul have held Minas Morgul for almost 1000 years, and Sauron has been in Mirkwood for nearly 2000.

Of the characters who possess the Ring for an appreciable amount of time, Bilbo is corrupted the least, and he is the only one who gives it up willingly. I think there are three reasons for this.

  1. He he has a good heart to begin with. There is no question about this. It’s clear from he very beginning of the Hobbit, and it begins with the hospitality he shows the Dwarves in “An Unexpected Party.” (2)
  2. He doesn’t use the Ring often, given the length of time he possesses it. This is interesting, because it suggests that he’s just less susceptible to its temptations than the other ringbearers.
  3. Once he returns from his journey with the dwarves, he uses it only for innocuous reasons – mostly to hide from unpleasant relatives. He does not use it even once to gain peoples’ secrets on purpose, or to make himself more powerful. It’s a last resort for getting out of jams.

As a stand-alone text, The Hobbit reads as a simple, episodic adventure story with both comic and tragic elements. But when you look at it in the context of the Tolkien’s larger work and start to ask questions about how the Ring changes Bilbo’s life, there’s quite a lot to talk about. I almost revisited “Riddles in the Dark” for the next post, but I think I’ve said everything I have to say about that one.  (3)

Since I am trying to understand Bilbo now, rather than Gollum, I am looking at the journey through Mirkwood. Do stay tuned! (4)

Notes

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