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.
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)
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.
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