Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, part 18

Originally published at Part Time Monster as “The Mirkwood Affair Concludes.” This is the most recent installment, so until I write more of these for the Monster, we’ll be doing something else here on Thursdays. I hope you’ve enjoyed  this run!

Part 18 of an ongoing series.

At dusk of the day after the battle with the spiders, Thorin-and-Company-Minus-Thorin are waylaid by the Wood-elves. The dwarves are armed only with small knives. They are so hungry and exhausted they are “glad to be captured” and give up without a fight. Bilbo puts on the Ring quickly enough that the elves don’t notice him and follows them to the royal stronghold. (1)

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

The passage where he makes the decision to enter the stronghold is interesting.

He did not at all like the look of the cavern-mouth and only made up his mind not to desert his friends just in time to scuttle over at the heels of the last elves, before the great gates of the king closed behind him with a clang. (2)

Since we’ve established already that Bilbo recorded these events, the wording here is important. He enters out of loyalty. Sticking by your friends and family is even more a virtue in Middle Earth than it is in the here-and-now. Also a big deal: keeping one’s promises.

I read this passage as a signpost that points us to even more evidence of Bilbo’s innate goodness than we’ve already seen, and there is a passage at the end that works the same way. They’re like bookends – but before we get to the second passage, we need to give at least a little attention to intervening time.

image by  lucasmt

image by Deviant Artist lucasmt

There’s not much putting-on and taking-off of the Ring in this chapter because Bilbo is wearing it continually to avoid being seen by the elves, and the dwarves are held captive for a period of three or more weeks. It’s worth noting that the Ring is not doing all the work. When Bilbo slips in and out the gate behind elven hunting parties he does not “dare to march among them because of his shadow.” So he’s using his wits, and he’s actively hiding the whole time. (3)

The elf-king imprisons the dwarves because they refuse to tell him why they are travelling through the Woodland Realm. They don’t want him to know what they are after the treasure of the Kingdom Under the Mountain. The elves treat them well enough, for prisoners, so they hold out for weeks and eat the elves’ food. (4)

The dwarves are all held in separate parts of the palace, so Bilbo has to learn the layout of the elven stronghold and figure out where Thorin is stashed away. He carries Thorin’s orders not to give away the purpose of their journey unless he gives the word to the other dwarves. Thorin’s motives are clear in the passage where he gives the order:

For Thorin had taken heart again . . . and was determined not to ransom himself with promises to the king of a share in the treasure, until all hope of escaping in any other way had disappeared; until in fact that remarkable Mr. Invisible Baggins (of whom he began to have a very high opinion indeed) had altogether failed to think of something clever. (5)

It’s also worth noting that Thorin is looking to Bilbo for salvation here, just as the other 12 dwarves did after the encounter with the spiders. (6)

Eventually Bilbo finds the water gate the elves use to return their provision barrels to Lake–town. He finds the opportunity to make an escape attempt on a night when most of the elves are feasting in the woods. He catches the butler and the guard chief sampling the king’s wine, which is stronger than they realize and makes them fall asleep. (7)

Bilbo steals the prison keys and releases the dwarves. They all make their way to the cellars and stuff themselves into food barrels. There are two quotes from the escape incident that deserve highlighting, because they tell us both about Bilbo’s relationship with his companions and about his own character. (8)

When Bilbo frees Balin from his cell, the dwarf (as is typical of Balin) bombards Bilbo with questions. Bilbo responds:

“No time now!” said the hobbit. “You must follow me! We must all keep together and not risk getting separated. All of us must escape or none, and this is our last chance . . . Don’t argue, there’s a good fellow!” (9)

This exchange is important because it places Bilbo clearly in charge. Is shows that he not only understands the stakes, but is also capable of taking leadership of the whole group if need be. “All or none” also demonstrates that he is fully invested in the success of group.

Before they go to find the barrels, Bilbo makes a decision that is at least as good as his refusal to attack the unarmed Gollum. He sneaks back into the room where the guard chief is sleeping and slips the keys back onto his belt.

“That will save him some of the trouble he is in for,” said Mr. Baggins to himself. “He wasn’t a bad fellow, and quite decent to the prisoners. It will puzzle them all too. They will think we had very strong magic to pass through all those locked doors and disappear.” (10)

Bilbo Art by Deviant Artist Deviant Artist Duh22

Bilbo Art by Deviant Artist Deviant Artist Duh22

Here we see the two elements of Bilbo’s character that inform his decisions to spare Gollum and to sneak invisibly into the midst of the dwarves before slipping off the Ring after his escape in one delicious passage. He’s showing the jailer mercy, but he’s also taking a bit of delight in some dramatic mischief.

Perhaps this is why he gets away with wearing the Ring continuously for nearly a month (and, ultimately, possessing it for so long) without it drastically affecting his personality. He’s good even to his adversaries when he has a chance to be good to them. And he loves a good practical joke. Could humor and compassion be the antidotes to the lust for power and obsession with forbidden knowledge that do so many of Tolkien’s characters in?

We’ve talked more about Bilbo than the Ring in the last few posts, but I hope you see why I said when I started this arc that understanding Bilbo is the key to understanding the nature of good in Middle Earth.

This series takes the next several weeks off so we can do the A to Z Challenge up right, both here and at Sourcerer. I’ll continue with Bilbo beginning in late May or early June.

Notes (Bibliography)

All page numbers are from The Hobbit

1. p. 167

2. p. 168

3. p. 169

4. p. 168-69

5. pp.171-72

6. p. 163

7. pp. 171-73

8. pp.173-76

9. p. 174

10. p. 175

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Thursday Thirteen: Banned and Challenged Classics

In case you haven’t heard, it’s Banned Books Week. Since I’m a fan of books and I love intellectual freedom, I feel as though it would be a sin to let the week pass without a banned books post. As I mentioned earlier today, Hannah Givens is hosting a week-long banned books blog party at Things Matter. I’m not sure whether or not I’ll get a post out for the blog party, so I’ve borrowed an idea (and a graphic) from Diana. Here’s a Thursday Thirteen from the ALA’s Frequently Challenged Classics list.

All the books here have influenced me as a writer and thinker. I read them all before I turned 21, thanks to a mother and a high school English teacher who share my love of reading and freedom of thought, and thanks to a public library that was way better than any town of 5,000 has a right to expect. They are posted in the approximate order I read them.

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

My mother read this book aloud to me when I was in elementary school. She read The Hobbit to me when I was in first grade, and I begged her to read LOTR for two years until she finally did. I read it on my own for the first time when I was 11. If I write a post for Hannah’s blog party, this is the book I’ll focus on.

2. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Checked out from the library when I was 11 or 12; perhaps for my last year of the Summer Reading Program. It frightened me more than any horror story ever frightened me and forced me to look at the locker room antics and high school hazing with new eyes. I still find it disturbing. The film adaptation doesn’t do it justice.pins

3. A Separate Peace by John Knowles

I barely remember reading this one, but I know I did, because I remember the story and the cover of the battered old paperback. I also remember that it made such an impression I didn’t pick up another book for a while after I finished it.

4. 1984 by George Orwell

Picked up from the library when I was in the tenth grade because I’d read Animal Farm for school and I wanted more Orwell. I’ve since read most of his essays and Homage to Catalonia, his memoir of the Spanish Civil War. He’s my favorite early-20th Century thinker.

5. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

I went through a Hemingway phase when I was 15 or 16, and this is the second or third Hemingway novel I read. It’s on my list of top 15 20th Century novels, and the chapter where one of the characters is reminiscing about bull-baiting in his village before the war stands out to me as one of the best single chapters in all of American literature.

6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Required reading during my senior year  in high school. It’s probably why I’m fascinated with the 1920s to this day, and why I’m such a sucker for tragic romance.

7. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

I checked this one out of the library when I was a senior in high school just to see what all the fuss was about. I didn’t really get it then, but I do now. If I made a list of “novels everyone should read,” this one would be on it.

bbweek8. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

This was an assigned book for my honors freshman composition course. I wrote an essay on Huxley’s use of the “noble savage” trope, and I was still immature enough to be titillated by the way he uses the word “pneumatic.”

9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I read this one during my freshman year of college, and if  you’re wondering why anyone would want to ban this book, this quote will give you an idea:

“Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live – for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died…And this you can know – fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.”

10. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

I find it as disturbing as The Lord of the Flies, but in a different way. I read it during my freshman year of college just for fun and ended up writing an essay about it.

11. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I read the book because I saw the Gregory Peck movie and liked it so much I wanted the reading experience. It’s a real shame that anyone even considered banning this book. That says not-so-nice things about American culture at the time it was published.

12. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

One of a dozen novels I read for Survey of the 20th Century American Novel in college. I also read Gatsby for the third time for that course, and got my first introductions to Nathaniel West, Carson McCullers, and Emile Zola. Slaughterhouse-Five is likely the novel that convinced me genre fiction can be serious, because whatever else it is, it’s also science fiction.

13. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

I picked this one up when I was 19 or 20 on the recommendation of a friend. It’s a strange and rewarding read. I don’t know what else to say about it.

I had  no idea what I was going to come up with when I started this list, but I like it. It tells me quite a bit about myself. It’s no wonder I’m suspicious of authority and believe in universal human rights. No wonder at all.

Garrett’s Summer Reading Recommendations

by Garrett Ashley

It’s a bit late for another summer reading list, but that doesn’t mean the summer’s over! Here are a few of my suggestions, broken up into categories. I have a bit too many on my list to name here, but these are some of my favorite and most anticipated.

Short Story Collections

Dangerous Laughter, by Stephen Millhauser: Millhauser knows how to make the most mundane things unusual, and the most unusual things magical and extraordinary. The first story, “Cat ‘N’ Mouse” (the opening cartoon) is a straightforward telling of Tom and Jerry, cover_DangerousLaughtertold in fragmented segments, with deeply existential sections sprinkled in between. I didn’t know a story like this was even possible—reading Tom and Jerry is a different experience than watching the cartoon. “The Room in the Attic” is about the relationship between the protagonist and a shy young girl who, because her room is always drenched in darkness, the protagonist never sees. I haven’t finished Dangerous Laughter yet, but Millhauser has recently become one of my favorite writers. There’s no one else like him.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell: I feel licover_RaisedByWolveske Russell is probably old news now (as old, maybe, as this, her first collection). But I’d feel weird if I excluded her from my list. Her novel, Swamplandia!, narrowly avoided winning a Pulitzer (?), and Girls Raised by Wolves sports the story that became the novel. Alongside the title story, which is about a bunch of wolf girls becoming young ladies, there’s a story about kids sledding down dunes on the backs of giant crabs, a matador father, and a brother on the hunt for his ghost sister. Russell is one of the best literary/fantasy hybrid writers I know of.

Tenth of December, by George Saunders: I read this one when it came out, and afterwards went out and bought Pastoralia and CivilWarlLand in Bad Decline. Neither of which I’ve read yet, but they look pretty on my shelf (as most Riverhead books are wont to be). Saunders doesn’t seem to have a niche, as far as I know (I don’t know a lot about him, anyway). There are a couple of science fiction stories here mixed in with the weird and ordinary. One story that’s stayed with me since I read it was “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, which examines class, slavery, and trust. The narrator thinks he can be somehow better than his rich neighbors by purchasing (spending a ton of money they don’t have on) a group of “oriental” (?) women to sit in swings on a tree in the front yard. When the women escape (I won’t say how they escape), the narrator finds himself in a legal dilemma.

A Guide to Being Born, by Ramona Ausubel: I loved every one of these stories. My favorite of the batch is “Chest of Drawers,” which is about a soon-to-be father who discovers bony cover_Guide2BeingBorndrawers embedded in his chest. There’s also a story about arms that grow out of your torso when you’re in love. They get bigger the more you fall in love with someone, so you can’t hide your true feelings from your significant other. They’re called “love arms.” Go figure.

Novels

Tinkers & Enon, by Paul Harding: Tinkers, the Pulitzer prize winning novel, is short, but I wouldn’t call it light reading. It’s the fragmented story of two generations of men and George’s trouble with mental health. Enon, Harding’s recent novel, is kind of a sequel (I think), but I don’t exactly know how it’s going to play out. I’m going to work through Enon when I finish Dangerous Laughter.

The Kings and Queens of Roam, by Daniel Wallace: The author of Big Fish tells the story of two sisters living in Roam, one who is blind and beautiful and one who is sighted and incredibly ugly (Wallace’s words, not mine). There are giant lumberjacks, ghosts, silkworms, and hidden communities. The novel probably has the prettiest cover of my list, too.

The Southern Reach trilogy, by Jeff VanderMeer: Technically, the third book in the series doesn’t release until September, but I’ve had a lot of fun reading this. I’m still not sure whether to call it science fiction or fantasy. But it’s speculative, and most importantly, uncanny. The series is full of mystery, suspense, and horror.

Literary Journals/Magazines

McSweeny’s 45: The “Ray Bradbury and Alfred Hitchcock Fistfight in Heaven” issue.

Ploughshares, Spring 2012: Edited by Nick Flynn.

Nonfiction

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House