I didn’t have time to write anything yesterday, and it’s shaping up to be a monstrous Monday. So have a Monster Monday by Robin Rivera. Comments are closed here to encourage discussion on the original post.
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)
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.
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)
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.
All page numbers are from The Hobbit
1. p. 167
2. p. 168
3. p. 169
4. p. 168-69
6. p. 163
7. pp. 171-73
9. p. 174
10. p. 175
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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)