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