The Hobbit 10 | A Warm Welcome

by Glenn on October 28, 2019

The basic premise of The Hobbit is leaving comfort to pursue adventure and that, somehow, the latter is better than the former. Perhaps it’s not that big a mystery why that might be so. Something along the lines of “A ship in harbor is safe; but that’s not what ships are built for.”

Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit living a predictable and comfortable life, was contacted by Gandalf, a wizard, to take part in an adventure. Bilbo attempted to put Gandalf off, carefully as you must because wizard, and told him politely that he had no interest in adventures but to come back. That was a mistake—it was all the opening Gandalf needed. Come back he did, sending thirteen dwarves ahead of him for his return call the next day.

The dwarves were setting out on an adventure to retrieve gold that was taken from their people by a dragon, Smaug. Gandalf had represented Bilbo to the dwarves as a burglar. This is patently untrue of Bilbo. And this is a funny aspect of the book. Why Bilbo? What does Gandalf know about him? How much does he see into the future? Where does Gandalf appear on a spectrum from mischievous to deadly serious? (Or maybe those categories aren’t mutually exclusive and he is both.) That’s a bit of a mystery as is much about Gandalf. At one point he explains that the company is going to go forward without him. When they protest he says,

 “It is no use arguing. I have, as I told you, some pressing business away south; and I am already late through bothering with you people. We may meet again before all is over, and then again of course we may not. That depends on your luck and on your courage and sense; and I am sending Mr. Baggins with you. I have told you before that he has more about him than you can guess, and you will find that out before long.”

There’s so much in there. Gandalf sounds a bit condescending and if not exactly self-important, has important business to attend to. He wants to impart hope but maintains that forward progress is both luck and courage. And he declares that Bilbo will be helpful to them, which suggest some sort of premonitions about or desire to create something in the future. It might have been tongue-in-cheek if he hadn’t qualified his statement about “sending Mr. Baggins.” Is this foreknowledge or a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy?

The dwarves and Gandalf spend the night in Bilbo’s home. When, the next morning, everyone has left, Bilbo thinks they have left on their adventure without him, which suits him just fine. But then Gandalf returns and shoves Bilbo out the door with just minutes to spare. He leaves for the adventure totally unprepared, which doesn’t seem exactly fair, but perhaps in a state of panic was the only way Bilbo was heading out on this adventure. Later Gandalf would bring along some comfort items that Bilbo quickly found himself missing—including handkerchiefs and tobacco.

The nature of an adventure means that you encounter others who help you or hurt you. No one is exactly neutral. (I need to get through the end of the book to confirm this, but it seems to me that Tolkien’s character’s have a purity of intention. They try to help or hurt. No one hurts while trying to help. In other words, no one is in inept and doing harm while only meaning well. They do well or not. Edit: Although perhaps the encounter with the elves in the Forest of Mirkwood is a little bit this way. There are old enmities between dwarves and elves and while the elves don’t mean to harm the dwarves—they are, after all, only locked up and not killed—they are territorial and not kind to those who enter their domain univited.) When the company runs into three trolls, they would have eaten them had Gandalf not returned in the nick of time to save them. Where had Gandalf gone? That’s a mystery. He slips away from time to time on this adventure and he doesn’t always explain himself. What becomes clear is that, as a wizard, he has many irons in the fire. What is the job of a wizard exactly? That’s unknown. But he is working, we assume, to help friends and pursue the betterment of Middle-Earth.

It’s helpful to have a wizard on an adventure. Gandalf is well-connected, knows his way around, and can handle himself. And he is good. We sense from the outset that this adventure that he is springing on poor Bilbo is not to cause him pain and suffering even though the essence of pursuing adventure means discomfort.

Gandalf is on friendship terms with Elrond, an elf Lord who lives in the deprecatingly but inaccurately named Last Homely House. In the home of Elrond, the company is able to regroup. They replenish supplies and receive valuable information about weapons they recovered from the trolls, the map they carry, and the way through the Misty Mountains.

When you set out on an adventure, you cannot expect the natural world to cooperate with you. The company experiences bad weather—twice. The first time it’s a dispiriting inconvenience. The second time it’s a near disaster. When the company takes shelter in a cave, they are captured by goblins, which results in the demise of their pack animals. Even so, the setback also propels them forward. They had been attempting to cross over a mountain range. Instead they went under the mountain and covered a lot of ground.

At the moment before the company was about to be captured by Goblins, Bilbo was having a dream that a crack was opening in the cave they were sleeping in. He woke up shouting, which was just enough warning for Gandalf to save himself. The rest of the company was taken captive but Gandalf was able to follow the captured party as they were taken deep underground to the Great Goblin. When negotiations between the captured dwarves and hobbit didn’t go well, Gandalf threw in some well-timed pyrotechnics that disoriented everyone. He killed the Great Goblin and lead the dwarves out. Unfortunately, along the way goblins caught up to the escaping company and Bilbo, who was being carried because of his diminutive size, was knocked from the back of the dwarf who was carrying him, hit his head, and was rendered unconscious.

When Bilbo recovered he was alone in the dark in a tunnel underneath the mountain. As he crawled around he discovered a ring which was as extraordinarily lucky an occurrence as it seems unlikely. Bilbo had an encounter with Gollum who was, now, the former owner of the ring. Gollum wanted to kill and eat Bilbo but unwittingly showed Bilbo the way out from under the mountain when the ring found its way onto Bilbo’s finger. Keeping The Lord of the Rings out of mind, all we know of the ring at this point is that it renders its wearer invisible and Bilbo was able to re-unite with the company.

One of those that Gandalf has helped in the past (outside the scope of the book) is the Lord of the Eagles. What goes around comes around in Middle-Earth so that when the company was in a tight spot, about to be burned alive after they had climbed trees to flee wargs (evil wolves) and goblins, the Lord of the Eagles and his fellows rescued the company out of the trees and moved them forward on their journey. Gandalf also knew of a character named Beorn who could change from a man into a bear and who had the ability to talk with animals. At a key moment, Gandalf was able to ingratiate himself with Beorn, who provided all sorts of hospitality to the company. Beorn is interesting because he is one of the more dangerous people we meet in the book. You don’t want to cross him. But if he helps you, that help is significant. There’s something to say about a person who is both dangerous and helpful. Just the kind of ally you want.

When Gandalf left to pursue other matters, the company had to pass through the Forest of Mirkwood. There was no way around—only through. Forests are places of mystery. They are full of unknown unknowns. You sense you are not alone but you are not quite sure. Gandalf’s instructions were to not leave the path and to not drink the water. Crossing a stream, there was some commotion when a stag came racing down the path and one of the dwarves fell in. He was rendered unconscious by the enchantment of the water and had to be carried until he woke up days later. Eventually, the group left the path when they saw lights in the forest. As a reader it seems obvious that the company was being lured off the path. The result was that Thorin Oakenshield, their leader, was taken captive by wood elves. The rest of the company had to contend with spiders. (What is it with forests and spiders as there is a similar thing in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets?) Bilbo is able to rescue the remaining company from the spiders, but then they, too, are captured by wood elves. Bilbo, however, has his ring, which makes him invisible and allows him to follow along without being seen. The company is taken to the dungeon beneath the castle of the wood elves, where Thorin had already been taken.

In the castle, Bilbo makes himself useful by carrying messages from the different company members to the others. And then he develops a plan of escape. There are two ways into the castle—through the main gate, and then by water underneath the castle. The water path is also gated, but it is used as a means of moving supplies. Bilbo has seen how empty wine and food caskets are routinely dropped into the water below and sent out past the gate and onto the river. One night, Bilbo sees that the wine steward and the guard have passed out on some heavy-duty wine. Bilbo takes the keys and frees the dwarves whom he then places in empty wine and food barrels. The next morning they are dropped in the water and sent out onto the river. Later, the barrels are all tied together into a raft (many of them suspiciously low in the water, but fortunately no one acts on their suspicions) and set downstream where the men who had originally filled the barrels with food and drink would be able to re-use them. Bilbo, still invisible, sits on a corner of the raft, out of the way of the pilots.

 *   *   *

The writer of a book has to decide how the narrator will tell the story. Tolkien has the narrator telling the story through Bilbo Baggins’ experience. The narrator is funny. He doesn’t seem to have unlimited knowledge about the story. For example, he can’t tell you the complete history of Gollum. Also, he doesn’t always know what Gandalf is up to. In other words, the narrator is not omniscient. At the same time, the narrator appears to be recounting this story, not telling it as it happens. The narrator is telling a story that has some elements of danger, but he is both kindly about those dangerous elements, frequently reassuring to his readers that things are going to work out and desirous of creating some suspense. When we left off in the last chapter, the casks were all tied together in a raft. The narrator tells us,

“They had escaped the dungeons of the king and were through the wood, but whether alive or dead still remains to be seen.”

In “A Warm Welcome” the raft floats down the river steered by elves. They are headed to “the Lake-men,” who produce the supplies for the wood elves and re-use the barrels. This chapter is short on action but long on description of the sights that Bilbo sees as the raft heads downstream. One of the sights is “the Mountain!” It’s their destination—The Lonely Mountain—and we are told that Bilbo “did not like the look of it in the least.” This part of the journey is a time of learning for Bilbo who “listened to the talk of the raftmen and pieced together the scraps of information they let fall.” Things had changed in this part of the world, much of which was due to the presence of the dragon.

As it happened with the goblins, being captured by the elves actually helped the company on their journey. Part of adventures means we describe the things that happen along the way, but we aren’t too quick to characterize them as “good” or “bad.” The first time there was bad weather it was certainly uncomfortable, but it was just part of the trip. The second time, it was positively dangerous. The company had to get out of it for their own safety. That led to their being captured by goblins, but then, ultimately, they were able to escape and pass under the mountains. Was the weather, then, bad or good? Hard to say. It certainly requires a complicated answer. As the raft makes its journey, Bilbo sees what would have happened had the company remained on the path. It “came to a doubtful and little used end at the eastern edge of the forest; only the river offered any longer a safe way from the skirts of Mirkwood in the North to the mountain-shadowed plains beyond, and the river was guarded by the Wood-elves’ king.” This conclusion, then, by the narrator: “So you see Bilbo had come in the end by the only road that was any good.” I suppose, then, that one way to evaluate an adventure is by the destination, not the route taken; whether or not you have reached a certain destination, not by the quality of the experience traveling.

The enduring mystery which is Gandalf comes up again when the narrator tells us that Bilbo might have been comforted by the fact that as he sat “shivering on the barrels … that news of this had reached Gandalf far away and given him great anxiety, and that he was in fact finishing his other business (which does not come into this tale) and getting ready to come in search of Thorin’s company.” The unanswered question is how did this news reach Gandalf in this world that is without modern technology?

The river eventually rushed into the Long Lake. We are given Bilbo’s first impression, which is a kind of overwhelm: “Bilbo had never imagined that any water that was not the sea could look so big.” And he sees Lake Town, which might have been something “in the great days of old” before the dragon. Is this an allusion to “The Fall” even as it is a description of how things here had fallen from what they had been?

Men helped the elves take the raft out of the current and tie it up. The end of this routine journey for the elves meant it was time for food and drink at a feast in town, which gave Bilbo the opportunity he needed to rescue the dwarves out of the barrels. The dwarves were none too happy about what they had just gone through. Bilbo wasn’t about to take any grief and said, “Well, are you alive or are you dead?” If that’s the standard, then there was nothing to complain about. Once the entire company was freed, Thorin regrouped and admitted, “I suppose we ought to thank our stars and Mr. Baggins. I am sure he has a right to expect it, though I wish he could have arranged a more comfortable journey.”

A small group of the company—Thorin, Bilbo, Fili, and Kili—went to the city gate to request entrance. As “son of Thrain son of Thor King under the Mountain,” Thorin asked for a certain kind of respect and demanded that he be taken to the Master of the town. The introduction of the group to the men created all sorts of excitement for the men of Lake Town. It also created an awkward moment when the elves cried, “These are prisoners of our king that have escaped, wandering vagabond dwarves that could not give any good account of themselves, sneaking through the woods and molesting our people.” This was a political quandry for the master of the town. You didn’t mess with the Elvenking but for the townspeople there was also this memory of “old songs concerning the return of the King under the mountain” (even though Thorin was the grandson of the King). The elves were at a loss as to how the dwarves escaped. The Master needed “to obey the general clamour, for the moment at any rate …” The other dwarves were brought in and the party continued.

We are told that the King of the Elves put some things together in terms of what the dwarves were up to, but didn’t say much. (This is a rare moment in the story where the attention is not on Bilbo and what is going on in his immediate orbit. We are given the thoughts of the Elvenking.) If they died trying to take on a dragon they would get their just desserts and if they tried to bring gold back through Mirkwood, he would have “something to say in the matter.”

A fortnight later, the dwarves announced their departure for the mountain. This made the Master wonder “if Thorin was after all really a descendant of the old kings,” although he wasn’t sorry to see them go: “They were expensive to keep, and their arrival had turned things into a long holiday in which business was at a standstill.” The Master gave the company boats, ponies, rowers, and provisions to continue their journey. Bilbo has a cold and isn’t too happy about continuing the journey.