The Hobbit 11 | On the Doorstep

by Glenn on October 30, 2019

Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, was compelled by Gandalf, a wizard, to join Thorin Oakenshield and twelve other dwarves in an adventure to retrieve gold that was taken from the dwarves by a dragon, Smaug. They left Bilbo’s home on The Hill in the land of Hobbits in the late Spring and traveled toward the Misty Mountains. The trip hasn’t been easy. There was weather to contend with. And there were enemies—trolls, goblins, and wargs (evil wolves) that were out to kill them. But there was help along the way, too. Elrond, the elf lord at the Last Homely House, gave hospitality, provisions, and key knowledge; the Lord of the Eagles provided a timely rescue; and a skin-changer named Beorn, who could change from a human into a bear, re-provisioned the group.

At one point, Bilbo was separated from the group and found a ring which rendered him invisible, a helpful discovery considering his role in the company was as a burglar. Beyond the Misty Mountains the company, now without Gandalf, traveled through the Forest of Mirkwood where they were nearly killed by spiders and captured by wood elves. With his ring of invisibility, Bilbo managed an escape for the dwarves from the dungeon of the wood elves. The escape was uncomfortable, though. Bilbo noticed that empty barrels were going to be sent downstream to be refilled with provisions for the elves and at an opportune moment, he freed the dwarves and placed each in an empty barrel. The barrels were later tied together into a raft and steered to the Long Lake and the home of men. The town and environs appeared to be only a shadow of themselves. The presence of the dragon made this an area of desolation with greatly reduced economic activity. Bilbo freed the dwarves from the barrels and their leader, Thorin, presented himself to the Master of the town as a person who required great respect. A political problem emerged. The elves were irritated that the dwarves had escaped. The people in the town remembered old songs about the return of the King under the Mountain, the Lonely Mountain, that could be seen from the town. The Master decided to help the dwarves continue their journey as productivity in the town had fallen with their presence. The Elf King realized that if the dwarves were successful, he could appropriate some of the gold when they returned through Mirkwood.

And so we arrive at Chapter XI, “On the Doorstep.”

The Master of the town provisioned the company. He sent the company upstream in boats and provided horses and ponies with other provisions to meet the company upstream. After three days, the company left the boats and joined up with the pack animals. The men who had accompanied them left as quickly as possible as no one liked being this close to the mountain: “‘Not at any rate until the songs have come true!’, said they.” And this great comment by the narrator: “It was easier to believe in the Dragon and less easy to believe in Thorin in these wild parts.” The company left the provisions they couldn’t carry under a tent. There was no concern that anyone would steal them because no one was out here.

It’s become later in the year and the narrator gives us another great line: “They spent a cold and lonely night and their spirits fell.” The company has made all this progress and they are near their destination, but this has not improved their moods. Why? We are told that “the pride and hopes which had stirred in their hearts at the singing of old songs by the lake died away to a plodding gloom. … They were come to the Desolation of the Dragon, and they were come at the waning of the year.”

The company traveled toward the mountain. First, a small group crept up to look at The Front Gate, out of which a river flowed and dark smoke, presumably from the dragon, rose into the sky. This view was discouraging. There was no way in and there was a general feeling of evil. So they returned to camp. The narrator summarizes the status:

“Only in June they had been guests in the fair house of Elrond, and though autumn was now crawling towards winter that pleasant time now seemed years ago. They were alone in the perilous waste without hope of further help. They were at the end of their journey, but as far as ever, it seemed, from the end of their quest. None of them had much spirit left.”

They had a map and a key to a secret entrance and so the group made their way for the western slope where they eventually found what had to be the entrance. The problem was that there was no sign of a door.

Our narrator remains intriguing to me. He seems to be telling us what’s happening as it is happening, but clearly this is a tale he is recounting because at one point he clarifies that something Bombur said “was not true, as you will see.”

The company had become discouraged and Bilbo sensed that the dwarves were blaming him for their lack of progress at gaining entrance to the Mountain. Bilbo had become thoughtful. At one point he was thinking of home. But also he must have been thinking about what he had learned in the house of Elrond. And then one sunset it happened. Something Elrond had read on the map way back in Chapter III now made sense: “Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks … and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.” And so the chapter finishes with Bilbo figuring it out. The entire company stood watching as sunset came, a thrush trilled, and a crack appeared in the rock. Thorin was able to insert his key into the lock and they opened the door.