The Hobbit 16 | A Thief in the Night

by Glenn on November 9, 2019

The chapter opens with things in a kind of stasis. Outside the hall, Bard and a group of men and elves have declared a siege on those inside the Mountain. Inside the Mountain, Thorin Oakenshield, with his small company of dwarves, and Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit, have the superior position and plenty of weapons. They constructed a wall across the main entrance and the only way in would be through a direct assault that would be costly on both sides, though likely terminal for the dwarves.

Bard made his demands known—one twelfth of the gold and Thorin needs to do something to help the people of Lake Town. It seems like a reasonable “offer.” He could have been way more demanding and belligerent. While Bard doesn’t have the upper hand in terms of topography, the dwarves have a couple of problems. First, their food supply isn’t endless. While time is not necessarily on the side of those who have besieged the Mountain because winter is coming, waiting means those outside will be cold but those inside will be starving. Second, there is a kind of political problem among the dwarves. Thorin is the kind of ruler whose commands are not questioned. He has said that he is giving none of the gold away and no one seems willing or able to counter his position.

Our narrator says that “days passed slowly and wearily.” There was some organizing of the treasure and Thorin asked for the others to help him find the Arkenstone, which he said was

“worth more than a river of gold in itself, and to me it is beyond price. That stone of all the treasure I name unto myself, and I will be avenged on anyone who finds it and withholds it.”

These words were, of course, concerning for Bilbo. Early on he had pocketed the Arkenstone, thinking it lovely and the one item he would have picked. It was bound up in what he was using as a pillow.

It’s hard to see how this is going to end well for the company.

Word came from the ravens that dwarves were on the march to come and help. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t be able to arrive unnoticed, which probably meant a battle in the valley. Roäc, the talking raven, asked Thorin, “How shall you be fed without the friendship and goodwill of the lands about you?” And then he stated the truth of the situation: “The treasure is likely to be your death, though the dragon is no more!” But Thorin was pretty well entrenched both physically and spiritually/emotionally. His hope was that the coming of winter might make the men and elves easier to negotiate with. How likely was that?

Then we are told, “That night Bilbo made up his mind.” It was a dark, moonless night. Bombur was standing guard and Bilbo offered to take over his duties, which Bombur happily accepted so that he could go inside to sleep and be warm. Bilbo put on his ring of invisibility and climbed out. He sneaked behind the lines of the elves and after he revealed himself demanded that he be taken to their leaders. Some time later he was in front of both the Elvenking and Bard where he conducted business. Bilbo described Thorin’s intransigence and in the process of discussions learned that Bard and the Elvenking were of similar mind. Bilbo told them something they didn’t know, that Dain and 500 armed dwarves were just a couple of days away. They were on the cusp of “serious trouble.” Bard wondered why Bilbo was telling them this: “Are you betraying your friends, or are you threatening us?”

Bilbo deflected the question declaring, “I never met such suspicious folk!” Bilbo told them he was making them an offer, at which point he brought out the Arkenstone.

“This is the Arkenstone of Thrain, said Bilbo, “the Heart of the Mountain; and it is also the heart of Thorin. He values it above a river of gold. I give it to you. It will aid you in your bargaining.”

The narrator tells us that “Bilbo, not without a shudder, not without a glance of longing, handed the marvellous stone to Bard.”

Bard asked the obvious question, “But how is it yours to give?”

Bilbo admitted, “It isn’t exactly; but, well, I am willing to let it stand against all my claim.” Bilbo then said he was headed back to the dwarves. The Elvenking wondered if it was safe for Bilbo to return, having just betrayed Thorin so profoundly. He offered to let Bilbo stay, but Bilbo declared, “I don’t think I ought to leave my friends like this, after all we have gone through together.” He couldn’t be dissuaded so they escorted him out of the camp.

On his way out of the camp, “an old man, wrapped in a dark cloak, rose from a tent door where he was sitting and came towards them.” It was Gandalf who clapped Bilbo on the back declaring, “Well done! Mr. Baggins!” Bilbo was delighted to see Gandalf “But there was no time for all the questions that he immediately wished to ask.”

One of the questions throughout this tale is how much does Gandalf see into the future. Is he just wise or does he have premonitions or is he extraordinarily well-connected. He tells Bilbo,

“Things are drawing towards the end now, unless I am mistaken. There is an unpleasant time just in front of you; but keep your heart up! You may come through all right. There is news brewing that even the ravens have not heard. Good night!”

Bilbo returned to the Mountain. He woke up Bombur who went back on guard duty and then curled up and went to sleep dreaming of eggs and bacon.

*   *   *

Bilbo is a complicated guy/hobbit. He is an independent operator. The dwarves engaged Bilbo to serve on a contracted basis. He was being paid to do a job and his loyalty to Thorin was based solely on potential financial gain. Since Bilbo’s interest was financial, the extent to which financial gain mattered to him was the extent to which he could be counted on to be loyal. It’s interesting in this chapter that when Bilbo gives away the Arkenstone, it wasn’t “without a shudder, not without a glance of longing.” So the money matters. But other things do, too, and self-preservation is not one of them, because Bilbo wanted to go back to the dwarves. They had been through a lot together. As an independent operator, Bilbo could think independently. He thought of what might get the dwarves beyond the impasse. What he did definitely would be considered traitorous if it had been done by one of the dwarves. It was a combination of wise and shrewd and dangerous and common sense. What remains is to see how it will play out.

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