The Hobbit 4 | Over Hill And Under Hill

by Glenn on August 31, 2019

1 | An Unexpected Party A group of thirteen dwarves including their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, have, somehow, gained an association with a wizard, Gandalf, who has agreed to help them in their quest to take back a large pile of gold that was stolen from them and is being held captive by a dragon. It’s not clear at this point what Gandalf’s interest in all of this is or why he associates with whom he associates, but the dwarves show great deference to him and the respect appears to be mutual. Apparently, part of the services Gandalf said he would provide was to secure the help of a burglar to help with the mission. Gandalf chooses a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, who has no experience as a burglar and will leave a rather comfortable life to take on this dangerous assignment in the pursuit of gold.

2 | Roast Mutton It’s a rather frantic beginning to the adventure for the hobbit, Bilbo. Everyone else has been preparing for it for some time, but the adventure is sprung on Bilbo, who rises late and is shoved out on his way thoroughly unprepared by Gandalf.

Adventures are, almost by definition, problem-solving, or at least problem-facing exercises. The nature of life is that when we go off in the pursuit of things, we will encounter some form of opposition. At the same time, it’s not like sitting around not pursuing things is a way to avoid problems. Perhaps the problems we face in the pursuit of things are better than the problems that come with passivity.

As our group sets out, they encounter three problems. First, is rainy weather, which makes the journey harder and dampens (no pun intended) the mood. Second, are predators. In this case it’s three large trolls, who are quite dangerous. They capture the dwarves and the hobbit and seem intent on eating them. Their deliberations suggest that the dwarves may be tasty but the hobbit may be too small to warrant much attention. Third, Gandalf is not present with the travelers at just the time when it would be helpful to have a wizard around. He slipped away from the party without telling anyone. He returns in the nick of time to deal with the trolls and save the day. Later he explains he had a sense that he was needed back. Gandalf’s awareness is fascinating. He can’t be everywhere at once in a physical sense, but he has a feel for what is going on in different places at the same time. The company get some plunder from the trolls, including swords for Gandalf and Thorin and a small dagger which is proportionately like a sword for Bilbo.

3 | A Short Rest The company needs to cross the Misty Mountains, but no one seems to know the way and it’s bad if you get lost. So the group diverts to the home of Elrond, an elf lord, who lives in the “Last Homely House,” which is completely understated in name. A number of good things come out of this. First, the group is able to replenish supplies and get some rest.

Second, the group is able to gain some information from the map they carry. It turns out it has an ingenious secret code, with words only visible when the map is lit by the same kind of moon under which the words were written. Which makes me wonder how many other messages might be on this map? How many cycles of the moon are there? And what are the odds that the company would show up at Elrond’s at the same cycle of the moon? Maybe I shouldn’t overthink this.

Third, Elrond explains that the swords that Gandalf and Thorin took from the trolls were created by elves in ancient days for goblin wars. The blades have names—Thorin has Orcrist, the Goblin-Cleaver and Gandalf has Glamdring, the Foe-hammer, which belonged to the king of Gondor. As a narrator, Tolkien is funny, because that mention of the king of Gondor makes no sense if you haven’t read The Lord of the Rings. You wonder how much of The Lord of the Rings he had in his mind as he was telling this story. As a reader, details like this are both really impressive and somewhat confusing. It doesn’t seem like a requirement that you track these details, but perhaps it will enhance your enjoyment when you can piece together an understanding of this world that Tolkien has created. Otherwise, I think the feeling is one of immersion in an unknown world. The narrator takes it for granted that we will know things or expects that we will pick them up in due time.

Finally, Elrond tells the group how to get onto the correct path through the Misty Mountains.

4 | Over Hill and Under Hill The chapter begins

“There were many paths that led up into those mountains, and many passes over them. But most of the paths were cheats and deceptions and led nowhere or to bad ends; and most of the passes were infested by evil things and dreadful dangers. The dwarves and the hobbit, helped by the wise advice of Elrond and the knowledge and memory of Gandalf, took the right road to the right pass.”

I love how Tolkien raises the stakes here. First, there is a bit of deception in the narration. He’s setting us up a bit. It sounds like things could easily go badly for anyone crossing the Misty Mountains, so you’re automatically worried about our little company. And you realize that things could have gone really badly except that Gandalf and company were smart enough to have consulted Elrond in the previous chapter.

Perhaps a rule for going on an adventure is to consult someone wise enough to help you with some direction to avoid pitfalls.

This use of the word “evil” is interesting, here. I’m sure it’s not the first use of the word in the book, but it seems like a new dynamic for this company of adventurers. We’ve seen that the natural world is not always comfortable and at times can be unpleasant. Further, it includes dangers of all sorts. But now there’s something much more ominous—the presence of evil which needs to be considered. At the mention of evil we don’t question that the company is on the right side of the good vs. evil conflict.

Our group is heading along the right road up, up, up into the mountains. Tolkien speaks of “long days” and so we get the understanding of the passing of time on a long arduous journey. In our modern world, you can be anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. We think of plane travel as some sort of journey, but in Middle Earth, it can take a bit of time and some extraordinary effort to get places because you can only go as fast as your feet or the feet of the animal beneath you can go. This is not necessarily an anti-technology book, but it is certainly pre-modern and pre-technology.

Tolkien gives us a psychological aspect of this journey through the mind of Bilbo. Explaining that it won’t be for the last time, we learn that Bilbo is thinking about his comfortable home and wondering what other people are doing with their summer while he is on this journey. This is the nature of adventure—we often find ourselves thinking of what life might have been for us and what others might be experiencing at any given moment.

Our narrator wants us to understand some things about journeys. The group had hopes for what would transpire, but Gandalf

“knew how evil and danger had grown and thriven in the Wild, since the dragons had driven men from the lands, and the goblins had spread in secret after the battle of the Mines of Moria. Even the good plans of wise wizards like Gandalf and of good friends like Elrond go astray sometimes when you are off on dangerous adventures over the Edge of the Wild; and Gandalf was a wise enough wizard to know it.”

So, it’s not just that the journey will have physical demands and you will meet specific opponents along the way, but there is this general sense that evil will affect you as well.

The group is looking for a door that will take them into the Lonely Mountains, but they won’t find it. A pattern now emerges in this story. I don’t mean this as a critique of Tolkien—the man was a genius—but it occurs to me that this chapter invokes a pattern that we had two chapters previously. Our group encounters some weather. And then the group gets into mortal danger without Gandalf present. But then Gandalf comes back at the last moment to save the day. Well, a variation this time is that at the end of the chapter we’re not quite sure if he has saved the day. The end of this chapter is a cliff-hanger.

The weather our group encounters is much more severe this time. It’s rain plus thunder and lighting and because they are on a narrow path, there’s not much shelter. One thing I’ve always wondered: While they were hanging on in inadequate shelter, Bilbo

“peeped out in the lightning flashes … saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang.”

These stone giants, are they metaphorical or actual? There’s not a lot of explanation offered as far as where they fit into Middle Earth. Are they good or evil? They’re certainly dangerous. But their hurling about of stones, seems to be the least of the company’s worries.

The group needs better shelter, so Fili and Kili, the youngest dwarves with the best eyesight, are tasked to go find shelter. They find a cave, but we are given hints that this cave could be a problem. There’s a lot of concern about caves in general and this cave in particular. The voice of the narrator is friendly toward our group, but there’s a kind of remove, too. The narrator is not enmeshed with his characters and with some detachment, he explains,

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something (Or so Thorin said to the young dwarvers). You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after. So it proved on this occasion.”

And so our narrator knows things that the characters in the story don’t and doesn’t mind cluing us in.

“That, of course, is the dangerous part about caves: you don’t know how far they go back, sometimes, or where a passage behind may lead to, or what is waiting for you inside.”

It’s like Tolkien/the narrator is trying to educate us. The tone is conversational and friendly and he wants to impart wisdom for those of us reading in case we ever go on an adventure.

Well, the cave starts off like a good idea and then it turns into a nightmare. A crack in the back of the cave opens after everyone has gone to sleep and goblins rush in. We’re told it didn’t go well for the ponies and that we’ll never see them again. If trolls were bad, goblins are worse if only because there are so many of them. The only good thing is that Bilbo was having a dream about the crack that woke him up and that was enough warning for Gandalf to do some damage and escape while the goblins take everyone else hostage and the crack in the cave is sealed up again.

We know that dwarves and elves sing. Goblins sing, too, but the poetry that Tolkien offers (in English translation) is not mellifluous. It’s very percussive and largely mono-syllabic:

Clap! Snap! the black crack!
Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!
And down down to Goblin-town
     You go, my lad!

The dwarves and the hobbit are carried down to meet the Great Goblin. The dwarves try to be friendly and negotiate but Thorin’s sword is shown to the goblin leader, the Great Goblin, who is very unhappy to see this particular weapon—it had killed hundreds of goblins in the past. This would have been the end of the company except that Gandalf showed up again in the nick of time. It’s quite dramatic:

“Just at that moment all the lights in the cavern went out, and the great fire went off poof! into a tower of blue glowing smoke, right up to the roof, that scattered piercing white sparks all among the goblins.”

This is the value of a wizard. The narrator pours it on,

“The yells and yammering, croaking, jibbering and jabbering; howls, growls and curses; shrieking and shriking, that followed were beyond description. Several hundred wild cats and wolves being roasted slowly alive together would not have compared with it. The sparks were burning holes in the goblins, and the smoke that now fell from the roof made the air too thick for even their eyes to see through. Soon they were falling over one another and rolling in heaps on the floor, biting and kicking and fighting as if they had all gone mad.

“Suddenly a sword flashed in its own light. Bilbo saw it go right through the Great Goblin as he stood dumbfounded in the middle of his rage. He fell dead, and the goblin soldiers fled before the sword shrieking into the darkness.”

Gandalf is powerful. As a wizard he can do things with light and make things explode. But he can also fight.

Aside: It occurs to me that J.R.R. Tolkien is not a fan of the Oxford Comma.

In the confusion, Gandalf and company begin to make their escape (the hobbit is carried by Dori because he is too small to keep up), but the dim light that Gandalf provides so they can see their path is enough for goblins to see them. The chapter ends with Dori being grabbed from behind by a goblin and Bilbo falling, hitting his head on a rock, and going unconscious. Interesting that the narrator, who was more detached before, is so entwined with Bilbo that his unconsciousness provides an end to the chapter.

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