The Hobbit 9 | Barrels Out of Bond

by Glenn on September 24, 2019

I’m re-reading The Hobbit after a long time and after multiple readings and viewings of The Lord of the Rings books and films. It’s a little strange coming back to this simpler story where the heart of the thing is the pursuit of monetary gain after the epic struggle of TLOTR, where the fate of Middle-Earth hangs in the balance, but I’m enjoying it. And I’m trying to develop as a better reader by recalling and retelling the story in my own words.

Thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, have a quest: to retrieve gold that was taken from their people by a dragon, Smaug. They have solicited the help of a wizard named Gandalf who was charged with the job of finding a burglar to assist them. Gandalf went to the home of a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, who is not a burglar, to solicit (or cheerily compel?) his services. Bilbo’s ancestry includes a side that is very conservative and risk-adverse and one that is adventuresome. The adventurous side is woken up in Bilbo and he ends up, rather on the spur of the moment, accompanying Gandalf and the dwarves on this  quest.

The adventure doesn’t begin very smoothly. Rain accompanies the start of the journey, which makes travel on horseback (a pony for Bilbo) no fun. And then, unknown to the group, Gandalf has slipped away some time before the group encounters three trolls. The trolls would have killed and eaten everyone in the party (perhaps excluding Bilbo for not being meaty enough) except that Gandalf returned in the nick of time to distract the trolls until sunrise, at which point they were frozen solid. The party take some plunder from the trolls, including two  swords taken by Gandalf and Thorin and a small dagger taken by Bilbo, which because of his diminutive size looks and functions like a sword.

The adventure requires them to take a journey through the Misty Mountains. That path is uncertain and so the party takes a detour to the modestly named “Last Homely House,” where the Elf Lord, Elrond lives. The party rests and restocks supplies. They also gain valuable information from Elrond, including a path through the Misty Mountains, information about the weapons that they took from the trolls (they were elven-made and used during “the Goblin Wars”), and some critical information hidden on a map they are carrying.

The company sets out again, and, again, encounters harsh weather as they cross a mountain pass. There is inadequate shelter from the thunder and lightning so they take shelter in a cave, which is a little nerve-wracking, because caves in mountains are notoriously dangerous places to be even though they provide shelter. As the company sleeps, Bilbo is awakened by a nightmare where a crack opens in the cave and the company is attacked. It wasn’t a nightmare—it was reality. A crack had opened in the back of the cave and goblins were attacking the group while they slept. Bilbo’s cry in returning to consciousness saves the day as it gives Gandalf time to save himself while the rest of the company and the pack animals are captured and taken underground. The narrator tells us that the animals will be killed and eaten by the goblins. Meanwhile the company is taken deep underground to the Great Goblin. Attempts by the dwarves to establish innocent motives for passing through the mountains and to negotiate their release come to naught when the elf-made sword that Thorin carried was recognized by the goblins as a weapon that had killed hundreds of goblins. But then, in the nick of time, Gandalf showed up, killed the Great Goblin, and with some pyrotechnics, created enough confusion for the company to make a run for it. One of the dwarves was tasked with carrying Bilbo but, unfortunately, dropped him when goblins in pursuit finally caught up. Bilbo fell on a rock and was rendered unconscious.

The tunnel was dark and quiet when Bilbo came to. Crawling around, Bilbo discovered a ring. He then followed the tunnel until he came to water, where he stopped because, in the darkness, he could not tell if it was a puddle or a lake. It was an underground lake and on an island in the middle of the lake lived Gollum, a creature whose origin is not completely known even to the narrator. Gollum is a predator and would have eaten Bilbo except for the dagger he carries. They decide to play a game of riddles. If Bilbo wins, Gollum has to show him the way out. If Gollum wins, Bilbo dies. It’s high stakes and doesn’t end quite fairly when Bilbo’s last riddle is, “What do I have in my pocket?” Gollum gets three guesses but can’t put it together. Gollum says he will show Bilbo the way out but first he paddles out to his island to retrieve something—it is the ring that Bilbo had discovered and Gollum didn’t realize he had lost. The ring finds its way onto Bilbo’s finger, which was fortunate because it renders its wearer invisible and a raging Gollum returns to the tunnel suspecting that Bilbo had his ring. Gollum thinks Bilbo has somehow figured out a way toward the exit and heads that way. Bilbo follows along and listens to Gollum as he thinks he is talking aloud to himself and explains the powers of the ring. When Gollum gets close to the exit he becomes aware of goblins and heads back underground, but Bilbo makes his escape.

Out from under the mountain, a still invisible Bilbo makes his way and hears voices. It turns out it’s the dwarves and Gandalf who had escaped from under the mountain and were in the midst of a debate about what to do about the missing Bilbo. Gandalf has, for unknown reasons, a high view of Bilbo and his abilities, and wanted to return to the mountain to find out what happened. The dwarves were irritated that he was even on the trip. Bilbo revealed himself and the argument ended with general astonishment. Stories are shared about how the group escaped and Bilbo describes his escape without mentioning the ring of invisibility.

Now the company had a problem. Night was coming and goblins would be out looking for them. So the company headed out to get as much space between them and the mountain as possible. They almost died in a landslide. But then the noise and shouts attracted some evil wolves, called Wargs. The company climbed trees to escape. Gandalf sent down fire on the wolves but then goblins showed up and created burn piles under the trees. Fortunately, the Lord of the Eagles took notice of what was going on and he and his guard came and rescued the company before they were burned alive. It turns out that Gandalf had once healed the Lord of the Eagles when he was injured and was happy to return the favor.

The next day the eagles carried the company further along their journey. Gandalf warned them that his time with them was nearing an end, which caused some outcries from the company. He then took them to meet Beorn, a skin-changer, who could be either a man or a bear. He was potentially dangerous to them, but Gandalf was smart about how the company approached him (not all at once). Beorn is no fan of goblins and was happy to hear that the Great Goblin had been killed. The company received provisions and some pack animals for short-term use. They were taken to the edge of the Forest of Mirkwood where Gandalf left them. They were told not to leave the path and not to drink the water.

Well, the company ended up doing the two things they were told they were absolutely not to do. But not right away. They stayed on the path. But the forest was huge and it was day after day along the path and their supplies dwindled. Then they came to a stream they had to cross. Fortunately there was a small boat available and they shuttled themselves across in two’s. The largest dwarf, Bombur, was going to come across last and just at the moment he was stepping into the boat a deer came barreling down the path and leaped across the water. Bombur was knocked into the water and while he was able to be rescued, he was put into a deep enchanted sleep by the water and had to be carried. The great disappointment of this moment was that Thorin was able to shoot the deer which would have provided some food, but the buck was on the wrong side of the stream and the boat drifted away in all the commotion.

After more days of trekking, Bilbo was sent to climb a tree and to see if he could see the end of the forest. Unfortunately the tree was in a low place and Bilbo couldn’t see that they were nearly to the end. The company got discouraged. That’s when they saw a light off the path. They left the path to check it out. When they got close to the light, it disappeared and reappeared farther away in the forest. The company ventured after the new light. Whenever they would get close to the light, it would disappear. The light was the campfire of wood elves. After several attempts to get close to the light the company was thoroughly lost. That’s when spiders attacked. Bilbo was fortunate. He had his blade and was able to fend off a spider. The dwarves weren’t so lucky. Bilbo was able to rescue them and there was a terrific battle with the spiders. What no one realized was that Thorin had been captured by wood elves and taken to the palace of their king.

*   *   *

In “Barrels Out of Bond”, the morning after the battle, the dwarves and Bilbo tried to find their way out of the forest, but then the wood elves showed up in strength and the rest of the dwarves were captured. Bilbo put on his ring and followed without being seen. The dwarves were each placed in separate cells and Bilbo kept his ring on and stayed hidden and out of the way. Bilbo told the dwarves about the unique quality of his ring and he was able to secretly carry messages from Thorin to the other dwarves. They agreed to keep their gold-finding mission a secret from the elves. After a week or two, eventually a plan came to Bilbo to get everyone out.

Aside: I’ve noticed that the narrator is unusual in this book in that his knowledge is limited. We saw this before when the narrator couldn’t tell the whole story of Gollum. Now, when Bilbo gained trust with the dwarves during their imprisonment, he writes, “Just what Gandalf had said would happen, you see. Perhaps that was part of his reason for going off and leaving them.” Funny that the narrator doesn’t know what the motives of Gandalf are.

In his exploration of the palace of the wood elves, Bilbo became aware that the large gated entrance through which the dwarves had been brought was not the only entrance. Water flowed under the palace. This was part of a trading system. Barrels of wine and supplies were brought from other regions to the wood elves. When they were emptied, they returned the barrels by dropping them below the palace into the stream and sending them on their way. One night, the captain of the guard and the king’s butler got drunk on some potent wine and fell asleep. Bilbo took the keys, let the dwarves out, and sealed them in the empty barrels. The next morning dwarves pushed the barrels into the water and opened the water gate so that the barrels could float away. Obviously, the barrels that contained dwarves were a little low in the water. Luckily, no one checked to see why.

The only problem with this plan was that Bilbo didn’t really have a way out. He had to jump into the icy water and hang on to an empty barrel. People downstream were waiting for these barrels. They were tied up for the night. Our narrator is in a hurry at this point.

“There is no need to tell you much of his adventures that night, for now we are drawing near the end of the eastward journey and coming to the last and greatest adventure, so we must hurry on.”

The next morning, the barrels were tied together to make one large raft and pushed out into the stream to go to the suppliers. It was noticed that some of the barrels were quite low in the water and it was suspected that they might not have been empty, but the men let it go.

The end of the chapter is a cliff-hanger:

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