The two obvious places to start with Bilbo are his first encounter with Gandalf in “The Unexpected Party” and his finding of the Ring in Riddles in the Dark. I am doing neither because if I go back to the beginning of The Hobbit, I’ll still be writing about Bilbo next year; and because I covered the essentials of “Riddles in the Dark” when I discussed Gollum. (1)
The Significance of the Mirkwood Passages
I am going straight to Mirkwood for two reasons.
1. As I was reading and thinking about how to approach Bilbo, I got the idea that “Flies and Spiders” is under-discussed, and one of the jobs of a literary scholar is to find passages that haven’t been analyzed to death already and write about those. So I am giving quite a bit of attention to “Flies and Spiders” and the following chapter, “Barrels out of Bond.” (2)
2. The Mirkwood adventures are the point in the story where Bilbo’s transformation becomes so evident as to be undeniable. In “Riddles in the Dark,” Bilbo is not much different than he was when he left Hobbiton.
Bilbo walks into Mirkwood a Hobbit who’s been roped into an adventure by Gandalf and the Dwarves regard him as little more than baggage for most of the early journey. He pops out of his barrel in Laketown out a more confident adventurer and, to Thorin and Company, a respectable professional burglar. It’s impossible to understand Bilbo without understanding these chapters.
The journey through Mirkwood is important for another reason, as well. Southern Mirkwood is the domain of Sauron. I am not sure when he actually completed the Dark Tower of Dol Guldur, but his shadow fell on Greenwood the Great in TA 1050 – nearly 2000 years before the events of the Hobbit take place. During “Flies and Spiders,” the Ring is not that far away from Sauron. (3)
Leaving aside the fact that The Hobbit is the earliest published text, and so a bit of retconning was required to fit it seamlessly into the canon, this is a point in history at which things could have gone very badly for Middle Earth. Sauron is completely unaware that the ring has surfaced despite the fact that Bilbo wears it continually for weeks to evade the wood elves. It’s a good thing this is occupying Sauron’s attention while Thorin and Company are struggling to deal with their spider and elf troubles:
So, these are a doubly-important chapters. Add in the fact that they’re also complex, and they require a bit of setup before we dive into the reading. Here is a brief summary of significant plot points prior to the Mirkwood chapters and a few things to look out for once I start on the texts in the next installment.
There are two significant details from “Riddles in the Dark” to bear in mind. First, in every passage of that chapter where the Ring is slipping onto or off of Bilbo’s finger, the sentence structure and verb choices suggest (at the very least) that the Ring is acting on Bilbo rather than the other way around. Second, Bilbo chooses not to attack Gollum because he is armed and Gollum is not, so it wouldn’t be a fair fight. (4)
There’s also the incident with the Orcs and the Eagles after the company escapes the Misty Mountains and their subsequent encounter with Beorn. These set up an important plotline for later, but they do not tell us much we don’t already know about Bilbo or the Ring, so I’ve skipped them. (5)
Things to look out for in “Flies and Spiders” and “Barrels of Bond.”
There are several threads to follow here. I’ll list them today and discuss them in the next couple of posts.
- Bilbo’s interactions with the spiders show him to be both clever and capable of being calm in a desperate situation.
- The Dwarves’ interactions with Bilbo clearly indicate by the end of these chapters that they are see him in a new light.
- Bilbo deals well with being left to his own devices once the Dwarves are captured, and finally orchestrates their escape.
- Bilbo’s explanation of the Ring and his power of invisibility to the Dwarves is interesting.
- Tolkien’s depiction of the Wood Elves in The Hobbit a bit different than his depictions of Elves in LOTR. Elven history and culture was not quite settled yet when the final manuscript of the Hobbit was produced, so there is more of Faerie in the Elves of The Hobbit than there is Tolkien’s later work.
I’m at 800 words already, so, not enough room to read any passages today. Do tune in next week!
Bonus Post Idea
Our friends over at Write On! Sisters have been talking about what makes a good heist story recently. I think it would be an interesting and not-very-difficult thing to do to read the Hobbit as a heist caper. I wonder how Thorin and Co. would shake out if you look at them as a heist crew. I won’t say I will never get around to this because I love the idea just that much. But it certainly isn’t happening this year. So feel free to borrow it, and drop us a link if you do.
1. “The Unexpected Party” is Chapter 1 in The Hobbit, pp 15-39.”Riddles in the Dark” is Chapter 4, pp. 76-95.
2. Chapters 8 and 9 in The Hobbit, pp. 140-182.
3. The date is from “The Tale of Years,” Appendix B in The Return of the King, p. 366.
4. The relevant passage is near the end of “Riddles in the Dark,” p. 92.
5. “Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire,” and “Queer Lodgings,” respectively. pp. 96-139.