Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Hobbit: Part 3: Into Mirkwood

We devoted our last reading of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit engaged in a deadly riddle contest with the slimy and sillibant Gollum. Bilbo managed to escape with the help of the Magic Ring which he providentially found lying around on the cavern floor, leaving the wretched Gollum cursing his name.

Hidden by the invisibility bestowed by the Ring, Bilbo is able to evade the goblins and escape the mountain. It's a narrow escape; even invisible, Bilbo has to be quick to avoid being trodden upon by goblins. He only just manages to squeeze through the crack of the massive door leading out into daylight, at the cost of several buttons. For the rest of the story that door is referred to not as "the door where Bilbo escaped the goblins," but "the door where Bilbo lost his buttons." That sort of trivializes the drama of his escape; then again, it's rather fitting. Like the pocket handkerchief and hat Bilbo left at home in his hurry out the door in his mad dash to embark on an adventure, his buttons are a sign of his lost respectability. Or maybe I'm reading too much into this.

But if he has lost a degree of hobbit respectability, Bilbo has gained the respect of the dwarves. When he rejoins Thorin's company, they are all impressed that he was able to escape the goblin caves all by himself. Bilbo does not tell them about the Ring, but attributes his feat to his Hobbitish Mad Ninja Skilz. Gandalf might suspect Bilbo's story, but does not call him out on it at this time.

The company has little time to tarry. As night falls, they find themselves surrounded by wargs, large wolves which look nothing like hyenas and who are allied with the goblins. Gandalf tries scaring the wargs off with a few fireball spells, but as any D&D player will tell you, fireballs always risk doing more damage to the party than they to to the monsters. The goblins show up and turn the brushfires ignited by Gandalf's attacks to burn the trees in which he and the dwarves have taken refuge.

When all looks lost, a group of eagles swoop down and carry Thorin's company off to safety. Eagles aren't terribly known for their acts of altruism, "Eagles are not kindly birds", the narration tells us; but they dislike goblins and their leader happens to be a friend of Gandalf's. It pays to have friends in high places.

The eagles' eyrie is a bit too high for Bilbo's liking. As grateful as he is for the rescue, he prefers to be closer to the ground, and the eagle's jokes comparing him to a rabbit make him feel ill at ease. He's happy when the eagles deposit the party safely in the valley.

The dwarves have lost all their pack animals and most of their supplies in the mountains; but Gandalf knows of a "someone" nearby who might help; an individual named Beorn. Gandalf tells Bilbo that Beorn is a "skin-changer". Sometimes he is a big, extremely hairy man; sometimes he is an enormous black bear. The name "Beorn" is actually an Old English word meaning "man" or "warrior", but it also once had the meaning "bear" and is related to the Old Norse word for bear, "björn".

Beorn shows a few similarities with Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings; not the least of which is that he often gets left out of adaptations. (I suspect he will remain in the Peter Jackson version; the bit where he shows up again late in the story is too good a visual to pass up). Like Bombadil, Beorn is a mysterious figure with a close bond to nature. Gandalf himself does not know exactly where Beorn came from.
"Some say that he is a bear descended from the great and ancient bears of the mountains that lived there before the giants came. Others say that he is a man descended from the first men who lived before Smaug or the other dragons came into this part of the world, and before the goblins came into the hills out of the North."
But if Tom Bombadil is a friendly, easy-going hippie, Beorn is and old-time mountain man, gruff and suspicious of strangers. He seems to act as a protector for the human settlers farther down the river valley, but he is not one of them. He dwells apart, alone save for his animals which he treats as members of his household. He dislikes visitors and has no love for dwarves. Nobody seems to like the dwarves an awful lot.

Gandalf is able to gain Beorn's hospitality, though, with a variation of the joke he played on Bilbo in the very first chapter; by introducing the dwarves a couple at a time until Beorn is up to his eyebrows in them. But Beorn takes it like a good sport. He doesn't like goblins either, and Gandalf's tale of how they slew the Great Goblin and escaped from the mountains wins him over.

Beorn provides the company with supplies to continue their journey and advice for their next leg, which will take them through the vast forest of Mirkwood. At this point, Gandalf announces that he's leaving the group. Through the entire book, Gandalf keeps disappearing just when he'd be useful and then showing up again just when he's really needed. This time, he gives some advance warning. From the very beginning he made clear that this adventure was Thorin's jaunt and he was only along to help with the organization and guide the party through the mountains. But Gandalf is a busy wizard and he has other wizard stuff which needs attending to, specifically the matter of the Necromancer in the south of Mirkwood.

Originally the Necromancer was just a throwaway reference, an excuse for temporarily pulling Gandalf out of the plot. Later on, when Tolkien was scrounging up loose ends of plot to work into a sequel to The Hobbit, he decided that the shadowy Necromancer lurking about the fringes of Bilbo's story was a guise of Sauron, the big threat of Lord of the Rings. But for now, the Necromancer is a mysterious plot device. Gandalf leaves the party on the edges of Mirkwood, with his parting words echoing Beorn's most important piece of advice: "DON'T LEAVE THE PATH!"

You know that's exactly what they're going to do.

Tolkien had a deep fondness for trees and forests play a big part in many of his stories. Mirkwood is vast and deep, with trees so thick that sunlight rarely penetrates it and sinister cobwebs shround the branches. The path Beorn recommend to them was made by elves and seems to have some magical protection to it; but the dark, dense forest on either side of the path is creepy and oppressive. Even the squirrels are sinister.

Partway through the forest they come to a stream which Beorn had warned them against. For the most part, they cross it safely without touching its magical waters, but Bombur, the stoutest dwarf of the company falls in and immediately falls into an enchanted sleep. The food Beorn had given them is starting to run out, and now they have to take turn carrying Bombur. They send Bilbo to climb a tree in order to see how near they are from the forest's edge, but as far as he can tell the trees seem to go on forever.

Out of food and desperate, they see lights off in the trees. They decide to disregard Beorn's advice and leave to path. In folklore, will-o'-the-wisps are said to lure foolish travelers off of safe paths and into danger. In this case, the lights are from a feast being held in a clearing by a group of elves; but the result is the same: as soon as the dwarves approach, the elves flee and their fires and lanterns disappear, leaving the dwarves in the dark once more.

The elves in The Hobbit tend to resemble fairies more than the stately elves in Lord of the Rings and the tragic figures of The Silmarillion. They are more mercurial here. The elves of Rivendell were frivolous and silly; the elves of Mirkwood secretive and tricksy. But these aren't the cutesified fairies of the Elizabethans, or the bowdlerized fairies of the Victorians or the backpack-adorning fairies of the Disney Corporation. These creatures are unpredictable and dangerous.

They collapse of exhaustion in the darkness. Bilbo awakens to discover that he is being enwebbed by a gigantic spider. Tolkien liked sticking spiders into his stories too, as with Shelob in LOTR and Ungoliant in Silmarillion. I've read that when he was a boy growing up in South Africa, Tolkien had been frightened by some large ones. In an interview, Tolkien himself said that he put them in because he was primarily writing for his own children and one of his sons had a fear of spiders.
Bilbo kills the spider with his elvish blade, the one from the troll's hoard which he had been given and which had intimidated Gollum. He is so pleased with his victory, the first real hero-type action he's done, that he gives his little knife a name.
"I will give you a name," he said to it, "and I shall call you Sting."
Flush with unexpected heroism, Bilbo uses his Magic Ring to lure the other spiders away and then free the dwarves. Between his invisibility and his elvish sword, Bilbo is able to slay or drive off the other spiders. He and the dwarves take sanctuary in one of the abandoned clearings where the elves had held their fairy banquets. For now they are safe. But they are still without food; and when they count noses they make another discovery.

Thorin, their leader, is missing.

NEXT:  Where is Thorin? Guests of the Elf-King; Barrels out of Bond and the Arrival at Lake-Town.

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