Monday, February 25, 2013

The Hobbit: Part 5: The Lonely Mountain


Bilbo Baggins has come a long way since the day last spring when he dashed out the door of his home in Bag End without his hat to accompany Thorin and his dwarves on their quest to recover their ancestral gold. He has lost his handkerchiefs and most of his buttons; but he has gained an elvish sword, (well, a dagger really, but for someone Bilbo's size it's close enough), a magic ring, and a bit of courage he never knew he had.

Twice now he has saved the dwarves: once from the spiders of Mirkwood and once from the dungeons of the Elf-king. Now the dwarves are within sight of the Lonely Mountain and are about to start the last leg of their journey.


Thorin and the dwarves have been welcome guests in Esgaroth, the Lake-town; a trading community built on piers in the midst of a great lake which lies at the confluence of two rivers. The people of Lake-town remember legends of prosperity when the dwarves lived under the Lonely Mountain, before the Dragon came; and hopefully retell the prophecies that this Golden Age will return when the the Dwarf King re-establishes his kingdom. They regard Thorin as the Prophecy personified.

The Master of the Town is more cynical and believes Thorin and his crew to be frauds, but is willing to play along with popular sentiment. He is surprised when Thorin announces plans to actually go to the Mountain, (he didn't think they'd actually go through with it), but he is not sorry to see them go and happily provides them with ponies and supplies.

The trek north to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, is a dismal one. At one time the river valley between the Mountain and the Lake had been a prosperous kingdom called Dale; but the surrounding lands had been devastated by the dragon. The grass was sparse and thin, and the old forest reduced to blackened stumps. Now that they are nearing the Mountain's shadow, things look far less simple than they did when the dwarves were being feasted in Lake-town.

Bilbo has been occupying himself by studying the map which Gandalf had given Thorin; which had been made by Thorin's grandfather, Thror. He is acutely aware that the dwarves have never had anything like a plan for their expedition other than "Go to the Mountain." What they would do when they actually got there and had to actually deal with the dragon was left deliberately vague. Unfortunatly, Bilbo is now a victim of his own heroism. Because of his success in rescuing the dwarves on the previous occasions, they are happy to just assume that Bilbo will think of something when the time comes.

So it is at Bilbo's urging that the dwarves, arriving at the Lonely Mountain, begin searching for the secret entrance to the Mountain, through which Thorin's father and grandfather escaped when the Dragon attacked. They find it, and by fortuitous chance are in time to catch the last full moon of Autumn, the first day of the dwarvish New Year, when the setting sun will reveal the door's keyhole.
"Now is the time for our esteemed Mr. Baggins," Thorin says, "...to earn his Reward."

"I have got you out of two messes already, which were hardly in the original bargain," Bilbo grumbles, "But 'third time pays for all' as my father used to say." Drawing his blade, Sting, and slipping on his Magic Ring, Bilbo ventures down into the inpenetrable darkness of the dwarvish passage. As he proceeds  he sees a reddish glow up ahead and hears the deep, rumbling throb of a huge beast snoring.
It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.
Tolkien fought in the trenches during the First World War, and sometimes his thoughts and his experiences of war and heroism and courage come to the surface in his stories. I think this passage is one of them and it has always stuck in my mind.

He emerges out of the tunnel into a huge chamber, originally the deepest cellar of the dwarvish stronghold, now a kind of nesting place. The Dragon has gathered up all the gold and jewels of the dwarves and of the men of Dale and heaped it into an enormous pile; and on that pile lied the Dragon himself, Smaug the Terrible.
To say that Bilbo's breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the all the world was wonderful.
Tolkien later admitted that this was a philological reference, casting in mythological terms the linguistic theories of his friend and colleague Owen Barfield about how language and the use of words change. He didn't expect many readers to catch it, though. (I certainly didn't; I picked it up from The Annotated Hobbit)

Since he is the party's burglar and feels he should do something to justify his job description, Bilbo filches a large, golden cup from Smaug's pile of bling and hurries back to the dwarves. Here Tolkien might have been borrowing from a similar cup-stealing episode in Beowulf, and Tolkien confessed that it might have been in the back of his mind. In a letter he said that "the episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at that point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same."

The dwarves are delighted with his first piece of recovered treasure, but not for long. Soon the Dragon wakes, being troubled by a disturbing dream "in which a warrior, altogether insignificant in size but provided with a bitter sword and great courage, figured most unpleasantly." A delicious bit of deceptive foreshadowing on Tolkien's part. Immediately, Smaug senses that something is wrong. Having slept on it for over a century, he knows his inventory down to the last farthing and he soon spots that there's a cup missing.
His rage passes description -- the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.
Smaug emerges from the mountain and the dwarves must flee into the secret tunnel for safety. Now they are trapped. They can't leave the way they came because the Dragon devoured or scattered the ponies the dwarves rode from Lake-town -- ponies are particularly unlucky in The Hobbit. The only other way out is down the tunnel and into the Dragon's lair.

The dwarves begin blaming Bilbo for stealing the cup
"What else do you suppose a burglar to do," asked Bilbo angrily. "I was not engaged to kill dragons, that is warrior's work, but to steal treasure. I made the best beginning I could. Did you expect me to trot back with the whole hoard of Thror on my back?"
Bilbo is as clueless as the dwarves about how to deal with Smaug, but although "getting rid of dragons" is not his line, he offers to go down into the dragon's lair again on a reconnaissance mission. "Perhaps something will turn up." He resolves to go down at noon the next day, when he hopes the dragon will be sleeping.

He finds the Dragon waiting for him. Smaug knew all along about the existence of the secret tunnel, but since he was too big to fit in it, he had always ignored it. "Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air. I hear your breath. Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!" Smaug can't see the hobbit, thanks to the Magic Ring, but he knows that someone is there.

Bilbo may not know a lot about dragons, but he knows better than to get too close; and here he begins to play another riddle contest. When Smaug asks who he is, Bilbo replies cryptically:
"I come from under the hill, and under the hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air. I am he that walks unseen... I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number... I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me. ... I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider."
He doesn't want to reveal his true name; neither does he want to risk angering the Dragon further with a flat refusal. Dragons love riddling talk, Tolkien assures us, and enjoy trying to figure it out. Smaug is shrewd; although there is much in Bilbo's riddles he does not understand, his remark about barrel-riding clearly points to the men of Lake-town.

But now it's Smaug's turn to play mind-games with Bilbo; games of a nastier sort. He knows that Bilbo accompanied a group of dwarves and now works to sow mistrust of the dwarves in Bilbo's mind. "I suppose you got a fair price for that cup last night? ... Come now, did you? Nothing at all! Well, that's just like them. And I suppose they are skulking outside, and your job is to do all the dangerous work..."

Smaug's insinuations do rattle Bilbo, but out of loyalty and maybe a little hobbit stubbronness he sticks to his mission. He flatters Smaug into letting him get a good look at the dragon's belly. Smaug may be armored with impenetrable scales, but Bilbo has always heard that dragons tend to have soft, vulnerable underbellies. "Your information is antiquated," Smaug grumps. Sleeping on a pile of jewels for a century has has caused loose gems from the dwarves' hoard to become embedded in the Dragon's flesh; he has virtually a waistcoat of diamonds. But Bilbo sees one bare spot in Smaug's armor, in the hollow of his left breast. He had earlier quoted a maxim of his father's: "Every worm has his weak spot," and his conservative stay-at-home father's trite advice has turned out to be true.

Pleased with his discovery, Bilbo withdraws; but makes one parting jab, which angers the Dragon. Smaug sends a jet of flame up the tunnel after Bilbo and the poor hobbit barely escapes being roasted.

Bilbo tells the dwarves about his conversation with the Dragon. They commend him for his discovery of Smaug's weakness, although they don't know how they can exploit it at the moment. Bilbo also tells them of Smaug's accusations. Here is where Smaug's mind-games fail; had Bilbo kept the Dragon's words to himself, his suspicions might have festered within him, leading to more misunderstanding. But Bilbo is too honest for that; he tells the dwarves frankly about his worries. Thorin reassures him that he intends to honor their contract and reiterates his promise that one-fourteenth of the treasure they recover will be his, and that Bilbo can choose his own fourteenth share. This will be important later.

As Bilbo talks with the dwarves, a thrush is perched nearby and seems to be listening to them. The bird kind of creeps Bilbo out, but Thorin assures him that the thrushes of the region are friendly. In fact, he says, the Men of Dale used to be able to understand the speech of the thrushes and used them as messengers.

From there the conversation turns to the treasure itself. There is one item in particular which Thorin is eager to recover; a beautiful gem called the Heart of the Mountain, the Arkenstone.

But when evening comes, the Dragon emerges again from his lair. He flies around to the side of the Mountain and tears off huge pieces of rock, sealing the entrance to the secret tunnel. Now the dwarves are truly trapped.
"Barrel-rider!" he snorted. "Your feet came from the waterside and up the water you came without a doubt. I don't know your smell, but if you are not one of those men of the Lake, you had their help. They shall see me and remember who is the real King under the Mountain!"
NEXT:  The Arkenstone; Lake-town attacked; Smaug vanquished, but is that the end?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

NATIVE AMERICAN CLASSICS




























GREAT STORIES BY INDIGENOUS AMERICAN WRITERS

Eureka Productions is pleased to announce the release of Native American Classics: Graphic Classics Volume 24, the newest volume in the Graphic Classics® series of comics adaptations of great literature.

Native American Classics presents great stories and poems from America’s earliest indigenous writers. Featured are “The Soft-Hearted Sioux” by Zitkala-Sa, “Anoska Nimiwina” by William Jones, “How the White Race Came to America” by Handsome Lake, and seven more tales of humor and tragedy. The book also features eight illustrated poems, including Alex Posey’s “Wildcat Bill” and E. Pauline Johnson’s “The Cattle Thief”. The series is edited by Tom Pomplun. Associate editors for this volume are noted Native American writers John E. Smelcer and Joseph Bruchac, who each contribute a piece to the book.

Sadly, artist and teacher Robby McMurtry was killed just weeks after completing his adaptation of Charles Eastman’s “On Wolf Mountain” for this volume. Publisher Eureka Productions and editor John E. Smelcer have pledged $1 for each book sold in the months of February and March 2013 to the Robby McMurtry Scholarship for the Arts. To make an additional donation, please find more information at www.robbymcmurtry.com.


The Graphic Classics series presents the works of great authors in comics adaptations and heavily-illustrated text. The adaptations are written at an adult level, and utilize as much of the author’s original language as possible. Our goal is to create books that are enjoyable for adults, yet accessible to children ages twelve and up. Graphic Classics are available in bookstores and comics shops nationally, or direct from the publisher, Eureka Productions at http: ⁄ ⁄ www.graphicclassics.com.

“Pulling from a rich tradition of fiction, poetry, and oral narrative, and illustrated by a who’s who of Native American creators, this twenty-fourth volume of the series sets the standard for comics and its engagement with American ethnic identity."
— Derek Royal, ComicsAlternative.com

“Collecting stories by Native American writers from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, this is a fine plunge into a culture that’s been shamefully underrepresented in the format. Much care has been taken to match the appropriate art style to each adaptation, and each story—from the tragic to the funny—slips gracefully into its visuals."
— Jesse Karp, Booklist


NATIVE AMERICAN CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume 24
Edited by Tom Pomplun
Published March 2013, Eureka Productions
Distributed by Diamond Book Distributors
(ISBN 978-0-9825630-6-9
144 pgs, 7" x 10", paperback, full color $17.95

__________________

The Graphic Classics series:
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: EDGAR ALLAN POE / Volume 1 (978-0-9825630-0-7)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE / Vol. 2 (978-0-9746648-5-9)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: H.G. WELLS / Volume 3 (978-0-9746648-3-5)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: H.P. LOVECRAFT / Volume 4 (978-0-9746648-9-7)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: JACK LONDON / Volume 5 (978-0-9746648-8-0)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: AMBROSE BIERCE / Volume 6 (978-0-9787919-5-7)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: BRAM STOKER / Volume 7 (978-0-9787919-1-9)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: MARK TWAIN / Volume 8 (978-0-9787919-2-6)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: R.L. STEVENSON / Volume 9 (978-0-9825630-3-8)
HORROR CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume 10 (978-0-9746648-1-1)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: O. HENRY / Volume 11 (978-0-9746648-2-8)
ADVENTURE CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume 12 (978-0-9746648-4-2)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: RAFAEL SABATINI / Volume 13 (978-0-9746648-6-6)
GOTHIC CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume 14 (978-0-9787919-0-2)
FANTASY CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume 15 (978-0-9787919-3-3)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: OSCAR WILDE / Volume 16 (978-0-9787919-6-4)
SCIENCE FICTION CLASSICS: Volume 17 (978-0-9787919-7-1)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: LOUISA MAY ALCOTT / Volume 18 (978-0-9787919-8-8)
CHRISTMAS CLASSICS: Volume 19 (978-0-9825630-1-4)
WESTERN CLASSICS: Volume 20 (978-0-9787919-9-5)
POE’S TALES OF MYSTERY: Graphic Classics Volume 21 (978-0-9825630-2-1)
AFRICAN-AMERICAN CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume 22  (978-0-9825630-4-5)
HALLOWEEN CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume 23  (978-0-9825630-5-2)
NATIVE AMERICAN CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume 24  (978-0-9825630-6-9)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Hobbit: Part 4: Guests of the Elvenking


Bilbo is starting to feel like a real live hero now. With the aid of his Elvish Letter-Opener, and a rush of unexpected courage, he was able to rout a bunch of gigantic spiders and rescue his friends from the spiders' webs. The dwarves no longer regard him as a piece of useless baggage; they are greatly impressed. The fact that, as Bilbo sheepishly admits, he also had the help of a Magic Ring of Invisibility does not lower him in their estimation. After all, it takes luck to find a Magic Ring and it takes wit and bravery to use it well.

But the dwarves are still hungry and lost in the Forest of Mirkwood; and their leader, Thorin, has gone missing.


Thorin has been captured by the Wood-elves who dwell in the forests of Mirkwood, and brought before their king. This king is named Thranduil in Lord of the Rings, but here is unnamed.

Tolkien here gives a brief explanation elvish sub-cultures and migrations. Ages ago, the Valar, the divine powers which served the creator Ilúvatar, (Tolkien was too much of a good Catholic to call the Valar gods, but that is the role they serve in elvish cosmology), summoned the elves across the see to Valinor, the timeless paradise which Tolkien here calls "Faerie". Some of the elves heeded the command and made the long journey across the Sea, but others elected to remain in Middle-Earth, being too much in love with the forests and the green earth. Of the ones who completed the journey, the High Elves, a group called the Noldor returned to Middle-Earth as part of the tragic and convoluted story of Fëanor, which makes up the greater part of The Silmarillion but has nothing to do with The Hobbit. The relevant point is that the Wood-elves of Mirkwood are of the Silvan elves who stayed behind, and are culturally a little less civilized than the House of Elrond, whose ancestors were among the Noldor.

The Elf-king does not trust Thorin, because of the traditional enmity between the two races.
In ancient days they [the elves] had had wars with some of the dwarves, whom they accused of stealing their treasure. It is only fair to say that the dwarves gave a different account, and said that they only took what was their due, for the elf-king had bargained with them to shape his raw gold and silver, and had afterwards refused to give them their pay.
This is a highly-abbreviated version of the story of the Nauglahin told in The Simarillion. It was a piece of elf-bling commissioned by Thingol, king of the woodland elves' domain in the First Age, as a setting for one of the Simarils. Because of the Curse of Fëanor, pretty much everybody having anything to do with the Simarils met with tragedy. The corrosive effects of greed and covetousness are a recurring theme in Tolkien's works, and will come up again in The Hobbit.

It also should be mentioned that the elves and the dwarves had a long history together, and not all of it bad. In the original creation account of the elves, there were only two sentient races, elves and men. The dwarves in The Silmarillion come off as kind of an afterthought. The early elves thought that dwarves were ugly and called them "the stunted ones". But the dwarves were no friends of Morgoth's and in their own way fought against him. Their oldest home was Khazad-dum in the Misty Mountains and they developed close ties to the elves who lived in neighboring Eriador. These elves were Noldor, who had returned from Valinor, and were craftsmen; so they and the dwarves had much in common. Unfortunately, the dwarves inadvertently woke a great evil sleeping under the mountains which destroyed their home. The elvish communities also dwindled until they only existed in small pockets such as Elrond's home in Rivendale.

It is because of this long history of mutual mistrust that the Elf-king suspects Thorin of being a spy, and that Thorin refuses to tell the elves any more than he has to. The king orders Thorin sent to his deepest dungeon.

The following day the elves find and capture the rest of Thorin's crew, except for Bilbo who slips on his Magic Ring and follows invisibly. The other dwarves are no more co-operative than Thorin was.
"What have we done, O king?" said Balin, who was the eldest left. "Is it a crime to be lost in the forest , to be hungry and thirsty, to be trapped by spiders? Are the spiders your tame beasts or your pets, if killing them makes you so angry?"
This pisses the Elf-king off even more. The spiders are not his pets, thank you; reading between the lines of both Hobbit and LOTR we can gather that the spiders only started becoming a problem in Mirkwood when the Necromancer moved into the neighborhood. Tolkien emphasizes here as well as the chapter in Rivendell that elves are "the Good People" and are not wicked. But they can be subject to greed like everybody else and this Elf-king, like Thingol before him, has a weakness for jewels.

The Elf-king has the dwarves sent to separate dungeon cells, on the theory that eventually one of them might crack and tell them why they were really in the forest; which might have worked with any creatures but dwarves. Actually, Thorin is very close to giving up and telling the Elf-king the truth when Bilbo shows up.

Bilbo has managed to sneak into the elf-citadel and has been wandering around it invisibly. Unfortunately, there is little he can do except hide and explore. His invisibility can only do so much; he still has to stay out of people's way, and if he falls asleep in the wrong place he risks having an elf stumble over him. Also, he still casts a faint shadow in strong light, so he has to be doubly careful when sneaking out into the open. "I am like a burglar that can't get away, but must go on miserably burgling the same house day after day," he complains to himself. But in his explorations he discovers the cells where the dwarves are being kept, including Thorin, and is able to pass messages between them.

Finally, after several weeks skulking about the underground halls of the Elven-king, Bilbo discovers a way out. The main entrance to the city are a set of large gates opened and shut by magic, possible for an invisible hobbit to sneak through, but not a baker's dozen of highly-visible dwarves. Bilbo discovers a second way out, though: a water-gate opening up through a trap door to an underground river which leads out of the city and eventually out of the forest. The elves of Mirkwood use this river to transport trade goods to and from a settlement of men who live on a large lake downstream. The goods are transported in barrels and this is where Bilbo gets his idea.

One night, when the Elf-king is holding a feast and most of the staff are occupied, Bilbo steals the keys from the guardsman, who had been doing some celebrating of his own and sleeping off some very potent elvish wine. Bilbo frees the dwarves and hides them in a bunch of empty barrels waiting to be sent back down the river. The dwarves aren't extremely happy with this plan, but Bilbo has no better one and to be truthful, the dwarves have begun to rely on his resourcefulness. ("Just what Gandalf had said would happen," the narration tells us).

It is a cold and uncomfortable trip, as much for the dwarves, who are battered and buffeted in the dark casks; as for Bilbo, who nearly drowns trying to hang onto one of the rolling barrels. But the plan works, and they all arrive safely, if wet and bedraggled in the Lake-Town.

Lake-town is an artificial island, built wooden piers, like the crannogs of the ancient Irish. When Thorin enters the town, he proudly announces himself as the King Under the Mountain, returned to claim his kingdom. And something remarkable happens. For once, people are happy to see him. Lake-town is built on trade, and although none of the Lake-men are old enough to remember a time before the Dragon, they tell stories about how the era in which the Dwarves ruled the nearby Lonely Mountain was a time of prosperity. Many are eager to believe that the Return of the King means a return of that age when the River ran with Gold.

The Master of Lake-town is a shrewd businessman and believes that the dwarves are frauds and vagabonds; but he knows enough to court popular opinion, so if the populace thinks they are figures out of prophecy, he's willing to go along with the gag. Bilbo finds himself overwhelmed and overlooked by the dwarves' sudden popularity and Thorin and Co. are feasted and hailed; but he's fine with that. He caught a bad cold riding the barrels down the river, and when he is asked to speak at a banquet, the best he can muster is "Thag you very buch."

NEXT:  The Last Stage; the Lonely Mountain at Last; and Facing Smaug the Terrible!!!

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.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

MAKE PLANS TO BE THERE

I talk a lot about things that matter to me.   Spring Con is another of those things.  It isn't huge, it isn't the greatest convention out there, but it is well run, run with ethics and honesty, and is done well.

I hope you'll make plans to visit SPRING CON XXV.


SPRING CON, the 25th Anniversary
























(Click image to enlarge)