Last in October


On a miserably wet and gloomy afternoon six of us gathered to get back to The Hobbit. We picked up our reading at ‘Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire’ with the intention of seeing if we could pick up the pace at which we get through our chapters.

Chris opened proceedings with his observation that Bilbo is actually thinking about going back to look for the dwarves, having just escaped from the goblin caves.

Laura remarked that the beginning of the chapter seems like just an escape but things soon get nasty.

I asked what everyone thought of Bilbo creeping about and startling the dwarves, and making Balin look incompetent. Laura thought Balin is actually suspicious.

Eileen thought Bilbo was enjoying a bit of one-upmanship. Ian agreed that he was getting his own back for the way he was parted from the dwarves. Laura wondered whether the ring was beginning to make Bilbo secretive.

Eileen commented that Bilbo is surprised at first that the goblins can’t see him. Laura noted however that the invisibility is not complete.

Eileen remarked that Bilbo’s sneaking is a flaw and that this makes him more realistic.

Laura commented that the middle-class Mr. Baggins wouldn’t dream of behaving like that but perhaps his Tookish genes are beginning to show through, or maybe it is a sign of race memories shared ultimately with Gollum.

Chris remarked that Bilbo develops like the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings.

I wondered if there was an underlying theme being explored because the action moves from caves to fire to air? Chris noted that this is the trajectory taken by Gandalf in Moria. Angela added the elements are those of the 3 Elven rings.

Carol commented “I’m beginning to think that with the goblin song ‘fifteen bird in five fir-trees’, Tolkien takes some delight in writing about grizzly ways to cook the dwarves, after the trolls did the same.”

I then compared the goblins’ songs – suitably horrible to suit the tastes of small boys perhaps – against the narratorial comment: ‘The sudden splendour flashed from his wand…’. My point was that the phrase ‘sudden splendour’ seemed so characteristic of Tolkien at his most powerfully poetic, and out of keeping here, although it lifts the text and adds to Gandalf’s characterization.

Chris referred us to an essay in the new book Music in Middle-earth which explores the songs of goblins and other ‘bad’ races.

Laura then remarked that in this chapter the landscape is beautiful, so the wargs and the forest clearing are more horrible by comparison.

Angela commented that goblins and wargs create nasty environments. She then went on to question whether Bilbo’s dream described in the last sentence of this chapter was due to the effect of the Ring.

Laura wondered if it was indicative of him looking for his own recent past, which he’ll never find. There will be no more comfort and cake because he has moved on.

We went on to consider the eagles and Laura observed that the eagles of the mountains, like Grendel in Beowulf are disturbed by noise. She also commented that in this chapter the eagles disrupt the evil actions of  wargs and goblins but are otherwise indifferent.

Chris noted that in The Silmarillion the eagles of Manwe are helpful creatures. Laura remarked that in The Lord of the Rings one goes to Minas Tirith, and Angela commented that Galadriel may have had some influence when the eagle picks up Gandalf from the mountain of Moria.

Eileen observed that in this chapter the eagles are proud, strong and noble.

Angela reminded us of the great eagle-shaped cloud over Numenor.

Eileen commented that this is a chapter about self-preservation.

We then moved on to ‘Queer Lodgings’

Laura observed that in the Navaho culture shape-changing was often associated with cursed folk, and Navaho skin-changers were evil.

Chris noted the mention of the eagles at the Battle of Five Armies, and Laura remarked on the reference to their gold collars, so that the success of the battle and their participation in it was already known.

Eileen observed that Gandalf becomes impatient with all Bilbo’s questions.

Laura, Angela and Carol all commented that the concept of animal servants doesn’t work. Carol declared “the only part I don’t like is the serving animals – too twee!!” and Eileen found it humiliating.

Ian remarked that it was evidence of a different world view, and that it shows another hierarchy around Beorn, after that around the King of the eagles.

Eileen commented that it reminded her of Animal Farm.

Carol remarked “a constant diet of honey and clotted cream would make me sick”, and Angela agreed that it would not be healthy living on cream and honey.

I asked what everyone thought of the bees. Laura thought their size was probably in keeping with Beorn, but might just be big compared to the size of the dwarves and hobbit. Ian thought it was perhaps a case of making creatures as fantastical as possible.

Carol commented that the dwarves enter Beorn’s house like they did Bilbo’s, a couple at a time. Eileen found it amusing that Gandalf sends in the dwarves 2 by 2, and she commented especially on the way the text plays with numbers to amuse children.

Angela thought Beorn is really rude, and Chris remarked that he doesn’t trust the strangers who are arriving, but he gets on with Radagast.

Angela noted that Gandalf gets a horse here, just as he does in The Lord of the Rings, and Chris remarked that Beorn follows the company to get his horses back as Bombadil gets his ponies back. Eileen commented that children would worry about the ponies.

Chris observed that when the text represents Beorn’s emphatic instruction ‘DON’T LEAVE THE PATH’ in capitals, this means the company certainly will leave the path.

Laura picked up the matter of hierarchies again when she observed that we are given another one: goblins/hobgoblins/orcs.

And so we had completed the 2 chapters as we hoped, and it was agreed that we would read the next 2 chapters for our first meeting in November.

Carol also commented:

I’ve always like the bit ‘dwarves sitting up in the trees with their beards dangling down, like old men gone cracked…’ and for me, deathly scared of heights, the worst bit in the whole book is Bilbo’s being borne aloft by the eagles whilst handing in to Dori’s leg. It just gives me the shivers!

The name Mirkwood is one of the things I like best. I’ve always thought what a great name for an ominous forest – of course lifted from the Elder Edda but who cares.

As in The Lord of the Rings, the company has to learn to cope on its own without a wizard to help them, so they can ‘grow’ and show what they’re made of. In The Lord of the Rings Gandalf’s fall into Moria is a lesson for the others for when he really departs for good.


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