Jul 7, 2014

Let's Read Tolkien 6: Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire

Bilbo had escaped the goblins, but he did not know where he was.

We find Bilbo alone in the wilderness, having escaped the goblin dungeons but lost his fellow travelers. Like the previous one, this is a considerably longer chapter than usual so far, and quite a bit happens in it. As the sun sets, Bilbo realizes it's setting behind the mountains, meaning he's accidentally made it across the whole of the Misty Mountains. Soon he finds the dwarves, and still having his invisibility ring on, decides to sneak up on them. They're currently in a debate with Gandalf over whether or not to go back and look for Bilbo, who they assume is still lost in the goblin caves. Some of the dwarves are questioning why they brought Bilbo along in the first place, as he seems to them to be a completely useless burglar. Bilbo startles them by removing his ring and stepping into their midst quite literally out of nowhere, and the dwarves' opinion of his burglarizing abilities is considerably improved.

Having found each other again, Thorin and company exchange stories and move on; their baggage and ponies were lost to the goblins, so they have no supplies, and they anticipate that the goblins will send someone after them for having killed the Great Goblin and generally made an impact on the local goblin community, so to speak. So down they go into the foothills of the mountains, until sudenly they hear wolves. This prompts the company to quickly climb some trees for safety, and they find themselves surrounded by a pack of Wargs: evil, talking wolves that hang out with the goblins. It's mentioned that occasionally goblins will even ride wolves, which is probably the genesis of the finest light cavalry in 4th-to-6th-edition Warhammer Fantasy, the Goblin Wolf Riders. Remember, the short bows do nothing.

With the wolves intending to besiege the dwarves in their trees until the goblins turn up, Gandalf tries a bit of fire magic and sets a whole bunch of them on fire. Unfortunately, the goblins arrive and turn the fire against Thorin & co., threatening to burn them alive with the trees. At the last moment before Gandalf launches a suicidal attack on the goblins, the eagles arrive and whisk everyone off to safety, where Bilbo is momentarily worried they'll be eaten, but everything turns out all right, they have dinner and hitch a lift from the eagles to their next destination.


It took me ages to get this written up, partly because of annoyances such as starting a Rogue Trader role-playing campaign, moving and finally graduating college, but more because I just wasn't that thrilled with this chapter. It's all a bit meh for me; yay across the mountains! Oh no, wolves! Yay fire! Oh no, goblins! Yay eagles! Oh no, eating! Yay eating! Thus conclude the adventures of the Misty Mountains. I already pointed out before that the deus ex machina is the weakest point of fairytales for the adult reader, and the eagles play that role here. Beyond that, I thought the chapter wasn't particularly well paced, and the episode with the eagles somehow comes off as a bit awkward.

To stick with some of our themes, the eagles also buck the supposedly straightforward division of Tolkien's world into good and evil. They become involved in the story because they consider the goblins their enemies and because Gandalf had at one time helped their leader, but they won't give Thorin & Co. a lift all the way to where the woodmen live, as they would - at other times quite rightly - think that the eagles were there to prey on their livestock; the same thing that the wolves did. So from the woodmen's perspective, I'm not at all sure that the eagles and wolves appear as particularly different in terms of ethics. The Lord of the Eagles, by the way, is also known as the Great Eagle, who I'm sure must be a colleague of the Head Beagle.

The conversation the dwarves have with Gandalf over Bilbo is interesting because as near as the reader can tell, the dwarves are right: Bilbo really has been pretty much completely useless, and it isn't at all clear why Gandalf recruited him for the job at all. It just seems strange that Gandalf is so insistent on him coming along. I don't know if we're intended to think that Bilbo is really a Proper British Gentleman®, who might not get off to the best start but can be trusted to Muddle Through™ and keep his Chin Up, Old Boy™ because he's a Dashed Good Egg Really™ or something, or if it's just that he's the protagonist and that's it. Certainly the profession of burglar doesn't sit very well at all with the solidly civilized, middle-class Mr. Baggins, whose class credentials are enhanced in this chapter when we learn that he isn't even of any use in preparing food since he's used to having his meat delivered to him by a butcher, not having to butcher the animals he eats himself.

But the story moves on: the nickel-and-dime dragon-hunting operation stumbles from one random encounter to another. Next time, a rural interlude.