May 4, 2015

Let's Read Tolkien 8: Flies and spiders

They walked in single file.

I talked about Tolkien's attention to geography in an earlier installment. It's generally agreed that mountains were a bit of a thing for him, and this chapter is our first encounter with another major theme: forests. Mind you, there have been plenty of trees earlier: the trolls' camp was on a wooded hill, there were trees and forested valleys on the way to Rivendell, as well as on both sides of the Misty Mountains. But those were forests; Mirkwood is a Forest. As anyone who's read the Lord of the Rings knows, a forest is just a place with some trees, while a Forest proper is a dark, foreboding, awe-inspiring place. Entering one is an occasion and a considerable, and very dangerous, undertaking.

As a personal aside, I should point out that I come from a culture that fondly harbors utterly pseudo-historical notions (pdf) of its supposed recent descent from some kind of moody Cimmerian forest-dwellers and eagerly deploys these to explain everything from our political beliefs and imagined military prowess to our drinking habits. Part of the reason this series of blog posts is progressing with such glacial speed is that I'm working on a Master's thesis on the military ramifications of these notions. But for that reason, and I suspect ultimately because of the small stretches of woodland near where I grew up, forests fascinate me. Having been born in Switzerland, I'm also somewhat subject to Tolkien's romance with mountains, but in the Hobbit at least, mountains aren't nearly as spectacular as forests.

Indeed, if you compare the mountains in chapter 4 to Mirkwood, the mountains are basically benign until a thunderstorm strikes. The forest, on the other hand, is unequivocally hostile: a hateful, dark place.

It was not long before they grew to hate the forest as heartily as they had hated the tunnels of the goblins, and it seemed to offer even less hope of any ending. But they had to go in and on, long after they were sick for a sight of the sun and of the sky, and longed for the feel of wind on their faces. There was no movement of air down under the forest-roof, and it was everlastingly still and dark and stuffy. Even the dwarves felt it, who were used to tunneling, and lived at times for long whiles without the light of the sun; but the hobbit, who liked holes to make a house in but not to spend summer days in, felt that he was being slowly suffocated.

Seriously, by the description, it is worse than the goblin-tunnels! But on they trudge nonetheless. I've pointed out before that on re-reading the Hobbit, what's really striking is how badly this entire dragonslaying caravan seems to be organized, and last time (admittedly a while ago!) I felt that Gandalf leaving the dwarves on their own seemed like an absolutely terrible idea. As the dwarves and Bilbo make their way deeper into Mirkwood, they're not only constantly spooked by the woods, but their provisions start to run out, most crucially the water. Eventually they arrive at a stream, have a hell of a time getting over as the bridge is gone, and Bombur falls in and drops into some kind of magical forest coma. So now they're hauling along a sleeping dwarf, their food is running out, and they've wasted all the arrows Beorn gave them firing mindlessly after various animals they've run across.

At this point the reader is wondering how anyone could have thought it was a good idea to let these morons out on their own. The narrator helpfully points out that if the dwarves had only persevered a bit longer, they would have made it to the edge if the woods. Surely someone could have told them this? Although one also wonders why it matters, since based on what we've seen of the party's wilderness survival skills so far, they'd still have been far from civilization and starving. Looking at the whole thing from the outside, so to speak, the whole project just seems completely absurd.

They get Bilbo to climb a tree to have a look around, but he can't see the edge of the woods because they're actually in a valley at the moment, so when he comes down and the food runs out, the dwarves are feeling a bit desperate. Again, it's slightly difficult to square the abject misery of Mirkwood with the notion of Tolkien's stories as happy-go-lucky Boy's Own adventures, but this is a recurring problem anyway. Bombur eventually wakes up and starts talking about the magical woodland feast he'd dreamed about and the various foods on offer there. It's a miracle they didn't strangle him. As night is falling, they spot a glimmer of light in the woods, and drawing closer to it they see torches and fires among the trees. You remember what Gandalf and Beorn reminded the dwarves to never ever even think about doing? That's right, leave the path. But honestly, at this point they're pretty much facing starvation because they ventured into a giant goddamn haunted magic forest with far too little food, so I don't really blame them for thinking "fuck those guys, let's eat".

As it turns out, though, elven parties aren't that easy to crash. Every time Bilbo and the dwarves make it to the elves' torchlit forest party, the lights go out and the elves vanish. After their third attempt, the dwarves get hopelessly lost and separated from each other and Bilbo, who's left by himself in the middle of the pitch-black Mirkwood. Figuring, unlike the dwarves, that running in a random direction and screaming might not be the best wilderness survival strategy, Bilbo decides to settle down and wait for dawn to get his bearings. If it's more than a little surprising to find Bilbo making better outdoor decisions than the dwarves, it gets plenty more surprising when he wakes up from a snooze to find a giant fucking spider trying to coccoon him in a web, and promptly kills it with his sword.

Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and pit it back into its sheath. "I will give you a name," he said to it, "and I shall call you Sting".

This is very much the moment when Bilbo makes the transition from screaming and fainting bourgeois Mr. Baggins to the world of Norse epic, monster-slaying and naming ancient magic swords. Again, because things aren't that simple with Tolkien, the transformation is anything but complete and irreversible, but a pivotal moment is had nonetheless. Feeling dead butch, Bilbo promptly goes off and rescues the dwarves from certain death by outwitting the entire local population of giant spiders with an invisibility ring, some thrown rocks and a mocking song. I have to take a moment to quote one of my favorite sentences in all of Tolkien:

Quite apart from the stones no spider has ever liked being called Attercop, and Tomnoddy of course is insulting to anybody.

Attercop, it turns out, is an Old English word for spider, as are Lob and Cob, the two other insults Bilbo hurls at them. Somehow I just thoroughly enjoy the fact that we've been told which nickname spiders particularly detest.

Having freed the dwarves, Bilbo then distracts the spiders again to let them make their getaway, and they all succeed in escaping. Bilbo's definitely moved up in the world from useless, occasionally screaming baggage. The dwarves gain a new respect for Bilbo as they press him for details of his escapade and the magic ring, and eventually they fall asleep sheltering in one of the elves' clearings, which the spiders seem unwilling to enter. But in the meantime, Thorin has been captured by the Wood-Elves, who very much want to know why there are suddenly dwarf hobos in their woods. As Thorin dwarvishly refuses to tell them why, exactly, it is that he's come all this way to starve in a forest, they lock him in a cell until he talks.


There's a lot going on in this chapter, which I'd also like to use as an excuse for having taken ages to finish this post. We go from dreary forest-slogging to elf-chasing and spider-fighting, and end up with an extended description of the Wood-Elves and Thorin's interrogation. It's difficult to not think that the elf-exposition at the end of the chapter couldn't have been saved for the next one. But there's action, an excellent mocking song and starving despair in a horrible forest. I don't think I'd ever properly realized just how awful Tolkien makes Mirkwood; if you accept the logic that the biting cold of The Mountains of Madness arose from Lovecraft's terror of freezing temperatures, then surely Tolkien must've had some truly terrible arboreal experiences at some point in his life.

Next time: elves, burglary and barrels.

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