We left Bilbo and the dwarves floating down the forest river toward Long Lake, and that's where we find them now, with the hobbit admiring the scenery, which includes, for the first time, the Lonely Mountain! There's a nice bit of geography and a description of Lake-town, a human settlement built on piles driven into the lakebed. I have to build something like that in Minecraft. As invisible Bilbo floats along, he overhears the rafting elves doing some handy exposition about local events, learning that the forest river is now actually pretty much the only reasonable way through Mirkwood; apparently the forest road is now swamped in at its eastern end.
This actually raises a question: back in chapter 8, the narrator said that if only the dwarves had persevered a little longer on the road, they would have made it to the edge of the woods. I wondered then what good that would have done them, as they would've basically been stuck in the middle of nowhere with no food, and now we learn that they'd actually have been stuck in the middle of a swamp with nothing to eat. So unless they were madly gluttonous with their rations, which isn't the impression I got, sending the lot of them to trudge through Mirkwood on foot was pretty much a suicide mission. The narrator here informs us that Gandalf was very worried when he heard about the state of the local terrain, which kind of forces one to up the ante from wondering about the incompetence of Thorin's travelling circus to the state of planning in Middle-Earth in general.
Only after the barrels are poled ashore and the raft-elves head into town for some drinking, do we learn that Bilbo's lunatic dwarven flotation scheme actually worked, as he extracts the dwarves from their barrels, in various states but all alive and accounted for. To digress for a minute, okay, we're told the raft-elves go into town for "feasting", but surely that includes alcohol. Given that the image of Tolkien's elves tends to be of mysterious, aloof beings, the impression you get here is of basically decent folks who enjoy a drink.
Most of the dwarves are too waterlogged and miserable to be of any use, but Thorin, Fili, Kili and Bilbo head into Lake-town. They waltz into the guardhouse, where Thorin announces himself:
"Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror King under the Mountain!" said the dwarf in a loud voice, and he looked it, in spite of his torn clothes and draggled hood. The gold gleamed on his neck and waist; his eyes were dark and deep. "I have come back. I wish to see the Master of your town!"
Everyone goes nuts about this, and Thorin is conducted to the Master of Lake-town's hall, where a feast is going on. Thorin again announces himself as King under the Mountain, to the dismay of the raft-elves, who protest:
"These are prisoners of our king that have escaped, wandering vagabond dwarves that could not give any good account of themselves, sneaking through the woods and molesting our people!"
Never mind that this is true; Thorin gets out of it with some rhetoric, and the crowd goes crazy and starts singing about the return of the king and all the gold he'll be bringing. Soon enough, the dwarves and hobbit are being feasted, decked out in expensive clothes and put up in excellent lodgings for a fortnight of partying and song. Eventually the Master - who, to his resounding credit, is solidly skeptical about this whole thing - throws them out by equipping their little expedition to the Mountain, and off the dwarves go.
This is a really good chapter. We get good exposition and world-building, some excellent scenes in Lake-town and the transformation of the dwarves from half-drowned hobos to conquering heroes reclaiming their ancestral home.
It's worth noting that so far, the only thing the dwarves have done with unquestionable competence is sell their dragon-hunting story. Their song and dance act at Bag End was a tremendous success, and they effectively repeat it here in Lake-town, netting new clothes, equipment, lodgings and transportation. They're bumbling morons at anything that even remotely resembles actual adventuring, not to mention completely unequipped for it, but they sure can put on a dog and pony show. If they were around today, these guys would give amazing Powerpoint presentations.
This all suggests an explanation for the dwarves' hitherto-puzzling lack of planning, preparedness and competence: they're con men. Look at the events of the chapter from the Master of Lake-town's point of view. A bunch of dwarven hoboes with a halfling thief show up, unarmed, bedraggled and generally miserly, and give speeches about how they're dispossessed dwarven nobility on their way to kick out a dragon and reclaim their ancestral home. Without, you know, weapons. Or indeed equipment or skills of any kind. The elves protest that these are just a band of wandering criminals, which apparently to them is something different from dispossessed or indeed possessed nobility, but your subjects inexplicably mark out over the return of the king and start singing songs about dwarves and gold. Said dwarves are perfectly content to receive a fortnight of housing, feasts and gifts, and having arrived as half-drowned hoboes in barrels, leave decked out like lords.
Surely at this point, a skeptical observer would fully expect to never see them again. Maybe they used their last coins to bribe some of the townsfolk into singing about dwarves and gold at the appropriate juncture to pull it off this time, but having managed to swindle proper clothing and other gifts from Lake-town, their "King under the Mountain" act will be even more convincing in the next place they pull it. I could easily see a troupe of dwarven con men doing the rounds in Middle-Earth with an act like this. Actually, I wouldn't half mind running that role-playing campaign.
There are nineteen chapters altogether in the Hobbit, so we're now halfway through! For the record, the first half of the book has not so much as mentioned a single female character or creature. You'd think that some of the townsfolk in Lake-town might have been women, and certainly that some ladies would have been at Rivendell or at the Elvenking's feasts, but we don't know that they were. It really is an incredibly masculine world.
Next time: mountaineering!