Jun 1, 2015

Let's Read Tolkien 9: Barrels Out of Bond

The day after the battle with the spiders Bilbo and the dwarves made one last despairing effort to find a way out before they died of hunger and thirst.

That's a cheerful start! To be fair, it's not quite this grim: in proper fairy-tale fashion, we've been told that Bilbo and the traveling circus get out of this alive, and now we find out how. To start with, Bilbo and the remaining dwarves get captured by the Wood-elves - or at least the dwarves do, because Bilbo slips on the ring and they never so much as spot him. I wonder if much of the later history of the One Ring isn't premised on Tolkien feeling rather like a gamemaster who accidentally gave one of his player characters a magic item that's so powerful it's breaking the campaign, so it desperately needs a huge downside.

The king of the Wood-elves demands to know who the dwarves are and where they're going; perhaps not unreasonably suspecting that a posse of incompetent dwarven vagrants might be on their way to do something catastrophically stupid like devastate the entire region by waking a dragon and trying to steal its treasure. As the dwarves refuse to talk, they get locked up in the king's dungeons. Bilbo is reduced to sneaking around the dungeons and halls like a ghostly burglar, complaining about how awful everything is and how this is the worst thing ever and he should never have left home in the first place. Given that the elves come off as rather humane jailors and no-one is in immediate peril of being eaten or murdered by orcs, I really think he's laying it on a bit thick.

When he's had enough of a moan and haunted the Elvenking's halls for a few weeks, Bilbo decides to actually do something, and not only finds the dwarves but actually comes up with an escape plan. Just in time, too: when he finds Thorin, the great leader is on the verge of revealing their mission to the Wood-elves and bargaining for his release by promising them a share of the treasure. From the elves' point of view, he's the head of a group of starving party-crashing dwarven hobos; you'd think he might just as well offer them exclusive commercial rights to the Moon. Heartened by the appearance of an invisible hobbit, Thorin changes his mind and has Bilbo tell the other dwarves to stand firm so the elves don't get their grubby fairy hands on their treasure: "(which they quite regarded as theirs, in spite of their plight and the still unconquered dragon)". Now all that remained was to find a way out, and Bilbo came up with one.

To be honest, it's not one you'd much like to try at home. Bilbo discovers that there are two ways out of the Elvenking's halls: the main gate and a stream running underneath. The stream is used to float empty barrels down to the Long Lake; the Wood-elves bought food and drink and the like from the Lake-men, and sent the empty barrels back by river. Bilbo's idea was to pack the dwarves in barrels and float them down the stream; when the king's butler and the chief of the guard decide to try out the new wine from Dorwinion during a feast and promptly pass out, this is exactly what Bilbo does. To their credit, the dwarves are skeptical of the plan, having apparently discovered some wits in their cells, but when Bilbo tells them it's this or nothing, into the barrels they go. Soon enough, elves show up to dump the barrels into the stream, and Bilbo dives in after them. In a bit of suspense, we follow the hobbit on his way down the stream and into an assembly area, where the barrels are roped together into a raft and poled down into the lake - but we have no idea if the dwarves made it alive or not.

I can't help but think that stuffing people into barrels and dumping them headlong into a river seems more like a sadistic murder plot than an escape plan. Sure, people have gone over waterfalls in barrels and stranger things, but with casualties. So many things could go wrong, with dwarves suffocating, drowning, being battered or knocked senseless, you name it. The plot also relied on the elves not being at all bothered that some of the barrels were pretty damn heavy - and on a dwarf-and-barrel combo floating.

Hare-brained escape plan notwithstanding, Bilbo's evolution into a hero continues in this chapter, where despite all the moaning he really is instrumental in getting the dwarves out of yet another mess. And it's not just the invisibility ring, either, but some wits and quick thinking too. As the narrator tells us toward the end of the chapter, the eastward journey is nearing its destination, so we have to hurry along!

Next time, an urban interlude. And for those of you keeping score, nope, still not a single female character in the entire damn story.

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