The Hobbit: Chapter 4

Over Hill and Under Hill

After an entire chapter of safety, comfort and good cheer the very first paragraph of this chapter firmly sets the reader back into the appropriate mindset for where this adventure is going, where it was always going to go. It should be remembered that up until now our travellers have been traversing relatively safe lands. It is only from this point that they properly enter ‘Wilderland’ and all the dangers and trails it holds.

The mood is suggested perfectly by the description of the mountain paths where ‘most were cheats and deceptions leading to bad ends’ and ‘infested with evil things and dreadful dangers’.

As the road leads upwards Bilbo casts an eye behind, viewing the land rolling out from his feet, knowing that beyond the horizon is his home, safety and comfort. The author reverts straight back to this motif even though Bilbo has just enjoyed the hospitality of Rivendell. It is interesting that home is still his touchstone.

As they climb the weather changes, it becomes cold and the party’s spirits are dampened, characterised by not being able to sing or talk too loud ‘for the echoes were uncanny, and the silence seemed to dislike being broken.’ Which is a wonderful turn of phase. I think there is something primal in all of us that understand that quality of silence.

There is talk of high hopes and optimism as the set out from Rivendell, this shows how quickly that has soured in a short time of discomfort with the threat of danger. Gandalf and Elrond, it seems, knew just how dangerous this quest was, I wonder if they fully communicated this to the Dwarves and Bilbo, or if in the party’s brio they waved the concerns away? The latter seems to fit with my impression of the Dwarves thus far.

Tolkien doesn’t bury the lead in this chapter. He full on tells the reader they don’t get over the mountains without danger and adventure. It’s a very straightforward story telling style, no build up of suspense it is a literal warning that bad stuff is about to happen. Brace yourself.

Our heroes encounter an enormous ‘thunder-battle’ in the mountain tops. This is another wonderful use of a childhood perspective. When we were kids thunder was terrifying, so much louder and scarier than when you are grown up (on the most part). So to invoke the personal experiences and impression of thunder to kids is to lend it enormous power and terror.

I’m only just realising why Bilbo is such a good cypher for the story. He is relatively innocent in his world, he doesn’t have the experience or worldliness of those around him. He is discovering all of the people, creatures and situations in this adventure for the first time. Just as the reader or children being read to, are. His sheltered life and polite openness allow the reader to put themselves in his place, experience the story through him and with him. It’s a neat trick considering how it is a third person narration, not a first person perspective.

There is a very (all too) brief mention of Stone Giants tossing boulders around for a game in the storm. It feels like there is so much more to them than an idle passing comment. With a little thought it is interesting. Are they like trolls? Related in some way to the nature of trolls who are one the earth and stone? It is another textual ruin, something to be pondered but never fully explained (at least within the narrative), but the prompting of such questions grows the veracity of the world, makes it feel more real.

In this situation is was made clear that Bilbo was near useless so the youngest Dwarves are sent off to search for shelter. Tolkien drops more ominous hints about what is about to happen… Comments like ‘so it proved on this occasion’ after suggestively bad sentiments.

The two Dwarves rushed back saying that had found a suitable cave. Gandalf was suspicious as caves are not usually unoccupied in these circumstances. But through desperation and quick assurances they all pile into the shelter, with more hints that danger is inevitable.

Gandalf even searches the cave himself and seems satisfied. There are no misgivings it would seem after his initial disbelief, though he tells the Dwarves not to light a fire.. They all settle in and make themselves as comfortable as they can. The spirits ebbed back to positivity, with talk of treasure (when they assuredly recovered it) they forgot about the storm. It seems the mood of the party is very fickle and sways one way or the other with staggering ease, totally dependant upon how comfortable they are and if companionship, chatter and leisure are possible.

They fell asleep, and the final build up warning from the author is to mention that this would be the last our travellers ever se of their ponies and baggage.

Be it good fortune or the work of a higher power (which seems likely and I’ll explain why shortly) Bilbo couldn’t sleep well and when he did he had nasty dreams about a crack at the back of the cave opening and the floor was caving ad he was falling. Tolkien is keen on the use of dreams, they usually have a purpose or meaning. It’s very direct on this occasion, it’s a literal warning about what is happening. But messages in dreams can easily be linked to the will of Illuvatar (God). But that becomes more prominent in other texts, not this one! It is very interesting to see this motif here though, knowing that it becomes something more important in later writings.

Bilbo wakes to find the crack at the back of the cave is real and shouts: ‘as loud a yell as a hobbit can give, which is surprising for their size’. I highlight that line because Tolkien does a clever trick with his Hobbit. He does it in this book and a lot in Lord of the Rings. It’s very easy to forget that Hobbits are smaller than everyone else. It doesn’t really come up a lot in the story, but you are reminded of it at significant times, as though to make a specific point. The smallest member of the party saves them all here. Is that surprising? Is it relevant? I suppose that’s for the reader to ponder.

Suddenly there is Goblins, lots of them ‘as quick as you can say rocks and blocks’… ‘before you could say tinder and flint’ which are strange expressions, but lovely pieces of language to push you into the world we’re about to enter. Goblins are very rough and harsh and heavy and those words have weight and edges, they also describe their natural environs, stones, rocks etc. There will be more ‘jagged language’ as we spend more time in the company of these creatures.

With a flash Gandalf kills a few Goblins and seemingly disappears. The cave crack closes with everyone on the wrong side of it being carried along by this new enemy. Then comes the Goblin song/poem. They sing this as they take the prisoners in the the deep black and heart of the mountain. The language in the song personifies the point I was making about harsh phonic sounds in the words helping to characterise the creatures, along with the actual meanings behind what they are saying, describing destruction and pain. 

The Hobbit and Dwarves are driven by whips into a large cavern lit by red fire. It is full of Goblins. Tolkien goes to lengths to explain the fate of the ponies, that they will be eaten by the Goblins, as though to brand them as evil. However the most interesting line to me in the description of the goblins is this: ‘They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones.’ It is a simple and powerful distinction that has roots in the author’s views on industrialisation over nature. But we won’t linger too long on that motif for now.

They meet the Great Goblin and there is a gentle interrogation. In fact this is the first time that Thorin actually takes on the mantle of leader. He speaks for them all, talking around their purpose and intention, trying hard to seem all innocent. The Goblin will have none of it, not really caring in the least as no matter what answers were given it would not change their planned actions. They are affronted by Thorin’s weapon. The sword from the Troll Lair. It has a history of killing countless Goblin’s so their fate is sealed with any link to this hated heirloom.

So much so that the Great Goblin was rushing to attack Thorin when the lights in the cavern all go out in a great ‘poof’. A sword flashes (in it’s own light’ which is an interesting point, and kills the Great Goblin. Then the party are being led along away from the cavern. It is not initially know who seems to be saving them, but you’ll only need one guess.

A Dwarf offers to let Bilbo climb onto him so they might all run together. This being a point where Bilbo’s size is highlighted as a disadvantage, and he is painted as someone that needs to be considered and looked after. It gives a wholesome balance to their relative statures.

Of course it was Gandalf to the rescue. His sword still flashing blue. They took stock of the escape, and soon barrelled on as quick as they could. The Dwarves having to carry Bilbo as he had no hope of keeping pace.

The Goblins close in, being faster still than the Dwarves and having the home advantage, knowing their caves. Gandalf and Thorin are forced to make a stand with their Elven blades. This puts off the chase somewhat and they are able to carry on. It is ‘fate’ once again that they found those weapons, for they strike fear into the Goblins and give the party a huge tactical advantage than any other regular weapon would not.

The Goblins turned to stealth after regrouping and managed to sneak up to the back of the escapees, grabbing the last in line (who was carrying Bilbo). The Hobbit falls, bumps his head and blacks out.

And that is where we leave our erstwhile hero. Dazed and unconscious in a Goblin tunnel deep under a mountain, in grave peril. Quite a cliff hanger.

The next chapter always was one of my favourites and I might have to break it up into a few essays, because we meet a creature that goes on to be one of the most fascinating characters in literature.

Let me clear my throat. Gollum… Gollum.