Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire
Bilbo has been in considerable peril for quite a while now. I keep casting my mind back to the wonderful descriptions of the journey out of Rivendell, dripping with syrupy foreshadowing of great dangers. Even with that in mind the most astute of readers probably couldn’t have guessed what was to come, or expected Mr. Baggins to find his own way though it all.
As one danger passes it’s easy to forget that all is still not well. Bilbo is back in the daylight, away from Gollum, away from goblins, but utterly alone and with no clue as to where his company of dwarves and the wizard might have got to. This is actually the stomach clench-er for me, escaping immediate terror then realising that it only presents more mundane but just as threatening difficulties. Life threatening situations usually present very simple choices, being lost and alone presents a world of fear and indecision. We know how the chapter rolls out and why it might be titled ‘Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire’ but it is this moment at the very beginning that justifies it for me.
We are dealing with quite a different Hobbit now. He is fixed upon finding his friends and even considers going back into the goblin tunnels to look for them; the fact he now has a magic ring lends a lot of weight to this new found bravery. In fact, it seems that he decides he must BECAUSE he has the ring, as though the advantage it gives him lays a certain responsibility upon him. It is hit ‘duty’. Though the old Bilbo is still in there somewhere because he ‘felt very miserable’ about it!
Then another dollop of good fortune or divine providence, not the last at all. Voices, yes it is the voices of the very people he most dearly wishes to find! It is so very easy to skip over these coincidences that help stitch the story together. I’m sure for some readers it annoys them, but it would seem for most, it is at the least bearable, and at most a contributing factor towards the overall charm of the narrative. There is something to be said for the power of Tolkien’s writing voice. It smooths over a lot of things that most writers now are warned against. No modern writer would plot the Hobbit as it is. They would not put in so many unlikely incidences that if picked at or examined too closely would unravel the story. It is the telling of the thing itself that powers though the flaws, buffing them up and making them part of what makes it special.
Bilbo, still wearing his ring goes past Balin (on lookout) and hears his companions debating whether they should go back and look for the Hobbit, which is a wonderful clash of ideals when you consider Bilbo had already steeled himself to do just that for the dwarves. It doesn’t specify who says it, but it is voiced that Bilbo has been of no use on the journey so far. Gandalf gets angry, hopefully at the Dwarves bad memory rather than the insult to his judgement. Bilbo has been far braver thus far than the dwarves themselves, they really are a bunch of complainers and I’m not liking them much at all in this read through.
Dori gets the blame for dropping the Hobbit and we get a neat bit of exposition on how the company managed to escape. Lots of swordplay and a bit of magic.
Then Bilbo reveals himself right amongst them all giving them a huge fright. Balin’s stock as a lookout plunged while Bilbo’s burglar credentials rose exponentially.
There’s a lot of catching up and story-swapping to fill in a few of the blanks. Bilbo recounts his tale, without mentioning the ring, which makes his achievements sound all the more impressive. There is a suggestion in the text that Gandalf might spy a few holes in it all. We can only guess at Bilbo’s motivations for not telling everyone about the ring at once. It really doesn’t lessen his achievements, not substantially. I wonder if he was riding the uptick in his stock with the dwarves with his sudden reappearance, or more sinisterly if the ring itself had an influence? Though Bilbo tells himself ‘not yet’ when thinking about telling all, an intention to be honest in time or the beginnings of denial?
Gandalf explained his part in saving Bilbo and the dwarves, it’s the first time I’ve picked up on how pleased Gandalf is with his own cleverness. Which is something to file away for another day, as he goes on to make many mistakes in the larger tale of the ring and in his dealings with Hobbits.
Then we get a handy time check (sponsored by exposition!) Gandalf explains they have been under the mountain for days and are the other side of the mountain range, a dangerous shortcut, but a useful one nonetheless. He also highlights the danger they are still in, as the shadows lengthen and dusk comes on they will be tracked by goblins seeking revenge for the slaying of their king. Even though they were in unfamiliar and unplanned for country with imminent pursuit from furious enemies, the only information that really landed with Bilbo was that it had been days since he’d had a meal. You’ve got to love Hobbits.
The great thing about re-reading is the small details that never really snagged in your mind the first few times. The loose rubble slope was a detail I couldn’t recall. It’s the sort of thing Peter Jackson could get a 10 minute set piece out of! No idea if he actually did? It does remind the reader that this is a rough and unpredictable landscape, there are no familiar paths, they are running across unknown country from a foe that has the lay of the land.
Tolkien really does excel as soon as his characters go anywhere near trees. The few paragraphs that describe their tread through a forest of pines is as beautiful as it is eerie. This is the atmosphere where they run out of light, a silent wood with growing darkness.
Bilbo is complaining, so he’s fallen back into the swing of being part of the group rather quickly. He really only shows any signs of heroism in dire need. He does use a wonderful turn of phase that I’ll be employing from now on though: ‘My stomach is wagging like an empty sack.’
The silence of the wood has already been established. Then they come to a clearing, which ‘struck them all as not a nice place’, the moon shone brightly and of course the silence was broken by a howl. Followed by many howls surrounding them.
The author takes pains to note that magic rings will be useless against a foe like wolves as they hunt by smell, which is an excellent way of ratcheting up the jeopardy again in case you assumed Mr Baggins’ trinket was a fix-all.
The party took to the trees that defined the clearing, clambering up as best they could. The absurdity of older dwarves acting like boys is described, but the humour does undercut a bit of the tension here.
Poor Bilbo was once again forgotten. He was not tall enough to reach the lowest boughs. There is a short argument between the dwarves about designating a carer for the Hobbit before reluctantly Dori climbs back down to fetch Bilbo. The dwarves never seem miss an opportunity to be a little obtuse when it comes to personal responsibility.
They got back into the tree just in time as the wolves (or wargs) filled the clearing for their gathering. They could not climb the trees but they set guards on all the trees where they smelled an intruder. Then a great gathering began with a chief warg at the centre of it all. Gandalf could understand the clamour and through him we hear what the wolves discuss. It is all dreadful deeds and schemes to kill settlements that have tried to move into the wild lands, all with the help of the goblins, if they would turn up on time!
Knowing that goblins could climb trees for cut them down Gandalf tried do whatever a wizard could from the top of a tree. He set light to pine cones and began hurling them into the wolves. Their coats caught light in a flame that could not be smothered and the wargs made such a noise that it got the attention of a passing eagle!
Not just any eagle, of course, the Lord of the Eagles (capital E), there is a bit of description about these birds being of noble heritage, but it really is the tip of the iceberg of their lore. Long story short, they didn’t like wargs or goblins and the noise and light got them curious enough to take a closer look.
The flames had spread from the wolves to the trees, then goblins arrived and trained the fire towards the trees that held the party of travellers. The goblins delighted in the cruel game and sang as they watched the flames lick up the trees towards the dwarves, hobbit and wizard. Gandalf tries to trade words with them but this is a moment where he really is quite powerless. It doesn’t really happen very often to my memory, but he is cornered and about to go out in a final attack when he is plucked from the tree by an eagle. There might be a theme that Gandalf is always threatened or put in peril by fire?
The eagles attacked the goblins and collected the dwarves. Bilbo was nearly left behind again! He had to hang from Dori’s legs hundreds of feet in the air.
The eagles carried them all to safety. There is a lot of lovely prose and a bit of character stuff but it really is chapter padding. Tolkien tries to play with your emotions suggesting for half a page that the eagles may not be as friendly as first supposed.
Of course Gandalf is friendly with the Eagle Lord having aided him in the past, they agree to get taken further along their road and the chapter ends with a meal and a bit of comfort. At least relative safety. It marks the end of their passage across the Misty Mountains.
Bilbo sleeps soundly on the hard rock of an Eagle’s Eyrie but he dreams of his home, he wanders from room to room ‘looking for something he could not find nor remember what it looked like.’
Tolkien loves using a dream, and there are lots in interesting interpretations you can put on that one. Maybe he’s looking for comfort? Maybe Bilbo simply wants to feel like he is in familiar surroundings, or maybe he is wandering around the place he loves wondering why he can’t settle? He’s in an adventure now. There’s no going back.