A Short Rest
With the ordeal of the trolls behind them, the party carries on, though ‘they did not sing or tell stories’ as they went. The mood was rather low which seems to have a correlation with the amount of food they have.
It reads that they forded a river ‘they saw that the great mountains had marched down very near to them’. It’s a lovely turn of phrase that gives the land itself character and agency. As though the travellers stay still and the landscape moves around them. The land would go on being and doing quite well without our band of heroes, thank you very much!
Bilbo mistakes this mountain for their final destination and upon being corrected feels weary and thinks (again) of the comforts of home.
The description of the land between the river and the mountain is rather detailed and fascinating. Valleys and culverts seem to open up and almost creep up on the party. Again lending the landscape an uncertainty and oddly sentient vibe. Gandalf comments that this is the ‘Edge of the Wild’, which would put me on my guard, as if this seemingly dangerous land full of surprises and paths to oblivion or nowhere is the edge, surely it will get harder the further in you go. I believe this would be the authors intention, that river crossing being a moment when they properly begin to travel into danger. However, because of their brush with the trolls, the effect seems lessened.
Tolkien has a wonderful habit of marking time via meals. ‘Tea-time had long gone and it seemed supper-time would do the same.’ Not only does this lend a hobbit-ish air to the narrative (possibly an implication that the narrator is in fact of that race?) it is also an excellent universal piece of language. There’s no way of knowing how time is marked in middle-earth, there is no direct explanation in the book thus far. It’s difficult to describe the position of the sun, there are general designations of morning, afternoon, evening etc… But mealtimes are a great way of describing time of day, even if they differ between individuals they are more exacting and somehow more personal.
Eventually they find (almost stumbling into) the valley of Rivendell. It is deep and they must zigzag down a path into it, which I imagine as an excellent natural defence. One narrow winding path, easy to defend with a fall that would kill. In my mind Rivendell has always been a place of immense beauty, but also subtly fortified against attack. The trouble Gandalf had finding the valley is yet another defence. Bilbo describes the air getting warmer as they descend into the valley and that he begins to get tired, even nodding off. It’s unclear if this is due to a long day travelling or some effect of the place itself, but the suggestion is enough to lend it an air of significance.
Then one of the oddest and infamous lines of the book: ‘Hmmmm! It smells like Elves! Thought Bilbo…’ It rather prompts the question: What do Elves smell like? But thinking deeper upon it, Bilbo has never met Elves (as far as the text has told us), which then changes the meaning behind the comment. Smell is a really interesting sense to associate with a being or race of people. It is usually a bad thing to ‘have a smell’. Though smell is the most evocative of the senses. Smells can trigger memory for instance. The comment isn’t an explanation of what Elves smell like, it is simply an observation that the air is evocative of Elves. Elves being something singular and distinctive. Something unique. So unique that is can be used as a descriptor. It is a comment about how unmistakable the atmosphere of the place is. It can only be a place of Elves, nothing else is possible, the very air lays heavy with them.
The Elves then break into song as the party reaches the bottom of the valley proper. They are jolly, light-hearted and laughing. Though in the joyous song there are hints that the Elves know members of the party, that they have been forewarned somehow. It gives an edge to the good humour. They are jolly and easy-going but they know more than perhaps they should.
Ah! A small comment here. ‘Bilbo loved Elves, though he seldom met them…’ Suggesting that the hobbit HAS met Elves before which leads credence to the smell comment from earlier. He has a basis for comparison, the feel is distinctive and singular.
The only suggestion that there is any sort of enmity between Elves and Dwarves is that Dwarves think the Elves foolish and the Elves enjoy making fun of Dwarves. This dynamic deepens later, but the Dwarves here are in need, and they still have the protection of Gandalf to bridge any societal gaps.
It’s worth noting that the deference to Gandalf from the Dwarves is obviously still strong. Especially as they would have been eaten by trolls without him, though Gandalf’s speech when talking about the best way to tackle the passage of the Misty mountains is noteworthy, ‘you will get lost in them…’ Not ‘we’. There is still uncertainty around how far the wizard will go on the adventure.
There is suddenly a lot of mentions of the time of year. The month of June is mentioned, though I have no idea if the Shire keeps a calendar comparable to our real life one once the world is expanded later? It seems an odd point if lingered upon too long. There is also mention of summer. So the time of year is becoming increasingly vital as the chapter progresses.
It is skipped over prettily, but our heroes spend a good fortnight at The Last Homely House, recuperating and I’m sure eating plenty. The highest compliment possible in this narrative is given to their stay. Bilbo would not have swapped the comfort of his own home for it!
Then we are introduced to Elrond, and we get a small suggestion that this tale is a small part of a much larger history. Elrond is always thought of quite simply as an Elf, a leader of Elves, but here he is primarily described as an ‘elf-friend’. The narrator spends a few lines implicating that Elrond plays many a part in the long history of the world, and calling him fair of face, mighty as a warrior and wise as a wizard. If nothing else it makes the reader want to know much more about him. At the time of writing it is quite possible Elrond was cribbed from the larger history that was written before. His appearance squarely places the Hobbit in Middle-Earth
Of Rivendell it is said:’Evil things did not come into that valley.’ A very bald and simple statement. I might suggest that they COULDN’T enter the valley, or that evil things had learned by bitter experience that they SHOULD not, either way it is suggestive of the powers that Elrond might hold.
The house of Elrond is described as the best motorway services imaginable. They were all refreshed, they were given provisions, they were fed and entertained. Bellies, supplies and spirits were re-filled.
Once again the adventure is time-stamped. Midsummers eve, with a plan to depart that wondrous valley upon midsummers day.
Elrond inspects the swords collected form the trolls lair. He says they are made by the High Elves of the West (his Kin), in Gondolin, for the Goblin wars. This is a huge and direct reference to the Silmarillion, and a main pillar of the legends from the First Age. Though here, within this text it is simply a reference to a tale that nobody is ever likely to know any more about. It is contextual history that sounds grand and important. This chapter of the book, with Elrond and the mention of Gondolin is Tolkien beginning to weave his history into the tale in front of him. Almost as though he cannot help himself.
So Gandalf and Thorin have themselves famous and powerful Elven swords. Useful tools in what may face them upon their various journeys and adventures.
Good luck, huh?
Elrond then inspects Thorin’s map. The text states Elrond did not approve of the Dwarves love of gold but hated dragons more (paraphrasing). We may meet an Elf later in the story with a different view. Elrond discovers ‘moon-letters’ hidden in the map. They can only be seen by the light of the same moon that shone when the letters were written. Midsummers Eve, so the time of year seeded through the chapter is in fact vital to finding this information.
Damn good luck, huh?
Nope. It would be really easy to call it lazy writing, or narrative convenience. But it’s more than that. Part of it is what happens in stories of legend. There is always an element of fate. Not luck. Some things are meant to be, out of the control of the hero. Another part of it is Tolkien as a ‘secondary creator’. In Tolkien’s world he has an ultimate celestial being. A creator. A being that intervenes occasionally in the world to help beings of significance act according to his will or plan. These instances are the ‘will of Illuvatar’ (God). (You can read more about this in my essay about ‘On Fairy Stories’.)
The moon-letters give a clue to when the secret entrance to the Lonely Mountain might be accessed. Though Thorin concedes the date specified is no longer know to the Dwarves. Gandalf seems to think it might all work out with a cryptic little aside, a hint that he is in the know when it comes to these divine interventions.
The party sets off the next morning on a wonderful midsummers morning. They are ready for their adventure and as prepared as it is possible to be for what might befall them.
Bilbo is a little lost in this chapter, it’s not about him at all. As a function of the greater story this is a pitstop, a reset after the unfortunate detour with the trolls. Tolkien garnishes it with great significance and builds the world with all sorts of hinted history.
This really is the chapter of the Elves. Elves as Tolkien wanted them to be seen, without the full weight of their tragic history or the responsibility they bear in the later books. I love this short chapter just to see this depiction of the Elves. I love their simple joy with just a suggestion of their power and influence.
If you don’t want to have a holiday in Rivendell after reading this chapter, there might be something up with you.