The Hive reads THE HOBBIT – Final Part (READALONG)
Again we find we broke at around the same point that Jackson did, with Smaug – enraged by the smelly Dwarves and thieving Hobbit, flying off to take his revenge on … er… Lake Town?!. Of course we know he will meet Bard there – did I mention that I met Bard recently, well I say Bard but actually I mean Luke Evans the grim actor who grimly played him in the film. And I say that I met him, well actually I saw him on stage starring alongside Penelope Wilton in the West End comedy hit Backstairs Billy. Suffice to say it is a very different role but still a brilliantly talented actor (Did I mention that the play was written by my daughter’s Godfather?!)
Anyway, back to differently fantastic times and even on a re-read the twists and turns of the last few chapters of The Hobbit manage to surprise and entertain.
Chapter XIII: Not at Home
Theo: Another chapter where the dwarfs don’t exactly cover themselves in glory, although my favourite Balin does do his part. I did like the idea of the Arkenstone – a jewel of such great value and talismanic significance to Thorin. It was, I guess, as precious to him as the one ring was to Gollum and Sauron.
Nils: That’s a good point Theo. The Arkenstone meant so much to Thorin, I wonder if it did have some sort of magical effect on him?
Beth: Peter Jackson played quite heavily on that in the movie, didn’t he, so it’ll be interesting to see if the roots of that are in the book. The one thing that has surprised me the most is just how much there is from the book in the movies. I’ve spent all these years convinced PJ fabricated a whole load of stuff for the movies, whereas in reality that list has shrunk considerably. As for the Arkenstone itself, it does seem to be close to the one ring in power, as Bilbo, like the ring, makes excuses to keep it for himself.
Theo: I also like the way this chapter and the next one show the splitting of timelines that Tolkein used throughout The Two Towers and also The Return of the King. That is, the dwarfs’ story travels forward in ignorance of what has happened to Smaug – which quite cleverly leaves the reader puzzled and in some trepidation.
Beth: Very good point Theo! Tolkien does that narrative device very well, doesn’t he, as we’re left wondering, alongside the dwarves, what might have happened to him.
Qu18: Are there any other great gemstones or singular treasures of the fantasy world that rival the Arkenstone?
Nils: The Evanstar?! I was so obsessed with Arwen’s necklace that when a friend gave me a replica for my graduation I literally screamed!!
Theo: That is a good friend! And I’ve suddenly realised – what am I thinking of even asking the question when there is a whole book about just three jewels! The silmarils of…. The Silmarillion!
Beth: It always comes back to The Silmarillion! Aw Nils what a special gift from your friend!
So, similar magic items that always stick in my mind: there was a bangle that turned Eustace into a dragon in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And of course C. S. Lewis had his own magic rings in The Magician’s Nephew and that was how people first travelled to Narnia. There was the… what was it in the Belgariad by Eddings? An orb? For Riva? I’m sure there was something like that.
Chapter XiV: Fire and Water
Theo: I did like the description of Smaug’s attack – conveying the terror without going into gritty, gory scalded detail.
“Roaring he swept back over the town. A hail of dark arrows leaped up and snapped and rattled on his scales and jewels, and their shafts fell back kindled by his breath burning and hissing into the lake. No fireworks you ever imagined equalled the sights that night.”
Nils: This was another favourite part of mine. The visual imagery Tolkien creates is spectacular.
Beth: Can you just imagine how incredible it would have been to hear him describe that aloud?? Just reading those words on the page conjures such a visage, he sweeps you away just with the written word, how incredibly lucky were his children to have such a storyteller?
Theo: I am a bit curious about genetically ingrained languages – when Bard understands what the Thrush says to him “Marvelling he found he could understand its tongue, for he was of the race of Dale.” I mean easier even than Duo-lingo, but something of a surprise.
Beth: This is a kind of a fairy-tale rule or law though, isn’t it. There’s something folkloric about the way he phrases that, that made me just accept it. It puts me in mind of Y Mabinogi, and the story of Branwen befriending the starlings and sending them to her family for help.
Qu19: What other canny birds have played an instrumental part in fantasy narratives?
Theo: NB that’s “canny” birds, not “canary” birds!
Nils: Crows often play a huge part in fantasy. The first example which comes to mind is Craf, the talking crow, from The Faithful and the Fallen series by John Gwynne. Craf is an absolute gem!
Beth: Oh, well as I said above, there was Branwen and her starlings in Y Mabinogi, as well as Rhiannon and her crows. In both instances, they played the part of messengers I believe. Tolkien himself uses them regularly, doesn’t he, from this particular thrush we’re talking about, to the great eagles, to Saruman’s crow spies. A recent favourite of mine is Inkwort the jackdaw from Jen Williams’ Talonsister.
Nils: Oh yeah Inkwort was great!
Chapter XV: The Gathering of the Clouds
Theo: Grim seems to be the default adjective for poor Bard, grim faced, grim voiced, grimly spoken. A rather convenient but still effective shorthand for character! I did warm to the elves too – in their compassion for the destitute of Esgaroth.
Beth: And yet I was confused they didn’t show the same compassion to the dwarves lost and starving in the woods!
Theo: Tolkien captured the desolation of a ruined town with some people who survived the attack still not surviving the night after due to the lack of shelter! There is a lesson still for contemporary times “Moreover the wealthy may have pity on the needy that befriended them when they were in want.”
Beth: That was a surprisingly dark moment!
Qu20: In the discussion at the gate – with Bard and the elven king being so reasonable, Thorin really does come across as a complete arse, or am I being unkind to him or making too little allowance for the disease of gold lust that afflicts dwarves!
Nils: I agree with you Theo, I think Thorin was being unreasonable and needlessly stubborn. He wasn’t willing to negotiate or see any other view but his own. I don’t blame Bilbo for being so miserable.
Beth: I can understand why he doesn’t trust the elven king, he didn’t have a positive experience with him previously so it’s no wonder he doesn’t trust him. I’m not sure what Bard did to deserve his distrust though. I did feel somewhat annoyed by him, but I think I pitied him more than anything. The combination of having struggled so much to get to where he did, coupled with the clear evil influence of the Arkenstone, he’s a very different Thorin. It was an interesting commentary on those who claw their way up the ladder to then snub those you used to know at the bottom and refuse to lend a helping hand up.
Chapter XVI: A Thief in the Night
Theo: This is the final stage in Bilbo’s development – from saving himself, through saving the party to the ultimate objective of saving everyone by striving to avoid war – trading on Thorin’s love of the Arkenstone. Again you wonder how far Tolkien’s World War One experiences led him to make a hero out of an ordinary person taking an extraordinary step to try and prevent war.
Beth: Yes! The ‘Tommy’ figure of WWI, the everyday ordinary person who can contribute and play their part in something so much bigger. Suddenly we’re getting stories where the hero isn’t a knight or a prince, he’s a simple fellow like you and me who would rather be home eating his breakfast.
Theo: Bombur has the right of it in his description of Thorin
“Not that I venture to disagree with Thorin, may his beard grow ever longer; yet he was ever a dwarf with a stiff neck.”
Qu21: Is this Bilbo’s most heroic moment – especially in returning to the dwarves after giving away the Arkenstone? Are there any other great fantasy pacifists?
Nils: Not only does Bilbo return but he also confesses that it was him who gave the Arkenstone to Bard despite knowing that Thorin would be very angry. I love Bilbo for this, not just because he’s once again proven that Hobbits can indeed be brave but also that they are selfless. Bilbo was not enticed by the thought of gold and riches, he was driven by the prospect of peacefully avoiding war and in turn going home to his comforts.
Beth: His honesty is such a ray at that moment isn’t it, when everyone else is in conflict and turmoil.
Nils: I can sort of see Thorin’s point too although I don’t agree with him. Like you said Theo, the Arkenstone was precious to him and it wasn’t Bilbo’s to bargain with, it did rightfully belong to the dwarves. Then again, Thorin had left very little options for anything else to be done.
Beth: Oh, that’s a good point, I guess he’s not quite such an honest figure, it wasn’t actually his to bargain with… it was a somewhat underhand way of attempting to force Thorin’s hand. But you can see his intentions were pure, trying to avoid a fight.
What do we make of Gandalf showing up again, and why didn’t he go straight to the dwarves?
Theo: In the films it’s interesting how Jackson showed us all exactly what Gandalf had been up to – driving the Necromancer out of Dol Guldur, with a little bit of help from his friends. So he had been quite busy! I guess by the time Gandalf got there the dwarves were already besieged (I mean Gandalf didn’t appear at the first parley) so he’d probably only just arrived in the almighty mess and was still wondering what to do.
Chapter XVII: The Clouds Burst
Theo: The only clue we have as to numbers in this battle is that the Dwarves of the Iron Hills numbered “more than five hundred” and yet were still outnumbered by the elves and men. But this does suggest a relatively small battle – and maybe it needed to be for 13 dwarfs springing out of the gate to have a significant impact?
Beth: I’m terrible at visualising numerical things, I skim over large numbers whenever I read them because they have such little meaning to me. There were armies. One was smaller than the others. That’s all I need to know!
Theo: I do appreciate Tolkien’s simple but logical description of the battle – with the allied armies on two separate mountain spurs hoping to trap the goblins in a killing ground in the valley below. But then the distances involved seem very large for the small forces involved. (Remember it took the dwarves five hours to trek from the main gate to the Ravenhill lookout point suggesting the mountain spur is several miles long!) Also, since the eagles clearly can fly all the way to the lonely mountain, I refer you to my earlier point, that the eagles could have flown the party over Mirkwood!
Nils: Yeah but the Eagles didn’t want to 🤣 They would rather avoid interfering in such things. I believe the only reason they came to battle of The Five Armies is because they hated the Goblins and saw an opportunity to be rid of them. It benefited them.
Beth: Yes I agree with you Nils, they’d been keeping an eye on the goblins and wargs and only involved themselves because of that. The issue isn’t the distance, it’s the fact they didn’t want to get too near areas inhabited by men. As for the distances in the battle, again, I refer you back to my earlier comment about the size of the armies! I struggle to visualise how large an area must be by how long it takes to walk it. I struggle to imagine a battle that far spread out!
Qu22: Did you enjoy the battle description? Would you have liked it to be longer (though not as distended as Jackson’s cinematic version)? Am I the only one who worries about the verisimilitude of military tactics and details?
Beth: Sorry Theo, but yes I think you are!
Theo: The historian in me is crying!
Nils: So I’ve always really loved battle scenes in books, I’ve always found them thrilling to read and I thoroughly loved the scope of it here. We have dwarves, elves, men, Beorn as a bear, and the Eagles all against goblins, wargs and wolves and again I loved the visual aspect of that. This is actually a part of The Hobbit films I did enjoy although it was a little over the top.
Beth: I’ve become less and less enamoured of fantasy battles lately and I was glad when this was over. I liked the various factions joining together against a larger common enemy, but I was glad it wasn’t longer.
Nils: Did I wish Tolkien had not knocked Bilbo out so we could have read about the battle in more detail rather than the summary we get in the next chapter? Yes of course, but I think then it would stray away from being a children’s book? You can’t have too much of the realities of warfare in something that kids are supposed to be entertained by.
Beth: Like I said, I was grateful we didn’t receive any further detail! I think a summary was more than sufficient. I really appreciated Bilbo’s contemplation of the negatives of wearing the ring, I think this is the first time it occurred to him? But he could easily have gone unnoticed and un-rescued!
Chapter XVIII: The Return Journey
Theo: Finally Thorin gets a deathbed epiphany
“Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friendship with you, and I would take back my words and deeds at the gate.”
and he realises
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
Nils: I loved that last line. It’s a true statement even for today’s world.
Theo: Absolutely, Nils.
Beth: I agree. It’s a sad state of affairs that almost 90 years on it’s still so relevant.
Theo: I remember that scene moving me quite a bit at the first reading – as Tolkien must have intended. Bilbo’s grief is – I guess – accentuated by the ordeals they have experienced and survived. A fellowship created by shared adversity which forged a kinship stronger than Thorin’s many ‘stiff necked’ flaws would allow. Flaws which incidentally are far more apparent to me on a second reading than on the first where I was swept along by Thorin’s self-presentation as the grand hero of the tale. Perhaps I should have realised – given we first meet him buried under a pile of his fellow dwarfs – that Tolkein always intended to puncture that pomposity and arrogance.
Qu23: Apart from Bilbo, which major or minor character comes out best from the whole story? Whose reputation is enhanced, who comports themselves with most dignity?
Nils: I would say the King of the Elves? He goes from being someone who imprisoned Thorin, wanted a semblance of revenge on the dwarves for escaping to someone who fought side by side with dwarves and men, and humbly gives Thorin back his sword and offers his friendship to the remaining dwarves.
Theo: Yes, Thranduil is a good call (although Tolkien doesn’t name him until LotR). Reminds me of one my favourite bit-characters from LotR, Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth (tbf my appreciation of both characters may have been initially incited by how they appeared in the SPI game War of the Ring – which I played before I read LotR). From the Hobbit, I would pick Bard – he is truly heroic, fair, resourceful and consistently honourable, everything that Thorin ought to have been.
Beth: Those are both brilliant suggestions, I’d have to agree with them both. How about Beorn? You were both rather put off by him at first, but he joins in the fight and escorts Bilbo and Gandalf through the lands north of the woods. Did you start to see him in a better light?
Theo: Yes I really did like how he came in at the climax of the battle to fight through Bolg’s bodyguard, strike him down and lift up the mortally wounded Thorin. That’s a really special moment – where Jackson just had him airdropped by an eagle onto a pile of Goblins. I agree with you Beth that the battle in the film did just go on and on and on! (and of course there was the Legolas dances with stones moment)
Nils: Yes Beth! That’s a really good point! Beorn proves himself to be a great companion when he’s on your side.
Theo I’ve ranted at Beth about Legolas being in the Hobbit films and looking considerably older than in the LotR!! I won’t continue my rant here!
Chapter XIX: The Last Stage
Theo: So “Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards” which implies more than one white wizard! A second Saruman? A slip of the pen, or Elrond and Galadriel given an honorary white wizard title. Again, as with the hobbits’ return in the LotR, Tolkien presents a twist of difficulty at the end of the journey, although the auction of Bilbo’s belongings might not rival the scouring of the shire as a logistical challenge.
Nils: Isn’t Saruman the head of the White Wizards? So I’m guessing there were a few other white wizards below him. I thought they might be in the Silmarillion?
Theo: Saruman is head of the White Council, (https://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/White_Council) but is the only wizard specifically referred to as white (Until Gandalf 2.0). Of the five istari or wizards, we have only Saruman (the white) Gandalf (the grey) Radagast (the brown) and two blue wizards whose names Gandalf does not recall and who disappeared into the East. One hesitates to ask what a Blue wizard might specialise in – perhaps Ulesorin (the green) can enlighten us?!
Beth: I did wonder about the plural! I’d be tempted to think it was a slip if not for the fact the book has been so ruthlessly re-worked over the many years!
Theo: Good point, Beth – I mean with all the revisions of Chapter 5 to get it synched with LotR you’d think a little adjustment from council of wizards to white council of wizards (and others) would be easily done. Tbf to the White Council it seems to have been less bureaucratically burdensome than most people’s meetings. I mean they only met four times in nearly 500 years – sure beats the monthly school governor meetings!
Nils: Oh and poor Bilbo! He finally makes it home to find all his hobbit-hole comforts being sold off!! I think Gandalf knew this was happening? When they come across the treasure the trolls had left, Bilbo said he didn’t want any of it but Gandalf insisted he take some because he’ll have more need of it than he thinks?!
Beth: Oh!! Very good point Nils! He’s a bit of a bugger, old Gandalf, isn’t he!
Nils: I know, right?! He could have warned Bilbo!
Theo: There is also a bit of semantic wriggling at the end which reminds me of the one that opened LotR. With LotR we had
“I don’t know half of you as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”
But in the Hobbit we had
“In short Bilbo was ‘presumed dead’, and not everybody that said so was sorry to find the presumption wrong.”
(I mean surely it makes better sense to have ‘pleased’ rather than ‘sorry’ – or am I too late to edit a nearly 100 year old book!)
Qu24: How would you disentangle those two sentences into something that made sense?
Beth: I wouldn’t.
Nils: Basically some were pleased to see Bilbo return but those Sackville-Bagginses wanted to take his hobbit-hole and were hard done by when Bilbo came back alive! How dare he be alive?!
Theo: disentangling the negatives in the sentence surely implies that
- There was a group of people who said that they were sorry to find the presumption wrong – ie they were sorry that Bilbo was not (as presumed) dead.
- Of those who, by implication, said they were sorry Bilbo was alive, some were not actually sorry he was alive!
Beth: Ugh Theo if you insist!!
Of everyone who said Bilbo was presumed dead, there were some who were sorry that presumption was incorrect.
Theo: ooh – that does make better sense!
Qu25: What have you picked up to take away from The Hobbit in the re-reading of it?
Theo: For me, I think, I’m seeing more similarities than before with LotR. In particular the elevation of the ‘ordinary’ hero in Bilbo – the way the archetypal warrior heroes, like Thorin and the dwarves are ultimately ineffective, and also I’m picking up Tolkien’s abhorrence of war which is at best a necessary evil worth many sacrifices to avoid. The pointless hoarding of wealth by the greedy, and the idea of the ‘little/ordinary people’ being the ones to make a difference are still lessons for our time!
Nils: This reread was sorely needed. I had forgotten moments like meeting Elrond in Rivendell, the creepiness and mystery behind Beorn and the Eagles turning up at The Battle of the Five Armies. I loved experiencing my favourite chapters again such as Riddles in the Dark and Fire and Water. I loved seeing the seeds of the Lord of the Rings throughout and gaining a deeper knowledge of how that all began. I also fell back in love with Tolkien’s prose instantly. His words just envelope me in comfort, even when he’s exploring themes of war, greed and corruption. His lyrical and atmospheric writing style is just perfect, but I was also pleased to see so much humour. There’s such a fantastic balance between dark and light that I can see why the Hobbit remains a favourite for both children and adults alike.
Beth: I too was glad to have refreshed this book, there was so much of it I’d forgotten. I’d thought it far more simplistic than it actually is, there are so many themes you both list above that elevate it from being “just a children’s book”, and I’d really done it the dishonour of forgetting this. I always saw LotR as the more serious book, the drier “for grown-ups” book, and that does such a disservice to The Hobbit. This re-read has adjusted my perspective again. There’s plenty in it which is light and adventurous and fun, but there are so many subtleties, social commentaries, and threads of a bigger wider world to discover.