Welcome back to the chapter-by-chapter reread of The Hobbit. You can find past posts at the reread index, or you can catch up with our previous reread of The Lord of the Rings. As always, the discussion will contain spoilers for everything Tolkien wrote about Middle-earth (that is: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and various posthumous tidbits); if you haven’t read the book before and would like to remain unspoiled, I recommend reading along with Mark Reads first.
This week, we consider Chapter 17, “The Clouds Burst,” which contains many things indeed (though not, as far as I can tell, any rain).
Bard, the Elvenking, and a disguised Gandalf come to Thorin and ask him if he would give any gold for the Arkenstone. Thorin is amazed and furious; when Bilbo admits that he gave the Arkenstone to them, Gandalf has to stop Thorin from throwing Bilbo bodily over the wall. Thorin claims he will arrange for delivery of a fourteenth of the hoard as Bilbo’s share and sends Bilbo away. Bard promises to return the next day.
Dain and his company arrive first. Bard wishes to attack them immediately, but the Elvenking recommends a delay, hoping for reconciliation. Dain’s forces attack suddenly, but Gandalf stops the impending battle by declaring that an army of goblins and wargs is approaching.
The dwarves, elves, and humans immediately join forces. Their hasty plan is to lure the goblins into the valley between the spurs of the Mountain. This works initially, but then goblins attack the spurs from above, having climbed the other side of the Mountain. As sunset approaches, the combined forces are slowly being driven back.
Then Thorin and company leap out and attack the goblins and wargs unexpectedly, again with initial success as they gather others to them. But soon they are surrounded in the valley as attacks elsewhere are renewed. Bilbo, watching invisibly, is expecting the goblins and warg to win very soon when suddenly against the sunset he sees the Eagles “coming down the wind, line after line, in such a host as must have gathered from all the eyries of the North.” He cries out that the Eagles are coming, but then a rock strikes his helmet “and he fell with a crash and knew no more.”
For all the many things in this chapter, I admit that my principal reaction when I finished it on my initial reread for this project was, “Cutting it a little fine there, weren’t you, Gandalf?”
Yes, the narrator says that Gandalf “had not expected this sudden assault,” but he tells the others that it “has come more swiftly than I guessed,” and knows who is leading the attack. (It’s interesting the way the narrator resolutely refuses to claim knowledge of Gandalf’s thoughts, saying things like “How much Gandalf knew cannot be said.”) So since he knew that goblins and wargs were on their way, you would think he might want to tell them earlier and suggest that they should wait on fighting each other lest they do all the goblins’ work for them, yeah? As it is, Gandalf’s “jump in front of charging dwarves” solution is very dramatic but not very sensible.
Moving back to the start of the chapter, I again thought Gandalf’s actions were suboptimal. Yes, he was able to keep Thorin from throwing Bilbo over the wall, but what if Thorin’s first reaction had been to stab Bilbo in the neck? Hard for even magic to deal with that. One possibly better option would have been for Gandalf to do the talking from the start. He might have had a better chance at snapping Thorin out of it—he certainly couldn’t do worse than Bard, who backs Thorin into a corner when he asks, “Is there then nothing for which you would yield any of your gold?”, before revealing the Arkenstone, and then fuels Thorin’s anger by not answering Thorin’s question about how they got the Arkenstone. Of course, Gandalf seems to be acting in agreement with Bard, holding up the Arkenstone right on cue, so maybe he wouldn’t have been a better choice.
I’m interested that Bilbo, like the rest of the characters, doesn’t bother with “uh, I was trying to stop you from causing a war, Thorin” as his explanation. Instead, he relies on Thorin’s statement about choosing his own share and his past service:
Descendant of rats, indeed! Is this all the service of you and your family that I was promised, Thorin? Take it that I have disposed of my share as I wished, and let it go at that!
Almost certainly, it wouldn’t have jolted Thorin to his senses to realize that Bilbo was willing to risk his life and his profits to avoid the course Thorin was so set on, but I don’t know, I’d have liked someone to try (more explicitly than Gandalf’s belated comment that he was “not making a very splendid figure as King under the Mountain.”) I guess Bilbo was too offended personally to think of it, which is understandable. (Though he displays quite the gift for understatement when he calls Thorin’s murder attempt “all very uncomfortable”).
Finally for this confrontation, the narrator specifically cites “the bewilderment of the treasure” as the reason for Thorin planning to break the agreement, which is relevant to our past discussions. (Thorin’s anger, at least, is not shared by all his companions: “More than one of the dwarves in their hearts felt shame and pity at [Bilbo’s] going.”) Later, when Dain’s dwarves attack without warning, the narrator says that they were motivated both by the opportunity to catch their opponents off-guard and the “knowledge that the Arkenstone was in the hands of the besiegers.” Finally for the motivations roundup, before the dwarves attack, the Elvenking tells Bard, “Long will I tarry, ere I begin this war for gold.” This is good to hear considering that I’d been a bit unclear how far the Elvenking would take his desire for shiny things. (Apparently he has learned from previously starting a war over gold, at least in the backstory as it existed at the time of this book?)
Regarding the battle proper: this uses a lot of elements that Tolkien would later deploy in The Lord of the Rings: the unnatural darkness, the evil flying creatures (the bats make up in numbers and blood-sucking what they lack in causing mortal terror), the unexpected aid from ground forces, the pattern of strong reversals, the Eagles, and ending on a viewpoint character losing consciousness, which is described as seeing or knowing no more. (Did anyone fear that Bilbo had actually died at this point, the first time through?) It also has some great images, such the elves’ first charge against the goblins:
Their spears and swords shone in the gloom with a gleam of chill flame, so deadly was the wrath of the hands that held them. As soon as the host of their enemies was dense in the valley, they sent against it a shower of arrows, and each flickered as it fled as if with stinging fire.
The arrival of Thorin is another stirring high-fantasy moment. In terms of character development, I note that the battle portion of the chapter is entirely outside of his POV, and so I believe ultimately it is a matter of personal interpretation whether he was motivated here by selfless or selfish considerations. (I know he apologizes to Bilbo later, but dying does bring clarity, at least in this kind of story, anyway, so it’s not necessarily indicative of his motives in this chapter.)
About the goblins: the text merely says that Dain killed Azog at Moria and that Bolg is Azog’s son; it had previously mentioned that Azog killed Thorin’s grandfather, way back in Chapter 1. As far as I can tell, the interested reader has to check Appendix A to LotR to get the history there (or, at the time of publication and for some considerable time after, just guess). There’s also no hint that Sauron was behind the goblins’ decision to leave the Misty Mountains, avenge the death of the Great Goblin, and “win the dominion of the North”; from what I recall of LotR, such a link seems unlikely. Unfortunately, my grasp of tactics is not up to deciding what effect a goblin victory at the Battle of Five Armies would have had during the War of the Ring, compared to Smaug’s survival.
Finally for this chapter, Bilbo does not wish himself at home (11/16), merely “well out of it.”
Penultimate chapter next week, when we skip a good deal to begin “The Return Journey.” See you then.
Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog.