Dec 6 2012 1:00pm

The Hobbit Reread: Chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill”

The Hobbit reread on Welcome back to the chapter-by-chapter re-read of The Hobbit. You can find past posts at the reread index, or you can catch up with our previous re-read of The Lord of the Rings. As always, the discussion will contain spoilers for everything Tolkien (that is: The Hobbit, LotR, 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 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill,” which is probably titled that because “Over Mountain and Under Mountain” doesn’t sound right. (Which is good, because it saves Frodo from later taking the pseudonym “Mr Undermountain.”)


What Happens

The travelers are climbing the cold arduous path through the Misty Mountains and shelter under a rock ledge for the night, but they are drenched in a severe thunderstorm (two, actually). Not only that, but “across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness.”

Fili and Kili are therefore sent to look for better shelter, and find a dry and apparently-empty cave. But Bilbo wakes from a nightmare to find that goblins have opened a passage in the back of the cave, stolen their ponies, and are about to pounce on them. His shout gives Gandalf enough warning to avoid capture, but the rest are taken before the Great Goblin, who orders their imprisonment and torture when he recognizes Thorin’s sword Orcrist.

Gandalf rescues them and kills the Great Goblin. They run from the goblins, but cannot stay ahead of them, so Gandalf and Thorin take a stand and drive the goblins back with their swords. The goblins respond by using stealth to sneak up on the party. One of them grabs Dori from behind; Bilbo falls off Dori’s shoulders, bumps his head, and “remembered nothing more.”



I have two principal reactions to this chapter. One is pretty obvious: woah, action! Cliffhanger!

The other is that this is the first time that I’ve really been excited to read the story aloud to SteelyKid when she’s ready. There are lot of lines that will be great fun, from the relatively sober one in the second paragraph—“It was a hard path and a dangerous path, a crooked way and a lonely and a long.”—to the delicious appearance of the goblins—“Out jumped the goblins, big goblins, great ugly-looking goblins, lots of goblins, before you could say rocks and blocks.” (Though admittedly this gets me thinking of Fox in Socks and then I have to go do something else until I lose the urge to talk about tweetle beetles.)

The thing I didn’t remember about this chapter is the stone-giants. They’re reasonably prominent, but they made no impression on me before now because, I think, they seem so much like a personification of the storm’s violence that I didn’t register them as separate things. Perhaps because of that, I still don’t have much of an opinion of them.

The thing I had to look up about this chapter was a bigger-scale map than the one included in the book, because I was trying to relate the journey here to that in LotR. It looks like Lorien is (or eventually was, once Tolkien wrote LotR) just to the south of what’s visible in the map linked above. Jo Walton, in her single reread post that I linked to last week in comments, notes “how reluctant Tolkien is to name anything here... and this from the master namer.” I’ll extend this to the lack of geographical specificity and discussion. All this chapter says about the path they take into the Misty Mountains is that it was “the right road to the right pass.” When you think about this in comparison to the debates over Caradhras in LotR, the difference between the two stories is really marked. Or, more simply: this chapter is called “Over Hill and Under Hill.” The relevant chapter in LotR is called “The Ring Goes South.”

To shift gears: Goblins. Some interesting comparisons here, both within this book and to LotR. First, the narration explicitly sets them up as the dark reflection of dwarves, saying that they “they can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble.” As such, they are given a level of technological sophistication that surprised me:

It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far.

I’m not sure I can support this impression, but I didn’t get the feeling that the orcs in LotR were responsible for any significant engineering.

The sophistication of the goblins in this book is carried through in their language (of course, because it’s Tolkien). They have an introductory song, like the dwarves and elves but unlike the trolls. Further, the Great Goblin is noticeably well-spoken (well, until he falls into a murderous rage, but isn’t that true for most of us?): his first line is, “Who are these miserable persons?” and his questioning of Thorin involves threats of “something particularly uncomfortable.” Even the nameless goblins who caught the travelers say things like “sheltering” and “He is a liar, O truly tremendous one!” Very different from the trolls, and also from the orcs’ language in LotR. Those of you who delight in construing in-universe explanations for such things, knock yourselves out; I’m personally happy to leave it as an example of how much Tolkien’s worldbuilding changed, and also of the different kinds of stories he was telling.


  • Bilbo gains burglar XP by noticing the passage at the back of the cave opening in his sleep, but otherwise this chapter is constantly calling him “little Bilbo,” emphasizing how ineffective and unimportant he is. If I’m remembering correctly, either this chapter or the next is his low point in this regard.
  • Startlingly, Gandalf is referred to as lighting up his “wand” on several occasions in this chapter, “as he did that day in Bilbo’s dining-room.” After a scramble to the search function of my ebook reader, I confirmed that Gandalf is said to have lit up his staff in Bilbo’s house, which is good because my mental image simply does not extend to Gandalf wielding something smaller than a staff (or Glamdring).
  • Speaking of which: I couldn’t remember last time if Orcrist and Glamdring also glow. I am answered in this chapter: Glamdring “burned with a rage that made it gleam if goblins were about; now it was bright as blue flame for delight in the killing of the great lord of the cave.” That suggestion of sentience reminds me a little too much of Turin’s creepy sword Gurthang....

And now, our running catalogs.

Dwarf characteristics:

  • Fili and Kili “had very sharp eyes” and are “the youngest of the dwarves by some fifty years.”
  • Dori is “a decent fellow.”
  • Bombur is “fat.”

Did this chapter contain a reference to Bilbo thinking wistfully of his hobbit-hole, not for the last time? Yes (3/3).

Next time: riddles in the dark. 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.

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1. a1ay
I didn’t get the feeling that the orcs in LotR were responsible for any significant engineering.

What about all those machines down under Isengard? Maybe Saruman drew the plans, but those were, presumably, Orc-built.

Those of you who delight in construing in-universe explanations for such things, knock yourselves out

These are Misty Mountain orcs, not Mordor orcs. And even the Uruk-hai are fairly articulate.

'The scouts have come back at last,' said an Orc close at hand.
'Well, what did you discover?' growled the voice of Uglúk.
'Only a single horseman, and he made off westward. All's clear now."
'Now, I daresay. But how long? You fools! You should have shot him. He'll raise the alarm..."
David Levinson
2. DemetriosX
I remembered the stone giants, because they don't quite fit in the world of LotR. They're also featured for a second in one the trailers for the movie, which I can't blame Peter Jackson for; they look like they make a good visual and emphasize the need to get into some shelter.

Bilbo "remembered nothing more". Frodo and Pippin, at least -- maybe some others -- "knew nothing more". I remember we talked about that phrase a couple of times. It's a lot more threatening than this version, certainly.

The only engineering feat I can connect with the orcs in LotR is Grond, the great siege engine used to batter the gates of Gondor. There's a strong suggestion of industrialization at Orthanc, but my impression was always that Saruman was the driving force there. But the goblins as miners isn't unreasonable. First and Second Age elves did a lot of mining and cave renovation. Even the Mirkwood elves here live mostly underground. So it's not out of the question that twisted elves might have brought along some of their stoneworking techniques and passed them down. As for the well-spoken goblins, that's beyond my retcon abilities. Maybe Dr. Thanatos can help us out.
Arghya Raihan
3. Umbar
While no direct reference is made - as far as I remember - to Orcs and their skills in engineering and such in the LotR, the industrialization of Isengard and the long-term infrastructural maintenance of Mordor were both likely performed by Orcs. Overseen by Saruman and Sauron and the Men under their command perhaps, but the scale of the endeavours suggest that Orcs must have been involved on some level.

This may just be fanon - again, I can't rightly remember - but there was this idea that the Goblins of the Misty Mountains and the Orcs of Mordor were different races, the same way the Uruk-hai were separate from the Orcs of Mordor. I always imagined the differences were akin to the differences between the Men of Bree, the Rohirrim, the Dunedain and the Men of Gondor - people divided by geography, climate, culture and lineage. To that extent, the engineering capabilities and comparative erudition of the Goblins as opposed to the Orcs would be a cultural and economic issue - just like in real life.
4. pilgrimsoul
JRRT seems to have regretted much about the Industrial Revolution and previous to that the development of gunpowder weapons. As he was a veteran of World War I, I think we can sympathize with his point of view, but at any rate, it would explain why he would make Goblins evil engineers. He regarded much of technology itself as evil or put to evil uses.
Rob Rater
5. Quasarmodo
I remembered the stone giants from my own re-read many years ago. Most significantly, I remember one of the dwarves (Thorin IIRC) complained that he didn't want to become a "football", which I thought was a little bit of a strange reference for Middle Earth.
6. Gardner Dozois
Fasinating (and something I'd totally forgotten) how much the goblins sound like Glory's gnomish helpers from BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. "O truly tremendous one!" actually IS something the gnomes call Glory, if I remember correctly. Maybe they're actually present-day goblins, borrowed from Tolkein by Josh Whedon.
Steven Halter
7. stevenhalter
The stone giants are quite the wild elemental forces of nature here. Luckily for Frodo & Co. They don't appear in LotR as cooped by Sauron. That would have been painful.
Steven Erikson has an interesting take on the sentient sword idea--if you we're forced to hack into people all of the time, how would you react? Screaming ever more loudly through a battle.
8. King Of Flames
About orcs and engineering...

That's like saying that if the men of Bree don't build giant fortresses, then the men of Gondor can't either. The misty mountain orcs live in caves. They have to be capable of mining.
9. Dr. Thanatos
1) The orcs of the First Age are reported to be twisted from the captive Elves (well known scientists and engineers who built towers and had teleconferencing technology) so it seems reasonable to me that the orcs of the third age would be adept at thumbscrews and IEDs (isengard explosive devices).

2) Orc language. Again, we're hearing things through Bilbo's filter. The orcs in LOTR were certainly articulate, although they probably couldn't stand up to Feanor on karaoke night so I'm not too bothered by their language here.

3) Swords. Describing swords as howling is a time-honored convention in fantasy going back past Conan the Meathead to Beowolf. At least Glamdring didn't yell "Turgon is Avenged!!!!!"

4) I also thought the Stone Giants interesting although apparently extinct just 90 years later...

5) Again, note that we learn what we need to know about the character and culture of orcs from "Ballad of Goblin-Town"

6) Glory as the Great Goblin? The mind boggles...
10. Gardner Dozois
Thinking about it, I'm almost positive that one of Glory's evil helpers does refer to her as "O truly tremendous one!" Seems too close to be entirely accidental.
11. Dr. Thanatos

This may also be a Middle-Earth thing; look at how Bilbo sucks up to Smaug later using much the same language (Oh Chiefest of Calamities, indeed!).

We never learn the other world that Glory and her syncophants came from; perhaps they are Eriadorians (which would make Glory "Oh most Eriadorable")
12. wiredog
"Feanor on karaoke night"
Gotta remember that.
13. The Nameless One
7. Hust blades vs. Elvish swords

On the subject of stone giants, maybe they just don't live further south.
14. Dr. Thanatos
Off topic, but when has that ever stopped me:

Old Man Willow, he's a mighty singer. He could probably give Feanor a run for his money at open mike night at Cafe Valimar...
Andrew Mason
15. AnotherAndrew
This may just be fanon - again, I can't rightly remember - but there was
this idea that the Goblins of the Misty Mountains and the Orcs of
Mordor were different races, the same way the Uruk-hai were separate
from the Orcs of Mordor.

Are the Mordor Orcs indigenous to Mordor, or did they come there with Sauron when he reestablished himself there?
16. Confutus
Remember in the siege of Gondor, when the enemy threw the heads of slain warriors over the walls as a terror weapon? Orc-built catapults are implied if not explicitly stated.
17. Gardner Dozois
Ice-giants or frost-giants were a big part of Norse mythology, which Tolkien was heavily influenced by, so maybe that's where they wandered in from. The fact that they differentiate what kind of giants they are--STONE-giants--would seem to suggest that there are more than one kind of giant which could be lurking about, although there was no sign of any of them in LOTR.
Beccy Higman
18. Jazzlet
Maybe stone giants get excited during thunderstorms and dozy during snow.
19. peachy
My impression was always that the orcs & goblins were quite distinct. Orcs were bigger & stronger & presumably a little clumsier, and though unhappy with bright light were essentially surface dwellers in Mordor (and Fornost and presumably Dol Guldur, and later Isengard.) Goblins were smaller & nimbler, and lived underground in the Misty Mountains and the other ranges of the north. Orcs fought Men & Elves; goblins fought Dwarves. But this might be simply extrapolation on my part...
Melissa Shumake
20. cherie_2137
i had not forgotten about the stone giants, but, like you, i had always thought them more of a personification of the storm than as ACTUAL giants, so i was surprised to say the least when there were giants on the trailer i saw a couple days ago.
Arghya Raihan
21. Umbar
@15 AnotherAndrew -

When you say 're-established', you mean after the Fall of Numenor? Orcs had been there long before that. As far as I remember, Sauron originally settled in Mordor after the destruction of Beleriand during the War of Wrath. Presumably, all the Orcs came with him at that time (or fled East earlier during the War - Orcs are not known for being brave and loyal). By the end of the Third Age, Orcs would have been in Mordor for almost 7000 years. So, yes, I'd say they are indigenous to Mordor.
Birgit F
22. birgit
In German the chapter is called "Über den Berg und unter den Berg" (over the mountain and under the mountain). It's more accurate than hill, but the Misty Mountains aren't just one mountain.
Bailey Davidson
23. mgrwlondon
I'm familiar with every characters but I can't recalled the story anymore.
24. a1ay
This may just be fanon - again, I can't rightly remember - but there was
this idea that the Goblins of the Misty Mountains and the Orcs of
Mordor were different races, the same way the Uruk-hai were separate
from the Orcs of Mordor.

I think they're distinguishable by appearance. The Orcs that grab Pippin and Merry include a Mordor contingent and a Misty Mountain contingent, and they can tell them apart.
David Levinson
25. DemetriosX
Giants: According to the Encyclopedia of Arda article on giants, this is the only time they are ever seen, though there is a mention made in Chapter 7 of bears being in the Misty Mountains before the giants came. In a draft of LotR, Tolkien suggested that giants (and hobbits) were related to Men. It's also possible that the tree-men that hobbits sometimes saw on the borders were originally intended to be giants rather than some sort of ent. Apparently he hadn't come up with the concept of ents when he wrote the passage about Sam's cousin having seen a tree-man.
26. a1ay
Apparently he hadn't come up with the concept of ents when he wrote the passage about Sam's cousin having seen a tree-man.

I am not sure about this. Ents were one of the earliest bits of Middle-Earth I think- IIRC he was very disappointed as a child by the big reveal at the end of Macbeth, and thought how much better it would have been if Birnam Wood had actually marched on Dunsinane.
27. Dr. Thanatos
He may have wanted Ents at Dunsinane, but he got the "I am not of woman born-----I mean, I was born a woman" moment from Eowyn...
Arghya Raihan
28. Umbar
@24 a1ay - Right you are. That skipped my mind. Not fanon then - they are two different races, separated by geography and likely, culture.
alastair chadwin
29. a-j
The late great George MacDonald Fraser wrote to Tolkien about the orc/goblin question and got a hand-written reply that they were identical and had been inspired by the George MacDonald (slight relation, Victorian children's author) books The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie.
I have always vaguely assumed that Tolkien used 'orc' in LOTR as a sign that it was intended as more than the entertainment that The Hobbit is. Certainly, as a teenage reader, I would have cavilled at the word 'goblin' being used, while 'orc' was cool.
I also picked up on the reference to Gandalf using a wand. Like the word 'castle' a couple of chapters back, it felt it oddly out of place.

"...I remember one of the dwarves (Thorin IIRC) complained that he didn't want to become a "football", which I thought was a little bit of a strange reference...'
Perhaps not as strange. Tolkien would have known that a game called football was very popular in mediaeval Britain. Slightly different from the current versions, this was a game that involved most of the town or village with matches only being played once or twice a year because of the injuries and property damage. Basically there would be two goals, normally at either end of the town/village, each side would be anything from 50 to over 100 strong and the winning side was the first to get the ball to the opposing goal and end the match. A game could last up to a day long and the sport was banned by Henry VIII (iirc) because of the disruption.
There are still matches held annually in the UK, one in Northumberland and every New Year's Day (or it might be Eve) on the Scottish island of Orkney.
30. Gardner Dozois
It doesn't really matter whether people in mediaeval Britain would have found the term "football" anacronistic or not--what matters is whether Tolkien's READERS would find the term anacronistic or not. I think they would, and moreover, I think that they were MEANT to. The early parts of this book are full of sly ancronistic asides, like the one about the invention of golf, which, as I said once before, are probably best understood as jokey asides being made by the narrator--for all intents and purposes, Tolkien himself--to the children he was originally reading the book aloud to, before it was ever written down. I've read the book aloud to children myself, and they work fine at eliciting a giggle, particularly if you roll your eyes and ham it up a bit.

It's a mistake to think that this book is being narrated by Bilbo--he may be the main character, and the story is mostly told through his eyes, but the voice of the narrator is always there, so that a story about Bilbo's adventures is being TOLD to us by a narrator who is NOT Bilbo, and often comments on Bilbo's foilbles. This is fairly clearly demonstrated in a number of places. The kindly, mildly amused voice of the book is that of Tolkien, spinning a tale. This is not anywhere near as true in LOTR, especially in later volumes.
Robert Evans
31. bobsandiego
@30 Gardner
You're spot on about this. It's most clear in my memory in 'Riddles in the Dark' whe the narrator makes an aside that you, the reader, might find the riddle easy to solve, but you should remember that Bilbo was doing them scared, hungry, and under threat.
alastair chadwin
32. a-j
Gardner Dozois@30

Very much agreed that Tolkien the Narrator is a character in the book who provides us readers with a commentary on the action a fairly standard device in Victorian novels. However, it is Thorin who makes the 'football' comment and not Tolkien Narrator. I'm working on memory here, but I do not think that any of the characters make anachronistic comments apart from Bilbo's Edwardian world vs everyone else's Anglo-Saxon one. I'd be interested to know if I'm right.

Anyway, it matters not, I was merely grabbing the chance to show off what knowledge of mediaeval sports I have
33. another elaine
#26 about Ents. I have Letters within reach, while HoME isn't so ...
Letter #247 "There are or were no Ents in the older stories - because the Ents in fact only presented themselves to my sight, without premeditation or any previous conscious knowlege, when I came to Chapter IV of Book Three. "

And in HoME there's stuff about how he knew there was someone down in Fangorn who'd be important, in fact he expected a human villain originally, and he was quite surprised when it turned out to be Treebeard.
Beccy Higman
34. Jazzlet
It occurs to me that the whole football thing and whether you find it anachronistic or not may depend on what you think of when you hear the word. I certainly didn't find it strange, but I was thinking of a kick around with a spherical ball not American football. And I think it reasonable to assume that Tolkien was writing for a British audience as it's widespread success was a great surprise to him. I lived up the road from him when I was a child and if he walked in to college as my Father did then he would have passed a rec (-reation ground) where there were often boys kicking a ball around, it is the game boys play in winter, very British.
Kate Nepveu
35. katenepveu
Hi everyone,

Work and family have become very demanding, so I'm going to have to be brief in response.

Generally: yes, I know the goblins are not inconsistent with the orcs in _LotR_, but they still surprised me and they still feel different. (I figured them for labor and not design when it came to Mordor and Isengard, for one thing.) Subjective, I know, but it was my reaction.

pilgrimsoul @ #4, the anti-industrialization vibe oddly feels stronger to me in just that one comment than in anything _LotR_, which I think is not the general impression of the books. But then I don't view _LotR_ as broadly anti-industrialization as most.

stevenhalter @ #7, or the sentient sword was a sociopath to start, to be suitable to be embodied as a sword?

Gardner Dozois, Dr. Thanatos, re: "O superlative noun!" Bilbo may use that later, but it doesn't feel very _LotR_ to me, so it did stick out a bit here though I didn't have anything further to say about it (I haven't seen more than a couple episodes of _Buffy_ and have good reason to believe it's not my cup of tea).

another elaine @ #33, thank you for the Ent information!

Jazzlet @ #34, re: "football," I was wondering if in non-US contexts the word is more generic.
Beccy Higman
36. Jazzlet
In most of the rest of the world football is soccer which people of all ages play both formally and just for fun. My OH often plays five-a-side with work colleagues and he's in his fifties.
Andrew Mason
37. AnotherAndrew
The word 'orc' is used at least twice in The Hobbit, in a context which seems to identify it with 'goblin'. I take it Tolkien knew that these were orcs - who, I presume, already figured in First Age material - but didn't want to use the word overmuch, as it would confuse his young readers.

As for 'football': I think the primary readership may have been too young to have a keen sense of anachronism, while older readers might well have learnt in school that football was played in the Middle Ages - it's the sort of thing that sticks in the memory.
38. Crusader75
In the Hobbit it seems that "orc" was intended as an archaic word for the present "goblin".Tolkien appears to have changed his mind about this in writing LOTR. The name of Thorin's sword "Orcrist" ("Goblin-cleaver") seems to bear this out.

As to the cultural differences, perhaps the Misty Mountain Goblin Kingdom had been left to its own devices for a long time, and the higher culture is what happens when orcs are not under the direct control of a Dark Lord for a few generations.
39. a1ay
The late great George MacDonald Fraser wrote to Tolkien about the orc/goblin question and got a hand-written reply

The title "Flashman and the Mountain of Doom" is now emblazoned on my brain in letters of fire.
40. a1ay
As to the cultural differences, perhaps the Misty Mountain Goblin
Kingdom had been left to its own devices for a long time, and the higher culture is what happens when orcs are not under the direct control of a Dark Lord for a few generations.

Well, it's simpler than that. The Goblins we see in "The Hobbit" are the Great Goblin himself and his courtiers. Well-educated upper-class types. They probably have diplomas. The Orcs in LOTR, on the other hand, are all rank-and-file soldiers. Of course they're a bit rougher round the edges. For all we know, Mordor is full of erudite Orcs, who managed to avoid the draft into the Dark Legions through their college exemptions.
alastair chadwin
41. a-j
'The title "Flashman and the Mountain of Doom" is now emblazoned on my brain in letters of fire.'
I'd buy that for a dollar!
Soon Lee
42. SoonLee
Crusader75@38: Regarding Orc-rist = Goblin-cleaver.

Nicely spotted.

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