Dec 20 2012 1:00pm

The Hobbit Reread: Chapter 6, “Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire”

The Hobbit reread on Tor.comWelcome 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 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 6, “Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire”; I have checked three different editions and that title is correctly punctuated, so take it up with Tolkien and not me.


What Happens

Bilbo is out from under the mountains (on the far side) but lost and alone. He has just decided that he must go back to look for his friends when he hears them nearby. He leaves the ring on and sneaks past Balin, overhearing Gandalf trying to convince the dwarves to go back and find Bilbo (without much success). Bilbo reveals himself and is “so pleased with their praise that he just chuckled inside and said nothing whatever about the ring,” even when he tells them the rest of the story.

They hurry away, skidding down a dangerous slope of fallen stones and into a pine forest. They continue through the forest as it gets dark, until they come to a clearing. There, they hear the howls of Wargs (evil wolves) gathering together and climb the trees.

The Wargs think that the travelers are spies from a nearby village that they had planned to raid with the goblins that night. They thus intend to keep the travelers in the trees until the goblins arrive. Gandalf, who understands the Wargs’ language, sets pine-cones ablaze with magical fire and throws them down, which causes great chaos.

Elsewhere, the Lord of the Eagles hears the noise and sees the Wargs and armed goblins approaching the clearing. Curious, he summons many other eagles and they slowly circle down.

Back at the clearing, the wolves had set the forest on fire inadvertently, but the goblins arrived and guided that fire to try to smoke or burn the travelers out. The goblins sing a taunting song; the trees catch fire; Gandalf is about to make a suicidal attack leap—but the Lord of the Eagles swoops down and takes him away.

Gandalf speaks with the Lord of the Eagles, who sends the rest of the eagles back to harry the attackers and to rescue the dwarves and Bilbo. They’re brought to the eagles’ eyries, promised transport off the Misty Mountains, and provided with food and a place to sleep.



This is a perfectly good chapter, yet it feels like a bit of a let-down. It’s possible that any chapter would be a let-down after “Riddles in the Dark.” It’s also possible that it’s because this is a return to passivity for Bilbo, who is literally swept away twice (down the rocky slope, by the Eagles; see our discussion in Chapter 2 about Bilbo being carried). In any event, for all the pyrotechnics, I did not love it.

There is a tiny bit of Bilbo’s growth early on, when he makes “up his mind that it was his duty, that he must turn back—and very miserable he felt about it,” just before he hears the dwarves. In contrast, no dwarf agrees with Gandalf that they have to go back for Bilbo, and an unnamed dwarf actively argues that they should leave Bilbo behind. Dori is the only named dwarf in this section; he is forced to deliver a very awkward “as you know Bob” exposition speech at Gandalf about how he dropped and lost Bilbo, but doesn’t take a position on going back. Bilbo doesn’t react to this, and the narration doesn’t make much of the dwarves’ willingness to leave him behind; I have a vague recollection that this will come up later, however.

I suppose Bilbo’s decision to not mention the ring might have been influenced by the little value the dwarves placed on him here, which is only reasonable, if you ask me. I also wonder if Bilbo’s instinct toward secrecy here shows his burglar nature?

(Speaking of burglar nature, I have to quote my friend Becca here:

So Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is a confirmed spoon thief, right?

As in . . . confirmed burglar?

All it would take is the dwarves going to a different Baggins door, guys. LOBELIA AND THE TWELVE DWARVES. Everyone needs to get cracking on this AU pronto.

(Lobelia Sackville-Baggins don’t play with riddle games, man. She just thwacks Gollum with her umbrella, takes the ring and sashays the hell out.)

I’d watch it, no question.

The meat of this chapter is of course the Warg and goblin attack. Here’s where the chapter title comes from:

“What shall we do, what shall we do!” [Bilbo] cried. “Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!” he said, and it became a proverb, though we now say “out of the frying-pan into the fire” in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.

Does that actually feel proverbial to anyone? It seems too literal to be successful. Also, as I implied in the intro, my American English idiom wants a comma after “frying-pan,” though not in Bilbo’s statement. (Despite the Oxford comma, I have the impression that British English has a lower density of commas and semi-colons than American English, though I freely admit my sample may be unrepresentative.)

I know that the Eagles in LotR have speech (Gandalf talks to Gwaihir the Windlord who rescues him from Orthanc) and that that fox thinks to itself in words, but for whatever reason, talking beasts still feel very jarring to me here. This comes up more with the Eagles, since Tolkien does not translate the Wargs’ dialogue, merely has Gandalf understand the gist of it. So the Wargs, unlike the goblins or the trolls, do not get additional characterization through their patterns of speech, only through the sound: it is a “dreadful clamour,” consisting of “growling and yelping”; Bilbo thinks that “it sounded terrible to him, and as if all their talk was about cruel and wicked things, as it was.” As for the Eagles’ speech, there isn’t a lot of it, but what there is formal and not particularly different from, say, Gandalf’s.

We also get more speech and song from the goblins, when they taunt the travelers in the trees. The impromptu song is very Tolkien, of course, and another sign that the goblins are much closer to the dwarves than the trolls, as we’ve discussed before.

Language-wise, this chapter has fewer spots where I said to myself, “ooh, that will be fun to read out loud.” The one that really stood out was the paragraph after Gandalf is swept away by the Lord of the Eagles, for the way the early sentences put their emphasis up-front (“Loud cried,” etc.), and for “yammered and gnashed,” “yelled and stamped”:

There was a howl of anger and surprise from the goblins. Loud cried the Lord of the Eagles, to whom Gandalf had now spoken. Back swept the great birds that were with him, and down they came like huge black shadows. The wolves yammered and gnashed their teeth; the goblins yelled and stamped with rage, and flung their heavy spears in the air in vain. Over them swooped the eagles; the dark rush of their beating wings smote them to the floor or drove them far away; their talons tore at goblin faces. Other birds flew to the tree-tops and seized the dwarves, who were scrambling up now as far as they ever dared to go.


Bilbo mentions his lost buttons again in describing his escape, and the narrator mentioned them at the chapter’s start. Out of curiosity, I searched back for “buttons,” and didn’t find any mention of Bilbo’s before the back-door where he loses them, so they only became a symbol in their loss.

We’d previously talked about giants, so I should note here that Gandalf says that he should “find a more or less decent giant to block” the goblins’ gate where they were attacked.

Running tallies/catalogs:

Dwarf characteristics: “Dori was really a decent fellow in spite of his grumbling,” which is the second time he’s been called “a decent fellow” (chapter 4). Also, brave, to hold steady and let Bilbo finish climbing up as wolves come into the clearing.

Did this chapter contain a reference to Bilbo thinking wistfully of his hobbit-hole? Yes, in his chapter-ending dream (5/5).

Beorn in the next chapter. Also, I’m planning to see the movie this weekend, so (1) I’d appreciate it if you’d continue to either white-text spoilers in comments here or leave them elsewhere and (2) I will be doing a reaction/book-comparison post; I’m not sure if that will be in lieu of next Thursday’s chapter post or in addition, which will probably depend in part on my ability to get things written during the Christmas bustle. In any event, see you next week.

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.

There and Back Again... Again: The Hobbit Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
There really isn't a whole lot to this chapter. We get some action, though without much tension, particularly compared to the previous chapter. I seem to remember expecting that Gandalf would get them all out of trouble the first time I read it.

I can't say I've ever been put off by the talking animals. Certainly the last chapter moved us away from the fable-like atmosphere of the previous four, but perhaps that is less apparent when you read the whole thing in a piece rather than a chapter a week. I suppose you could make a case for the Lord of the Eagles being able to speak the common tongue due to his position and just handwave it all away.

It's just occurred to me what an important role birds play in this book. The eagles, of course, and the thrush, but also the ravens in the foothills of the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo and one of the dwarves (Balin?) have a talk about the ravens when they're exploring. Birds figure fairly often in fairy tales, so perhaps it's no surprise, but it could be something worth paying attention to later on.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
I don't say that my reaction to the talking animals makes sense! It's just there.

(But I think I liked the ravens. Huh. My brain, it is weird.)

I will definitely keep the birds in mind.
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
I meant to point out that, while it's not a directly stated characteristic, Balin is on watch here. He often is, which makes him the only dwarf apart from Thorin with a really specific role in the group.
4. Greyhawk
It has been a long time, but I think that the origin of the orcs is brought up in the Similarion--if I remember correctly (and I may not be), Melkor captured and somehow twisted and corrupted elves into orcs. That would explain their potential for more advanced thought and action.
5. pilgrimsoul
How much would I like to see Lobelia S-B take on Smaug, too!

Gandalf consistently with his increased power and stature in LOTR has much less trouble seeing off the wargs near Moria in FOTR.
6. Dr. Thanatos
I suspect that Lobelia would give a good whack to Rankin-Bass if they even tried to draw her like they toad-ified Bilbo. She's be okay with Nimoy singing "The Ballad Of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins" although she'd more likely want Outlaw Willie to be singing. Or maybe Perry Como...
7. Dr. Thanatos
And does that mean Lotho would inherit the Ring and go to Mordor accompanied only by his loyal manservant Ted Sandyman?
8. StrongDreams
It's not the talking orcs/goblins that's a problem. It's the talking wolves, birds, badgers, foxes, and every other darn critter -- that fit within a broad "faerie story" framework but not in Middle Earth as Tolkien later developed it.

The giant eagles are a special case and can be forgiven speech, given their probable role as representatives of the Valar. For the rest, I guess you either nitpick and take yourself out of the story or just roll with it. The first time out in a new story universe is often shaky. Consider, for example, Kirk's different behavior toward the last of their kind in "The Man Trap" and "Devil in the Dark."
9. Dr. Thanatos

Also the talking purse.

I have fewer issues with this part when i consider that this was conceived, and continues to have the tone of, a story told to children in which case one might embelish with talking things to keep the kiddos interested.

I am more concerned with the brutal murder of King Golfimbul and the abuse of his remains which is used for a cheap gag...
10. StrongDreams
@Dr. Thantos,

What if the real reason for the discontinuity in tone is that the Red Book of Westmarch had two very different authors?

First, Bilbo wrote down the story of his adventures in Erebor. He was likely telling the story to his nieces and nephews (like young Frodo) so he embellished it with just-so stories and hobbit legends and stone giants in storms and talking purses. The dwarves and elves are merry (at first) and not grim and warlike because Bilbo was taking his audience into account (and also careful not to alarm their parents!) Maybe the old crow could talk, or maybe they tied messages to his leg like a carrier pigeon. Artistic license!

Then Frodo writes down the story of the War of the Ring, and by this time Frodo is wounded by blade, tooth and sting; he's been tormented by wights and orcs and nazgul, he's seen the Shire in flames and hobbits kill each other.

Remember that the narrator of The Hobbit, who is jolly and intrusive and digressive and a bit condenscending to children, is Bilbo, and the narrator of The Lord of the Rings, is Frodo. JRRT was just the translator.
11. Dr. Thanatos

That is an excellent approach.

Given that Frodo handed over the Book to Sam and said "the last pages are for you" does that explain the family trees, dry date lists, and pictures of runes in the appendices?

And if Lobelia was writing, would it be Fifty Shades of Thingol Grey-Cloak?
12. StrongDreams
@Dr. Thanatos,
Some of the appendices were Frodo's and Bilbo's but some were probably Sam's. Remember the line in (I think) LotR that talked about how fond hobbits are of genealogies.

If Lobelia had got hold of the ring, she would have killed Lotho to keep it, used it for sneaking around spying out gossip and secrets and small treasures, eventually being driven out of the shire. She'd have ended up at the bottom of a mountain and it would have been another 3000 years before it could be destroyed. She might have been down there even now, under the Alps, until she was uncovered by CERN.

"Higgs! Higgs! Wonder of the Invisible world! Too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear."
Beccy Higman
13. Jazzlet
I think the 'told for children' approach is particularly relevant when you think of how this chapter could have been written. More focus on how hungry, sore and tired they all were, more emphasis on the fear of being stuck up trees with wargs below when you are so tired and then mounting terror as the goblins arrive and it looks like there is no way out ...
Compare it with Tolkien writing about the FOTR being trapped in the Chamber of Mazarbul after finding Balin's tomb, the tone is far darker, the desperation of the situation made explicit.
Theresa Wymer
14. Tekalynn
But funny little birds, they had no wings!
O, what shall we do with the funny little things?
15. Dr. Thanatos

Excellent! You have earned a place at the snark table.

I am reminded of the proposed new Star Wars film, where Luke, Leia, and Han lead a rag-tag fleet in search of a planet known as Earth. Han and Leia's son is frozen in carbonite and revived millenia later by an archeologist who adopts him as his own son and calls him Junior...
Mahesh Banavar
16. maheshkb
First of all, thank you very much doing this reread.

Slightly off-topic question (if the answer is not considered a spoiler): Which chapter does the movie end on?
17. pilgrimsoul
@ Kate 2
Thinking it over, I agree with you. Talking animals. Meh. Talking ravens. Cool. I think it's because ravens are genuinely intelligent animals so I have no problem picturing them remembering and helping.
Joel Salomon
18. JCSalomon
Good timing on the movie-watching; it goes just about exactly as far as you’ve gotten in the re-read.
Birgit F
19. birgit
Beorn's animals fit less than the talking animals. Most of the animals have their own languages that some people like Gandalf or Bard understand.
alastair chadwin
20. a-j
Re-reading this chapter last night I was struck by how similar the eagles are to the Ents in LOTR in that they are both comparatively unwilling allies who help the heroes mainly from self-interest rather than the general goodness of the cause. We'll get something similar with Beorn in the next chapter.

As to the talking animals and objects, this is fairly standard stuff for fairy tales and no explanation was ever offered or required. One of the effects that LOTR had was to raise an expectation of consistancy which was, as far as I am aware, something new in fantasy/fairy tale writing. Or have I not read widely enough?
Rob Rater
21. Quasarmodo
I find it a little bit interesting that the most immediate danger to the party while they're in the trees is the fire, which was created by Gandalf.
Beccy Higman
22. Jazzlet
@ 21 Quasarmodo "with a friend like that ... "
Beccy Higman
23. Jazzlet
And that has reminded me that this chapter is one of the rare places we see actual magic - Gandalf not only colouring the various fir cones he throws different colours, but 'this was a most horrible and uncanny fire. If a spark got into their coats it stuck and burned into them , and unless they rolled over quick they were soon all in flames.' Sounds rather like napalm ...
Jean Hall
24. schmat22
I have come to Tolkien late in life. My daughter gave me The Hobbit and the LotR trilogy for Christmas one year, but I got bogged down during The Three Towers, and dropped them. I loved the movies, so went back to the books, but just reread The Hobbit and FotR, and then moved to other authors. Someday I will complete them! So when I saw that you had started this reread, I started following it. I really enjoy your review of the chapters and all of the knowledgeable comments, which add to the enjoyment of the book itself. I went to see The Hobbit yesterday (in 3D) and am looking forward to your thoughts on the movie. Hope you and your family and all of the folks here have a wonderful holiday season!
Kate Nepveu
25. katenepveu
Sorry for the late comments, everyone. Family visits are lovely but time-consuming.

DemetriosX @ #3, yes, I noticed that Balin was on watch, but I'd mentioned previously that he "was always their look-out man," so I didn't add it here. Thanks for confirming the consistency, though.

StrongDreams @ #10, unfortunately the narrator of _The Hobbit_ is unquestionably not a hobbit (see chapter 1). But I'm not worried about trying to come up with an _in-story_ reconciliation of the tone differences, or even an out-of-story one, because the publication history is enough for me. I just find it interesting to note the differences because I think it's one thing that illuminates the text.

and @ #12, you win the Internets for the week.

maheshkb @ #16, thanks for coming by, and as jcsalomon @ #18 says, it ends just about exactly here.

(Movie post will almost certainly be in lieu of a chapter post on Thursday, because staying with family until Wednesday and so limited writing time.)

birgit @ #19, I remember thinking "dogs' legs don't _work_ like that" when I listened to _The Hobbit_ as an audiobook a few years ago, so I'm already predisposed to think Beorn's animals very strange . . .

Quasarmodo @ #21, nice point--I'm not sure what other tactics Gandalf might have used, but fire is certainly an indiscriminate weapon. OTOH I imagine the goblins would have thought of it on their own soon enough.

schmat22 @ #24, welcome and thanks for your kind words! I hope you someday go back to _LotR_, as I think some things about it are unquestionably superior to the movies--but until then, I look forward to your comments here.
26. (still) Steve Morrison
I thought I'd mention a conjecture of my own about Tolkien's source for the "eagles to the rescue" motif. Tolkien was fascinated by the Finnish national epic The Kalevala, and its seventh Runo (section) opens with a scene where a great wizard is in a predicament: he is floating on the ocean after a rival wizard attacked him. After some time a mighty eagle spots him and carries him to safety, grateful for a favor the wizard had done him long ago. It's hard to believe Tolkien wasn't thinking of this when he wrote the current chapter.
Kate Nepveu
28. katenepveu
PS: is that the translation you would recommend?
29. (still) Steve Morrison
I haven't read any other translations, so I don't know which to recommend. I'm under the impression, though, that the early translations such as Crawford's or Kirby's are no longer well thought of. (Crawford's, which I linked, was really a translation of a German translation.) This post, though, did have some discussion of translations in the comments.
Kate Nepveu
30. katenepveu
Hey all--this week's post will go up tomorrow. (It's about the movie, and is fairly long, to no-one's surprise.) Sorry for the delay--I thought I had things under control, but the ordinary chaos of a week filled with family and travel meant that writing time got away from me.

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