Jan 31 2013 1:00pm

The Hobbit Reread: Chapter 11, “On the Doorstep”

The Hobbit reread on 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 start the second half of the book with Chapter 11, “On the Doorstep,” in which there is rather a lot of faffing about.


What Happens

The dwarves, Bilbo, and their escort from Lake-town row out of the Long Lake and up the River Running, where they meet the party that had been sent ahead with provisions. The Lake-town men leave immediately, and the travelers’ spirits fall as they confront the possibility of “a very horrible end” to their journey and the “bleak and barren” landscape caused by Smaug.

They reach the Lonely Mountain without incident, and see the ruin of Dale at the Front Gate. The dwarves are so dispirited that Bilbo must prod them into searching for the secret door. After several days, they find the location: a little bay or alcove, reachable only by a narrow ledge, that ends in a smooth wall. They make another camp there, though Bombur refuses to come up either by the ledge or on ropes.

The dwarves are “too eager to trouble about the runes or the moon-letters,” yet their tools fail to undercover the door and are dangerously noisy besides. The dwarves’ spirits sink again, as do Bilbo’s. At the end of autumn, the dwarves are beginning to talk among themselves of sending Bilbo through the Front Gate with his ring. Before they can suggest this openly, though, Bilbo sees an enormous thrush catch a snail and knock it against the bay’s stone floor. Remembering the moon-runes, Bilbo shouts for the dwarves, and they watch a ray of the setting sun shine on the wall, which cracks to reveal a keyhole after the thrush trills. Thorin’s key opens the door: “It seemed as if darkness flowed out like a vapour from the hole in the mountain-side, and deep darkness in which nothing could be seen lay before their eyes, a yawning mouth leading in and down.”



Well, that’s not an ominous ending at all, is it? Just in case, you know, all the gloom and foreboding and moping about in this chapter didn’t signal we are in serious territory now.

This isn’t a criticism of the ending. I think it’s entirely appropriate that heading into the Mountain be scary and ominous. But I did think that the levels of moping and faffing about in this chapter were a little inexplicable. Specifically: why is Bilbo the only one who remembers the moon-letters? Thorin knows it’s the end of autumn, he says so. If your grandfather, the King under the Mountain, went to the trouble of encoding a secret message in his map, don’t you think you should, I don’t know, pay attention to it?

It’s been a while since I thought the dwarves were strangely unprepared and incompetent, and I’m not glad for it to come back. I really can’t make sense of this at all; the only explanation I can think of is that it was just a way to create unnecessary tension and suspense. And that is really unfortunate because it warps the characterizations. Otherwise I would think a certain amount of reluctance and frustration was understandable, given the stakes and the possibility of the dwarves finding out that they are crunchy and taste good with ketchup. But a specific future date ought to be what they plan everything around, once they fail to open the door the ordinary way.

Anyway. The other interesting thing about the door is that thrush. Here’s the moon-letters again:

Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.

And here’s what happens:

Then suddenly when their hope was lowest a red ray of the sun escaped like a finger through a rent in the cloud. A gleam of light came straight through the opening into the bay and fell on the smooth rock-face. The old thrush, who had been watching from a high perch with beady eyes and head cocked on one side, gave a sudden trill. There was a loud crack. A flake of rock split from the wall and fell. A hole appeared suddenly about three feet from the ground.

I see no natural way to read that passage other than that the thrush caused the keyhole to appear. And I do believe there’s some discussion later about the thrush being special in some way. I guess there’s not time for the characters to react now, because they’re too busy getting Thorin up to the door with his key (and why wasn’t he right there with the key out in the first place? No, no, never mind.) and then looking inside.

I’m trying to decide how I feel about the thrush, and no strong feeling is making itself known. The thrush doesn’t talk, so I don’t have the odd disconnect I had with the Eagles, but otherwise? Well, I’m glad it’s there, so we can get past this. And in some ways it’s a more interesting thing to have happen than if it were just the astronomy, by which I mean, presumably the thrush would not have trilled if goblins were at the door at the right time; the reveal was not purely mechanical. Which does raise the question of why the thrush had to wait at all for the sun; perhaps it’s only smart enough to have been trained to act under a very specific circumstance—a circumstance that Thror designed to be known by very few people, thanks to the moon-letters.

Three minor notes:

  • The dwarves were edging up on being jerks to Bilbo again, and I disapprove. Specifically, Dwalin says, “What is our burglar doing for us? Since he has got an invisible ring, and ought to be a specially excellent performer now, I am beginning to think he might go through the Front Gate and spy things out a bit!” Yes, he has a point that Bilbo’s ring gives him an advantage, but this comment (1) ignores all Bilbo’s contributions to date and (2) smacks of scapegoating and a kind of careless disregard for the consequences because it won’t be happening to the dwarves. And, I’m sorry but I do have to say it again, they wouldn’t be so grumpy and grasping-at-straws if they hadn’t forgotten the moon-letters.
  • The end of the short section about their trip to the Mountain says, “They were come to the Desolation of the Dragon, and they were come at the waning of the year.” Which is a great line, and which gives me a small added reason to think that the middle movie (subtitled The Desolation of Smaug) will end around where this chapter does.
  • The narrator foreshadows that the dwarves’ non-bay camp is going to be attacked, when he says that it’s a good thing that the ropes are actually capable of hauling Bombur up to the bay.

Round-ups: I’m going to be charitable to Dwalin, and indeed to all of them, and not add anything to the dwarf characteristics list, which I carry over as usual for ease of reference:

  • Thorin: long-winded and self-important (Chapter 1). Good with a bow and perceiving the possible need for it (Chapter 8). Capable of stubbornness when he perceives his treasure being threatened (Chapter 8).
  • Dori and Nori “shared the hobbit’s views about regular meals, plenty and often.” (Chapter 2)
  • Dori is “a decent fellow” (Chapter 4, 6) and the strongest (Chapter 8).
  • Oin and Gloin are “specially good at” making fire. (Chapter 2)
  • Balin “was always their look-out man.” (Chapter 2)
  • Fili and Kili “had very sharp eyes” and are “the youngest of the dwarves by some fifty years” (Chapter 4), though of the two, Fili is apparently the youngest and has the sharpest eyes (Chapter 8).
  • Bombur is “fat.” (Chapter 4, 6)

Does Bilbo think wistfully of his home in this chapter? Yes (9/10), while sitting on the doorstep and staring west.

I do believe we have an actual dragon next time, guys. 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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Kate Nepveu
1. katenepveu
Also, I think I meant to say and then forgot, is that this chapter is another instance of the dwarves being not very Norse legend-ish. No storming the Front Gate for them, nosiree. Logical! I approve of not dying instantly. But all the same.
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
The dwarves do seem forgetful, irritable and altogether ineffectual here. Could there be a general dragon caused dampening of the spirits magic in play here that effect the dwarves an extra amount and Bilbo not at all?
And, way to step up Bilbo!

I think that the thrush was the active part of the mechanism. You needed the right time and the right sort of people. Otherwise, the key hole would have appeared the last time Durin's day happened.
Kate Nepveu
3. katenepveu
stevenhalter, I thought about the keyhole possibly appearing on Durin's Days when the light was right but no-one was there, but since the characters here fear that the keyhold might vanish, that didn't seem to be a dispositive reason for needing the thrush.

As for spirits-dampening, I'm not sure there's any textual evidence for that. Though if we posit such a thing, it's not surprising that it takes a while to affect Bilbo, considering how in _LotR_ hobbits are canonically difficult to bend to one's will, magically.
David Levinson
4. DemetriosX
I never really thought about the dwarves' general depression here. I suppose one could put it down to the fact that they, or at least most of them, knew this area when it was beautiful and green and not ruined by a dragon. That could certainly dampen the mood. Or perhaps this is how colds manifest in dwarves. Either way, Bilbo is probably catching the mood from the rest of them.

As for the thrush and all that, this is once again much more fairy tale magic than we expect from Middle Earth. When we were discussing the runes before, I said they felt almost like prophecy or at least the sort of odd advice the hero always gets in fairy tales. My impression was always that the last ray of sunlight fell directly on the location of the keyhole and that had to be combined with the thrush's song to make it visible. The implications are hard to fit into LotR and other materials.
Kit Case
5. wiredog
Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.
It seems that, in order to even reveal the keyhole, you have to be:
a) Standing next to the stone.
b) When the thrush knocks.
c) When the light is shining upon it.
d) On Durin's Day.
Miss any of those and you're going to have to use the front door.
IIRC, Gandalf says something about finding and opening hidden dwarven gates when Our Heroes are stuck outside of Moria.

Won't spoilerize future plot points except to say: Pay attention to the thrush.
Laura Matthews2
6. Laura Matthews2
I may be opening up a can of worms here, but it's always been obvious to me that Bilbo and the Hobbits represent England in this whole thing, while the dwarves are more germanic or norse and the elves are pretty much the French. Tolkien to me had a very strong national bias that way. So of course, the dwarves have great riches but don't appreciate what they have; the elves are beautiful and elegant but proud and keep getting into wars with everyone; and the hobbits are the ones to call on to save the day, from up in their little island to the north. So it will always be Bilbo (or Frodo) that the "continent" must enlist to make everything right again. And then all they want is to go back to their lovely pastoral homes and be left alone. I suppose Saruman and his ilk are Americans! And Mordor is Russia! So yes, this can be taken to an absurd extreme. But it's never been to me that Bilbo stepped in because the dwarves were foolish, but that the dwarves were foolish so that Bilbo could step in. The dwarves aren't fleshed out characters here, but plot foils to give Bilbo the opportunity to show his steel.
Steven Halter
7. stevenhalter
Kate@3:The only sideways evidence I can think of that there is some sort of general area dampening effect is that Smaug doesn't emerge from his lair very often and yet the area known as the desolation doesn't begin to recover until sometime after his end.
From current studies of areas affected by volcanic eruptions and forest fires, things start to come back surprisingly quickly.
Laura Matthews2
8. Laura Matthews2
...and just to clarify... I don't think that was literal on Tolkien's part, meaning I don't think The Hobbit or LOTR are meant to symbolize the political situation in Europe. Rather, those were just the patterns Tolkien's mind fell into because of his cultural context. So he used them in his work.
Laura Matthews2
9. Lsana
I agree that it seems that the thrush is actively helping the dwarves. I don't know that I find it that odd in light of LoTR: animals seem to have a certain level of intelligence there (recall Radagast "gathering his allies") and even the ability to serve as messangers for the Valar. A thrush is less impressive than an eagle, certainly, but I don't know if I find it that strange that one would help out here.

Where I find it a bit strange is in light of the Silmarillion: it's established there that dwarves are no friend to the natural world, nor it to them. So while I don't find the thrush's behavior odd in general, it is a little strange it would be helping the dwarves.
Thomas Thatcher
10. StrongDreams
I never thought of the thrush having agency in the opening of the door any more than people gathered in Times Square on New Years Eve have agency in dropping the big glass ball. And there doesn't seem to be much room for magic birds (other than giant eagles) in Tolkein's mature legendarium. But was he thinking the bird opened the door when he was telling bedtime tales? Who knows at this point.
Laura Matthews2
11. Dr. Thanatos
Here's my takes:

1) From the beginning the dwarves were a bit comical/unrealistic i.e. a traveling band on a quest to kill a dragon and they are armed with musical instruments. From a literary point of view, it's hard to transistion them from this to heroic fighters like the Thorin we see in his Red Chain-Mail (and you see what happens to people who use chain-mail!). That's my literary interpretation on what's happening

2) From an inside-the-story perspective Our Fearless Heroes have just spent a month being feted as Conquering Heroes at Laketown; they are the prophesied redeemers, the great fulfillers of tales, veritable giants among dwarves. After a month of that, they are now in the ruins of their hometown looking over their shoulders for You-Know-Who. I'd be depressed at the abrupt change in fortune brought about by an abrupt dash of cold-hard-world in the face. Plus, after all their plans and scheming, now they're faced with a big scary mountain they can't get into and the reality of a dragon that they have no idea how to kill. It's reality time, and they are NOT READY FOR IT. I think that also explains things.

In terms of the door, I was always puzzled by how the rock flaked off. I do think it's a matter of Durin's Day plus Dwarves (including members of the royal family) plus a thrush. And only 1-2 minutes to get the key in. Better security system than I have at work...
Laura Matthews2
12. Dr. Thanatos
Here's my takes:

1) From the beginning the dwarves were a bit comical/unrealistic i.e. a traveling band on a quest to kill a dragon and they are armed with musical instruments. From a literary point of view, it's hard to transistion them from this to heroic fighters like the Thorin we see in his Red Chain-Mail (and you see what happens to people who use chain-mail!). That's my literary interpretation on what's happening

2) From an inside-the-story perspective Our Fearless Heroes have just spent a month being feted as Conquering Heroes at Laketown; they are the prophesied redeemers, the great fulfillers of tales, veritable giants among dwarves. After a month of that, they are now in the ruins of their hometown looking over their shoulders for You-Know-Who. I'd be depressed at the abrupt change in fortune brought about by an abrupt dash of cold-hard-world in the face. Plus, after all their plans and scheming, now they're faced with a big scary mountain they can't get into and the reality of a dragon that they have no idea how to kill. It's reality time, and they are NOT READY FOR IT. I think that also explains things.

In terms of the door, I was always puzzled by how the rock flaked off. I do think it's a matter of Durin's Day plus Dwarves (including members of the royal family) plus a thrush. And only 1-2 minutes to get the key in. Better security system than I have at work...
Laura Matthews2
13. pilgrimsoul
At this point those Thrushes are being smarter than the Dwarves. Let's keep our eye on them, shall we?
Andrew Mason
14. AnotherAndrew
From the beginning the dwarves were a bit comical/unrealistic i.e. a
traveling band on a quest to kill a dragon and they are armed with
musical instruments

Are they on a quest to kill a dragon? I thought the point was that they were on a quest to burgle a dragon: the killing was an unintended consequence.
Laura Matthews2
15. Gardner Dozois
It's obvious that the thrush is, to some extent, a magical creature, and sentient. And it can talk, at least in the language of birds to those who can understand that. Later, it evesdrops on Bilbo talking about his encounter with Smaug, and flies to Laketown to tell Bard the Bowman how to kill Smaug by hitting its one vulnerable spot, which Bilbo had spotted while in Smaug's lair. I also believe that all the conditions of the prophecy--it's hard to think of it as anything else--had to be fulfilled before the keyhole would open: the dwarves had to be there, in the right spot, at the right time. If the dwarves hadn't been there at the right spot at the right time, if they'd been faffing around still in Laketown instead, then the keyhole wouldn't have opened, and they'd have to have waited until the next time the time was right to have a chance of opening the door. So actually the thrush IS actively helping them to get inside, and does have agency in the process. Perhaps it was "programmed" by Thorin's father or grandfather when they left the mountain to wait until dwarves arrived at the right time in the right place; the fact that Thorin is in the party might be a factor too.

It's no wonder that the dwarves are depressed--the land about them is bleak and desolate, and at least the oldest among them remember when it was green and living and plesant. And as Dr. Thanatos points out, now, after months of vague dreams and wishful thinking, they're suddenly faced with the problem of the dragon itself, and have no idea what they're going to do about it, reason enough alone to be depressed and disspirited. That their plan, such as it was, called for a "burgular" always puzzled me anyway. Was Bilbo supposed to sneak in and steal Smaug's horde one piece at a time? It should have been obvious from the start, particularly to those who were there when Smaug first attacked, that they were going to have to kill the dragon in order to recover the treasure, in which case a burgular, particularly a tiny Hobbit burgular seems like an odd choice. And at least some of them must have realized this from the start, since as I recall, Gandalf says that he first looked for a mighty human Hero to slay the dragon, but couldn't find one. (And yes, Bilbo DOES end up killing the dragon in a way, but none of them could have foreseen that, with the possible exception of Gandalf, who I suppose might have foreseen it by some magical means.)

After having reread THE HOBBIT, I'm convinced that the final scene of the second movie will be the dwarves and the hobbit standing on a ridge and looking at the Lonely Mountain looming before them. There's just too much to get through, Beorn's hall, mirkwood, being captured by the spiders, being captured by the elves, escaping from the elves, the barrel-journey to Laketown, being at Laketown for them to get into the Mountain in the next movie (to say nothing of the fact that they'll almost certainly ring in the subplots with Azog and the Necromancer again). Although I think many people are going to be disappointed if they don't get to see Smaug in the second movie.
Laura Matthews2
16. Dr. Thanatos

I'm pretty sure the plan was not to steal back their treasure and live like Kings in the Blue Mountains; the plan was to regain the kingdom. Burglary was the means to that end, since they couldn't find a heroic Man stupid, I mean brave enough to take on the task.

And as Gardner says, it's one thing to plan to retake your kingdom and treasure from the evil overgrown gecko, it's another thing to be looking at the smoke coming out of the top of the mountain and listen to him mumble in his sleep about quality insurance products.
Bill Stusser
17. billiam
It looks like I have a different take on the keyhole than most of you. I always thought that the keyhole always appeared at the same time, ie as the sun set on Durin's Day. You had to be at the right spot on the right day at the right time to see the keyhole.

The thrush liked to crush snails in that spot and had most likely witnessed the keyhole appearing more than once over the years so it wasn't trilling to show the keyhole but with exitement because it knew what was going to happen. Kind of like "hey you dwarves, pay attention to what is going to happen now".
Alan Brown
18. AlanBrown
In the Hobbit, Tolkein was still hewing to the stock characteristics from fable--dwarves being industrious, but also short tempered, and a bit thick headed and stubborn. Similar to an earlier chapter, where the Mirkwood elves disappeared when the dwarves attempted to enter their circle, and in some ways were presented like wee folk from a fairy tale.
It was not until The Lord of the Rings that his characters from the various races began to be well rounded and compelling, not just caricatures that played to stereotypes.
@6 I don't think I have ever seen your comparison to national stereotypes before, but it is interesting to look at the tales from that perspective.
Birgit F
19. birgit
Later in the book the thrush is associated with the men of Dale (Bard can understand its language), and the ravens are associated with the dwarves. Shouldn't the dwarves have used a raven as a magic door opener?
Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.
The old thrush, who had been watching from a high perch with beady eyes and head cocked on one side, gave a sudden trill. There was a loud crack. A flake of rock split from the wall and fell. A hole appeared suddenly about three feet from the ground.
The thrush knocks snails against the rock earlier, but when the door opens, it sings. That is why I always interpreted "Wenn die Drossel schlägt" as a poetic expression for "the thrush sings". That makes more sense than the literal interpretation. But in English that interpretation doesn't work. It's strange that the translation makes more sense than the original.
David Levinson
20. DemetriosX
@15 Gardner
I think the point of the burglar was originally supposed to be simply getting them in the back door. When they show up at Bilbo's house, they don't have the information from the moon runes and Gandalf is still keeping the key a secret. From their perspective, they still had to find the door and then find a way to open it, tasks well-suited to a burglar. I also suspect that Gandalf planted the whole burglar idea on them in the first place, because he felt Bilbo needed to go on this journey for whatever reason.

Durin's Day here reminds me that Tolkien seems to have had a bit of a fixation on calendars and dates playing important symbolic roles. LotR is full of this sort of thing, from various events on Bilbo and Frodo's birthday, to the Fellowship setting out from Rivendell on december 24th, to the destruction on the ring at the spring equinox.
Laura Matthews2
21. Dr. Thanatos

Your point is well taken that Dwarves are associated wtih a Raven (with apologies to my fellow Baltimoreans) whereas Men (expecially those from UNCLE) are associated with THRUSH.

But remember, JRRT was big about encouraging inter-species cooperation (and not just in the Beren-Tuor-Aragorn sense). The Dwarves had a close relationship with the Men of Dale; would Thror want to make sure that any future plans to restore the Mountain have some context of cooperation with Men?

And could this be part of the whole prophecies-can-come-true-it-can-happen-to-you that the same bird who let the Dwarves in (and wouldn't that be a great novelty song-"Who Let The Dwarves In?") just happens to be the only bird capable of transmitting to a Man of Dale the secret information about the big round red Target sponsorship on Smaug's chest?

Just a matter of luck, as some in Middle-Earth call it...
Laura Matthews2
22. grantimatter
I'm pretty much in agreement with @17 Billiam that the thrush is just excited to see this thing that happens once every year happening again.

I'm also interested in the idea that the dwarves were ill-prepared because they don't seem to have any weapons on them when they set out. I always read that as indicating that swords were a rare commodity... the first treasure they win (from the trolls) is valuable because it has swords in it. Not that a normal sword would be much good against a dragon anyway... but swords were things that had to be made one at a time by a master craftsman. I don't have the anthropology props to do a valuation on something like that to someone living in that world.

I remember being struck, the first time I read this, at the way Thorin's crew deck themselves out with all the armor and weapons once they've got access to the hoard. That, and Dain's soldiers wielding hammers and mattocks - construction tools, in other words.

How common *are* weapons? Gollum doesn't have any. Nor does Beorn. Rivendell elves? Unclear. Mirkwood elves? I guess they're armed.
Laura Matthews2
23. Gardner Dozois
I disagree--I think that the thrush is clearly magical to one degree or another (as is demonstrated by his later interaction with Bard), and an active participant in the prophecy. He cocks his head and looks the dwarves over before chirping to reveal the keyhole, as if marking off a mental checklist: dwarves, check; in the right place, check; here at the last sunset of Durin's Day, check. I find it impossible to believe that the shard of rock slid away to reveal the keyhole COINCIDENTALLY, by happenstance, just when all the conditions set forth in the scroll had been fulfilled. My best guess is that Thorin's father or grandfather had somehow magically "programmed" the thrushes not to reveal the location of the keyhole until some far-off days when dwarves (perhaps even Thorin himself) came looking for a way to sneak into the Mountain, or that at least they'd asked them to do so.

I knew that Peter Jackson would have to have the dwarves heavily armed, after establishing their aesthetic in the LOTR movies, but, frankly, it strains credulity even in the book that they set off totally unarmed through the Wild, even as depicted in THE HOBBIT, let alone in LOTR. If nothing else, they must have known that there was a pretty good chance that they'd run into goblins going through the Misty Mountains, to say nothing of bandits and other menaces along the way; the Wild is not a safe place, and once you go beyond the Edge of the Wild, you ought to know that you have to be ready to defend yourself. My guess is that Tolkien didn't have them armed because he was writing a children's book, with cute comic dwarves in pastel hoods, and only later realized belatedly that he'd better give them some weapons. As far as arms in general are concerned, Beorn doesn't really need weapons, being himself a weapon in his bear form. Even in THE HOBBIT, the elves of Mirkwood are armed, and in LOTR, so are the Rivendell elves, although I don't believe that's mentioned in THE HOBBIT. Living under these conditions of constant possible attack, most beings would be armed, it seems to me. In THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, book version, it mentions that even the peaceful Shire has its borders patrolled by armed parties of guards, to keep out "evil things."
Steven Halter
24. stevenhalter
Gardner--I completely agree that the thrush is acting as part of the prophecy. Either through magical programming of a sort or some sort of partnership. No coincidences here.
Laura Matthews2
25. JohnnyMac
"They were come to the Desolation of the Dragon, and they were come at the waning of the year."

I agree that that is one of the great lines of the whole book. Even now, almost fifty years after I first read it, it gives me chills.
Laura Matthews2
26. (still) Steve Morrison
In the first draft, there was no key to go with the map; they simply tried a key they had found in the trolls’ lair, and by sheer dumb luck, it worked!
Laura Matthews2
28. grantimatter
@23 Gardner Dozois:
>I find it impossible to believe that the shard of rock slid away to reveal the keyhole COINCIDENTALLY, by happenstance, just when all the conditions set forth in the scroll had been fulfilled.

Well, I'm not saying it's a coincidence - just that the way I read it, the thrush is always there, the dwarves have been camped out for a good long while, and the crack shows up whether or not either of them are there to see it.

Interesting that they got schlorped into one magically appearing stone door when they didn't want to (back in the Misty Mountains) but can't open the one they want to get open ... at least not right away. Stone doors. What can you do with 'em?


On weapons: I really want to find a medievalist to tell me how common swords & spears were in the kind of early medieval culture Middle Earth seems to have. I think I'm picturing a world where, like, the Shire guards would have one or two old swords, quite a few cudgels and then mostly things that had other uses. Like, most medieval pole arms were adapted from farm implements, because that's what peasants had - a fauchard is a fruit-picker, and an arrow is just as useful for killing rabbits for dinner as it is wounding soldiers. Swords get names because they're rare and valuable.

I can't find any Tolkien illustrations of dwarves besides one unpublished one... they're carrying mattocks in that:

It'd make sense that a traveler walking across rough country would want to pack things that could do several kinds of things (like "entrenching tools" with serrated edges you see in Army/Navy catalogues).

I dunno.
Laura Matthews2
29. grantimatter
Ooo - to clarify, the thrush definitely knows what's going on. I'm just casting the thrush as an interested observer more than a causative agent.
Laura Matthews2
30. Rush-That-Speaks
The dwarves' mission has always been suicidal. Literally outright suicidal. They all know it. They are just tired of living the way that they have been.

Remember, Thorin, the leader, is more than a touch mad. All the armies of Dain and the Iron Hills have never been aimed at the dragon, but the thought of maybe, somehow, stealing the Arkenstone, which is the Heart of the Mountain and which attracted wealth and luck to it, is compelling enough for a small band to follow Thorin. If they could get the Arkenstone free and clear of the dragon they would return to their previous fortunes and power no matter where they settled with it. So that is their pretended hope and why they take a burglar.

But it's a false hope and everyone knows it; the dragon would follow to the ends of the earth and the best they could do would be to give him a bit of a chase. In reality this is Thorin Thrain's son Thror's son going out with a bang because he'd rather be a dead king-in-exile than a live poor relation, and this is one reason they have musical instruments instead of weapons: how this journey will be discussed in later dwarven legends is as important or more so than its outcome, when they set off.

Do not underestimate the fatalism of the dwarven company.

It's Gandalf bringing Bilbo that makes the false hope even vaguely possible, and the dwarves keep not seeing it as possible, because they set out before having a burglar, before having Gandalf, before having the moon-letters, before having proof of the burglar's competency, before any of that. It is very difficult to make people behave practically when they have resolved to die nobly and pointlessly, and that Bilbo does as well as he does at that is one illustration of the irrepressible good nature of a hobbit.

Seriously, think about the frame of mind you'd have to be in to sign up with Thorin's company before Gandalf was involved. That's what they're all back to now. And with it sinking in that it's about time for the worst to happen.
Laura Matthews2
31. Rush-That-Speaks
Oh, and this kind of overly complicated suicide-by-someone-else's-violence which drags everyone around into it and basically causes a war is very, very, very Norse.
Laura Matthews2
32. Dr. Thanatos

Except that it was NOT the purpose of Thorin and company to steal the Arkenstone. The Arkenstone was not even mentioned until they got to the Mountain, and it is never described as attracting wealth and luck. The only statement of intent ever given was to "win our gold from him" but that was in the context of revenge and getting their kingdom back. If you go to the source in the appencix of LOTR Thorin is brooding on the wrongs done to his house but with no plans; Gandalf has the idea of a raid on Erebor as part of his plan to eliminate the Dragon as a weapon Sauron can use. Gandalf says that he was thinking of the danger of the Dragon when he "accidently" ran into Thorin in Bree; Thorin reportedly said that it was in his mind to seek out Gandalf at that time. They then came up with the idea of a mission to restore Erebor. I can find no evidence anywhere in the books that Thorin was planning a theft-run to nab the Arkenstone and restore their fortunes while in exile.
Kate Nepveu
33. katenepveu
Rush-That-Speaks, I think I'm going to have to come back to this in this week's post, when we delve further into the question of the dwarves' motivations and characterizations, but my initial reaction is that your description is what the book ought to be but isn't.
Laura Matthews2
34. Gardner Dozois
@32 The thought that Gandalf is basically talking the dwarves into taking a shot at destroying the dragon for his own purposes, so that Smaug won't be available to be a weapon for Sauron, is an interesting one, and a rather cold-blooded gamble. If they succeed, the dragon is destroyed and Sauron is cheated of a potentially potent weapon; if they don't succeed, well, all you've lost is a bunch of dead dwarves. Not much of a risk for Gandalf personally, and one worth taking on the off-chance that the dwarves do figure out how to get rid of the dragon. This kind of cold-bloodedly pragmatic manipulation seems to be a specialty of Gandalf's--go on the mission, Bilbo, it'll broaden your horizons and you'll come back a better hobbit for it, and, if it doesn't work out, well, all that will happen is that you'll get killed.
Andrew Foss
35. alfoss1540
Spoiler From One Wiki to Rule them All

The thrush is said to have belonged to an ancient breed known by Thorin's ancestors. The Men of Dale were able to understand the language of the bird, and they served the men as messengers. Bilbo is skeptical that any of the Lake-men still speak the thrush language, but is proven wrong when the bird tells Bard the Bowman of Smaug's only weak spot, thus enabling Bard to kill the dragon

I knew there was something more to the thrush. and its communcating abilities. I recall more elsewhere as well, but will have to keep looking.

As for the Dwarves, they are particularly spineless in all of this. Thorin and Company want to march up to the Lonely Mountain, dispense with Smaug and then resume rulership over the area. No where do they seem to acknowledge what it will take from them to actuallyfight the dragon, so of course they just expect the burglar to go burgle. Maybe this was part of why Gandalf arranged to be gone, knowing he couldn't fight Smaug on his own.

Unfortunately, they are about to get just what they wanted - control of the mountain without a fight. And we will see that all in the next 2 chapters.

I love Smaug and cannot wait to reread it again.
Andrew Kopittke
36. mendosi
Interesting observations.

I'm thinking of the dwarf-made west gate into Khazad-dum which could be opened at any time by someone speaking the correct password "friend". But the instructions written on the door only appear in star/moonlight.

Likewise, I tend to think of the back door as able to be opened at any time by someone who knows where the keyhole is, has the key, and makes the right sound (a thrush trill).

The purpose of being in the right spot on Durin's day is, in my view, to discern the location of the keyhole, for those who do not know already.

Of course this still requires some help from our friend the thrush, who appears to either be intelligent enough to take an active part in revealing the keyhole, or the dwarves knew that thrushes would be in that spot singing at the right time for many years to come.

Here's a question for everyone, since it seems likely that the end of the second movie will be somewhere very close to this point.
What do you think the climactic scene of Desolation will be?
Barrel riding or partying in Lake Town don't quite seem exciting enough.
Laura Matthews2
37. Gardner Dozois
I think that people are underestimating the level of participation of the thrush, who, after all, understands every word that Bilbo and the dwarves say when they're talking in front of the back door, and flies off to repeat it all to Bard, telling him--quite knowingly and deliberately, I'm sure--what he has to do to defeat Smaug. The thrush is clearly intelligent and sentient, and to some extent, "magical." The tipoff is that it comes from an "ancient line," which, in Tolkien's world, always implies special attributes or abilities going back to a time when the world was more magical and less degraded than it is now. I don't think that it's just that the writters of the moon-letters knew that thrushes always hung around that part of the mountain and that if you hung around there long enough, one would knock a snail against the right spot or happen to trill at the right time. It's all part of a prophecy, and for it to work out, it calls for the active participation of the thrush; notice that it looks the dwarves over carefully, making sure they match up to what's required in the moon-letters, before it does its bit.

Which brings up the interesting point of how Jackson is going to handle all this. There tend not to be talking animals in Jackson's versions of Tolkien's work. Which means that the next few chapters are going to pose interesting challenges for him, since they feature talking dogs and other barnyard animals, talking spiders, and talking thrushes. That he didn't have the eagles talk in the last movie suggests that these things won't talk in the next one, although he's going to have his work cut out for him finding a way to work around them all.

As I've said before, I think the next movie is going to end with our heroes coming out on a mountain ridge and seeing the Lonely Mountain looming before them as ominously as Jackson can get it to loom.
Kate Nepveu
38. katenepveu
Hey all, thanks to my thoughtless lack of communication, the next chapter post has run into a scheduling glitch--you are not forgotten, I promise!

On thinking more about the movie question, I have changed my mind--I think we have to have actual dragon in the second movie, I think that the teasing in the opening of the first can't be made to bear a whole 'nother movie. So something appropriately cliff-hanger-y like the end of the next chapter, where Smaug comes and smashes things up and the party's trapped inside the tunnel.
Laura Matthews2
39. Gardner Dozois
I agree that people are not going to be happy if Smaug doesn't show up in the next movie (although they might well repeat the teaser from the first movie at the beginning), but I see problems with ending with Smaug attacking the moutain: too much to cover in the next movie, not enough left after that to cover in the following movie. Maybe it really should have been two movies instead of three.
Kate Nepveu
40. katenepveu
I am bang on board with it being two movies, but I can't figure out how they're going to pace the Azog stuff, so that's my big unknown in the whole thing.
Laura Matthews2
41. Gardner Dozois
I have little doubt that the Azog line will return, somehow, in the next movie, but there's ALSO going to be lots of stuff about ousting the Necromancer from Mirkwood, with almost certainly a big setpiece battle showing them doing that in either the next movie or the last one.
Laura Matthews2
42. grantimatter
On dwarven motivations: I don't think they were planning on stealing the Arkenstone, and I don't think they expected to die.

I think they thought they had a right to be there that the dragon didn't, and that because of that right (both as a *legal* right and a "rightness," the opposite of "wrong"), things were just going to work themselves out.

Sort of a medieval view, but Thorin was the proper king. Fate was on his side (or so his party would have believed).
Laura Matthews2
43. fantasywind
Some mentioned that dwarves in The Hobbit appear to be completely unprepared, silly or mean, a little petty, in my opinion this characterization as flawed, even greedy characters who are not 'pure heroes' is a good thing, makes them more human (and is understandable in the whole picture, in Lotr and Silm the dwarves we see are more noble, courageous fighters, more serious but that does not mean there are any disrepancies in general portrayal, after all there various individuals and different characteristics in personality among all peoples), it also serves to give some character development to them, since they at one point must become great warrior heroes, and indeed it is said that they can fight fiercely even though few of them actually have any fighting experiences (Balin, Gloin, Thorin maybe Dwalin) but in overall they are mostly craftsmen and merchants, even Thorin a member of royal family was forced to hard work, even digging for coal, from Lotr appendices we get bigger picture, the Longbeards, the Durin's Folk at this point of time were exiled wandering people that only for some time found new home and again started to prosper in a fashion in Blue Mountains, so that's why they might be whining or seem spoiled a bit, they are rising from their fall and only in time of trial the more heroic traits shine through, from poverty and harsh conditions they returned to more comfortable existance in Blue Mountains but the burning desire of Thorin to regain his heritage drove them on the road once more.

Also it should be mentioned that most of those dwarves are fairly young and few actually remember Lonely Mountain, most were born after it's fall. Also quest itself was supposed to be based on stealth, it's not an armed expedition so they had little or no weapons (I seem to remember they had knives and some dwarves skillfuly used staves in battle with spiders, also they were prepared to journey from pure logistic point of view, provisions, tools, and even though most of those dwarves weren't exactly seasoned adventurers they fared well enough, those baggages and provisions they had were also later looted by Orcs in Goblin-town) Thorin showed though skill in using sword and bow (other dwarves too were shooting from bows though less accurately), interestingly Bombur shows hidden depths in that he was one of those who fiercely fought back the three Trolls and was very decent fellow.

Thorin in the beginning thought of armed expedition, even laying war plans, but War of Orcs and Dwarves brought great number of casualties and dwarven race increases slowly, also Gandalf finally managed to convince Thorin to more subtle approach. It is possible that in recovering some amount of treasure Thorin hoped to maybe gather armies of mercenaries :), the weak point of plan was always how to get rid of dragon (though dwarves discussed various ways in book), the frustration and anger, desire for vengeance on dragon was force that kept Thorin in resolve and possibly Gandalf hoped to join the dwarves once they got to the mountain but circumstances became different, and fate worked it's way.

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