Jan 17 2013 1:00pm

The Hobbit Reread: Chapter 9, “Barrels Out of Bond”

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 consider Chapter 9, “Barrels Out of Bond,” which I would really, really like to see the Mythbusters tackle.


What Happens

The night after the battle with the spiders, the dwarves are captured by the Wood-elves, but Bilbo escapes by using his ring. He follows them through a strong gate into the Wood-elves’ underground caverns, where the Elvenking tells the dwarves, “After all the disturbance you have made I have a right to know what brings you here.” When they refuse, he imprisons them individually until they “have learned sense and manners.”

Bilbo wanders the palace, lonely and scared, but manages to find out where all the dwarves are being kept—and discovers Thorin, whose presence the Elvenking had not mentioned. Thorin is cheered by the visit and has him tell the others to continue their silence while Bilbo looks for a way out.

Bilbo eventually learns of another way out of the caves, a stream that passes under part of the palace, on which empty barrels are floated back to Lake-town as part of the Wood-elves’ trade. Then the king’s butler and the chief of the guards fall asleep over wine, so that Bilbo is able to steal the guard’s keys. He frees the dwarves and brings them to the cellar. The dwarves reluctantly climb into the barrels and get packed and sealed in by Bilbo. More elves come in to move the barrels; they wake the butler and tell him some of the barrels are too heavy, but the butler is grumpy and doesn’t listen.

Bilbo, having forgotten to make a plan to get himself out, manages to grab the last barrel being thrown down through the trap-doors. He gets thoroughly wet before he is able to climb more or less on top of a barrel. In the night, the barrels come to ground on a bank of the river, where other elves gather them and rope them into a raft to continue to Lake-town. Bilbo has a cold but manages to steal some food and wine and evade pursuit. The next morning he climbs back on to the barrel-raft, which is sent downstream without further inspection: “They had escaped the dungeons of the king and were through the wood, but whether alive or dead still remains to be seen.”



I don’t have much to say about this chapter. Really, as I said above the fold, my main impression was that I would really like to see the Mythbusters try out this whole barrel-travel thing, both inside and outside. Suitably scaled, of course, and allowing for the changed circumstances of water leaking into Bilbo’s barrel, thus making it allegedly more stable. I think Adam and Jamie would want to take turns being Bilbo, and the build team would get stuffed in barrels, per their usual roles?

This chapter is mostly about Bilbo, who continues to be quick-thinking and resourceful, both in the moment by evading capture and then in the entire escape effort. Poor hobbit, I feel for his anxiety about “being depended on by everyone”—as I’ve said before, I’ve got an overdeveloped sense of responsibility; not only is it going to get me into trouble some day, but it often results in additional stress now.

The narrator says that the dwarves’ new trust of Bilbo was “Just what Gandalf had said would happen, you see. Perhaps that was part of his reason for going off and leaving them.” Perhaps, but if so, pretty tough love, especially given that he left them before Mirkwood, the most dangerous part of their journey; I prefer to think that it was solely his stated reasons of other business that motivated him.

Bilbo also remains lucky: when the butler and guard begin drinking, the narrator says, “Luck of an unusual kind was with Bilbo then. It must be potent wine to make a wood-elf drowsy; but this wine, it would seem, was the heady vintage of the great gardens of Dorwinion … [meant] for the king’s feasts only, and for smaller bowls not for the butler’s great flagons.” (The Annotated Hobbit says that Dorwinion is in the South in Tolkien’s early writings, though in Pauline Baynes’ Map of Middle-earth, which was complied with Tolkien’s assistance, it’s in the East.)

With regard to the escape, the narrator says,

It was just at this moment that Bilbo suddenly discovered the weak point in his plan. Most likely you saw it some time ago and have been laughing at him; but I don’t suppose you would have done half as well yourselves in his place.

I was so young when I first read this, I overlooked the problem just like I overlooked Thorin not being a spider captive last chapter. But I found it a touch odd that the narrator assumed the reader would be amused rather than worried; maybe it’s just the way I react to texts. How did you all feel, if you did spot it?

Finally for Bilbo, an interesting snippet of evolving morality:

He no longer thought twice about picking up a supper uninvited if he got the chance, he had been obliged to do it for so long, and he knew now only too well what it was to be really hungry, not merely politely interested in the dainties of a well-filled larder.

Insert Anatole France reference here.

Just a few things about the elves before the traditional end-of-post tallies:

There’s a nice detail about the Elvenking, when Bilbo first sees him: “On his head was a crown of berries and red leaves, for the autumn was come again. In the spring he wore a crown of woodland flowers.” This feels very Faerie to me, though as I live somewhere with four seasons, I was briefly distracted by wondering if he wore evergreen in the winter. Probably there isn’t winter in his domain, however (even if he didn’t live underground.)

Yes, if I were the Elvenking I’d want to know what the dwarves were doing too, but if I were mostly concerned about them riling up spiders I’d just kick them out of Mirkwood post-haste rather than waste resources on locking them up. But there is that old enmity to think of. (This is probably why I was so resisting the idea that this Elvenking, at this point in Tolkien’s writing, is Thingol. Thanks to Bolg in the comments to my last post for pointing out that I was wrong.)

As others have said, the king’s butler getting drunk and falling asleep does not feel very Elvish. Nor does the fact that he’s a butler. I have nothing particular else to add to this, I’m afraid. Similarly: the elves sing again, when they’re rolling the barrels out. It’s a song. Well, okay, actually it does vaguely remind me of something else Tolkien, but I can’t pinpoint what, probably because of my complete lack of poetical sense.

Now, the end of post tallies. Nothing new to add to the dwarf characteristics catalog, which I carry over merely 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 (8/8), when he’s skulking around the palace before he’s found the dwarves.

Out of barrels next time, though I don’t remember how far they go. See you next week when we find out.

(Oh, and if anyone’s going to be at Arisia in Boston this weekend, I’m going to be on a panel about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on Sunday at 1:00. Do come! And feel free to say hi afterward.)

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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Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
I didn't notice that he hadn't packed himself into a barrel and I recall being momentarily worried rather than amused, also.
If there were enough water in the barrel it would be somewhat more stable, although actually riding on top does seem a bit dicey. I agree that this would be a fine Mythbusters experiment.
2. a1ay
It’s a song. Well, okay, actually it does vaguely remind me of
something else Tolkien, but I can’t pinpoint what, probably because of
my complete lack of poetical sense.

The goblins' song, I think. Which is an odd one.

"Heave ho! Splash plump!
Down they go, down they bump!"


"Clap! Snap! the black crack!
Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!
And down, down to Goblin-town
You go, my lad!"
Kristoff Bergenholm
3. Magentawolf
Noooo.. I'm going to be singing the Goblins' song in my head all day, now. The ones from the animated movie are just too catchy...
Kit Case
4. wiredog
The "Anatole France reference" you inserted 404's.
5. (still) Steve Morrison
I would guess this is the intended reference?
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.
6. yannhuei
When I reread the hobbit shortly before the movie came out, the description of the elves was shocking to me. As in the movies and in the LotR books, the elves (not just legolas) were...martial, like what d&d players think of with elves.

However, in The Hobbit book, the elves were more fey and, if I really had to pick an adjective, I'd go with..."Keebler"
David Levinson
7. DemetriosX
I certainly didn't notice the flaw in Bilbo's plan the first time I read it. I was simply moving along too quickly with the narrative. It's entirely possible that one of the Tolkien children was going "But... but..." when he first told them this tale. The narrative aside may be meant to reassure the younger listener/reader. If those who saw it are laughing at Bilbo rather than worrying about him, then things can't be too serious.

The barrels ought to work, although the dwarves would certainly have a problem with fresh air. It wasn't entirely uncommon in the Middle Ages for goods in barrels to be transported like this and obviously if they arrived soaked it wouldn't be used. I do wonder if Bilbo would ever be able to find a position that would keep his barrel from rolling over, though. That's an awfully tricky balancing act. (My first copy has Tolkien's painting of this scene on the cover.)
8. EC Spurlock
RE the elven king's butler, I think Tolkein was using the term in the original Medieval sense, as being the steward in charge of the larders, pantries and food stores; not in the Downton Abbey sense of being in charge of the household staff. Still, getting drunk and falling asleep does seem like a very un-elven thing to do, whichever incarnation of the elves we're referencing at the time.
9. pilgrimsoul
All in all I can understand Gloin's attitude in FOTR when he hears about how nice the Elves were to Gollum. 'You were less tender to me!"

And Adam and Jamie doing the barrel journey thing? Bring it on!
10. Lsana
I noticed the flaw in Bilbo's plan, though I don't remember exactly how I felt about it. I know I wasn't amused (I'm rarely amused by bad things happening to fictional characters, even when I'm supposed to be), but I can't remember if I was worried, or if I just assumed that Bilbo must have had a way out that he hadn't revealed to the reader yet.
12. StrongDreams
Why isn't it Elvish to be a butler? Too mundane?

Indeed. The only elves we are introduced to are nobility. In the books as well as the movies, there is a sense that the humans have these things, but all we see of elves are the high and noble, and all we see of dwarves are fighters and miners. Who grows their food? Who makes their clothing? Who raises their horses? Somewhere there have to be elf farmers, farriers, seamstresses, coopers, rope-wrights, smiths not named Feanor, and so on. (At one point Galadriel makes a point of mentioning that the cloaks she gives the Fellowship were made by her handmaidens, as if that was a special honor. So who makes their everyday clothes?)
Kate Nepveu
13. katenepveu
Quickly--okay, weird, the URL still shows up as having the text in Google Search, but indeed when you actually go there it's an error message.

(still) Steve Morrison identified it correctly; I will look for another source and see about editing the post.
Beccy Higman
14. Jazzlet
@ 6 yannhuei - I can't place the reference, but I am sure that at some point in LOTR there is discussion of the elves, like the men of Gondor being martial because they had to be, not because that was their character.

@ 12 StrongDreams - Indeed, but we do see border guards when the Fellowship arrive in Lothlorien and then there is the discussion about rope making Sam has with the elves helping load the canoes as the Fellowship leaves. We know that there must have been at least one smith in Rivendell, else who re-forged Narsil for Aragorn? And of course as they had feasts someone must have cooked and served them.

I can't remember what I first thought of Bilbo's plan, but I doubt I'd have found it amusing if I had realised his situation.

And oh yes a Mythbusters on barrel riding, please!
15. JohnnyMac
StrongDreams @12, "...all we see of dwarves are fighters and miners. Who grows their food?"

Back in Chapter One, when describing the wealth of the dwarves before Smaug attacked them, Thorin says (speaking of "...mortal men, who lived to the South,") "Kings used to send for our smiths, and reward even the least skillful most richly. Fathers would beg us to take their sons as apprentices, and pay us handsomely, especially in food-supplies, which we never bothered to grow or find for ourselves."

A couple of pages farther on, he says that those who survived Smaug's attack "...we have had to earn our livings as best we could up and down the lands, often enough sinking as low as blacksmith-work or even coalmining."

It seems clear that the Dwarves' ideal economic set up was for them to be a center of high end manufacturing supplying luxury goods and top quality weapons to human customers in exchange for food products and whatever raw materials they could not produce in their own domain.
Soon Lee
16. SoonLee
It was at this stage (Bilbo barrel-riding, the dwarves not drowned and/or suffocated by their experience) that I decided that this was a fairytale (with fairytale logic), gave up trying to map it so faithfully to realism, and just rolled (sorry) with it.
17. a1ay
Well, the barrels don't have to be airtight. They don't float on their side: with a heavy dwarf in them, they'd float upright.As long as there were airholes in the lid you'd be fine. (That puzzled me on first reading too.)
David Levinson
18. DemetriosX
@17 a1ay
Tolkien's illustration of Bilbo on a barrel and his description in the book makes it pretty clear that he thinks of the barrels as floating on their sides. Bilbo is clearly riding his astride, since he later names his pony Barrel. Certainly once they're roped together into rafts, they're on their sides. IIRC, the old rafts to Tom Sawyer's Island at Disneyland were mocked up that way. Empty barrels probably ought to float on their sides if they're water-tight. But you're right that with dwarves in them, they ought to flowt upright.
19. Bolg
aw, shucks, folks ... blushes aside (betcha didn't know us goblins could blush, didja?) and getting back to the topic of interest - I've been skeptical about barrel-riding myself. I think that sitting lower in the water as a result of water ballast would make a barrel (on its lonesome ownsome) slightly more stable, prinarily because the part that stayed longer under water, would absorb some water and become heavier as a result.

In a mess of barrels, its stability would or course depend mostly on how often other barrels would be bumping into it as opposed to sitting nestled against it.

It'd be fun to watch - more fun to watch than to experience, needless to say! :)
20. Dr. Thanatos
Intriguing that the barrel song and "Love-Theme from Goblintown" are similar, given that in JRRT's concept until very much later Goblins were corrupted Elves...

I would pay cash money for a barrel-riding scene where there is polka music playing...
Birgit F
21. birgit
Some pe0ple seem to like riding barrels down waterfalls:

That might even be what gave Tolkien the idea.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
22. Lisamarie
I've always been a bit clautrophobic so reading this chapter always made me rather uncomfortable!!
23. (still) Steve Morrison
The name Dorwinion occurs several times in Tolkien's early wrting (once as a place in Tol Eressëa!); here are a couple of articles about where it may have been and what the name means.
Angela Korra'ti
24. annathepiper
I quite liked that we got a glimpse of working/serving elves in this chapter, actually--specifically because it does indeed contradict so much of the imagery and concepts associated with elves elsewhere in Tolkien's work.

In particular I appreciated the idea of them belting out a song while they were flinging the barrels into the river. I'd really like to hear a Howard Shore take on what an elven work song would sound like. :)
25. JohnnyMac

For our gracious hostess and any other legally minded readers here, the link above (which I found at InstaPundit today) goes to a lengthy legal analysis of Bilbo's contract with the Dwarves.

It begins with the rather brief text from the book and then goes onto the much, much longer and more elaborate contract from the movie. Apparently Peter Jackson (characteristically) thought that a one page letter was not dramatic enough and ordered his props department to produce an epic sized multi-paged document (complete with legal text). Copies of this are now being sold as movie tie ins.

The article and its comments go over such issues as whether Shire or Dwarven law would be controlling in the event of litigation over the contract, Thorin's claimed status as King Under the Mountain vs. Smaug's long established rule and did the Sackville-Baggins have a valid claim to Bilbo's silver spoons.
Rob Rater
26. Quasarmodo
When reading the description of Bilbo's mad dash to get out the trap doors with the barrels, the first thing that occurred to me was this seemed like an ideal time for the Ring to slip itself off his finger. Though maybe it didn't want a repeat of the last time it ended up on the river floor.
27. Dr. Thanatos
@26 Quasarmodo,

If you were an evil ring, would you want to lie at the bottom of an Elvish sewer waiting to be found?
28. Gardner Dozois
In the movie, practically every moment where the aesthetics of the book could potentially clash with the established aesthetics of the LOTR movies, they went with LOTR aesthetics. The dwarves were not cute little fellows, totally unarmed and wearing pastel-colored hoods; they were fierce and martial and armed to the teeth. They didn't wander up innocently and harmlessly one by one and get popped into bags by the trolls, they attacked them and fought a sharp battle with them until the (somewhat unlikely) ruse of threatening Bilbo made them throw down their arms. When the party gets to Rivendell, the elves there are the solemn and mystical Elves of the LOTR movies, not guys who caper around singing "tra la la la" and giggling and archly calling Bilbo "my dear." The Goblins who tree Gandalf and the rest of the party don't dance around singing "Fifteen birds in fifteen fir trees." The King of the Eagles doesn't speak, nor is any poetry receited.

I know that the dwarves are still going to escape from the Wood-Elves hall by being put in barrels, because I've seen a photograph of that scene being filmed somewhere on the internet--but there's not going to be any comic butler who gets drunk and falls asleep, and probably not any working-class grunt hand laborer Elves either. That just wouldn't fit for the aesthetics of what Elves are like that has already been established in the LOTR movies. I don't know what Jackson will come up with instead--but I'm pretty sure it won't be the drunk butler.
Liz J
29. Ellisande
I have no idea how 'canon' it'll end up being to the film, but the LEGO set includes figures identified as an elven guard and an 'elven chief' (Thranduil himself?) involved in the scene. No butlers, but there is a cup and bottle included...
30. (still) Steve Morrison
Rateliff points out that there is only one other case of a drunken Elf in all of Tolkien's writings: Saeros in some versions of the tale of Túrin Turambar – and in that passage he had also been drinking wine from Dorwinion! It must have been pretty potent stuff.
Rateliff also notes that people frequently wonder how Thrain could have kept the map and key secret in Sauron's dungeons, but no one seems to wonder how Thorin kept the same map and key secret in the Elvenking's dungeons. And one left over from last chapter: some of the drafts use the pronoun "she" in reference to the spider Bilbo killed with Sting. If that spider was female, she was the only female character to actually appear on stage in The Hobbit, except for the collective mention of the women of Esgaroth who, along, with the children, were huddled into boats during the dragon attack.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
31. Lisamarie
I keep thinking of that dumb scene in the LOTR movies where Legolas and Gimli have a drinking contest and it doesn't affect Legolas at all. Guess it wasn't from Dorwinion ;)
Kate Nepveu
32. katenepveu
JohnnyMac, contract law and I are not friends--for some reason it just does not agree with my brain--but I thank you for the link!

. . . I stopped reading before the bit about the spoons, though. *goes back*

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