Thu
Feb 21 2013 12:00pm

The Hobbit Reread: Chapter 13, “Not at Home”

The Hobbit reread on Tor.com 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 13, “Not at Home,” which title has a couple of meanings.

 

What Happens

The dwarves and Bilbo wait in silence after Smaug’s attack. When they finally dare to try the door, they discover that there is no exit. The dwarves despair, but Bilbo proposes that they all go down the tunnel, which they agree to, having no other option.

The darkness is so complete that Bilbo actually stumbles and rolls into the hall. He has to pitch a fit to get the dwarves to bring torches, and even then he cannot persuade them to enter. So Bilbo is the one to find the Arkenstone, and under “its enchantment,” he takes it, despite “an uncomfortable feeling that the picking and choosing had not really been meant to include this marvellous gem, and that trouble would yet come of it.”

Bilbo’s explorations bring him to the large entry doors, where a bat startles him and causes him to drop his torch. He cries for help, and the dwarves go find him and then explore the treasures of the hall. They arm themselves, and Thorin gives Bilbo a mithril coat of mail.

At Bilbo’s prompting, Thorin leads them through the ruins to the Front Gate. They hike to a lookout post without incident. They settle in, and “In all their talk they came perpetually back to one thing: where was Smaug? They looked West and there was nothing, and East there was nothing, and in the South there was no sign of the dragon, but there was a gathering of very many birds. At that they gazed and wondered; but they were no nearer understanding it, when the first cold stars came out.”

 

Comments

So I’m sorry life required me to be largely absent from comments last post after bringing up a controversial subject (I did respond to things last night). Thank you all for being civil about it and disagreeing with me, where you did, in frequently-useful ways. (If you haven’t checked back in a bit, I recommend Rush-That-Speaks comment in particular.) This chapter should hopefully be less controversial, though it can’t help but echo some of the issues I raised last time.

This is because this chapter focuses again on Bilbo and the dwarves and their respective attitudes toward risk and treasure. It’s played for comedy a bit:

As Thorin carefully explained, Mr. Baggins was still officially their expert burglar and investigator. If he liked to risk a light, that was his affair. They would wait in the tunnel for his report.

Note that when Bilbo falls and drops his torch, Balin particularly speaks up in favor of going to help, though again with a little comedic flavor: “‘It is about our turn to help,’ said Balin, ‘and I am quite willing to go. Anyway I expect it is safe for the moment.’” Nevertheless, because these are the best dwarves that exist in The Hobbit (though not in Tolkien’s larger body of work), they do go help, and that is unquestionably a significant trait in their collective characters when not under the influence.

Said influence, of course, being not alcohol or pipeweed but treasure. Here again the chapter shows some complexity: on one hand, the dwarves are intrinsically particularly susceptible to the desire for treasure, in contrast to Bilbo, who recovers more quickly. More, they react differently—Bilbo steals, while “a dwarf…grows suddenly bold, and…may become fierce.” But the chapter also emphasizes that the treasure itself has its own independent power, speaking of “the bewitchment of the hoard” and the “enchantment” that Bilbo is under when he takes the Arkenstone. And as in last chapter, Thorin is the first to come to his senses when Bilbo prompts them all to remember practicalities—either I wasn’t looking for that lead role in the early chapters or it’s freshly-emphasized here. (I’ve spent a large chunk of my recent time dealing with a sick kid, so I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to check that. I’ll try to update in a comment.)

What about Bilbo? Well, he takes the Arkenstone (which I vaguely picture as something like a cross between an opal and a diamond; The Annotated Hobbit links it to the Silmarils etymologically, but I don’t think they’re supposed to look alike, because the light caught in the Silmarils is both gold and silver). That’s probably enough for one chapter, heh.

Another thing I did note is that he quotes his father again (twice, even). I can’t quite put my finger on the effect this gives; it’s very hobbit-ly prosaic, I suppose, and more so because it’s from the Baggins side not the Took side. (Also, it is in keeping with the complete absence of women in this book.) I feel like there’s something else here, or possibly that I’m overanalyzing things. Your thoughts?

The bit where he “actually began to stamp on the floor, and screamed out ‘light!’ at the top of his shrill voice,” made me laugh a bit, and I think is supposed to be funny even to people not operating keyboards under the influence of sleep deprivation. Which lighter notes are welcome considering that later they walk through the actual “[s]kulls and bones” of Thorin’s friends and relatives, to get to the Front Gate. (This section, perhaps as a result, did not remind me of Moria until after the fact.)

This chapter ends with an implicit promise of us finding out next time what happened with Smaug—a much-shorter version of the split timelines Tolkien used in The Lord of the Rings. Can anyone with a better grounding in pre-1930s literature than I tell me if the idea of intercutting timelines was just not a thing back then, or if it was a preference of Tolkien specifically? I think today what Tolkien does would be a very unusual choice, which seems intuitively to me to be related to contemporary cinematic styles, though again I don’t have the history to support this.

Finally, the chapter title. At first glance I took it to be a reference to Smaug, who is very much not there. It didn’t occur to me until quite late that it could also be referring to the dwarves, who have far more of a right to call this “home” than the murderer who drove them out. (Mountain-jacking?) And it’s quite true, they’re back in their former city but they are not at home, not yet. They don’t dare stay without knowing where Smaug is, and they don’t have any significantly greater hopes of evicting him than before (as Bilbo points out: “We are armed, but what good has any armour ever been before against Smaug the Dreadful?”). I don’t think I can quite stretch this to be foreshadowing that Thorin will never be at home here, unfortunately.

Dwarf characteristics roundup:

  • 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). Sees the necessity for practical action first among the dwarves (Chapters 12, 13).
  • 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), and shows a particular concern for Bilbo (Chapters 12, 13).
  • 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? No, surprisingly (10/12). He wishes for “a drink of something cheering out of one of Beorn’s wooden bowls,” and a looking-glass, but not to be at home.

Dragon next time, and if I recall correctly neither dwarves nor hobbits. 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. She also runs Con or Bust, which helps fans of color attend SFF cons and is conducting an online fundraising auction through February 24, 2013.

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20 comments
a1ay
1. a1ay
Can anyone with a better grounding in pre-1930s literature than I tell
me if the idea of intercutting timelines was just not a thing back then,
or if it was a preference of Tolkien specifically?

I'm not sure if it counts as literature, but Arthur Ransome used it a lot in the Swallows & Amazons children's books, which are roughly contemporary to The Hobbit and aimed at the same audience.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
I meant it in the broad written-fiction sense not the narrow canonically-worthy sense, so those are fine as examples Thanks.
a1ay
3. pilgrimsoul
The Dwarves get a mixed review from me this time, but then only Bilbo at this point has seen and conversed with Smaug and got away with it--and the cup--too! He's got his courage up.
And he does rather tend to (ahem) pick up shiny objects and put them in his pockets.
Steven Halter
4. stevenhalter
I recall being quite disappointed when we learn the results of Balin's foray into Moria. He was my favorite amoung the dwarves because of the help he keeps extending.
I would vote for both the Dragon and the Dwarves not quite being at home. Also, Bilbo isn't home although he, surprisingly, doesn't mention it here. Possibly the chapter being Not At Home covers Bilbo's general response.
David Levinson
5. DemetriosX
I can't think of any specific examples, but I would say that the sort of short-term (single chapter) intercutting we get here may not have been all that unusual. The narrative here pretty much forces a split, since the dwarves are not involved in the fall of Smaug. Tolkien uses it here to build tension. He could have gone about it two ways: as he did here with the fate of Smaug unknown and worry over his imminent return developing the tension; or with Smaug smashing the back door and flying off to his doom at Lake-town, with uncertainty over the fate of our heroes creating the tension. The nature of the work as children's literature, the singular focus of the narrative on Bilbo and the dwarves, and even the title itself essentially force the first choice. The lengthy intercuts of LotR, on the other hand, are probably far less common.

I think you may be overanalyzing Bilbo's quoting of his father at least a little. These tend to be, as you note, fairly conventional and prosaic maxims, as might be expected from the Baggins side of the family. We would expect advice from his mother to be more Tookish and daring. There's also the fact that this story grew out of a father telling it to his children.

One thing that jumped out at me from Kate's comments is Bilbo's seeming susceptibility to the gold lust and the lure of the Arkenstone. Within this book, it's not a problem, but within the wider scope of LotR it rather flies in the face of the idea that hobbits tend to be resistant to this sort of thing. Although it gets him to lie and dissemble about how it came into his possession, the ring exerts only a weak influence on Bilbo, even though he owns it for several decades. Gandalf even remarks on it.
a1ay
6. Bob Small
First, I have always felt "Not at Home" referred to Smaug and Smaug alone. Bilbo and the dwarfs went down into the cavern because Smaug was not at home, and because his destruction of the secret door left them no alternative. It helps to recall Tolkien's consistent claim of distaste for allegory when doing this. I seriously doubt any "hidden meaning" exists here.

Second, the split narration stems from the fact that the various parties have no idea what is happening as concerns the others. Bilbo and the Dwarfs are walking down a completely separate path (although one could easily argue a parallel one) from those at Laketown and in the Elven Kingdom.. Sure, splitting the stories does lend itself to building excitement in the reader, but the necessity is equally as inportant as the effect.
a1ay
7. Bolg
Actually, I've always related the treasure sections of The Hobbit to Treasure Island, and the fierceness of the dwarves (and Bilbo Baggins' helping himself to the Arkenstone) to the spell that gold, coins, diamonds and other jewels and suchlike, cast over the reader of such tales.

Thre are quite a lot of children's stories that hinge around the same issue/temptation, etc. Ian Serraillier got in at least one that I can think of (I used to own a copy, though where it wound up is anybody's guess), named They Raced For Treasure, IIRC; even Biggles got into the adventure with Biggles Flies West, complete with corrupt locals and a huge buccaneer's treasure ... the monetary value isn't the focus in these stories, because the children who are the readers, like dragons in the Dwarves estimation, can't tell a good piece of treasure from bad, and have no idea of the monetary values referred to ...
Tim Lewis
8. RaPToRFunK
I have to wonder if the Arkenstone itself contains some power that causes "enchantment" that the rest of the treasure does not.
a1ay
9. (still) Steve Morrison
Tolkien originally wrote these chapters in reverse order; that is, “Fire and Water” preceded “Not at Home” until he decided to switch them. FWIW, the Arkenstone was originally called the “Jem of Girion”.
a1ay
10. Dr. Thanatos
The other, less literal interpretation of "not at home" had never occurred to me, as I had always read it in a very concrete fashion, i.e., the Greatest of Calamities has stepped out for a bit.

I suggest another way to read this. I have heard the idiom "not at home" or "no-one's home" as a polite way of saying "not playing with a full deck" or "two crams short of an elf-feast" i.e. not quite right in the head. And is that not what is starting to happen to Thorin?
Andrew Kopittke
11. mendosi
What is it with villains in Middle Earth? Leaving priceless treausres lying around liable to be picked up by a hobbit in the dark. Smeagol did it, Smaug did it. Saruman left his Palantir lying around in Isengard, although his lack of care can be excused because he was otherwise occupied at the time. Anyone I forgot?

And thinking about Bilbo being enchanted by the treasure, personally, I don't think many of us would fail to be enchanted by a dragon's horde. The Crown Jewels in the Tower of London attract many visitors, and I think Smaug's little collection would outclass that!

I like the way that tension is built by not telling the reader what Smaug was doing at this point. I seem to have a memory of, when reading this part previously, getting a sinking feeling that Smaug was just being sneaky and he was about to appear at any moment to attack the Company. If we were reading that he was on his way to Lake Town to pick up the groceries then we could be confident about the future health of our short friends.
a1ay
12. Gardner Dozois
I never considered "Not At Home" to refer to anything other than Smaug not being there when our heroes are forced reluctantly to go exploring inside the Mountain. I think that attempts to read other meanings into it are probably too clever; Tolkien wasn't that kind of a writer.

Mostly a set-up chapter for the chapters to come. If it's true, as Steve Morrison says, that Tolkien originally had this chapter and the following one in reverse order, then he made the correct decision in swapping them--much better build-up of suspense that way.

It's interesting that the allure of the dragon-horde is so strong that it even affects Bilbo, who up until this point showed very little interest in aquiring wealth. It also affects the Men of Laketown, and the fact that the treasure exists even intrigues the Elves, although not as strongly as it does Dwarves and Men. I think that it's more than just that there's a heap of treasure there and you'll get rich if you can get ahold of it. I think there's actual magic involved, "dragon sickness," the evil enchantment invested into the horde by having the dragon brood upon it all those years. If that's true, than that's a partial justification or at least further excuse for some of the subsequent actions of the Dwarves--they've been infected with dragon sickness, although they might naturally tend to be a little more suceptible to it than other races. Nobody is immune, however. Even Bilbo comes down with a mild case, although hobbits seem to have a greater natural resistence.
a1ay
13. a1ay
, I don't think many of us would fail to be enchanted by a dragon's
horde. The Crown Jewels in the Tower of London attract many visitors,
and I think Smaug's little collection would outclass that!

And, of course, the Crown Jewels also include a unique and beautiful gemstone that carries a curse...
Kate Nepveu
14. katenepveu
pilgrimsoul @ #3, I can't believe I've never made that connection before!

stevenhalter @ #4, I will definitely look at the Moria sections differently now that I've paid actual attention to Balin here.

DemetriosX @ #5, I put Bilbo's suspectibility to the Arkenstone down to whatever supernatural influence being mostly an amplifier for the natural "oooh, shiny!" response, and so the _supernatural_ doesn't need to work as hard--it's that, I think, that hobbits are more resistant to.

Bob Small @ #6, I don't see how considering who the title applies to counts as "allegory," which is a very specific thing. And I know the parties don't know what's going on, but many books would, I think, take a strictly chronological approach, perhaps switching POV characters within chapters.

Bolg @ #7, the only kids' story about treasure I can remember from my childhood is (of all things) Poe's "The Gold Bug," which I devoutly hope I read in an _incredibly_ abridged version, because I have just found it and whoo boy 95% of that is not something an impressionable young child should be reading without someone to give her context. (All I remember about it is the code-breaking.)

(SteelyKid is incredibly found of a kids' cartoon called _Jake and the Neverland Pirates_, which I imagine that people who have strong feelings about Peter Pan would find an abomination, but anyway, least pirate-like pirates in any fictional creation so their idea of treasure includes things like, no kidding, skateboards and hula-hoops as well as shinies.)

RaPToRFunK @ #8, it may well be that the Arkenstone is _extra_ shiny and mesmerizing, but I think the text is reasonably clear that the entire hoard does have power, even with the Arkenstone in Bilbo's pocket.

(still) Steve Morrison @ #9, okay, "the Jem of Girion" is such a clunker, so glad he changed it. And hmm on the chapter order; that way would have suspense, but I like the broadening-out of the current order better.

Dr. Thanatos @ #10, I'll have to defer to those with a better grasp of period British idiom for an opinion there.

mendosi @ #11, I believe Morgoth at least guarded the Silmarils well, so perhaps this is all an example of how things get less wonderful in Middle-earth as time goes by. => And I agree that the lure of the shiny is strong! But I do think that there's supposed to be a supernatural element from the descriptions here.

Gardner Dozois @ #12, I don't quite think I buy that dragon sickness can affect people not actually in contact with the stuff, but we'll get to that.
a1ay
15. a1ay
I have heard the idiom "not at home" or "no-one's home" as a polite way of saying "not playing with a full deck" or "two crams short of an elf-feast" i.e. not quite right in the head.

Not a British idiom I have heard, ever. The only British idiomatic use of "not at home" I can think of is "not at home to X" = "unwilling to entertain the possibility of X". The metaphor here is that if Lady A has had some sort of argument with Mrs B, she will tell her butler that she is "not at home to Mrs B" - if Mrs B comes to visit, she will be politely turned away at the door. In the metaphorical use it's generally a fairly jocular, childish one: "we are not at home to Mr Grumpy!" a nurse might admonish a sulking child.

If we wanted to say someone's head had come a bit unbuttoned, we might say they're "not quite all there". But "not at home" sounds more like American idiom rather than British...
a1ay
16. Dr. Thanatos
I did not mean to specifically cite British idiom; this is more likely
American, along the lines of "the lights are on but no one's home."
a1ay
17. grantimatter
Not sure if it matters at this point, but much of Dracula was told slightly out of order (and in a variety of different styles - newspaper clippings, diary entries, letters). That's from... when... 1890s? Google says 1897.

So having the big comic book-style "BUT MEANWHILE...." cutaways is already a pretty well-established thing.

And, of course, is also used a lot in Golden Age superhero comics, which would be roughly contemporaneous with The Hobbit. Action Comics #1 is from 1938. Might be interesting reading the race-identity tropes Tolkien (might have) used in comparison with Superman or Batman in their earliest incarnations.
Kate Nepveu
18. katenepveu
grantimatter, my brain just crawled in a corner to hide at the idea of Tolkien reading superhero comics.

(It would be awesome if he did! Did they make it across the pond, maybe he read his kids'? But somehow it's hard to imagine.)
a1ay
19. grantimatter
I remember being slightly flummoxed when I realized Tolkien could have been riffing off Snow White (1937) rather than the other way around.

It's as weird to think of the Oxford don at a Disney movie as reading comic books (at least for me).
a1ay
20. BellaRose
In chapter XIII "Not at Home" What is the most saught after tresure in Smaugs mountain?

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