Mar 7 2013 1:00pm

The Hobbit Reread: Chapter 15, “The Gathering of the Clouds”

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 Fifteen, “The Gathering of the Clouds,” which is in no way ominous setup for bad things to come, nuh-uh, no way.


What Happens

The thrush tries to tell the dwarves of Smaug’s death, but has to recruit an ancient raven named Roäc instead. Roäc tells them what happened in the last chapter, urges them to trust Bard, and tells them that the ravens wish for peace, though it may cost the dwarves gold. Thorin angrily tells Roäc that “none of our gold shall thieves take or the violent carry off while we are alive” and asks him to send any young ravens as messengers to Dain in the Iron Hills and other relatives. Roäc agrees reluctantly.

The dwarves fortify the Front Gate, the only usable entrance, to the surprise of the Elves and Lake-town men when they arrive. Some of these people investigate the Gate, but leave without responding to Thorin’s hail. After a night of songs of varying degrees of cheer, Bard comes to the Gate and asks for “a parley and a council,” but all Thorin hears is demands for treasure from an armed force—and from the Elvenking, “whom I remember with small kindness.” He tells Bard to dismiss the Elves and return unarmed; instead, Bard sends a messenger who demands a twelfth of the treasure. Thorin shoots an arrow at the messenger, who (unharmed) declares the Mountain beseiged, to Bilbo’s dismay.



A short setup chapter, interesting to me principally as an exercise in imagining how it might have come out better. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a way, because the things that make the standoff so inevitable are all either entirely logical from the point of view of those taking the actions or out of their control.

That is: it makes sense for Bard to take an armed force to the Mountain, which he believes to be empty, to recover the treasure plundered from Dale. It makes sense for the Elvenking to come with, because the Elves are in much better shape militarily, and they are allies (again, I don’t personally agree that the Elves have a just claim to the treasure, but that’s a different story—and one we’ll come back to later in this post). It makes sense for Thorin to find these actions threatening when he hears of them, because he doesn’t know that they think he’s dead. And it makes sense for two proud and prickly people to offend each other extremely in the way that Thorin and Bard do.

With all that, the situation barely needs “the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded” or “dwarvish hearts” to go horribly wrong. It seems to me those are just the cherries on top of this sundae of ugh-do-not-want (I think they’ll become more relevant later, when Thorin refuses to back down).

Bard’s statements to Thorin, by the way, are kind of a marvel for how such reasonable content can be phrased so as to immediately remove all hope of reasonable discussion. Take a look at their initial exchange (which Bard speaks “proudly and grimly”):

A tall man stood forward, dark of hair and grim of face, and he cried: “Hail Thorin! Why do you fence yourself like a robber in his hold? We are not yet foes, and we rejoice that you are alive beyond our hope. We came expecting to find none living here; yet now that we are met there is matter for a parley and a council.”

“Who are you, and of what would you parley?”

“I am Bard, and by my hand was the dragon slain and your treasure delivered. Is that not a matter that concerns you? Moreover I am by right descent the heir of Girion of Dale, and in your hoard is mingled much of the wealth of his halls and towns, which of old Smaug stole. Is not that a matter of which we may speak? Further in his last battle Smaug destroyed the dwellings of the men of Esgaroth, and I am yet the servant of their Master. I would speak for him and ask whether you have no thought for the sorrow and misery of his people. They aided you in your distress, and in recompense you have thus far brought ruin only, though doubtless undesigned.”

He starts off comparing Thorin to a robber, rather than assuming he has good reason for his actions. He starts with a very broad-sounding claim to the hoard before moving to the narrower ones. And he uses negative phrasing (“Is that not a matter that concerns you?”, “Is not that a matter of which we may speak?”, “whether you have no thought for the sorrow and misery”) which conveys, intentionally or not, an attempt to shame Thorin into acting—which, speaking as someone with an unfortunate surfeit of pride that she sometimes struggles to keep from dictating her actions, is guaran-fucking-teed to put up all the hackles on a proud person’s back. In short: his opening speech was never going to be a success, but this rhetoric really did not help.

Here’s a question: should Bard have sent away the Elves and come unarmed? I find it hard to believe Thorin would have agreed to give up any part of the treasure, what with the dragon-enchantment and dwarvish nature—probably he would have found something else to take offense at and kick Bard out for?—but I can’t see any good reason for Bard to reject Thorin’s demands. Did he fear attack? Surely they wouldn’t agree on a face-to-face meeting at first. Is this my failing to get into the mindset of these characters again?

Regarding the finders-keepers mentality we discussed last time, Thorin asks Bard “what share of their inheritance you would have paid to our kindred, had you found the hoard unguarded and us slain,” which Bard calls “a just question” and then refuses to answer. So it seems to me less clear that the Elvenking is doing right by his own lights, rather than mine. Not conclusive, but suggestive.

Just a few more notes. There’s a nice little bit of humor when Balin says he cannot understand the thrush’s speech, “it is very quick and difficult.” He asks Bilbo if Bilbo can: “‘Not very well,’ said Bilbo (as a matter of fact, he could make nothing of it at all).” Hee.

I was also amused by Balin’s discourse on crows versus ravens, but this may be because I watched the anime Princess Tutu in which ravens are significant—or rather big black birds are significant, and sometimes they are crows and sometimes they are ravens, and I was very confused whether the difference was also significant, until I was told that the Japanese word being used could mean any “big black bird,” so the translator had to do the best they could in context. See also this reference art for the Corvidae family, which as the accompanying comment says, “Handily doubles as a field guide to creepy-ass magic birds you don’t want to be fucking with.”

Well, okay, Roäc isn’t creepy, he’s just 153 years old and a smidge passive-aggressive. By which I mean, anyone who says “I will not say if this counsel be good or bad” might as well wave a banner saying “It’s bad! It’s bad!”

Finally, some foreshadowing: after Roäc brings the news, the narrator says that Bilbo “would have given most of his share of the profits for the peaceful winding up of these affairs.” Of course he ends up giving all of it, and judging by the title of the next chapter, “A Thief in the Night,” will do so rather soon. See you then.

(Oh, right, tallies: no changes to dwarves; and surprisingly, Bilbo does not think wistfully of home in this chapter (10/14). Okay, really see you next time now.)

Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog.

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1. pilgrimsoul
Oh dear. Everyone behaves badly in this chapter--excepting the ravens who are Really Smart Birds. I don't think anything could have actually softened Thorin's pride and stubborness at quite this point--but way to make things much worse, Bard! The "Well, we're sure glad you are fried after all," has a ring of insincerity.
David Levinson
2. DemetriosX
There really isn't a whole lot to say about this chapter. Bard absolutely steps in it here in a way that is completely contrary to everything we've been told about him. He comes across more like the Master. Thorin is naturally a bit prickly when faced with two large armed groups and this is then coupled with his normal rather gruff and dismissive manner. Even so, shooting at a messenger is an enormous faux pas.

Bard probably should have sent away the elven king. Indeed, in his place I'd be wondering just what the elves were doing here at all. That said, he may not have felt in any position to send them away. His own authority is very new and more than a little questionable. And his forces may not be capable of enforcing the dismissal of the elves. The elven king is also savvy enough to go to the Master and exploit the tensions between the two human factions in order to get what he wants.

The ravens are really the only ones who come out looking at all decent in this mess.
Kate Nepveu
3. katenepveu
pilgrimsoul @ #1, don't forget the thrush!

DemetriosX @ #2, I don't feel like Bard's acting very out of character--from the moment he was introduced, his friends were not acting very impressed by his prowess with _words_, after all, and he very clearly expects people to do as he says because he's the most right person around. Again, I have some sympathy for that, but it's just very much the wrong tack here. As for what the Elves were doing, well, they did come help when he asked, and I doubt he'd see any reason to say no to the escort when they set out.
4. grantimatter
The first time I read this book as a wee lad, I remember my mother informing me that ravens really could speak.

It's true; like parrots, ravens can repeat words and phrases. Actually better than parrots:

Uncanny valley, there.
Alan Brown
5. AlanBrown
I think this chapter was the precursor for hundreds of Marvel Comics, whenever the writers thought, "They are all friends, but wouldn't it be cool for Superhero X to battle Superhero Y." And so, a misunderstanding was manufactured, and the slugfest began!
Kate Nepveu
6. katenepveu
grantimatter @ #4: whoa.

AlanBrown @ #5, what a depressing thought!
7. (still) Steve Morrison
Even so, shooting at a messenger is an enormous faux pas.
"I guess that concludes negotiations!"
8. JohnnyMac
There is a bit from the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings that bears on Thorin's attitude toward a dragonslayer claiming dwarvish treasure. From a passage talking about the ancestors of the Rohorrim before they moved south to the Mark:

"Many lords and warriors, and many fair and valiant women, are named in the songs of Rohan that still remember the North. Frumgar, they say, was the name of the chieftain who led his people to Eotheod. Of his son, Fram, they tell that he slew Scatha, the great dragon of Ered Mithrin, and the land had peace from the long-worms afterwards. Thus Fram won great wealth, but was at feud with the Dwarves, who claimed the hoard of Scatha. Fram would not yield them a penny, and sent to them instead the teeth of Scatha made into a necklace, saying: "Jewels such as these you will not match in your treasuries, for they are hard to come by." Some say that the Dwarves slew Fram for this insult. There was no great love between Eotheod and the Dwarves." (LOTR, Appendix A, II, The House of Eorl)

It would be a reasonable assumption that Thorin and his companions would have known this bit of history (ancestral grudges seem to be among the parts of history that are most eagerly handed down to desendents).
Birgit F
9. birgit
In the German translation the translator again skipped the dwarf song, only saying that it was similar to the one in Bilbo's house and that Thorin seemed to like it.
Chris Chaplain
10. chaplainchris1
Kate, I like what you said at...some earlier point in the reread...about how this book doesn't dwell on the epic fantasy/dragonslaying bit, and instead gets right to greed and politics and how fantastic treasures complicate life.

Interesting perspective on the elves. Tolkien-as-narrator told us, in Mirkwood, that elves are "good people." As a kid I trusted that and so it didn't occur to me to wonder at their motives. Sure, they locked the dwarves up, but that was a misunderstanding, and they also willingly and freely helped the people of Esgaroth. I still think Thorin comes off worse than the elves. But I do note that "parley" simply means "we demand part of the treasure so you better come talk to us or else."

Good thing a common enemy will turn up later!
Fredrik Coulter
11. fcoulter
I wonder how much of this setup was inspired by The Great War, in which an interlocking set of treaties pretty much guaranteed that any triggering event, no matter how small, would end up with a continent wide struggle.
12. pilgrimsoul
There's not enough action around here.
Who wants to get into a flame war with me? Who dares?
Nyah Nyah. Elves wear Dwarf boots. Wanna make something of it? Eh punk? Or Dr. T. Or . . .?
Kate Nepveu
13. katenepveu
JohnnyMac @ #8, I can't believe I forgot that--I even quoted it in the Appendices post for the LotR re-read.

birgit @ #9, and I skipped the dwarf song too--I just didn't have anything to say about it. Still, it seems ill done of a translator rather than a commentor.

chaplainchris1 @ #10, yes, I've been having to overcome a lot of instinctive "but the Elves are The Best in Middle-earth!"

fcoulter @ #11, hmmm, interesting. It seems less like alliances is the immediate cause and more like greed and pride, but my history in this area is very weak.

pilgrimsoul @ #12, your momma's so nasty, she sends the Nazgul into despair . . . ?

(Yeah, I'm not any good at this at all.)
14. EmmaPease
With the mention of Fram, I decided to do a bit of checking.

Angmar established around 1300TA
Angmar was defeated in 1975TA (which presumably lessened the dangers of the northern part of the Misty Mountains and Ered Mithrin).

The Éothéod moved north in 1977TA.

Moria fell in 1981TA
the new king, Thrain, established Erebor in 1999.

Fram slew Scatha sometime but not more than a generation after 1977TA in Ered Mithrin.

Thorin's ancester Thorin (2035-2289) and his son Gloin (2136-2385) were the ones who took Durin's folk north to Ered Mithrin in 2210TA (which would be well after Fram lived).

So were the dwarves of Ered Mithrin whose gold had been stolen of Durin's folk? Durin's heir wasn't there until well after Scatha's death. And Scatha presumably acquired his hoard under the semi protection of the Witch King (useful way of clearing out dwarves and men who might have opposed him when he established Angmar some 700 years before). So the other question might be were the Dwarves who claimed the gold the actual heirs of those from whom Scatha stole it and were they of Durin's folk (a group in dire need of treasure given that most of theirs had been left behind in Moria)?
15. pilgrimsoul
Mom never mentioned meeting you, but obviously you know her well.
16. Gardner Dozois
Not really much to say about this chapter, except, yes, five minutes of reasonable conversation on either side would have settled the matter without fighting. I suppose you could argue that all were feeling the effects of "dragon-sickness"--or perhaps just old-fashioned greed. Think that the Men were willing to support the Elves somewhat dubious claim to a share in the treasure because they'd just renedered serious aid to the survivors of Smaug's attack on Laketown.

Odd that crows and thrushes would try to avert the fighting, since the more dead bodies there are strewn around, the more they have to scavenge. You'd think they'd be egging them on to war instead.
David Levinson
17. DemetriosX
@16 Gardner
Odd that crows and thrushes would try to avert the fighting, since the more dead bodies there are strewn around, the more they have to scavenge. You'd think they'd be egging them on to war instead.
That's the crows vs. ravens thing again. Balin has explained that crows are evil and nasty, while ravens are good and noble and wise. There's also the apparent long good relations between the ravens and the dwarves.
18. Gardner Dozois
So in this world, ravens are above plucking the eye out of a corpse and eating it? Even if they don't eat dwarves (they're not kosher?), a war should produce plenty of dead Men around to snack on.
David Levinson
19. DemetriosX
Apparently they are. Or maybe Roäc is playing a double bluff and knows exactly how to get Thorin to get up on his high horse and offend everyone. He may have given Bard really crappy advice about coming on strong and overbearing in dealing with dwarves.
20. JohnnyMac
EmmaPease @14, nice work on establishing the approximate date of the slaying of Scatha by Fram! I am impressed.

Yours work does suggest that Scatha's hoard would have plundered from Dwarves who were not Thorin's direct ancestors. Still possible they could have been distant cousins or relations by marriage. Or, they could have been Dwarves of another House entirely. I still think Thorin and Co. would have known of the affair and their attitudes toward Bard affected by it.

I am reminded of a passage from Machiavelli's "The Prince" where he advises his notional tyrant/reader that though he may dispose of his enemies by putting them to death, he should be cautious about confiscating their estates since, as he points out, men will much sooner forgive the loss of a father than the loss of an inheritance.
Alan Brown
21. AlanBrown
Actually, crows and ravens are all corvids, and there is very little genetic difference between them. I think the dwarves are engaging in some racist stereotyping, if you ask me.
22. Dr. Thanatos
Challenge accepted.

"Your mama so ugly, Sauron had to put a burlap sack over his palantir"

Seems like dwarves, elves, and men don't do so good around gold. Perhaps they should give it to nice Smeagol. Smeagol will keep it safe for Mens and Dwarveses and Elvesies...
23. Masha
For those of you who say Bard was being a stubborn idiot, what about this bit?

"Further in his last battle Smaug destroyed the dwellings of the men of Esgaroth, and I am yet the servant of their Master. I would speak for him and ask whether you have no thought for the sorrow and misery of his people. They aided you in your distress, and in recompense you have thus far brought ruin only, though doubtless undesigned."

From Bard's point of view, they had been living near the Mountain for generations with no sign of the dragon. Along comes the dwarves, stirring up things with stories of gold, and getting all kinds of expensive help. Next moment, BAM. Dragon comes roaring out of the mountain, people die, and the town is destroyed.

When they go to see what's up with the treasure, they find the people responsible for this (I would think that of them, anyway) holed up behind a wall, obviously being unfriendly.

I would have a very hard time negotiating with those dwarves in a friendly way. To many people in Lake Town, it must have seemed like the Dwarves were responsible for their ruin. Smaug had always been there, but the Dwarves stirred him up.
24. Dr. Thanatos

And where did Bard get that? The Master of the Town came up with that line to distract the angry villagers with their torches and pitchforks. Bard apparently bought this and incoporated it into his list of demands; as Thorin says putting his weakest claim last and in chiefest place.

Blaming the Dwarves for the disaster as a means of political distraction? Let's not start up the discussion of Dwarves=Jews again...
25. grantimatter
On ravens being "good," vs. crows :

Tolkien's playing off the British fondness for the ravens at the Tower of London, I think. They've even got a special magic - when they leave, the Tower will fall.

(Given that executions also happened there, I suppose they weren't all sweetness and light, though.)
26. pilgrimsoul
Also ravens are Odin's birds and involved in his foresight as I recall.

Gee, Dr. T. You knew mom, too?
27. Dr. Thanatos

Yes, I knew her. She so fat when she sat down the Valar got blamed for drowning Beleriand.
28. pilgrimsoul
Whereas your mamma is so voracious Ungoliant runs from her!
29. Dr. Thanatos

Whereas your mama so hapless Turin felt better every time he compared notes with her...
30. (still) Steve Morrison
Actually, for a flamewar we should argue crows vs. ravens; the difference between them is a matter of a pinion.
31. Dr. Thanatos

I'm retaining the Personal Injury Firm of Gothmog, Gothmog, Shelob, Angmar, and Gothmog (Injuring Persons Since The First Age) over that one...
32. Dr. Thanatos
And shouldn't a flamewar pit the Servants of the Secret Flame against the Wielders of the Dark Fire? By the way, don't those sound like team names from King of the Nerds?
33. grantimatter
a matter of a pinion

34. pilgrimsoul
@ all
Whereas your mamma flavors her Melkor with Nestle's Quick.
36. HelenS
Your mama's so dumb she sits on the palantír and watches the couch!
37. Dr. Thanatos
Your mama so dumb she thinks "Witchking" is how you decide between Fingon and Gil-Galad.

Your mama so lonely her two best friends are Smeagol.

Your mama so high-tech she tried to "friend" the Doors of Moria.

Your mama so smart she taught Gandalf everything he apparently learned between the end of The Hobbit and the beginning of The Fellowship.

Your mama so clueless she tried to give Luthien a makeover.

Your mama so tactless she offered to lend Beren a hand with the Silmaril.

Bazinga and off for the night!
39. Dr. Thanatos
No, Kate, you are. And the most tolerant!

Your re-read so good it's Re-read the White!
Tucker McKinnon
40. jazzfish
Something I inexplicably missed until a few years ago: the ravens' names,
Roäc and Cärc, are very clearly in the ravens' own language, and just transliterations of raven cries.
41. Dr. Thanatos

That never occurred to me. The umlauts always made me think that these were to be presumed to be Germanic/Teutonic names, linking them to the ravens of Odin. More JRRT linguistic wordplay...
Birgit F
42. birgit
The raven names soundling like the cries of ravens was always obvious to me. Maybe I'm not confused by umlauts because I'm used to them.
43. Nick. S
Yo mama is so ugly dwarves REFUSE to punder her booty... even before she shaved!
44. Dr. Thanatos
Your mama so sensitive to air quality she moved to Laketown just so she could issue daily Smaug alerts
45. Nick. S
Yo mama is so fat, Thorin began searching for her Arkenstone until Balin grabbed his ARM and whispered, "This is no cave"!
46. Dr. Thanatos
Your mama so desperate for love that she went to Dol Guldur looking for the Neck Romancer...
47. Robert672
"Roäc" doesn't contain an umlaut, it's a diaeresis used to show that the vowels aren't a diphthong.

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