Mar 21 2013 12:00pm

The Hobbit Reread: Chapter 17, “The Clouds Burst”

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 17, “The Clouds Burst,” which contains many things indeed (though not, as far as I can tell, any rain).


What Happens

Bard, the Elvenking, and a disguised Gandalf come to Thorin and ask him if he would give any gold for the Arkenstone. Thorin is amazed and furious; when Bilbo admits that he gave the Arkenstone to them, Gandalf has to stop Thorin from throwing Bilbo bodily over the wall. Thorin claims he will arrange for delivery of a fourteenth of the hoard as Bilbo’s share and sends Bilbo away. Bard promises to return the next day.

Dain and his company arrive first. Bard wishes to attack them immediately, but the Elvenking recommends a delay, hoping for reconciliation. Dain’s forces attack suddenly, but Gandalf stops the impending battle by declaring that an army of goblins and wargs is approaching.

The dwarves, elves, and humans immediately join forces. Their hasty plan is to lure the goblins into the valley between the spurs of the Mountain. This works initially, but then goblins attack the spurs from above, having climbed the other side of the Mountain. As sunset approaches, the combined forces are slowly being driven back.

Then Thorin and company leap out and attack the goblins and wargs unexpectedly, again with initial success as they gather others to them. But soon they are surrounded in the valley as attacks elsewhere are renewed. Bilbo, watching invisibly, is expecting the goblins and warg to win very soon when suddenly against the sunset he sees the Eagles “coming down the wind, line after line, in such a host as must have gathered from all the eyries of the North.” He cries out that the Eagles are coming, but then a rock strikes his helmet “and he fell with a crash and knew no more.”



For all the many things in this chapter, I admit that my principal reaction when I finished it on my initial reread for this project was, “Cutting it a little fine there, weren’t you, Gandalf?”

Yes, the narrator says that Gandalf “had not expected this sudden assault,” but he tells the others that it “has come more swiftly than I guessed,” and knows who is leading the attack. (It’s interesting the way the narrator resolutely refuses to claim knowledge of Gandalf’s thoughts, saying things like “How much Gandalf knew cannot be said.”) So since he knew that goblins and wargs were on their way, you would think he might want to tell them earlier and suggest that they should wait on fighting each other lest they do all the goblins’ work for them, yeah? As it is, Gandalf’s “jump in front of charging dwarves” solution is very dramatic but not very sensible.

Moving back to the start of the chapter, I again thought Gandalf’s actions were suboptimal. Yes, he was able to keep Thorin from throwing Bilbo over the wall, but what if Thorin’s first reaction had been to stab Bilbo in the neck? Hard for even magic to deal with that. One possibly better option would have been for Gandalf to do the talking from the start. He might have had a better chance at snapping Thorin out of it—he certainly couldn’t do worse than Bard, who backs Thorin into a corner when he asks, “Is there then nothing for which you would yield any of your gold?”, before revealing the Arkenstone, and then fuels Thorin’s anger by not answering Thorin’s question about how they got the Arkenstone. Of course, Gandalf seems to be acting in agreement with Bard, holding up the Arkenstone right on cue, so maybe he wouldn’t have been a better choice.

I’m interested that Bilbo, like the rest of the characters, doesn’t bother with “uh, I was trying to stop you from causing a war, Thorin” as his explanation. Instead, he relies on Thorin’s statement about choosing his own share and his past service:

Descendant of rats, indeed! Is this all the service of you and your family that I was promised, Thorin? Take it that I have disposed of my share as I wished, and let it go at that!

Almost certainly, it wouldn’t have jolted Thorin to his senses to realize that Bilbo was willing to risk his life and his profits to avoid the course Thorin was so set on, but I don’t know, I’d have liked someone to try (more explicitly than Gandalf’s belated comment that he was “not making a very splendid figure as King under the Mountain.”) I guess Bilbo was too offended personally to think of it, which is understandable. (Though he displays quite the gift for understatement when he calls Thorin’s murder attempt “all very uncomfortable”).

Finally for this confrontation, the narrator specifically cites “the bewilderment of the treasure” as the reason for Thorin planning to break the agreement, which is relevant to our past discussions. (Thorin’s anger, at least, is not shared by all his companions: “More than one of the dwarves in their hearts felt shame and pity at [Bilbo’s] going.”) Later, when Dain’s dwarves attack without warning, the narrator says that they were motivated both by the opportunity to catch their opponents off-guard and the “knowledge that the Arkenstone was in the hands of the besiegers.” Finally for the motivations roundup, before the dwarves attack, the Elvenking tells Bard, “Long will I tarry, ere I begin this war for gold.” This is good to hear considering that I’d been a bit unclear how far the Elvenking would take his desire for shiny things. (Apparently he has learned from previously starting a war over gold, at least in the backstory as it existed at the time of this book?)

Regarding the battle proper: this uses a lot of elements that Tolkien would later deploy in The Lord of the Rings: the unnatural darkness, the evil flying creatures (the bats make up in numbers and blood-sucking what they lack in causing mortal terror), the unexpected aid from ground forces, the pattern of strong reversals, the Eagles, and ending on a viewpoint character losing consciousness, which is described as seeing or knowing no more. (Did anyone fear that Bilbo had actually died at this point, the first time through?) It also has some great images, such the elves’ first charge against the goblins:

Their spears and swords shone in the gloom with a gleam of chill flame, so deadly was the wrath of the hands that held them. As soon as the host of their enemies was dense in the valley, they sent against it a shower of arrows, and each flickered as it fled as if with stinging fire.

The arrival of Thorin is another stirring high-fantasy moment. In terms of character development, I note that the battle portion of the chapter is entirely outside of his POV, and so I believe ultimately it is a matter of personal interpretation whether he was motivated here by selfless or selfish considerations. (I know he apologizes to Bilbo later, but dying does bring clarity, at least in this kind of story, anyway, so it’s not necessarily indicative of his motives in this chapter.)

About the goblins: the text merely says that Dain killed Azog at Moria and that Bolg is Azog’s son; it had previously mentioned that Azog killed Thorin’s grandfather, way back in Chapter 1. As far as I can tell, the interested reader has to check Appendix A to LotR to get the history there (or, at the time of publication and for some considerable time after, just guess). There’s also no hint that Sauron was behind the goblins’ decision to leave the Misty Mountains, avenge the death of the Great Goblin, and “win the dominion of the North”; from what I recall of LotR, such a link seems unlikely. Unfortunately, my grasp of tactics is not up to deciding what effect a goblin victory at the Battle of Five Armies would have had during the War of the Ring, compared to Smaug’s survival.

Finally for this chapter, Bilbo does not wish himself at home (11/16), merely “well out of it.”

Penultimate chapter next week, when we skip a good deal to begin “The Return Journey.” 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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David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
I suppose we could say that Gandalf's attempt to stay somewhat in the background is consistent with his role as an Istari. He hopes to be able to nudge people in the right direction, rather than openly leading them. I can't say it works very well. I'm not sure there's a single point in the entire book where negotiations between semi-hostile parties turn out well.

I don't think I worried that Bilbo was dead at the end of this chapter. He is, after all, the title character and hero. But reading LotR immediately after The Hobbit for the first time certainly lessened the impact of the "knew no more" phrase at a time where it was entirely likely somebody might have died. We talked about that at some point in the LotR reread, maybe with Pippin at the Black Gate. In any case, it's such an odd turn of phrase that it certainly stuck with me, and if Bilbo survived it, then so would Frodo or Pippin or whoever.

I think the brief mention of various goblins and dwarves killing each other was a sufficient back story for this. Certainly it's a bit deeper if you know all the stuff from the appendices, but it isn't necessary. Family feuds and revenge are familiar enough.

The consequences of a goblin victory at Erebor could have been very long reaching. There is mention of Bard's grandson(?) leading the forces who fought a large battle against an orc army at either the same time as Gladden Fields or the Black Gate. If the goblins had won here, that army would have been able to come south and the battle for Minas Tirith might have gone the other way, before Aragorn had a chance to show up with the Grey Company. A large hostile army moving down the Vale of the Anduin would also have been a real problem for the Fellowship trying to do the same thing.
2. Lsana
I'd forgotten about just how incompetent everyone is at diplomacy. Thorin is the one who gets nailed for it, but no one else is doing any better.


I believe it is Bard's grandson, along with Dain. The consequences of a goblin victory could have been even worse than you suggest. In the Unfinished Tales, Gandalf suggested that the northern route could have been used for an invasion of Rivendell. So, even assuming that the ring makes it out of this battle in the hands of the good guys, it won't stay that way long. Aragorn and the hobbits are making their way through the Wilderness, Frodo is wounded, the Nazgul are hot on their trail, they make it to Rivendell, only to find Bolg rather than Elrond. Is there any chance under those circumstances that the war doesn't end right there?
3. pilgrimsoul
History--real or feigned--is not a science, but one thing you can always count on is that the appearance of a common enemy will draw even the most hostile together.
So as nasty and tragic as the goblin attack was--I wonder if the Dwarves vs. Everybody that Thorin anticipated wouldn't have been much worse.
4. Dr. Thanatos
If we presuppose that Gandalf 2.0 has come back in time and substituted himself for his less competent predecessor we might see his waiting to spring the common enemy concept as a teaching point about commonality and shared values (who's the real enemy here?). This is the underlying mission of the wizards as explicitly stated in later writings: to cause the free peoples to unite against the Shadow and overcome their estrangement that was a primary weapon of the Enemy. Letting them see how close they came to handing things over to Bolg and his army of overfed Bolgers by killing each other and leaving an empty Mountain for the pickings must have been very instructive and in line with G's later strategy of constructing a Fellowship of snappish frenemies who learn to love each other.

I must also note a recurring acid-flashback to the 70's whenever I read this chapter of a bizarrely animated Rankin-Bass froglike creature misnamed "Bilbo" shouting "hey, it's a battle of three armies! Look, there's goblins, it's a battle of four armies! OMG they're riding wolves, it's a battle of five armies!" or words to that effect. Stuff of nightmares...
5. pilgrimsoul
Moreover, Thorin calling Bilbo "a descendent of rats" is low, unworthy, and uncalled for. So there.
6. KingofFlames
If Thorein had been motivated by selfish desires, he would have stayed in his fortress until the end of the battle rather that risk the goblins fighting their way into the mountain and claiming the treasure.
Steven Halter
7. stevenhalter
It did seem that Gandalf could have shared the info about the goblin army sooner than he did. So, yeah, cutting it a bit close is an accurate description.
8. Gardner Dozois
There might have been a more immediate consequence of the goblins winning. I assume that a goblin victory would probably mean that Bilbo gets killed. If the Ring becomes visible on his hand after his death--does anybody know if it would?--then some goblin would probably have picked it up on the battlefield as a spoil of war. And can anyone doubt that the Ring would have had a better chance of getting back to Sauron if it was in the hands of a goblin?

Also, a goblin victory would probably mean that Gandalf was killed too--he was wounded even as it was--and that would certainly have changed the balance of power in Middle-Earth. Even if Bilbo had somehow escaped from the battlefield and somehow made his way safely back to the Shire, taking the Ring with him, the subsequent events would have worked out very differently than they do in LOTR, the Fellowship wouldn't have been formed, the effort to take the Ring to Mount Doom wouldn't have been made, and the chances are that the Ring would have remained in Bilbo's house until Sauron finally tracked it down there. To say nothing of the rest of the ripple-effects that Gandalf not being there would have generated.
j p
9. sps49
Thorin couldn't afford to just wait in the Mountain; Dain would've likely thought that any spoils of battle would be his.

And if one can holler "Bolg(footnote) of the North is coming!" as they crest the f 'ing hill, then yes, uniting them in time for some basic fortifications would be nice.
Alan Brown
10. AlanBrown
Ah, the good old chapter-ends-when-the-hero-loses-consciousness cliche. Much beloved in pretty much every genre of literature. Almost as prevalent as the tale-starts-when-the-hero-awakens cliche.
Birgit F
11. birgit
When the next chapter is called "The Return Journey" it isn't very likely that the hero is dead.
12. Gardner Dozois
I dunno, he could come back from the dead. Gandalf did. Or he could reincarnate. I wonder what Bilbo would reincarnate as? A rabbit? A badger? Or he could come back as a ghost and float over the battlefield going "Woooo!!!!" at the survivors.
13. Gardner Dozois
The Army of the Dead that Aragon leads are ghosts, I suppose. Are there any other examples of ghosts in the LOTR? If so, I don't remember them. Seems odd when there are so many other kinds of supernatural creatures around.
14. (still) Steve Morrison
Well, when the next chapter is called "The Departure of Boromir", you can be pretty certain that Boromir is going to go back to Gondor; but you'd be wrong!
15. Dr. Thanatos
Ghost Bilbo! Rankin-Bass could give him the animated TV show treatment complete with Uncle Bullroarer and a cute girl hobbit ghost (closest he ever gets to a female hobbit unless you count his sublimated longing for the fair Lobelia).

Barrow-wights were spirits out of a far land. Maiar, or ghosts? Merry got the memories of a Cardolan prince who was in the process of getting croaked...makes you wonder about supernatural critters that live in tombs and people caught by them get the memories of dead dudes.
Kate Nepveu
16. katenepveu
Hi everyone.

Dr. Thanatos @ #4, now I'm imagining the Count from _Sesame Street_--One! One army! Two! Two armies!

pilgrimsoul @ #5, so there indeed! => Me, I would have accepted verbal abuse from Thorin as forgiveable, but attempted murder, not so much.

KingofFlames @ #6, that assumes that Thorin thought the dwarves, elves, and humans would win without his intervention--not a safe bet, given the way the chapter describes it.

sps49 @ #9, or, yes indeed, if Thorin sat safe inside while Dain fought his way to him, I should think Dain might have some Views on the proper disposition of the remaining treasure!

birgit @ #11, you are quite right, but not everyone will have noticed--I almost never look at chapter titles before I start a book (half the time I don't even while I'm reading).
Kate Nepveu
17. katenepveu
. . . and while I had the tab open, ghost!Bilbo showed up!

The Ringwraiths are close enough to ghosts for government work, it seems to me.
18. Dr. Thanatos
So what do people think? Were the Barrow-wights spirits out of elsewhere, like Balrogs, wargs, Shelob, and Sauron? Or were they the wraiths of Men, like the Dead or the Nazgul?
19. Gardner Dozois
I always assumed that the fact that Merry got the memories of a prince who was being killed meant that it was the TOMB of that prince, and maybe others, and that the barrow-wight was haunting it. I never thought that the barrow-wight WAS the ghost of the dead prince. I always thought that it was an evil creature who haunted the place for his own reasons, and although he's called a "wight," which would seem to mean he's a spirit or ghost of some sort, he also has a corporeal existence. Doesn't he get his hand cut off, and it's left behind, twitching? Not very ghostly.
Andrew Mason
20. AnotherAndrew
I think 'wight' in origin just means 'person' or 'being'; witness Chaucer's Knight, who never did wrong 'to any manner wight'. So 'barrow-wight' can just mean 'person of the barrows'. I suspect the modern fantasy use to mean 'ghost' or 'spirit' may derive from Tolkien - does anyone know of an earlier use in this sense?
21. pilgrimsoul
Re the Barrow with the Wights
Merry was festooned with the crown and various other accoutrements of the long-dead prince, which created the connection and the actual "Wight" of the Barrow was looking to add to its collection of souls, I guess. And Hobbits would do.
22. ofostlic
I don't think the possibility that Bilbo was dead would ever have occurred to me. That Just Doesn't Happen, especially in a children's book.

@AnotherAndrew: Wikipedia points to one previous use "Barrow-wight first recorded 1869 in Eirikr Magnusson and William Morris's translation of the Icelandic saga of Grettir the Strong."
23. Dr. Thanatos
I had never thought that the Wight was the Cardolan-Dude. But what was it? An unquiet spirit such as Morgoth stuck into the body of Glaurung? Bombadil said something on this topic about things stirring in a far land and then wights were in the barrows...

I also think about the concept that part of what happened in LOTR was that all supernatural players were removed from the game: by the end we have lost the High Elves, the Wizards, Shelob, the Balrog, Sauron, and the Nazgul; the Ents are stuck without reproductive endocrinologists and will eventually disappear as will the Dwarves; the Barrow-Wight that we met was banished. Nothing is left but Men and Wood-elves, who fade. Questions: what was the Barrow-Wight, and was there more than one?
24. (still) Steve Morrison
Bombadil said something on this topic about things stirring in a far land and then wights were in the barrows
According to Appendix A, I, iii, ‘It was at this time that an end came of the Dúnedain of Cardolan, and evil spirits out of Angmar and Rhudaur entered into the deserted mounds and dwelt there.’ And at one point in Unfinished Tales, Christopher Tolkien tells us:
In notes on the movements of the Black Riders at that time it is said that the Black Captain stayed there for some days, and the Barrow-wights were roused, and all things of evil spirit, hostile to Elves and Men, were on the watch with malice in the Old Forest and on the Barrow-downs
25. Thomas Cardew
My intreptation of the wight, which is admittedly mostly conjecture based on fantasy tropes that came AFTER Tolkien, was the wight was one of the evil spirits that came out of Angmar and dwelt in the tombs. It was trying to kill the hobbits so that the spirits from the tomb could inhabit their bodies. Thus Merry had the memories of one of the soldiers or captians.
26. Gardner Dozois
If I'm remembering my FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING correctly, the barrows existed first, the tombs of dead royalty, and then "a shadow fell over them" and they became haunted by barrow-wights. Not entirely sure what the wight was trying to do to the Hobbits; kill them in such a way that their spirits would be be trapped in the barrow forever, I guess, for the wight to brood over, along with their bones. It's also interesting to note that when Tom Bombadil dismisses the barrow-wight, there's a long trailing shriek, as if it's being expelled into some other realm.
27. Petar Belic
It's interesting viewing the first Hobbit movie in light of the deficiencies in motivation that the author cites above.

The depiction of the 'gold sickness' that the King Under the Mountain receives, much to Thorin's disgust - a scene which seems important in the movie, but not alluded to - as far as my hazy memory goes - in the book. It seems to be setting up Thorin to fall under a similar spell in the next/third movie. Certainly this will add to his motivation at the siege, rather than just his stubborn pride which seems his sole motivation at this point in the book.

The Arkenstone itself seems to have more of a focus in the movie as well, almost like an ersatz Ring for a plot point. I guess one must make allowances for the vagaries and tides of a movie, rather than the book.

I re-read this around a year ago to my 11 year old daughter. She was enthralled. I'm happy to see that some texts translate well over the generations!
28. Gardner Dozois
Today is National Tolkien Reading Day. So this is all appropriate.
29. oliveramy
Did anyone get to see the sneak peak of the Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson yesterday? The next movie looks epic but with some added characters (an Legolas!) I'm quite thrilled that Jackson is using the Apendicies to expand on the story.
That said and my PJ geeking over, I never thought Bilbo would die, even when I read it at age 15. Bilbo is the main character, no way he could die.
But it was helped by the fact that I was only turned onto the books through Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring so I knew he wasn't dead.
I have a feeling that the war in this chapter will take up an entire movie for PJ just like the Battle of Helms Deep.
30. Dr. Thanatos
Happy March 25th (Tolkien Reading Day). Recent podcast commented on JRRT making the day that Smeagol slipped on the Banana Peel of Doom and saving us all the same day as the traditional fixed date of Easter...
31. (still) Steve Morrison
Not too many interesting differences in the drafts this week. We are told, though, that Dain and his dwarves wore caps and shoes of iron; that probably explains why LotR calls him "Dain Ironfoot". The drafts also say that Bilbo was at Ravenhill when he saw the Eagles coming.

However, the early plot notes were very different. Originally Tolkien planned to have everything amicably settled between the dwarves, elves and lake-men when the latter accepted the Arkenstone as their share of the treasure, and Bilbo left for home with Thorin alive as King under the Mountain! There was already going to be an attack by goblins and wargs, but Bilbo, Gandalf, Beorn, the elves and the lake-men would have fought them off without the dwarves.
Kate Nepveu
32. katenepveu
(still) Steve Morrison @ #31, wow. Where was the attack going to be, on the way home or also at the Mountain?
33. (still) Steve Morrison
It's not really clear, from anything I can find. The plot notes were AFAICT just vague jottings.
34. grantimatter
This is way, way too late to matter, but @23 - on wights:

In contemporary neo-paganism (and I *think* this springs from old Nordic use) a "wight" is a spirit-of-place. Jotnar (usually translated as "giants") are big natural phenomena, like fire (Logi, who wins the eating contest against Thor) or whatnot. Wights are more localized, like that particular tree or this hill. Some of them are friendly with people, others not so much - just like one clearing might make a nice picnic spot, and another might have deadly adders crawling in it or quicksand or something.

In southern Europe, the same belief turns up as genius loci, the spirits-of-place there.

Other ghosts in Tolkien: The dead in the Dead Marshes, definitely. Both as the foxfire that leads travelers astray and as apparitions below the water. Creeepy.
Kate Nepveu
35. katenepveu
grantimatter, how did I forget the dead in the Dead Marshes?! Thanks.

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