Mar 28 2013 12:00pm

The Hobbit Reread: Chapter 18, “The Return Journey”

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 the penultimate chapter, “The Return Journey,” which covers more than that title suggests.


What Happens

Still feeling the effects of the blow to his head, Bilbo returns to consciousness on a quiet post-battle field. After he takes his ring off, a searcher brings him to Dale, where a dying Thorin apologizes to him. Bilbo grieves while the narrator describes the end of the battle: the Eagles killed or drove off the goblins on the Mountain, but the defenders were still outnumbered and losing until Beorn arrived out of nowhere in bear-shape to turn the tide.

Thorin is buried under the Mountain with the Arkenstone upon his breast and Orcist (returned by the Elvenking) on his tomb; Fili and Kili are also buried. Dain becomes King under the Mountain and gives Bard the fourteenth share of the hoard as agreed. Bard shares this treasure generously with the Master of Lake-town and his friends, including the Elvenking and Bilbo—at least he would, except that Bilbo refuses to take more than one small chest of silver and one of gold.

Bilbo says farewell to the dwarves, with mutual promises of welcome should the other visit. He travels with the elves, Gandalf, and Beorn as far as Mirkwood, where the elves return home, again with gifts and words of friendship. Though Bilbo still “had many hardships and adventures before he got back” home, “he was never in great danger again.” He and Gandalf stay with Beorn (who later becomes a great chieftain and sires a line of shapeshifters) until the spring. The chapter ends with Gandalf and Bilbo at the pass in the Misty Mountains where the goblins captured them; Bilbo looks toward Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain and then “turn[s] his back on his adventure.”



So what does everyone think of the decision to skip the end of the battle? I’m guessing this was to soften the deaths for young listeners: rather than real-time descriptions of Thorin “fall[ing] pierced with spears” and Fili and Kili “defending him with shield and body,” we’re told a minimalist version of events after the fact. Also, I suspect Beorn fighting in bear form might be fairly scary? I don’t remember being particularly upset by this chapter, but it’s been a long time; I’ll be running this experiment relatively soon, of course, but for now, what experiences did you all have, either in your own reactions or those of kids you were reading to/with?

I do find Thorin’s deathbed farewell emotionally affecting and remember doing so as a kid. On this read I was surprised that I found ambiguous his initial statement of why he was forgiving Bilbo: “Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friendship from you, and I would take back my words and deeds at the Gate.” Fortunately, I think his later statement—“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”—clarifies that he meant “Here on my deathbed I see things more clearly and comprehend that friendship is more important that wealth.” Which is good, because “I apologize because it doesn’t matter what happens to my treasure now that I’m dead” is a shitty apology.

So Thorin is redeemed, though still dead. As I’ve said in the context of the movie, he reminds me of Boromir in this regard—so, though I may be leaning on the thematic resonance beyond what it can bear, I have decided to regard his charge out of the Gate as heroic and the start of his redemption, not self-interested. Your mileage may vary.

And then there’s all the wrapping-up stuff. In the context of dwarves and greed, there’s an unfortunate line about the choices of Thorin’s companions: “The others remained with Dain; for Dain dealt his treasure well.” There are a lot of other reasons that they might chose to stay under the Mountain, after all. But on the whole the dwarves, like everyone else, come out well in the wrap-up: Dain “honour[s] the agreement of the dead” in giving up a share of the treasure, and the surviving companions are openly emotional at parting from Bilbo. As the summary says, everywhere there is gifts and forgiveness; of particular note are the Elvenking’s return of Orcrist, and Bilbo’s gift of a necklace to the Elvenking as “er, some little return…for your, er, hospitality,” which the Elvenking accepts, naming him elf-friend.

We’ve mentioned before, whether in posts or comments I cannot recall, how odd it is to imagine Beorn as a chief of men and the father of a line of shapeshifters. I don’t know what makes my brain glitch more, him voluntarily assuming a leadership role (you have to regularly talk to lots of people!) or living with another human. At least his presumed wife must have had a spine of steel, since he wouldn’t put up with wishy-washy or fluttery types, right?

Two small notes to wrap up:

I though that the reference to Yuletide was a sign that Tolkien hadn’t worked out Middle-earth’s calendars fully yet and was leaning instead on ours, but not necessarily: Appendix D to The Lord of the Rings says that the Shire used “Yuledays” as one way of compensating for all of their months having thirty days, and the first and last months of the year are “Afteryule” and “Foreyule,” respectively. (I find that Appendix entirely mind-numbing, so I’m not surprised that I forgot this.)

In a nice bit of characterization, Bilbo shows signs of his own tendency towards proverbs when he says, at the very end of the chapter, “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending!”

And in this chapter he thinks wistfully of home (12/17); indeed, he “wish[es] now only to be in my own armchair!”

Home next time, though not quite as he left it, in the book’s last chapter. 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.

There and Back Again... Again: The Hobbit Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Thomas Thatcher
1. StrongDreams
"Yule" was an ancient germanic mid-winter festival long before it was Christian, and since Middle-Earth in general is an extrapolation of germanic myths to earlier times (now long forgotten), then Yule days fit right in.

In the Hobbit calendar, the 5 days that occur outside the fixed 30-day months are 1 Yule and 2 Yule (winter solstice) and 1 Lithe, Mid-year's day, and 2 Lithe (around the summer solstice), with overlithe as the extra odd day in leap years. 1 Lithe was always Friday and 2 Lithe was always Saturday (Mid-year's day and overlithe have no day of the week) so mid-summer was basically a 3-4 day long party.
2. Lsana
I saw the cartoon before reading the book, so I was expecting Thorin's death and wasn't particularly upset by it. I was, however, really sad about the deaths of Fili and Kili; while I know they were in their 80s or something, of all the characters, they seemed to be the closest to kids, so I kind of identified with them as I was reading. I was rather disappointed that the other dwarves didn't seem to care as much about them as I did.

I didn't mind missing the battle; in books, battles tend to bore me, and I skip over them to get to the "good parts": people standing around and talking about the consequences of the battle.

One small thing that bothered me was the fact that they buried the Arkenstone with Thorin. I thought it should have been kept as a treasure of the Kingdom Under the Mountain for the dwarves and all their visitors to see.I'm not sure if the fact that I'm upset by that means that I missed the point of the conflict, but the Arkenstone wasn't the cause of the war, Thorin himself pointed out that he can't take it with him, and I don't see why that beauty ought to be lost to the world.
Kit Case
3. wiredog
his presumed wife must have had a spine of steel,
In LoTR it's said that the Eorlings came from that region, and Eowyn was certainly possessed of a steel spine.
4. Dr. Thanatos
I think that it worked better for Bilbo to have missed the big mythic parts of the battle: Bolg! Beorn! Clash of Titans! He is a little guy who has always seen the big events from a distance and not being part of the big finish keeps him more of a relatable character.

I was always a little miffed that we got nothing of travel around the north end of Mirkwood, passing by the Grey Wastes and Mount Gundabad (which turns out to be very important in Dwarf history) but it wouldn't have been that pertinent to the story.

The entombing of the Arkenstone with Thorin I think reflects what JRRT was thinking about certain other Big Jewels that he was writing about at the time. Not that I want to go there again but it's another parallel...

The transformation of Beorn from a loner who spends all his time with cute animals to a leader and dynastic founder is jarring, but it doesn't really get in your face in this book as much as the discussion of the Beornings in LOTR so it doesn't have the same impact except in retrospect.

Was I disappointed that the direct line of Durin ended here? A little but that's the nature of stories.

And a last bit of irony? Bilbo was never in great danger again? JRRT must have chuckled about that when writing about Black Riders searching throughout the West for Baggins...

Next time: Elvish Idol Season 2 and Hobbits finally get their own song. And The Coming of Lobelia!
5. a1ay
One small thing that bothered me was the fact that they buried the
Arkenstone with Thorin. I thought it should have been kept as a treasure of the Kingdom Under the Mountain for the dwarves and all their visitors to see.

I thought the same thing about Orcrist until I read LotR and realised that Thorin's tomb, like Balin's, wouldn't be a hole in the ground somewhere; it would be a big sarcophagus right in the middle of the room, and the sword would effectively be on display. (And acting as a permanent early warning signal of goblins...)

In LoTR it's said that the Eorlings came from that region, and Eowyn was certainly possessed of a steel spine.

Fanfic alert!
David Levinson
6. DemetriosX
I suppose it was the nature of the book as "children's literature" that kept us from seeing the really big parts of the battle. A bit more detail might have been nice for us older readers, but would have really raised the appropriate age for first time exposure. I'm sure Peter Jackson will give us a surfeit, with Thoring dying gloriously in slo-mo (rather like Boromir). And it will probably be Kili's death that affects us all the most.

With the arrival of Beorn and his allies, the Battle of the Five Armies ultimately proves to be misnamed. Four are obvious -- men, elves, dwarves, and goblins -- but then we have as candidates wargs, eagles, and Beorn et al. One could really argue any number from five to seven as correct.

Beorn founding a house and line could be the result of more Gandalfish manipulation. He seemed to enjoy the company of the dwarves and especially Bilbo. This might have awakened in him a desire for regular human (or at least bipedal) companionship, leading to him seeking and finding a wife. As a result, the road between Rivendell and Mirkwood was kept open and the number of orcs and wolves was kept down. That may have kept the Battle of Dale from being a complete loss, allowing the people of Dale to withdraw into Erebor until the fall of Sauron.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
7. Lisamarie
I felt the same way about the Arkenstone! And even though his tomb is a sarcophagus, the Arkenstone is still on his breast. I understand the symbolism of the whole thing, but it just seems like a bit of a waste of beauty. Perhaps it would prove too tempting?

I agree with Lsana @2, I also find battles a bit boring to read and even watch in movies. That being said, I AM looking forward to seeing how a lot of these 'behind the scenes' and after the fact moments are portrayed in the movie, although I do have a feeling PJ will go overboard with the battlescenes for my taste.
8. oliveramy
Lisamarie @7, seeing as how there will be three installments of The Hobbit, I think its a safe bet that the Battle will take up an entire movie, much like Helms Deep took over the second installment of LOTR.
The second movie, being named the Desolation of Smaug, you can bet we will see Mirkwood, Spiders, and the end of Smaug (as well as a lot of the Necromancer) leaving the Battle and return jurney for movie three.

I read the Hobbit for the first time back when the Fellowship came out in theaters. When I reread it this past year Thorin's, Fili and Kili's death struck me harder than I remember it struck the first time I read it. I don't know why. Maybe it was influenced this time by PJ's movie.

As far as the Arkenston and Orcrist being burried with Thorin: I'm ok with the Arkenstone but it seems a shame that Orcrist be lost to Middle Earth in such a way. Maybe if it was handed down to Balin he might have stood a better chance in Moria?
Jack Flynn
9. JackofMidworld
What's funny is that I totally remembered the ending being much more detailed, to the point that Beorn coming down and joining the fight is one of my most vivid memories of the whole book.

Hmmm. I wonder if the three-part movie adaptation is going to follow true to the book and skip through the big battle, too...*taps chin thoughtfully* ...meh, probably not, huh?
Andrew Timm
10. csurge
The Arkenstone being placed with his body is only fitting. It was mostly due to Thorin's actions that the re-taking of the Lonely Mountain came about. His quest set everything in motion, and Dain acknowledges that it is really Thorin who should have been king by leaving the Arkenstone in his keeping. It's a wonderful gesture. Dain in later years names his own son after Thorin, if I remember correctly. I would speculate that he felt slightly guilty about ending up on the throne instead of Thorin.

Bilbo won’t be knocked out in the movie. It was a cheap writers trick in the book, and won’t do at all for the big screen.
11. Dr. Thanatos

Eowyn with a spine of steel.

Wolverine crossover!!!!!
12. Lsana

I'm not certain you can really say that Durin's direct line ended here. Dain, after all, was a direct decendent of Durin. Given the tendency of dwarves not to marry, I suspect that this wasn't the first time that something like this happened, where the current leader died childless and the throne passed to his cousin. I know we didn't see anything like that (except for Thorin-Dain) in the Appendix of LoTR, but I definitely got the impression that that particular family tree had been greatly simplified, even beyon the obvious gaps in it.


The Arkenstone bothered me more, but I agree with you on Orcrist as well. It was meant to cleave goblins, not to serve as a decoration on a tomb.
Andrew Timm
13. csurge
Gestures aren't supposed to be logical. They are based purely on sentiment. The Elvenking leaving Orcrist in Thorin's keeping is even more symbolically significant than Dain's gesture. That an Elf-lord would do such a thing.... leaving such a famous and storied Elven-blade in the permanent keeping of a Dwarf signals that all is forgiven, and that no one else is worthy to wield the sword. These are merely objects after all, and both belonged to Thorin by rights anyway. With his direct heirs gone, they cannot be passed on to anyone else in good conscience.

I must say the image of Thorin resting peacefully with the Arkenstone glowing above his head and Orcrist in his grasp is one of the most beautiful in all Tolkien's works. No other king in the history of Middle-earth was laid to rest in such a fashion. In fact, I can't think of any other king in all fiction who has such a tomb. The final movie is going to be spectacular... and quite a tear jerker methinks.
14. pilgrimsoul
Even though I read LOTR first, I was still much shocked and amazed that Tolkien would kill off main characters like that in the Hobbit. Thorin's death was moving and perhaps thematically necessary. Tolkien, knowing Germanic customs, must also have felt that Fili and Kili had to die. I care a lot more now, she said shallowly, since I know how cute they both are.
alastair chadwin
15. a-j
An important part of my growing up came with this chapter. My mother was reading it to me and when it was revealed that Fili and Kili had been killed I reacted much like the child in The Princess Bride film and complained that you couldn't kill off goodies! I was especially upset because Fili and Kili were the dwarves I identified with the most. I still remember my mother's melancholy voice as she explained to me that in battles and war even goodies die. A desperately important life lesson!

On a more cheerful note, this chapter has probably my favourite bit of Tolkien dialogue:
"Good-bye and good luck, wherever you fare!" said Balin at last. "If ever you visit us again, when our halls are made fair once more, then the feast shall indeed be splendid!"
"If ever you are passing my way," said Bilbo, "don't wait to knock! Tea is at four; but any of you are welcome at any time!"
16. Ser Tom
Has anyone written any fan-fic covering Bilbo's "many hardships and adventures" on the way home?
17. Amaryllis
When I first read The Hobbit as child, I was also more upset about Fili and Kili than about Thorin. Maybe because I identified more with them as the youngest (and I was half-convinced that Kili was a girl, beard notwithstanding). Maybe because their deaths were passed over in one offhand line while Thorin gets his big farewell scene.

I didn't mind skipping the battle itself though. That's how I read the Patrick O'brien books, by skimming the sea battles in order to get to the next dinner or concert or exploring party or quarterdeck conversation-- the good stuff!

As for Dain and the Dwarfs and the treasure, I realize that Tolkien had more or less implied in other places that Dwarfs are particularly susceptible to the lure of gold. But that particular line didn't strike me that way: I took it as a saga-based reference to the way a king should behave. Like Hrothgar ging a whole heap of jewels and weapons to Beowulf after he kills Grendel:

The king himself wished to join the throng.
I do not know when a greater or finer force
Gathered round their tribe’s treasure-giver.
So, the high leader, guard of the heroes’ hoard,
Paid for Beowulf’s victory, in robust manner,
In weapons and treasure; so that he who wishes
To tell the truth can find fault with neither man.

What you wanted was a king who "dealt treasure wisely," neither hoarding it nor wasting it, but keeping it in circulation to the benefit of all.

The Men of Rohan seem to have thought in a similar manner, according to Eomer's words to Merry about "kings of old would have laden you with treasure for your deeds upon the field of Mundberg." But Merry isn't a saga-hero; he's a Shire gentleman whose wealth is in land in his home county, and he declines a wagon-load of treasure as unsuitable. Rather like Bilbo before him.
Kate Nepveu
18. katenepveu
Hi, all.

Those of you who think it's a shame that the Arkenstone is no longer accessible or visible to the public, you unquestionably have a point, but the romantic/mythic rightness of it being buried with Thorin has been so overwhelming to me since I was a kid that I can't regret it, myself.

a1ay @ #5, Orcrist is textually an early warning sign, and not just of goblins either!

DemetriosX @ #6, correcting you to be polite: Beorn comes alone. Also, I can't remember which one is Fili and which is one Kili, but then I can't remember which one is any of them except Balin.

JackofMidworld @ #9, that kind of thing happens to a lot of people, though it doesn't seem to be how my memory for books works.

Amaryllis @ #17, indeed, as dwarf women are apparently indistinguishable from dwarf men to outsiders, this presumably includes beards (as Pratchett, among others, has noted). As for the Aubrey-Maturin books, I tried skipping the battles and then I realized I couldn't figure out _who_ _won_, so I ended up listening in audiobook, where it was all much more comprehensible (Patrick Tull is amazing). Nice point about "wisely," too, thanks.
19. (still) Steve Morrison
Bilbo was originally discovered by an eagle, not a man, and the eagle turned out to be the same one who had carried him in Chapter 6. Also, Tolkien originally wrote that Bilbo spent Christmas in Beorn's house, but changed it to "yule-tide".

I agree with Amaryllis about the "dealt his treasure well" line. "Ring-giver" was a common kenning for "king" in Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry, and saying a king was generous with treasure was just a way of saying that he was a good king; it may have nothing to do with dwarvish greed.
Kate Nepveu
20. katenepveu
(still) Steve Morrison @ #19, I didn't put this in the post because I couldn't put my finger on it, but the man who finds Bilbo gave me the vaguest feeling of a similarity to Strider. For whatever that's worth.
21. JohnnyMac
Beorn's fighting in bear-shape at the Battle of Five Armies looks to be inspired by a passage in "Hrolf Kraki's Saga".

There, in the final battle King Hrolf is attacked by a vast host of enemies. The King and his champions assemble for battle but Bodhvar-Bjarki, mightiest of all the King's warriors, does not appear. The battle is going against the King when a great bear appears in front of his war band and attacks the enemy, scattering their ranks. Then Bodhvar-Bjarki's best friend, Hjalti, leaves the battle to find him. He goes to his house and finds him, apparently asleep, on his bed. Furious at this seeming cowardice, Hjalti shakes him awake and reproaches him. Bodhvar-Bjarki tells his friend that he has made a bad mistake. When he is wakened the great bear vanishes from the battle field. The enemy renews their attack. Bodhvar-Bjarki and Hjalti die together defending their King.

One difference (aside from the obvious one that Beorn wins his battle and goes on to found a dynasty) the bear in the saga seems to be a projection or spirit animal rather than, as with Beorn, the same person in a different shape.
22. JohnnyMac
On the question of why Bilbo missed the end of the battle, it occured to me just now that this might be, in part, a reflection of Tolkien's experience in WWI. He saw front line service, including the Battle of the Somme but was stricken with trench fever and spent the rest of the war in hospitals, on sick leave or in rear echelon assignments. Just a bit of speculation.
23. Bolg
I'd read a heavily-anglicized Beowulf long before I encountered The Hobbit, so much of this chapter wasn't any surprise to me. Eg, one of the central characters getting killed off - Beowulf fighting the dragon; two of the youngest getting killed off - Beowulf's hall-companion getting eaten by Grendel; etc. Plus of course I'd read a fair few Greek myths and legends, and the hero tends not to come out unscathed in those - nor his family either. Eg, Jason and the Golden Fleece and his family life, Theseus and his father and his family life, etc ...

Myself, I thought that it was more than likely that a likely lass turned up on Beorn's doorstep from the woodcutters who had made their way north - probably from Rohan, people who disagreed with their king's decisions a la the Norwegian settlement of Iceland following the forceable unification of Norway by Harald Fairhair.
Birgit F
24. birgit
The German translation has christmas. That doesn't fit in Middle Earth. Maybe the translator thought children wouldn't understand yule.
25. Gardner Dozois
Children today, used to movies, TV, and warlike computer games, would certainly not be freaked out by the Battle of the Five Armies, but standards were different in Tolkien's day, and he may have softened his description for fear that his publisher would find that level of graphically described violence unsuitable for a children's book--which they might well have. Mainly, though, I agree with Dr. Thanatos--Bilbo sees big events from the sidelines, not as a major player, and so it's appropriate that he's unconscious through most of the battle. I doubt that Jackson will be able to resist having him take part in the battle and skewering goblins with Sting, though.

I also didn't feel much grief at the passing of Kili and Fili, mostly because they are so little characterized on the page that you don't really get a clear picture of them at all--they're just a few of the gang of dwarves. Thorin is much more fully characterized. Nevertheless, a fuller paragraph describing their deaths might have been a good idea.

I really liked the passage where Bilbo looks back from the mountain pass across Mirkwood to the Lonely Mountain; it gives you a sort of nostalgia for events in the novel already passed, and the whole last part of the book, particularly this chapter, can be considered to be the journey out played in reverse, the "Back Again" part of "There and Back Again," and you feel a kind of nostalgia at every scene reincountered that you encountered on the way out. Tolkien uses much the same trick at the end of THE RETURN OF THE KING.
26. Gardner Dozois
Today is International Children's Book Day, by the way, which seems like an appropriate holiday for us to celebrate here in this thread.
27. (still) Steve Morrison
Re the identity of the "five armies": Rateliff reproduces a note in which Tolkien numbers them as follows:
1) woodelves,
2) dwarves,
3) eagles,
4) men,
5) bears—
6) goblins
7) wolves

The numbers are written above the first five names but below the last two. This note appears near the first occurrence of the phrase "Battle of Five Armies". So apparently only the good guys count as part of the five!
28. KingofFlames
I think Bilbo is unconscious for the battle because he's never been a fighter, and wouldn't be a match for orcs or wargs unless he went on an invisible killing spree, which would be very out of character for the combat shy protagonist, and wouldn't go unnoticed (someone would realise that there was somebody invisible on the battlefield.) While sittingin a safe place watching others die wouldn't work either. Pippin gets knocked out early at the battle of the black gate too, because while Hobbits are much stronger than they look, they can't really hold their own in toe to toe combat against born warriors
Kate Nepveu
29. katenepveu
(still) Steve Morrison @ #27, and yet the text says "So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called the Battle of Five Armies, and it was very terrible. Upon one side were the Goblins and the Wild Wolves, and upon the other were Elves and Men and Dwarves." So I always thought those were the five.

KingofFlames @ #28, Bilbo can fight when he needs to--running battle holding off spiders in Mirkwood!--but the odds were better then and this is really not his kind of fight. I hadn't thought about the problem of him sitting safe and watching others die for an extended period of time, though, good point.

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