Welcome back to the chapter-by-chapter re-read of The Hobbit. You can find past posts at the reread index, or you can catch up with our previous re-read of The Lord of the Rings. As always, the discussion will contain spoilers for everything Tolkien (that is: The Hobbit, LotR, 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 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill,” which is probably titled that because “Over Mountain and Under Mountain” doesn’t sound right. (Which is good, because it saves Frodo from later taking the pseudonym “Mr Undermountain.”)
The travelers are climbing the cold arduous path through the Misty Mountains and shelter under a rock ledge for the night, but they are drenched in a severe thunderstorm (two, actually). Not only that, but “across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness.”
Fili and Kili are therefore sent to look for better shelter, and find a dry and apparently-empty cave. But Bilbo wakes from a nightmare to find that goblins have opened a passage in the back of the cave, stolen their ponies, and are about to pounce on them. His shout gives Gandalf enough warning to avoid capture, but the rest are taken before the Great Goblin, who orders their imprisonment and torture when he recognizes Thorin’s sword Orcrist.
Gandalf rescues them and kills the Great Goblin. They run from the goblins, but cannot stay ahead of them, so Gandalf and Thorin take a stand and drive the goblins back with their swords. The goblins respond by using stealth to sneak up on the party. One of them grabs Dori from behind; Bilbo falls off Dori’s shoulders, bumps his head, and “remembered nothing more.”
I have two principal reactions to this chapter. One is pretty obvious: woah, action! Cliffhanger!
The other is that this is the first time that I’ve really been excited to read the story aloud to SteelyKid when she’s ready. There are lot of lines that will be great fun, from the relatively sober one in the second paragraph—“It was a hard path and a dangerous path, a crooked way and a lonely and a long.”—to the delicious appearance of the goblins—“Out jumped the goblins, big goblins, great ugly-looking goblins, lots of goblins, before you could say rocks and blocks.” (Though admittedly this gets me thinking of Fox in Socks and then I have to go do something else until I lose the urge to talk about tweetle beetles.)
The thing I didn’t remember about this chapter is the stone-giants. They’re reasonably prominent, but they made no impression on me before now because, I think, they seem so much like a personification of the storm’s violence that I didn’t register them as separate things. Perhaps because of that, I still don’t have much of an opinion of them.
The thing I had to look up about this chapter was a bigger-scale map than the one included in the book, because I was trying to relate the journey here to that in LotR. It looks like Lorien is (or eventually was, once Tolkien wrote LotR) just to the south of what’s visible in the map linked above. Jo Walton, in her single reread post that I linked to last week in comments, notes “how reluctant Tolkien is to name anything here… and this from the master namer.” I’ll extend this to the lack of geographical specificity and discussion. All this chapter says about the path they take into the Misty Mountains is that it was “the right road to the right pass.” When you think about this in comparison to the debates over Caradhras in LotR, the difference between the two stories is really marked. Or, more simply: this chapter is called “Over Hill and Under Hill.” The relevant chapter in LotR is called “The Ring Goes South.”
To shift gears: Goblins. Some interesting comparisons here, both within this book and to LotR. First, the narration explicitly sets them up as the dark reflection of dwarves, saying that they “they can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble.” As such, they are given a level of technological sophistication that surprised me:
It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far.
I’m not sure I can support this impression, but I didn’t get the feeling that the orcs in LotR were responsible for any significant engineering.
The sophistication of the goblins in this book is carried through in their language (of course, because it’s Tolkien). They have an introductory song, like the dwarves and elves but unlike the trolls. Further, the Great Goblin is noticeably well-spoken (well, until he falls into a murderous rage, but isn’t that true for most of us?): his first line is, “Who are these miserable persons?” and his questioning of Thorin involves threats of “something particularly uncomfortable.” Even the nameless goblins who caught the travelers say things like “sheltering” and “He is a liar, O truly tremendous one!” Very different from the trolls, and also from the orcs’ language in LotR. Those of you who delight in construing in-universe explanations for such things, knock yourselves out; I’m personally happy to leave it as an example of how much Tolkien’s worldbuilding changed, and also of the different kinds of stories he was telling.
- Bilbo gains burglar XP by noticing the passage at the back of the cave opening in his sleep, but otherwise this chapter is constantly calling him “little Bilbo,” emphasizing how ineffective and unimportant he is. If I’m remembering correctly, either this chapter or the next is his low point in this regard.
- Startlingly, Gandalf is referred to as lighting up his “wand” on several occasions in this chapter, “as he did that day in Bilbo’s dining-room.” After a scramble to the search function of my ebook reader, I confirmed that Gandalf is said to have lit up his staff in Bilbo’s house, which is good because my mental image simply does not extend to Gandalf wielding something smaller than a staff (or Glamdring).
- Speaking of which: I couldn’t remember last time if Orcrist and Glamdring also glow. I am answered in this chapter: Glamdring “burned with a rage that made it gleam if goblins were about; now it was bright as blue flame for delight in the killing of the great lord of the cave.” That suggestion of sentience reminds me a little too much of Turin’s creepy sword Gurthang….
And now, our running catalogs.
- Fili and Kili “had very sharp eyes” and are “the youngest of the dwarves by some fifty years.”
- Dori is “a decent fellow.”
- Bombur is “fat.”
Did this chapter contain a reference to Bilbo thinking wistfully of his hobbit-hole, not for the last time? Yes (3/3).
Next time: riddles in the dark. 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.