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 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 6, “Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire”; I have checked three different editions and that title is correctly punctuated, so take it up with Tolkien and not me.
Bilbo is out from under the mountains (on the far side) but lost and alone. He has just decided that he must go back to look for his friends when he hears them nearby. He leaves the ring on and sneaks past Balin, overhearing Gandalf trying to convince the dwarves to go back and find Bilbo (without much success). Bilbo reveals himself and is “so pleased with their praise that he just chuckled inside and said nothing whatever about the ring,” even when he tells them the rest of the story.
They hurry away, skidding down a dangerous slope of fallen stones and into a pine forest. They continue through the forest as it gets dark, until they come to a clearing. There, they hear the howls of Wargs (evil wolves) gathering together and climb the trees.
The Wargs think that the travelers are spies from a nearby village that they had planned to raid with the goblins that night. They thus intend to keep the travelers in the trees until the goblins arrive. Gandalf, who understands the Wargs’ language, sets pine-cones ablaze with magical fire and throws them down, which causes great chaos.
Elsewhere, the Lord of the Eagles hears the noise and sees the Wargs and armed goblins approaching the clearing. Curious, he summons many other eagles and they slowly circle down.
Back at the clearing, the wolves had set the forest on fire inadvertently, but the goblins arrived and guided that fire to try to smoke or burn the travelers out. The goblins sing a taunting song; the trees catch fire; Gandalf is about to make a suicidal attack leap—but the Lord of the Eagles swoops down and takes him away.
Gandalf speaks with the Lord of the Eagles, who sends the rest of the eagles back to harry the attackers and to rescue the dwarves and Bilbo. They’re brought to the eagles’ eyries, promised transport off the Misty Mountains, and provided with food and a place to sleep.
This is a perfectly good chapter, yet it feels like a bit of a let-down. It’s possible that any chapter would be a let-down after “Riddles in the Dark.” It’s also possible that it’s because this is a return to passivity for Bilbo, who is literally swept away twice (down the rocky slope, by the Eagles; see our discussion in Chapter 2 about Bilbo being carried). In any event, for all the pyrotechnics, I did not love it.
There is a tiny bit of Bilbo’s growth early on, when he makes “up his mind that it was his duty, that he must turn back—and very miserable he felt about it,” just before he hears the dwarves. In contrast, no dwarf agrees with Gandalf that they have to go back for Bilbo, and an unnamed dwarf actively argues that they should leave Bilbo behind. Dori is the only named dwarf in this section; he is forced to deliver a very awkward “as you know Bob” exposition speech at Gandalf about how he dropped and lost Bilbo, but doesn’t take a position on going back. Bilbo doesn’t react to this, and the narration doesn’t make much of the dwarves’ willingness to leave him behind; I have a vague recollection that this will come up later, however.
I suppose Bilbo’s decision to not mention the ring might have been influenced by the little value the dwarves placed on him here, which is only reasonable, if you ask me. I also wonder if Bilbo’s instinct toward secrecy here shows his burglar nature?
(Speaking of burglar nature, I have to quote my friend Becca here:
So Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is a confirmed spoon thief, right?
As in . . . confirmed burglar?
All it would take is the dwarves going to a different Baggins door, guys. LOBELIA AND THE TWELVE DWARVES. Everyone needs to get cracking on this AU pronto.
(Lobelia Sackville-Baggins don’t play with riddle games, man. She just thwacks Gollum with her umbrella, takes the ring and sashays the hell out.)
I’d watch it, no question.
The meat of this chapter is of course the Warg and goblin attack. Here’s where the chapter title comes from:
“What shall we do, what shall we do!” [Bilbo] cried. “Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!” he said, and it became a proverb, though we now say “out of the frying-pan into the fire” in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.
Does that actually feel proverbial to anyone? It seems too literal to be successful. Also, as I implied in the intro, my American English idiom wants a comma after “frying-pan,” though not in Bilbo’s statement. (Despite the Oxford comma, I have the impression that British English has a lower density of commas and semi-colons than American English, though I freely admit my sample may be unrepresentative.)
I know that the Eagles in LotR have speech (Gandalf talks to Gwaihir the Windlord who rescues him from Orthanc) and that that fox thinks to itself in words, but for whatever reason, talking beasts still feel very jarring to me here. This comes up more with the Eagles, since Tolkien does not translate the Wargs’ dialogue, merely has Gandalf understand the gist of it. So the Wargs, unlike the goblins or the trolls, do not get additional characterization through their patterns of speech, only through the sound: it is a “dreadful clamour,” consisting of “growling and yelping”; Bilbo thinks that “it sounded terrible to him, and as if all their talk was about cruel and wicked things, as it was.” As for the Eagles’ speech, there isn’t a lot of it, but what there is formal and not particularly different from, say, Gandalf’s.
We also get more speech and song from the goblins, when they taunt the travelers in the trees. The impromptu song is very Tolkien, of course, and another sign that the goblins are much closer to the dwarves than the trolls, as we’ve discussed before.
Language-wise, this chapter has fewer spots where I said to myself, “ooh, that will be fun to read out loud.” The one that really stood out was the paragraph after Gandalf is swept away by the Lord of the Eagles, for the way the early sentences put their emphasis up-front (“Loud cried,” etc.), and for “yammered and gnashed,” “yelled and stamped”:
There was a howl of anger and surprise from the goblins. Loud cried the Lord of the Eagles, to whom Gandalf had now spoken. Back swept the great birds that were with him, and down they came like huge black shadows. The wolves yammered and gnashed their teeth; the goblins yelled and stamped with rage, and flung their heavy spears in the air in vain. Over them swooped the eagles; the dark rush of their beating wings smote them to the floor or drove them far away; their talons tore at goblin faces. Other birds flew to the tree-tops and seized the dwarves, who were scrambling up now as far as they ever dared to go.
Bilbo mentions his lost buttons again in describing his escape, and the narrator mentioned them at the chapter’s start. Out of curiosity, I searched back for “buttons,” and didn’t find any mention of Bilbo’s before the back-door where he loses them, so they only became a symbol in their loss.
We’d previously talked about giants, so I should note here that Gandalf says that he should “find a more or less decent giant to block” the goblins’ gate where they were attacked.
Dwarf characteristics: “Dori was really a decent fellow in spite of his grumbling,” which is the second time he’s been called “a decent fellow” (chapter 4). Also, brave, to hold steady and let Bilbo finish climbing up as wolves come into the clearing.
Did this chapter contain a reference to Bilbo thinking wistfully of his hobbit-hole? Yes, in his chapter-ending dream (5/5).
Beorn in the next chapter. Also, I’m planning to see the movie this weekend, so (1) I’d appreciate it if you’d continue to either white-text spoilers in comments here or leave them elsewhere and (2) I will be doing a reaction/book-comparison post; I’m not sure if that will be in lieu of next Thursday’s chapter post or in addition, which will probably depend in part on my ability to get things written during the Christmas bustle. In any event, see you next week.
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.