Welcome back to the chapter-by-chapter reread of The Hobbit (and Happy Gregorian New Year). 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 (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 7, “Queer Lodgings,” the title of which demonstrates the continuing evolution of English, or possibly that Britain and the United States are two nations divided by a common language. Or both.
The eagles set the travelers down on “a great rock, almost a hill of stone.” Gandalf tells them that he needs to leave them soon, and means to bring them to see Beorn, who may help them all: he is “a very great person” but also easy to anger (which is to be avoided because he is sometimes a bear). When they arrive at Beorn’s home, Gandalf brings Bilbo with him and tells the rest to come in pairs at five-minute intervals, once he whistles.
Gandalf introduces himself to Beorn and slowly tells him the story of their goblin encounter, gradually increasing the number of people in the story and using the interruptions of the dwarves’ arrival to keep Beorn’s interest. When Gandalf’s story is done, Beorn feeds them supper (served by intelligent animals) and eventually leaves. The travelers sleep in the hall, though Bilbo wakes in the night hearing animal noises outside.
The dwarves and Bilbo spend the day by themselves. Gandalf returns that night and tells them that he had been following tracks from “a regular bears’ meeting outside here last night,” one set of which headed toward the pine-woods where they were rescued by the Eagles. Bilbo thinks that Beorn has betrayed them, but the next morning Beorn wakes them, “in a splendidly good humour”: he’d not only confirmed their story but killed the goblin and Warg that he’d forced the information out of. He outfits them with ponies, food, and water.
The travelers come to the edge of Mirkwood, send back the ponies (Beorn had been watching them, in bear form, partly to make sure they did), and very reluctantly bid farewell to Gandalf before entering Mirkwood, “the most dangerous part of all the journey.”
Waaaay back in the comments to Chapter 1, JohnnyMac passed on an observation of Tom Shippey’s that “Bilbo is a very respectable, Edwardian middle class gentleman of independent means who finds himself dropped into a saga adventure with a bunch of characters straight from the Elder Edda.” This observation was much on my mind when reading about Beorn, as I believe he is a close relation, mythologically speaking, to the berserkers of Old Norse literature. I haven’t read any of the source texts myself, so I hope those of you who have will chime in, but I felt very strongly that he has his own story, one quite different than the one we’re reading and only slightly overlapping it.
Partly it’s because, even though we’ve met trolls and goblins, a shape-shifter feels more magical to me. Or, perhaps magical isn’t quite the right word, because it’s so intrinsic to his nature—but that he’s sometimes human and sometimes not feels more significant to me somehow than the existence of nonhuman people. Partly it’s the outsized directness of his personality: he’s “never very polite,” his emotions are vivid, and he doesn’t hesitate to let people know how he’s feeling.
And, of course, it’s partly the stark and, I must presume, deliberate juxtaposition of his being “in a splendidly good humor” and telling them funny stories over breakfast, and then showing them the goblin’s head and warg-skin he’s nailed up outside his gate. To be clear, I’m not saying that he’s a bad person, but that he is clearly not operating under the same worldview as I am, or as the vast majority of Tolkien’s expected audience. (Also, though I think that based on my knowledge of Lord of the Rings, we might expect the dwarves to be in a similarly jolly mood under these circumstances, I’m not sure that we could draw that conclusion just from what we’ve read so far in The Hobbit.)
But even as the text highlights Beorn’s ferocity, it emphasizes that it’s not his defining characteristic. He goes on to be incredibly generous to the travelers—even as he quietly safeguards the animals he is devoted to. (He’s also vegetarian, unlike actual bears, if a hasty web search can be believed.) And this complexity, combined with the amount of energy he brings to the story, all leads me to the aforementioned feeling that he walked in out of his own story (undoubtedly being told in epic verse) and will be heading back there after his appearances in this book. Did other people have a similar feeling?
Also, the only thing I have to say about his animals is that even if there are videos and pictures on the Internet of dogs walking upright on their hind legs, the idea still just seems wrong to me. I have no idea why this is the thing that stands out to me; tell me about your reactions to the animals instead!
The other sometimes-helpful, sometimes-cranky character central to this chapter is Gandalf. I have to wonder how often he’s used this ploy of gradually sending large groups of people to potentially-unwilling hosts. He used Bilbo’s manners against him, and Beorn’s interest in a good story (and hatred for goblins). I’m not sure what other common motives there are for not kicking out unexpected guests, but it amuses me to think of Gandalf perfecting this technique down the long years—getting kicked out of taverns in the early days, having friends roll their eyes when he practices on them again, that kind of thing. Or possibly it’s the head cold talking.
At any rate. Very little of Bilbo in this chapter: he doesn’t understand Beorn in the least, he has sharp eyes, and that’s about it. Lots of stuff about the dangers of Mirkwood, which I’m leaving for next time (feel free to comment on anything about that topic that you like, however). The first mention of the Battle of the Five Armies, at the Eagles’ departure. More dwarf singing, which seems to be part of the song in Chapter 1? (Gandalf’s smoke rings are another callback, as they again prepare to begin a significant stage of their journey.)
And, of course, the regular tallies. I have nothing to add to the dwarf characteristics, but I’m going to start carrying over the whole list just so I don’t have to keep looking back for it:
- Dori and Nori “shared the hobbit’s views about regular meals, plenty and often.” (Chapter 2)
- Oin and Gloin are “specially good at” making fire. (Chapter 2)
- Balin “was always their look-out man.” (Chapter 2)
- Fili and Kili “had very sharp eyes” and are “the youngest of the dwarves by some fifty years.” (Chapter 4)
- Dori is “a decent fellow.” (Chapter 4, 6)
- Bombur is “fat.” (Chapter 4, 6)
Did this chapter contain a reference to Bilbo thinking wistfully of his hobbit-hole? Yes (6/6), in the opening paragraph: “The next morning Bilbo woke up with the early sun in his eyes. He jumped up to look at the time and to go and put his kettle on—and found he was not home at all. So he sat down and wished in vain for a wash and a brush.”
Full-out horror show next time, y’all. 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.