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 (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 8, “Flies and Spiders,” in which there are the creeping horrors (and much else besides).
The dwarves and Bilbo enter Mirkwood and find it a dark, still, eerie place full of unseen animals and thick dark cobwebs. At the enchanted stream that Beorn had warned them about, they cross by snagging a boat from the other side (thanks to Bilbo’s sharp eyes), but a deer comes and knocks Bombur in. When the dwarves rescue him, he is fast asleep and will not wake.
Carrying Bombur, they walk for several more days and come to a lighter area of the forest, but are disquieted by singing and laughing in the distance. They send Bilbo to climb a tree and look around; Bilbo correctly reports that there is no end in sight, but does not realize the landscape was deceptive.
The dwarves are only momentarily cheered when Bombur wakes up, because he dreamt about a feast with a woodland king and wants only to go back to sleep (the company is out of food). Just as he refuses to walk any further, they see light ahead. After much argument, they all leave the path and find a clearing with elves feasting. They rush in to beg for food, but “[n]o sooner had they first stepped into the clearing than all the lights went out as if by magic.” After finding each other in the dark, they see and try to enter clearings with feasts twice more, first sending Bilbo and then Thorin, but with the same result each time.
After the third time, Bilbo can’t find anyone else and decides to wait until daylight to look again. He wakes from a doze to find a giant spider tying him up. In a desperate fight, he kills it with his sword, and “felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach.” He names the sword Sting and goes looking for the dwarves.
Thanks to a lucky guess, he finds the dwarves and their spider captors. Seeing that a spider is about to kill Bombur, Bilbo throws stones at them, to deadly effect. Hidden by his ring, he taunts the spiders with a song and draws them away. After he begins freeing dwarves, there is a fierce battle, and Bilbo is eventually forced to reveal the ring to the dwarves so that he can draw the spiders away again. The dwarves break out of the spiders’ circle of webs, and thanks to Bilbo’s return with Sting, eventually escape. They rest near an elf-ring but get a nasty shock when they realize that Thorin is not with them.
Thorin had been struck unconscious by the magic of the elf-ring and stayed asleep even through the dwarves and Bilbo battling the spiders, after which the Wood-elves had taken him away. The dwarves and elves had a history of disputes over treasure, so Thorin refused to tell the king their business and the king imprisoned him until he told the truth.
I remembered the creepiness of this chapter, but I didn’t remember or previously recognize three other things: the way it’s also a trip into Faerie; just how big a change it is for Bilbo; and how Thorin being missing is right out in the open the whole time. I’m going to take these in reverse order.
First, the text is quite clear the whole time that Bilbo is rescuing the dwarves that there’s only twelve of them. For instance, when he first comes upon the spiders, it says flat-out that there are “a dozen bundles hanging in a row from a high branch.” But I didn’t notice until my second read of the chapter for this project—the first time, I didn’t register the specificity of that description, and I never bothered to count up the dwarves the rest of the chapter. What about you all? Have you ever bounced up and down on the edge of your seats saying “But what about Thorin?!” I imagine Tolkien was hoping to reward attentive readers or listeners with some extra suspense—well, I don’t know if reward is the right word there. Some people might find it so, while others might find mentally yelling at the rest of the characters too tiring. What did you all experience?
Second, the big change for Bilbo. As a preliminary note, let me just say that I’ve decided to err on the side of caution and take movie comments to my movie post; please do the same. But look at Bilbo in this chapter! He kills multiple spiders, takes the horribly risky and dangerous step of taunting the spiders to get them to chase him—not once but twice—and by the end is holding off the spiders nearly single-handedly in a running battle. I’m not criticizing this change—it seems quite plausible to me, when you consider the confidence-boosting effect of successfully defending his own life all by himself, having to take the responsibility because no-one else can (he’s not shirked responsibility before, though he hasn’t had the opportunity to exercise it, such as when he decided to go back into the goblin tunnels to look for the rest), and fighting non-human and really nasty creatures (who have little experience of swords—I suppose the elves fight them from a distance with arrows). But it’s very marked and very impressive. Go Bilbo!
Third, the trip into Faerie. I’d remembered there was something about elves in this chapter, but mostly my recollection was EEK SPIDERS, so it was very vague. But I had not remembered, or probably even recognized, the way that it’s a classic trip into Faerie of the kind you find in ballads, much more so than Rivendell (here or in Lord of the Rings, and maybe even more so than Lothlorien). I’m not sure if the enchanted stream is a common feature of Faerie in ballads and so forth; my first association is Lethe, but regardless a deer seems a very Faerie-ish kind of guardian. (The Annotated Hobbit says that enchanted streams are common to Celtic myth but cites a Saint’s life as evidence.) Then there’s the hunt for the white deer, and the beautiful but eerie laughing and singing in the distance, and the tempting travelers off the path (I presume, by the way, that it’s the Elves that keep the path clear?) only to vanish, and the faerie rings, and the use of unnaturally-long enchanted sleep. Did I miss any?
I have to say here that I think Beorn and Gandalf did poorly by the company in not telling them about the elves. The narrator says, “Yet if they had known more about it and considered the meaning of the hunt and the white deer that had appeared upon their path, they would have known that they were at last drawing toward the eastern edge.” Well, and whose fault is it that they didn’t know more about it? I realize that in some ways, this whole chapter is an exercise in waiting for the firing of the gun on the mantelpiece that is Gandalf’s last words, “DON’T LEAVE THE PATH!”, but still, it’s vexing when that tension is created artificially.
The last major thing about this chapter is, of course, EEK. Not just the spiders—I actually find them less upsetting when they’re out in the open, probably because after a certain size they no longer read as bugs to my subconscious (yes, I know they’re not technically insects, it’s a catch-all term). It’s the whole atmosphere early on, especially this paragraph about the nights:
The nights were the worst. It then became pitch-dark—not what you call pitch-dark, but really pitch: so black that you really could see nothing. Bilbo tried flapping his hand in front of his nose, but he could not see it at all. Well, perhaps it is not true to say that they could see nothing: they could see eyes. They slept all closely huddled together, and took it in turns to watch; and when it was Bilbo’s turn he would see gleams in the darkness round them, and sometimes pairs of yellow or red or green eyes would stare at him from a little distance, and then slowly fade and disappear and slowly shine out again in another place. And sometimes they would gleam down from the branches just above him; and that was most terrifying. But the eyes that he liked the least were horrible pale bulbous sort of eyes. “Insect eyes,” he thought, “not animal eyes, only they are much too big.”
Oh, and then there’s the delightful bit about the “thousands of dark-grey and black moths, some nearly as big as your hand,” that their fires would attract. I always found that part of John Bellairs’ wonderful, scary book The Face in the Frost (now available as an ebook as well as part of a NESFA collection, go read it!) particularly upsetting, whether it’s a homage or a common inspiration. Gah.
And now for some smaller comments:
There’s a little resonance with the trip into the Old Forest in Fellowship, which is also entered through a tunnel. But the Old Forest, being less dangerous, has a hobbit-made tunnel through a hedge, while Mirkwood has “a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves.”
Multiple instances of Bilbo’s luck in this chapter: he woke before the spider finished wrapping him up; he picked the right direction to look for the dwarves after; the spiders didn’t fully close the ring around him when he was first taunting them with song; and a spider had left hanging down a rope to the branch with the dwarves. That is quite a lot of luck in a very short space of time.
The spiders talk and this doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve given up trying to figure out why my subconscious cares when some animals talk and not others in this book.
(Well, okay, the conversation is rather similar to the trolls’, so maybe my subconscious thinks there’s precedent. And now that I think of it, the two situations do make interesting contrasts.)
Bilbo’s song: According to The Annotated Hobbit, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “tomnoddy” as “a foolish or stupid person,” while “attercop” is derived from the Middle English word for spider.
The ancient dispute between the dwarves and the elves regarding treasure and, possibly, payment for work done: this is likely a reference to the Nauglamír, a necklace made by the Dwarves for Finrod, one of the great amoung the Elves. It’s tangentially linked to many major events of the First Age (I lost so much time chasing it backward through The Silmarillion before deciding there was too much to even sum up), but as relevant here, after Beren and Lúthien recover a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth, Thingol has the Dwarves set that Silmaril in the necklace, which leads to war and “The Ruin of Doriath” (Chapter 22 of The Silmarillion). In that telling, the principal blame belongs to the dwarves, but Thingol doesn’t help matters. (Gosh, The Silmarillion is so beautiful and so depressing.)
Speaking of elvish history, to my surprise The Annotated Hobbit reports that this chapter was revised in the 1966 third edition—that is, after the edition that rewrote “Riddles in the Dark”—to make the history of the Elves consistent with Tolkien’s later idea that Middle-earth always had a sun and moon. I’m on record as thinking this was a horrible idea, so I’m just glad it was a small passing change.
Finally, this paragraph also says that the Mirkwood elves “neither mined nor worked metals or jewels, nor did they bother much with trade or with tilling the earth.” So are they hunter-gatherers exclusively, then?
A preface to the dwarf characteristics catalog: Chad and I were talking about the last chapter, and he pointed out that the culture-clash isn’t as bad as it could be with regard to the dwarves (in contrast to Beorn), because often Thorin sounds more like a banker than a warrior out of Norse legend. This is a good point—I’ve been neglecting Thorin a bit because I have a hard time getting a handle on his character, but we are told, way back in Chapter 1, that Thorin is long-winded and self-important (“would probably have gone on like this until he was out of breath, without telling any one there anything that was not known already.”) What else do we know? He’s proud (but not too proud to beg for food); he’s perfectly willing (sometimes eager) to delegate—though this is true of all the dwarves, given the way they shove Bilbo into danger all the time; he showed good judgment in being ready for the appearance of a guardian of the enchanted stream; and when Bombur is being childish he says things like “We are quite annoyed enough with you as it is.” The dwarves generally talk like that; both Edwardian Bilbo and they use “confusticate,” for instance.
So, let’s do this:
- Thorin: long-winded and self-important (Chapter 1). Good with a bow and perceiving the possible need for it (Chapter 8). Capable of stubbornness when he perceives his treasure being threatened (Chapter 8).
- Dori and Nori “shared the hobbit’s views about regular meals, plenty and often.” (Chapter 2)
- Dori is “a decent fellow” (Chapter 4, 6) and the strongest (Chapter 8).
- 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), though of the two, Fili is apparently the youngest and has the sharpest eyes (Chapter 8).
- Bombur is “fat.” (Chapter 4, 6)
Does Bilbo think wistfully of his home in this chapter? Yes (7/7), when he can’t find the dwarves after the third attempt to enter the elves’ circle.
More Elves next time. 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.