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 Chapter 9, “Barrels Out of Bond,” which I would really, really like to see the Mythbusters tackle.
The night after the battle with the spiders, the dwarves are captured by the Wood-elves, but Bilbo escapes by using his ring. He follows them through a strong gate into the Wood-elves’ underground caverns, where the Elvenking tells the dwarves, “After all the disturbance you have made I have a right to know what brings you here.” When they refuse, he imprisons them individually until they “have learned sense and manners.”
Bilbo wanders the palace, lonely and scared, but manages to find out where all the dwarves are being kept—and discovers Thorin, whose presence the Elvenking had not mentioned. Thorin is cheered by the visit and has him tell the others to continue their silence while Bilbo looks for a way out.
Bilbo eventually learns of another way out of the caves, a stream that passes under part of the palace, on which empty barrels are floated back to Lake-town as part of the Wood-elves’ trade. Then the king’s butler and the chief of the guards fall asleep over wine, so that Bilbo is able to steal the guard’s keys. He frees the dwarves and brings them to the cellar. The dwarves reluctantly climb into the barrels and get packed and sealed in by Bilbo. More elves come in to move the barrels; they wake the butler and tell him some of the barrels are too heavy, but the butler is grumpy and doesn’t listen.
Bilbo, having forgotten to make a plan to get himself out, manages to grab the last barrel being thrown down through the trap-doors. He gets thoroughly wet before he is able to climb more or less on top of a barrel. In the night, the barrels come to ground on a bank of the river, where other elves gather them and rope them into a raft to continue to Lake-town. Bilbo has a cold but manages to steal some food and wine and evade pursuit. The next morning he climbs back on to the barrel-raft, which is sent downstream without further inspection: “They had escaped the dungeons of the king and were through the wood, but whether alive or dead still remains to be seen.”
I don’t have much to say about this chapter. Really, as I said above the fold, my main impression was that I would really like to see the Mythbusters try out this whole barrel-travel thing, both inside and outside. Suitably scaled, of course, and allowing for the changed circumstances of water leaking into Bilbo’s barrel, thus making it allegedly more stable. I think Adam and Jamie would want to take turns being Bilbo, and the build team would get stuffed in barrels, per their usual roles?
This chapter is mostly about Bilbo, who continues to be quick-thinking and resourceful, both in the moment by evading capture and then in the entire escape effort. Poor hobbit, I feel for his anxiety about “being depended on by everyone”—as I’ve said before, I’ve got an overdeveloped sense of responsibility; not only is it going to get me into trouble some day, but it often results in additional stress now.
The narrator says that the dwarves’ new trust of Bilbo was “Just what Gandalf had said would happen, you see. Perhaps that was part of his reason for going off and leaving them.” Perhaps, but if so, pretty tough love, especially given that he left them before Mirkwood, the most dangerous part of their journey; I prefer to think that it was solely his stated reasons of other business that motivated him.
Bilbo also remains lucky: when the butler and guard begin drinking, the narrator says, “Luck of an unusual kind was with Bilbo then. It must be potent wine to make a wood-elf drowsy; but this wine, it would seem, was the heady vintage of the great gardens of Dorwinion … [meant] for the king’s feasts only, and for smaller bowls not for the butler’s great flagons.” (The Annotated Hobbit says that Dorwinion is in the South in Tolkien’s early writings, though in Pauline Baynes’ Map of Middle-earth, which was complied with Tolkien’s assistance, it’s in the East.)
With regard to the escape, the narrator says,
It was just at this moment that Bilbo suddenly discovered the weak point in his plan. Most likely you saw it some time ago and have been laughing at him; but I don’t suppose you would have done half as well yourselves in his place.
I was so young when I first read this, I overlooked the problem just like I overlooked Thorin not being a spider captive last chapter. But I found it a touch odd that the narrator assumed the reader would be amused rather than worried; maybe it’s just the way I react to texts. How did you all feel, if you did spot it?
Finally for Bilbo, an interesting snippet of evolving morality:
He no longer thought twice about picking up a supper uninvited if he got the chance, he had been obliged to do it for so long, and he knew now only too well what it was to be really hungry, not merely politely interested in the dainties of a well-filled larder.
Insert Anatole France reference here.
Just a few things about the elves before the traditional end-of-post tallies:
There’s a nice detail about the Elvenking, when Bilbo first sees him: “On his head was a crown of berries and red leaves, for the autumn was come again. In the spring he wore a crown of woodland flowers.” This feels very Faerie to me, though as I live somewhere with four seasons, I was briefly distracted by wondering if he wore evergreen in the winter. Probably there isn’t winter in his domain, however (even if he didn’t live underground.)
Yes, if I were the Elvenking I’d want to know what the dwarves were doing too, but if I were mostly concerned about them riling up spiders I’d just kick them out of Mirkwood post-haste rather than waste resources on locking them up. But there is that old enmity to think of. (This is probably why I was so resisting the idea that this Elvenking, at this point in Tolkien’s writing, is Thingol. Thanks to Bolg in the comments to my last post for pointing out that I was wrong.)
As others have said, the king’s butler getting drunk and falling asleep does not feel very Elvish. Nor does the fact that he’s a butler. I have nothing particular else to add to this, I’m afraid. Similarly: the elves sing again, when they’re rolling the barrels out. It’s a song. Well, okay, actually it does vaguely remind me of something else Tolkien, but I can’t pinpoint what, probably because of my complete lack of poetical sense.
Now, the end of post tallies. Nothing new to add to the dwarf characteristics catalog, which I carry over merely for ease of reference:
- 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 (8/8), when he’s skulking around the palace before he’s found the dwarves.
Out of barrels next time, though I don’t remember how far they go. See you next week when we find out.
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.