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 start the second half of the book with Chapter 11, “On the Doorstep,” in which there is rather a lot of faffing about.
The dwarves, Bilbo, and their escort from Lake-town row out of the Long Lake and up the River Running, where they meet the party that had been sent ahead with provisions. The Lake-town men leave immediately, and the travelers’ spirits fall as they confront the possibility of “a very horrible end” to their journey and the “bleak and barren” landscape caused by Smaug.
They reach the Lonely Mountain without incident, and see the ruin of Dale at the Front Gate. The dwarves are so dispirited that Bilbo must prod them into searching for the secret door. After several days, they find the location: a little bay or alcove, reachable only by a narrow ledge, that ends in a smooth wall. They make another camp there, though Bombur refuses to come up either by the ledge or on ropes.
The dwarves are “too eager to trouble about the runes or the moon-letters,” yet their tools fail to undercover the door and are dangerously noisy besides. The dwarves’ spirits sink again, as do Bilbo’s. At the end of autumn, the dwarves are beginning to talk among themselves of sending Bilbo through the Front Gate with his ring. Before they can suggest this openly, though, Bilbo sees an enormous thrush catch a snail and knock it against the bay’s stone floor. Remembering the moon-runes, Bilbo shouts for the dwarves, and they watch a ray of the setting sun shine on the wall, which cracks to reveal a keyhole after the thrush trills. Thorin’s key opens the door: “It seemed as if darkness flowed out like a vapour from the hole in the mountain-side, and deep darkness in which nothing could be seen lay before their eyes, a yawning mouth leading in and down.”
Well, that’s not an ominous ending at all, is it? Just in case, you know, all the gloom and foreboding and moping about in this chapter didn’t signal we are in serious territory now.
This isn’t a criticism of the ending. I think it’s entirely appropriate that heading into the Mountain be scary and ominous. But I did think that the levels of moping and faffing about in this chapter were a little inexplicable. Specifically: why is Bilbo the only one who remembers the moon-letters? Thorin knows it’s the end of autumn, he says so. If your grandfather, the King under the Mountain, went to the trouble of encoding a secret message in his map, don’t you think you should, I don’t know, pay attention to it?
It’s been a while since I thought the dwarves were strangely unprepared and incompetent, and I’m not glad for it to come back. I really can’t make sense of this at all; the only explanation I can think of is that it was just a way to create unnecessary tension and suspense. And that is really unfortunate because it warps the characterizations. Otherwise I would think a certain amount of reluctance and frustration was understandable, given the stakes and the possibility of the dwarves finding out that they are crunchy and taste good with ketchup. But a specific future date ought to be what they plan everything around, once they fail to open the door the ordinary way.
Anyway. The other interesting thing about the door is that thrush. Here’s the moon-letters again:
Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.
And here’s what happens:
Then suddenly when their hope was lowest a red ray of the sun escaped like a finger through a rent in the cloud. A gleam of light came straight through the opening into the bay and fell on the smooth rock-face. The old thrush, who had been watching from a high perch with beady eyes and head cocked on one side, gave a sudden trill. There was a loud crack. A flake of rock split from the wall and fell. A hole appeared suddenly about three feet from the ground.
I see no natural way to read that passage other than that the thrush caused the keyhole to appear. And I do believe there’s some discussion later about the thrush being special in some way. I guess there’s not time for the characters to react now, because they’re too busy getting Thorin up to the door with his key (and why wasn’t he right there with the key out in the first place? No, no, never mind.) and then looking inside.
I’m trying to decide how I feel about the thrush, and no strong feeling is making itself known. The thrush doesn’t talk, so I don’t have the odd disconnect I had with the Eagles, but otherwise? Well, I’m glad it’s there, so we can get past this. And in some ways it’s a more interesting thing to have happen than if it were just the astronomy, by which I mean, presumably the thrush would not have trilled if goblins were at the door at the right time; the reveal was not purely mechanical. Which does raise the question of why the thrush had to wait at all for the sun; perhaps it’s only smart enough to have been trained to act under a very specific circumstance—a circumstance that Thror designed to be known by very few people, thanks to the moon-letters.
Three minor notes:
- The dwarves were edging up on being jerks to Bilbo again, and I disapprove. Specifically, Dwalin says, “What is our burglar doing for us? Since he has got an invisible ring, and ought to be a specially excellent performer now, I am beginning to think he might go through the Front Gate and spy things out a bit!” Yes, he has a point that Bilbo’s ring gives him an advantage, but this comment (1) ignores all Bilbo’s contributions to date and (2) smacks of scapegoating and a kind of careless disregard for the consequences because it won’t be happening to the dwarves. And, I’m sorry but I do have to say it again, they wouldn’t be so grumpy and grasping-at-straws if they hadn’t forgotten the moon-letters.
- The end of the short section about their trip to the Mountain says, “They were come to the Desolation of the Dragon, and they were come at the waning of the year.” Which is a great line, and which gives me a small added reason to think that the middle movie (subtitled The Desolation of Smaug) will end around where this chapter does.
- The narrator foreshadows that the dwarves’ non-bay camp is going to be attacked, when he says that it’s a good thing that the ropes are actually capable of hauling Bombur up to the bay.
Round-ups: I’m going to be charitable to Dwalin, and indeed to all of them, and not add anything to the dwarf characteristics list, which I carry over as usual 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 (9/10), while sitting on the doorstep and staring west.
I do believe we have an actual dragon next time, guys. 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.