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 Fifteen, “The Gathering of the Clouds,” which is in no way ominous setup for bad things to come, nuh-uh, no way.
The thrush tries to tell the dwarves of Smaug’s death, but has to recruit an ancient raven named Roäc instead. Roäc tells them what happened in the last chapter, urges them to trust Bard, and tells them that the ravens wish for peace, though it may cost the dwarves gold. Thorin angrily tells Roäc that “none of our gold shall thieves take or the violent carry off while we are alive” and asks him to send any young ravens as messengers to Dain in the Iron Hills and other relatives. Roäc agrees reluctantly.
The dwarves fortify the Front Gate, the only usable entrance, to the surprise of the Elves and Lake-town men when they arrive. Some of these people investigate the Gate, but leave without responding to Thorin’s hail. After a night of songs of varying degrees of cheer, Bard comes to the Gate and asks for “a parley and a council,” but all Thorin hears is demands for treasure from an armed force—and from the Elvenking, “whom I remember with small kindness.” He tells Bard to dismiss the Elves and return unarmed; instead, Bard sends a messenger who demands a twelfth of the treasure. Thorin shoots an arrow at the messenger, who (unharmed) declares the Mountain beseiged, to Bilbo’s dismay.
A short setup chapter, interesting to me principally as an exercise in imagining how it might have come out better. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a way, because the things that make the standoff so inevitable are all either entirely logical from the point of view of those taking the actions or out of their control.
That is: it makes sense for Bard to take an armed force to the Mountain, which he believes to be empty, to recover the treasure plundered from Dale. It makes sense for the Elvenking to come with, because the Elves are in much better shape militarily, and they are allies (again, I don’t personally agree that the Elves have a just claim to the treasure, but that’s a different story—and one we’ll come back to later in this post). It makes sense for Thorin to find these actions threatening when he hears of them, because he doesn’t know that they think he’s dead. And it makes sense for two proud and prickly people to offend each other extremely in the way that Thorin and Bard do.
With all that, the situation barely needs “the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded” or “dwarvish hearts” to go horribly wrong. It seems to me those are just the cherries on top of this sundae of ugh-do-not-want (I think they’ll become more relevant later, when Thorin refuses to back down).
Bard’s statements to Thorin, by the way, are kind of a marvel for how such reasonable content can be phrased so as to immediately remove all hope of reasonable discussion. Take a look at their initial exchange (which Bard speaks “proudly and grimly”):
A tall man stood forward, dark of hair and grim of face, and he cried: “Hail Thorin! Why do you fence yourself like a robber in his hold? We are not yet foes, and we rejoice that you are alive beyond our hope. We came expecting to find none living here; yet now that we are met there is matter for a parley and a council.”
“Who are you, and of what would you parley?”
“I am Bard, and by my hand was the dragon slain and your treasure delivered. Is that not a matter that concerns you? Moreover I am by right descent the heir of Girion of Dale, and in your hoard is mingled much of the wealth of his halls and towns, which of old Smaug stole. Is not that a matter of which we may speak? Further in his last battle Smaug destroyed the dwellings of the men of Esgaroth, and I am yet the servant of their Master. I would speak for him and ask whether you have no thought for the sorrow and misery of his people. They aided you in your distress, and in recompense you have thus far brought ruin only, though doubtless undesigned.”
He starts off comparing Thorin to a robber, rather than assuming he has good reason for his actions. He starts with a very broad-sounding claim to the hoard before moving to the narrower ones. And he uses negative phrasing (“Is that not a matter that concerns you?”, “Is not that a matter of which we may speak?”, “whether you have no thought for the sorrow and misery”) which conveys, intentionally or not, an attempt to shame Thorin into acting—which, speaking as someone with an unfortunate surfeit of pride that she sometimes struggles to keep from dictating her actions, is guaran-fucking-teed to put up all the hackles on a proud person’s back. In short: his opening speech was never going to be a success, but this rhetoric really did not help.
Here’s a question: should Bard have sent away the Elves and come unarmed? I find it hard to believe Thorin would have agreed to give up any part of the treasure, what with the dragon-enchantment and dwarvish nature—probably he would have found something else to take offense at and kick Bard out for?—but I can’t see any good reason for Bard to reject Thorin’s demands. Did he fear attack? Surely they wouldn’t agree on a face-to-face meeting at first. Is this my failing to get into the mindset of these characters again?
Regarding the finders-keepers mentality we discussed last time, Thorin asks Bard “what share of their inheritance you would have paid to our kindred, had you found the hoard unguarded and us slain,” which Bard calls “a just question” and then refuses to answer. So it seems to me less clear that the Elvenking is doing right by his own lights, rather than mine. Not conclusive, but suggestive.
Just a few more notes. There’s a nice little bit of humor when Balin says he cannot understand the thrush’s speech, “it is very quick and difficult.” He asks Bilbo if Bilbo can: “‘Not very well,’ said Bilbo (as a matter of fact, he could make nothing of it at all).” Hee.
I was also amused by Balin’s discourse on crows versus ravens, but this may be because I watched the anime Princess Tutu in which ravens are significant—or rather big black birds are significant, and sometimes they are crows and sometimes they are ravens, and I was very confused whether the difference was also significant, until I was told that the Japanese word being used could mean any “big black bird,” so the translator had to do the best they could in context. See also this reference art for the Corvidae family, which as the accompanying comment says, “Handily doubles as a field guide to creepy-ass magic birds you don’t want to be fucking with.”
Well, okay, Roäc isn’t creepy, he’s just 153 years old and a smidge passive-aggressive. By which I mean, anyone who says “I will not say if this counsel be good or bad” might as well wave a banner saying “It’s bad! It’s bad!”
Finally, some foreshadowing: after Roäc brings the news, the narrator says that Bilbo “would have given most of his share of the profits for the peaceful winding up of these affairs.” Of course he ends up giving all of it, and judging by the title of the next chapter, “A Thief in the Night,” will do so rather soon. See you then.
(Oh, right, tallies: no changes to dwarves; and surprisingly, Bilbo does not think wistfully of home in this chapter (10/14). Okay, really see you next time now.)
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.