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 16, “A Thief in the Night,” in which expectations of varying kinds are confounded.
Time passes slowly under the besieged Mountain, as Thorin looks everywhere for the Arkenstone and Bilbo begins to plan. Then Roäc tells them that Dain and over five hundred dwarves are two days’ march from Dale. Though Roäc tries to dissuade Thorin from having these new dwarves come to the Mountain, for fear of battle, Thorin rejects his advice, saying, “With my friends behind them and winter upon them, they will perhaps be in softer mood to parley with.”
That night, Bilbo puts his plan into action. He offers to take Bombur’s turn on watch, and when Bombur goes to sleep, slips out. He is caught by the elves and brought to the Elvenking and Bard. There, he tells them about Dain and how he is “merely trying to avoid trouble for all concerned,” and gives them the Arkenstone to aid in their bargaining. At Bard’s inquiry, he admits that the Arkenstone “isn’t exactly” his to give, but he is going to go back to the dwarves anyway, despite the Elvenking’s attempt to convince him to stay.
As Bilbo leaves the camp, Gandalf tells him that he did well and makes cryptic comments about upcoming news. Bilbo makes it back to the Mountain without incident and is soon “dreaming of eggs and bacon.”
Just how contrary to expectations was this development at the time of publication, I wonder? It’s very contrary to my expectations now, both in an overall sense of how fantasy stories go and in the specific sense of this story, because as Bilbo says in this chapter, for all that his role is burglar, he “never really felt like one” and I, at least, never really saw him as one (this goes back to the apparent disconnect between our feelings about “burglar” as a profession and the story’s). But I have no idea how I reacted to this as a kid because I was so young. How did you all react, the first time you read it? I’m assuming that if you’re reading this post, you actually like the book, but do you know anyone who was upset by it and doesn’t like the book as a result?
Because, here’s the thing: right now I’m inclined to think that Bilbo giving the Arkenstone to Bard is what makes the book more than a pleasant travelogue with some inventive action scenes, but I’m also perfectly willing to accept that this might be the last straw for some readers, and it’s not my business to tell them they should feel otherwise. I think this is probably an intrinsic risk: the unexpected change that some people will love, will also be the disorienting turn or even betrayal that other people will loathe. (Examples from other genres: I hate The Usual Suspects and love Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion.)
I can also imagine that the ethics of Bilbo’s actions might trouble some readers. And Bilbo is a bit troubled himself—even as he picked up the Arkenstone and tried to justify it to himself as his chosen fourteenth share, “he had an uncomfortable feeling that the picking and choosing had not really been meant to include this marvellous gem, and that trouble would yet come of it.” And the very fact that he then keeps it quiet shows, perhaps more than anything, that he knows it wasn’t the right thing to do. (“How uncomfortable would it be to explain this in public” is a useful, though not foolproof, general way of assessing the propriety of actions, especially in the professional context.)
At any rate, I don’t think, and I don’t think the book thinks, that Bilbo’s theft is okay because it could later be turned to a good purpose. Instead, I think it doesn’t irreparably stain Bilbo’s character because Bilbo renounced his selfishness (and any reasonable prospect of materially profiting from it) for the greater good.
Moving from the big picture to the details:
Talking about playing against expectations, the conversation between Bilbo, the Elvenking, and Bard is kind of hilarious. No wonder the Elvenking and Bard are “gazing curiously at him” when he’s talking “in his best business manner” about carefully-kept letters and shares in profits rather than the gross and so forth, here in a military camp besieging him and his companions!
That said, Bilbo still does a good job of persuasion, in contrast to last chapter. He acknowledges the reasonableness of Bard’s perspective (“I see your point of view”) before gently noting that he has additional information, which gives his listeners a way to change their minds without having to admit they were wrong. And, though this may not be strategic, he doesn’t get huffy when Bard assumes the worst of him (“Are you betraying your friends, or are you threatening us?”). Granted he doesn’t have a lot of persuading to do once he pulls out the Arkenstone, but it’s still notable that he gets them to listen before then.
The description of the Arkenstone here, by the way, doesn’t do a lot for me: “It was as if a globe had been filled with moonlight and hung before them in a net woven of the glint of frosty stars.” I went back and looked at the post for Chapter 13, where Bilbo takes it, and I didn’t even bother to quote it there, so it can’t have made much of an impression on me then, either. (For the record: “The great jewel shone before his feet of its own inner light, and yet, cut and fashioned by the dwarves, who had dug it from the heart of the mountain long ago, it took all light that fell upon it and changed it into ten thousand sparks of white radiance shot with glints of the rainbow.”) Possibly I am being unduly influenced by Anne of Green Gables, who in one of the formative books of my childhood declared that she found diamonds disappointing (though my engagement ring is a diamond and I love it). Or maybe you had to be there and let it cast its spell over you in person—which works even on Bard, I notice (he holds it “as though dazed” and asks Bilbo about his possession of it “with an effort”).
- The narrative uses the adjective “little” repeatedly when describing Bilbo, which emphasizes the outsized effect he is about to have and his bravery.
- You know your plan sucks when Roäc flat-out tells you so!
- Gandalf is extremely inscrutable in this chapter, and I clearly have much less tolerance for it than Bilbo, who finds it cheering—though, to be fair, I am not hurrying back to the Mountain for fear of being caught away.
Finally: no dwarf updates. Bilbo does think wistfully of being back in his own home (11/15).
Next week, “The Clouds Burst”; 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.