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 the penultimate chapter, “The Return Journey,” which covers more than that title suggests.
Still feeling the effects of the blow to his head, Bilbo returns to consciousness on a quiet post-battle field. After he takes his ring off, a searcher brings him to Dale, where a dying Thorin apologizes to him. Bilbo grieves while the narrator describes the end of the battle: the Eagles killed or drove off the goblins on the Mountain, but the defenders were still outnumbered and losing until Beorn arrived out of nowhere in bear-shape to turn the tide.
Thorin is buried under the Mountain with the Arkenstone upon his breast and Orcist (returned by the Elvenking) on his tomb; Fili and Kili are also buried. Dain becomes King under the Mountain and gives Bard the fourteenth share of the hoard as agreed. Bard shares this treasure generously with the Master of Lake-town and his friends, including the Elvenking and Bilbo—at least he would, except that Bilbo refuses to take more than one small chest of silver and one of gold.
Bilbo says farewell to the dwarves, with mutual promises of welcome should the other visit. He travels with the elves, Gandalf, and Beorn as far as Mirkwood, where the elves return home, again with gifts and words of friendship. Though Bilbo still “had many hardships and adventures before he got back” home, “he was never in great danger again.” He and Gandalf stay with Beorn (who later becomes a great chieftain and sires a line of shapeshifters) until the spring. The chapter ends with Gandalf and Bilbo at the pass in the Misty Mountains where the goblins captured them; Bilbo looks toward Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain and then “turn[s] his back on his adventure.”
So what does everyone think of the decision to skip the end of the battle? I’m guessing this was to soften the deaths for young listeners: rather than real-time descriptions of Thorin “fall[ing] pierced with spears” and Fili and Kili “defending him with shield and body,” we’re told a minimalist version of events after the fact. Also, I suspect Beorn fighting in bear form might be fairly scary? I don’t remember being particularly upset by this chapter, but it’s been a long time; I’ll be running this experiment relatively soon, of course, but for now, what experiences did you all have, either in your own reactions or those of kids you were reading to/with?
I do find Thorin’s deathbed farewell emotionally affecting and remember doing so as a kid. On this read I was surprised that I found ambiguous his initial statement of why he was forgiving Bilbo: “Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friendship from you, and I would take back my words and deeds at the Gate.” Fortunately, I think his later statement—“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”—clarifies that he meant “Here on my deathbed I see things more clearly and comprehend that friendship is more important that wealth.” Which is good, because “I apologize because it doesn’t matter what happens to my treasure now that I’m dead” is a shitty apology.
So Thorin is redeemed, though still dead. As I’ve said in the context of the movie, he reminds me of Boromir in this regard—so, though I may be leaning on the thematic resonance beyond what it can bear, I have decided to regard his charge out of the Gate as heroic and the start of his redemption, not self-interested. Your mileage may vary.
And then there’s all the wrapping-up stuff. In the context of dwarves and greed, there’s an unfortunate line about the choices of Thorin’s companions: “The others remained with Dain; for Dain dealt his treasure well.” There are a lot of other reasons that they might chose to stay under the Mountain, after all. But on the whole the dwarves, like everyone else, come out well in the wrap-up: Dain “honour[s] the agreement of the dead” in giving up a share of the treasure, and the surviving companions are openly emotional at parting from Bilbo. As the summary says, everywhere there is gifts and forgiveness; of particular note are the Elvenking’s return of Orcrist, and Bilbo’s gift of a necklace to the Elvenking as “er, some little return…for your, er, hospitality,” which the Elvenking accepts, naming him elf-friend.
We’ve mentioned before, whether in posts or comments I cannot recall, how odd it is to imagine Beorn as a chief of men and the father of a line of shapeshifters. I don’t know what makes my brain glitch more, him voluntarily assuming a leadership role (you have to regularly talk to lots of people!) or living with another human. At least his presumed wife must have had a spine of steel, since he wouldn’t put up with wishy-washy or fluttery types, right?
Two small notes to wrap up:
I though that the reference to Yuletide was a sign that Tolkien hadn’t worked out Middle-earth’s calendars fully yet and was leaning instead on ours, but not necessarily: Appendix D to The Lord of the Rings says that the Shire used “Yuledays” as one way of compensating for all of their months having thirty days, and the first and last months of the year are “Afteryule” and “Foreyule,” respectively. (I find that Appendix entirely mind-numbing, so I’m not surprised that I forgot this.)
In a nice bit of characterization, Bilbo shows signs of his own tendency towards proverbs when he says, at the very end of the chapter, “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending!”
And in this chapter he thinks wistfully of home (12/17); indeed, he “wish[es] now only to be in my own armchair!”
Home next time, though not quite as he left it, in the book’s last chapter. 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.