“A Short Rest” is just that: short. With the exception of “The Gathering Of The Clouds”, it’s the shortest chapter in the story, a transitionary affair between the introductory section of the adventure and the more dark and grim stuff to come as the company tackles the Misty Mountains.
The opening line sets the depressing tone of the opening pages, and provides a suitable contrast for some of the merriment of later in the chapter: “They did not sing or tell stories that day, even though the weather improved; nor the next day, nor the day after.” Things are grim then. The success over the trolls doesn’t mean that the journey has been made any easier, not least because of the dwindling food supplies, which leave their ponies better fed then they are.
They ford a river “full of the noise of stones and foam“, though it’s a bit far out to be the Bruinen, that Gandalf and Elrond will later make foam horses out of. Ahead of them, looming over the company, come “the great mountains“, the nearest of which is tantalizingly close. As before, the mountains are treated as a portent of doom, a terrible danger yet to be traversed, though hiding some measure of salvation beyond: the “tips of snow peaks” Bilbo glimpses behind the first mountain seem at odds with the “dark and drear” description of the initial obstacle.
In an interesting moment, Bilbo asks if this mountain is the Lonely Mountain, and is somewhat snidely upbraided by Balin for even positing such a though (Balin should be a little nicer, this is as far away from the Shire as Bilbo has ever been). I find it interesting because Tolkien will mirror this moment in “The Ring Goes South“, when Sam starts to wonder if they shouldn’t have caught sight of Mt Doom before they have even cleared the Misty Mountains. Which, aside from making you note Tolkien’s efforts to replicate common experiences across the hobbits, might also make us wonder of the propensity of epic tales where a mountain of some kind in the end goal.
Gandalf reveals that their initial goal now is Rivendell, the “Last Homely House” east of the sea and west of the mountains. Rivendell is a strange sanctuary, located just inside the true wilds, where the roads vanish and the banditry increases, and it also serves as the next road-mark of welcome and rest. The company started with Bilbo and Hobbiton, now come to Elrond and Rivendell. Later it will be Beorn, then Lake-town. These stops allow for a break in the narrative tension (in a good way) though this one comes very soon after the first.
Tolkien’s use of imagery to describe the nature surrounding Rivendell is wonderful, a potent mix of the beautiful and the deadly, that it takes time to elaborate with almost dialectic writing:
“There seemed to be no trees and no valleys and no hills to break the ground in front of them, only one vast slope going slowly up and up to meet the feet of the nearest mountain, a wide land the colour of heather and crumbling rock, with patches and slashes of grass-green and moss-green showing where water might be.
Morning passed, afternoon came; but in all the silent waste there was no sign of any dwelling…They came on unexpected valleys, narrow with steep sides, that opened suddenly at their feet, and they looked down surprised to see trees below them and running water at the bottom. There were gullies that they could almost leap over, but very deep with waterfalls in them.
There were dark ravines that one could neither jump over nor climb into. There were bogs, some of them green pleasant places to look at, with flowers growing bright and tall; but a pony that walked there with a pack on its back would never have come out again.”
A crucial sense of tension has pervaded these pages, not from some obvious physical threat, but from an encroaching feeling of danger. Simple things can create this in the mind of a reader, and taken together it’s clear what Tolkien was about: the lack of song, the imposing mountains and the above descriptive section, where every moment of beauty seems counteracted by some reference to danger. The company are lost without Gandalf at their head, he here finding the path. The wizard remains oddly cautious, all the way up to the entrance into Rivendell (where he scolds the elves for talking a bit too loudly about the company), and from the way he acts you half expect goblins or wolves or trolls to come lumbering out of the darkness. This tension helps to keep “A Short Rest” moving, and makes up for the way that the narrative stops dead, to an extent, in the second half of the chapter.
Rivendell is the light in the dark, a place of warmth and welcome in a valley hidden from the rest of the world. It is described in almost dream-like terms with Bilbo falling asleep as he descends towards it. In combination with the description and actions of the elves, we can see this sanctuary of the Firstborn as a sort of fey underworld, where normal rules of time and experience don’t apply. Bilbo also curiously notes that the place “smells like elves“, an indicator of his own, hitherto un-noted, experience.
The elves of The Hobbit, introduced here in the form of a “ridiculous” song, are a tad different to the beings we will encounter in The Lord Of The Rings. Sure, there’s a certain whimsy across the board, but the elves here are far more laid-back and prone to nonsense, be it in song or just in word. You really could just call them fairies and be done with it, as the song and the initial interaction here feels more like Tinkerbell than Glorfindel.
But it isn’t just about the elves of course, it’s the dwarven reaction to them. The two races are diametrically opposed in so many ways: tall and short, light-hearted and serious, nature-based and rock-based, immortal and mortal. Even in their music, they are different, the dwarves singing seriously of the Lonely Mountain, the elves with this zaniness. The comparisons will be pushed to an extreme in the next few pages, as the dwarves almost crawl over the final bridge into Rivendell, bowed down beings of stone and labour, while the elves cavort and sing among the trees. Thorin maintains the correct social niceties, but, in a clever bit of wordplay, Tolkien notes the dwarven opinion of elves: “Even decent enough dwarves like Thorin and his friends think them foolish (which is a very foolish thing to think)…”
It will also never be explained how these elves apparently know Bilbo, that he is a burglar, or everything else about the company. Either elvish information networks are very detailed and extensive, or they know who he is from Gandalf and are just being coy for the laugh. But that’s elves for you, who camp it up big-time here, saying “Isn’t it delicious!” in reference to Bilbo’s travelling.
Tolkien is unequivocal in his praise of the elves: “Elves know a lot and are wondrous folk for news, and know what is going on among the peoples of the land, as quick as water flows, or quicker.” This is a bit far from The Lord Of The Rings, where Frodo will be frustrated in his efforts to get advice and knowledge in his first encounter with elves: “Go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes“.
The company’s stay in Rivendell lasts two or so weeks, though the author is at pains to make it clear that this is an inexact thing, Imladris being a place where travellers tend to lose track of time. Tolkien describes Rivendell in wistful, almost nostalgic terms, that will be repeated in The Fellowship Of The Ring:
“They stayed long in that good house, fourteen days at least, and they found it hard to leave…Yet there is little to tell about their stay…His house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Evil things did not come into that valley.”
I have spoken a lot in The Lord Of The Rings read-through of the elves and their “long defeat”, wherein their major bastions – Rivendell, Lothlorien, Northern Mirkwood – are places out of time, enclaves where it appears that you exist in another age (the First Age, to be exact). Everything Tolkien writes about Rivendell here emphasis that in some way.
And that’s true for the man running the show in Rivendell as well, Elrond, described initially here as “elf-friend“, then “as noble as an elf lord” which is a strange choice, one that doesn’t really tell the reader that Elrond is of the elder race himself (Yes, yes, “Half-Elven”, but he might as well be considered a full one, what with the immortality and all). Elrond is a man of some lineage and a “chief” of those descended from the heroes of ages past, but Tolkien isn’t all that interested in going into the details, just praising the man himself: “…as strong as a warrior, as wise as a wizard, as venerable as a king of dwarves, and as kind as summer.” Here, he’s an important road stop, to help the company out and point them in the right direction after.
The first part is done by giving the company provisions for the journey ahead, plenty of good advice, and a general sense of improved well-being: ” Their clothes were mended as well as their bruises, their tempers and their hopes.” The second, and much more important part, is carried out by Elrond’s wealth of knowledge with all things, apparently, but in this case particularly moon-runes. In a moment where, again, the existence and practical use of magic in Middle-Earth is made plain, Elrond discovers secret writing on the map guiding Thorin, though the words concealed there are riddle-like (again, a recurring theme):
“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.”
Reading it for the first time, you would be forgiven for not immediately thinking that they refer to an actual bird. Perhaps as notable from this section is Elrond’s motivation for helping the dwarves, which comes from his hatred for dragons and their “cruel wickedness”, and a sense of justice for the victims of Dale.
Elrond also takes the time to give us some history of the swords discovered in the troll-hole, and it’s a doozy. Orcrist or “Goblin-cleaver” is Thorin’s new weapon, a sword with a lineage so seemingly impressive that Thorin, not exactly leaping out of his seat to give the elves much respect, sounds awed: but the other side of his personality, the possessive and presumptuous side, immediately claims the sword for his own, even though another man might have thought it appropriate to at least offer the blade back to the elves.
Gandalf also carries a famous sword, no less than the weapon of the King of Gondolin. Tolkien refuses to be dragged into a discussion of Gondolin – in The Lord Of The Rings, he would have no such qualms – but for those on unsure footing, it was a shining metropolis of the elves in the First Age, and forms a key part of The Silmarillion: it also happens to be the very genesis of this universe, with Tolkien’s first writings on what would become Middle-Earth consisting of a description of the city and its fall to the forces of evil, written on the back of a page of military sheet music while Tolkien was in an army barracks in 1917. It’s a Troy-like tale, which makes this – Glamdring – the sword of Priam. That Tolkien is satisfied to pass over such information so quickly is evidence of how The Hobbit is different to its more famous successor.
And we should also note the importance of how these two blades are divvied up: Thorin and Gandalf take them, and there is no discussion on the topic. There are the leaders of this company, and we might read something into the fact that it is Gandalf who has the sword of Turgon. Named swords are an established and well recognised part of epic story-telling, so Thorin and Gandalf having these is an important bit of characterisation: later, Bilbo will get some of the same treatment, but with some crucial differences.
Bilbo isn’t up to much in this chapter, truth be told, beyond looking nervously at the mountains and trying to stay awake on his pony. That’s part of what makes “A Short Rest” seem as transitionary as it is, even the titular character barely has a few lines of dialogue. In this final scene, Bilbo does pipe up about the moon-runes, and Elrond is gracious enough to answer him without any reservations: subtle proof that Half-Elven has time for all who have come to his home, regardless of social status or royal connections. Tolkien also hints at things to come in Bilbo’s life: “Bilbo would gladly have stopped there for ever and ever…”
In contrast to Bilbo’s innocent inquisitiveness, both Gandalf and Thorin are noted as being “vexed” that Elrond had discovered something about the map that they did not know. Thorin especially, probably since the moon-runes are a dwarven magic. Why they should be so put out as to be “vexed” is not explained clearly, but we can surmise that Thorin doesn’t like the idea of his family secrets being broadcast to anyone he doesn’t completely trust – which we will soon come to realise means “everyone other than me and my kin” – a feeling that has some justification, as we shall see in Thorin’s later interactions with the elves. Gandalf may just feel shown up, having already exhibited signs of a prickly, proud demeanour.
The reference to Durin in the moon-runes leads to Thorin explaining exactly who Durin is, and Elrond expressing a sentiment that would indicate he was ignorant of this. For fans of the larger mythology, this is all very strange, as Durin is a famous dwarf – hell, he’s basically their mythological paragon – so for someone as knowledgeable as Elrond not to have knowledge of him or “Durin’s Day” is very odd. I mean, dwarves are even known as “Durin’s folk”, and the first seven or so kings of Moria were named Durin. The two possibilities are, first, that this is just an inconsistency borne of Tolkien not having the finer points of his mythology fleshed out at the time of writing or, second, that Elrond is responding sarcastically to a doltish moment of dwarfsplaining from Thorin (who, when describing Durin’s Day uses the easily interpreted as nasty words “as all should know…”).
The moon-runes provide a riddle to follow, though the true significance of the words will not become apparent for sometime. The chapter concludes with the company heading off again, to tackle the Misty Mountains and whatever comes after, with an excellent closing line: “Now they rode away amid songs of farewell and good speed, with their hearts ready for more adventure, and with a knowledge of the road they must follow over the Misty Mountains to the land beyond.”
“A Short Rest” isn’t exactly forgettable, but I wouldn’t say it’s a vital part of the story. This early on, a stop like this feels a bit unnecessary, even if it is one that gives us important information affecting the rest of the story. It’s an odd chapter in other respects too, like in how Tolkien suddenly goes into overdrive on the universe building, randomly dropping the names of people, places and events without much in the way of elaboration: in this chapter alone we get references to Moria, Durin, Gondolin, goblin-wars and “the first men of the North”. But it still trips along nicely, and even if it does feel like a slow down of sorts. Still, the events of the next three chapters, a sort of informal trilogy, will more than make up for that.
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