The Hobbit, Chapter-By-Chapter: Over Hill And Under Hill

After the transition of “A Short Rest”, this chapter sets us and the company back on the road to the Lonely Mountain firmly. The title of this chapter is a clever bit of wordplay, and something Tolkien would call back to in The Lord Of The Rings, when Frodo, attempting disguise on his own travels, goes by the name “Mr Underhill”.

The opening paragraphs are full of clever word choices and alliteration: the mountains are full of “evil things and dreadful dangers”, but the company take “the right road to the right pass”. Yet despite that, the way over the Misty Mountains is treacherous: “It was a hard path and a dangerous path, a crooked way and a lonely and a long.” Tolkien again uses music, or the lack of it, to emphasise the danger and the misery, a direct contrast to Rivendell, with the company daring to sing no song, having to be content with the harsh and unrelenting sound of nature: “the noise of water and the wail of wind and the crack of stone.”

For Bilbo, this is another important threshold. Rivendell was the “Last Homely House”, signifying the final end of civilisation. Between here and their final destination, or so it may seem at this moment, there is only the wild. Bilbo instinctively thinks of home one more time, with a nice nostalgic wistfulness:

The summer is getting on down below,” thought Bilbo, “and haymaking is going on and picnics. They will be harvesting and blackberrying, before we even begin to go down the other side at this rate.

The winter of where the company finds itself is thus directly compared to an idealistic version of the Shire, where it will be glorious summer, a far cry from where Bilbo finds himself. Jackson knew this too, choosing this section of the story as the moment when Bilbo temporarily forgoes the quest.

This passage must also make the Tolkien aficionado remember a passage from “Mt Doom”, when Sam looked back to the Shire:

…and now as once more the night of Mordor closed over them, through all his thoughts there came the memory of water; and every brook or stream or fount that he had ever seen, under green willow-shades or twinkling in the sun, danced and rippled for his torment behind the blindness of his eyes. He felt the cool mud about his toes as he paddled in the Pool at Bywater with Jolly Cotton and Tom and Nibs, and their sister Rosie. ‘But that was years ago,’ he sighed, ‘and far away…

It’s only natural to think of home at such a moment, but this isn’t the first time that a sequence given to Sam in the later book can trace a direct line to a thought of Bilbo’s in The Hobbit. “Over Hill And Under Hill” will be full of such comparisons to the later book.

For now, there is a certain reversal in tone for the dwarves, who are depicted as at least somewhat optimistic, given the direct goal of reaching the Lonely Mountain by “Durins Day”. For the grumbling company, such happy thoughts are a direct change. Gandalf remains a cynical as ever though, guarding against any undeserved optimism, and mindful of the dangers ahead, be they the “dragons [that] had driven men from the lands, and the goblins [that] had spread in secret”. As such, Gandalf’s role as the chief leader and guide of the expedition is emphasised once more. Gandalf desperate hopes “that they would pass without fearful adventure over those great tall mountains with lonely peaks and valleys where no king ruled.” Tolkien bluntly puts this idea to bed in his minimalist following sentence: “They did not.” We should also note that comment on the lack of a king, which we can take here as the ultimate sign of lawlessness and disorder.

Because this is not only the “Wild”, but the “Edge of the Wild”, and I note that to point out the capitalisation. The surrounds aren’t just untamed and unpredictable, they are wild enough to be “Wild”, and this simple choice of capitalisation is a really good way to emphasise just how far off the beaten track we have gone.

In the midst of the pass, the company come, again, onto frightful and difficult weather, allowing Tolkien the opportunity to again demonstrate his skill and descriptive language for such things, and to interject the presence of the narrator, who appears to be having a conversation with the reader:

You know how terrific a really big thunderstorm can be down in the land and in a river-valley; especially at times when two great thunderstorms meet and clash. More terrible still are thunder and lightning in the mountains at night, when storms come up from East and West and make war. The lightning splinters on the peaks, and rocks shiver, and great crashes split the air and go rolling and tumbling into every cave and hollow; and the darkness is filled with overwhelming noise and sudden light.”

It is at this point that Tolkien, with remarkable casualness, brings up the existence of the “stone-giants”, elemental beings that apparently live in the mountains, and make their sport hurling rocks at each other. Such creatures only appear here, and nowhere else in Tolkien’s works, and any notes on their existence, origin or anything else does not come. They are merely a latent danger to the company at this time, and later Gandalf will say that some of them have some kind of moral compass. Probably inspired by the jotun of Norse mythology, these giants vanish from the legendarium after this, which seems exceedingly odd for a writer like Tolkien, usually so happy for elaboration.

This whole section is the beginning of another succession of disasters for the company, much like that which occurred in “Roast Mutton”. That also began with difficult terrain and terrible weather, and it’s all the worse here. Again, one can’t help but think to similar passages in The Lord Of The Rings, when the Fellowship attempts the pass of Caradras. From “Over Hill And Under Hill”:

Then came a wind and a rain, and the wind whipped the rain and the hail about in every direction, so that an overhanging rock was no protection at all. Soon they were getting drenched and their ponies were standing with their heads down and their tails between their legs, and some of them were whinnying with fright. They could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides.”

From “The Ring Goes South”:

But they had not gone more than a furlong when the storm returned with fresh fury. The wind whistled and the snow became a blinding blizzard… It may have been only a trick of the wind in the cracks and gullies of the rocky wall, but the sounds were those of shrill cries, and wild howls of laughter… But eddying blasts swirled round them from every side, and the snow flowed down in ever denser clouds.”

Much of this was probably drawn from Tolkien’s own experience, as a young man, of crossing the Alps in 1911, a journey where he was struck by the sight of rocks tumbling down a mountainside.

Tensions boil over a bit as the company huddle from the wind and the giants, with Gandalf snapping at Thorin’s suggestion that they seek shelter elsewhere: another show of authority perhaps. Just as in “Roast Mutton”, it all becomes too much, and the decision is taken to seek shelter somewhere, despite the obvious dangers of the general area. Like the light in the distance in the wilds, the temptation to seek some manner of comfort is just too great, and the dwavren inability to learn from what has come before is a sort of comedic and moral hook here, a recognition that we are in a children’s story where a certain amount of humorous repetition is inevitable, and that continued disregard of Gandalf’s advice will lead to trouble. Still, it gives us an excellent witticism of Tolkien’s: ”There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something…You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

Fili and Kili search out a cave, but all too quickly. Importantly, Gandalf guesses at the reality –“…that caves up in the mountains were seldom unoccupied…” – but he does not object to entering the cave when it comes right down to it, as wet and miserable as anyone else. There’s a carelessness evident in this party, and not just from the dwarves.

The cave is an apparent oasis in the dismal surrounds of the Misty Mountains, and Tolkien offers some tantalising hints of the company at leisure:

“…they made their blankets comfortable, got out their pipes and blew smoke rings, which Gandalf turned into different colours and set dancing up by the roof to amuse them. They talked and talked, and forgot about the storm, and discussed what each would do with his share of the treasure (when they got it, which at the moment did not seem so impossible); and so they dropped off to sleep one by one.”

If The Hobbit has a consistent flaw, it’s that it’s rare we get a feel for the company as individuals, just conversing with each other and defining their relationships. This seems like a perfect moment to include some dialogue between the dwarves, Gandalf and Bilbo, and Tolkien even has an obvious starting point: what they would all do with their share of the gold (and again note that the point of the quest is financial, not to liberate a homeland). Why not let, Fili, Kili, Dori, Oin or Dwalin talk about what they would do with one fourteenth of what Smaug has, or let Thorin bring up the Arkenstone, or let a dwarf posit to Bilbo what someone like the hobbit would do with such riches? Then they could converse, poke fun, outline some glorious visions. Yet the moment passes, as quickly as one of Gandalf’s smoke rings.

Now is as good a time as any to note Bilbo’s general uselessness over the last number of pages, having been basically just a hanger-on in “A Short Rest” and now just there as well in this chapter. When the issue of looking for somewhere to shelter comes up, the company is noted as thinking that it was “no use sending Bilbo”. But the time is coming where that is going to change, and Bilbo will become not only a vital cog in the company, but even its leading force for a period.

That largely starts here, as Bilbo is the one who gives out a warning about the opening in the back of the cave, following a rather vivid dream of a similar nature. Tolkien likes using dreams as devices of premonition, using the technique repeatedly with Frodo in The Fellowship Of The Ring, though I don’t rightly think that is what he is going for here. You can argue that it is natural for someone in Bilbo’s position to have a nightmare about an opening in the back of the cave they are staying in, and the fact that it comes true is just for the sake of horror, in a limited sense, since this is a children’s book after all.

Out of the opening come goblins, who have been mentioned already, but this is our first proper look at what will amount to a recurring antagonist, albeit one without much of a singular focus. Plenty has been written and read on Tolkien and the difference between his goblins, his orks, his Uruks and whatever else. The official line is that “goblins” and “orcs” are the same thing: Tolkien started out his writing using the word “goblin” for these creatures, as it was more recognisable to a younger readership, but moved gradually to “orc” which is the “correct” term. We’ve even seen it in small way already, through Thorin’s sword, “Orcrist”. Within the context of the universe, “goblin” can be seen as a colloquial term, that it has been my impression is frequently used for orcs of the mountains.

Anyway, here are the goblins, nasty, underhanded violent creatures, who delight in wickedness and the torture of others. And there is a lot of them, as Tolkien makes clear, “…big goblins, great ugly-looking goblins, lots of goblins…” Much of their language and manner can be seen in the trolls of “Roast Mutton”, but these creatures have more intelligence to them, even if it is of a kind that is almost universally applied to evil things. Right from the off, Tolkien associates the goblins with simple harsh words and things, like “rocks and blocks” and “tinder and flint”.

The goblins don’t want to ask questions of the newcomers on their doorstep, grabbing them all and taking them back into their tunnel. The overwhelming force is made clear, with six goblins for every dwarf, and two for every hobbit. Only Gandalf, thanks to Bilbo, is not caught unawares, and kills a number of the dwarves using what is either magic or some kind of chemical explosive, that the narrator notes has a “smell like gunpowder“. Gunpowder won’t make any more appearances in this text, and it isn’t until Saruman’s “blasting fire” in The Two Towers that anything like it will come up again. Much like the mention of your local “post office” a paragraph or so later, and Thorin not wanting to end up a stone-giant “football” earlier, this is another instance of Tolkien framing his story as that of a narrator reading aloud to the reader, much as he presumably read the story to his own children, using ideas and things from reality to better make the point in his fantasy.

The following passages give the goblins the chance to sing, the nature of the verses a direct contrast to the whimsical nonsense of the elves in the previous chapter:

Clap! Snap! the black crack!

Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!

And down down to Goblin-town

You go, my lad!

It’s nasty and cruel stuff, though it does still have a perverse element of fun to it. The monosyllabic, clipped nature of it is a good representation of the goblins, as much as the earlier song from the company was of the dwarves. I’ve heard a few different versions of this, but they’re all generally rollicking and gloating in tone, a tune that suits deep voices and rolling drums.

As with much else in The Hobbit that would appear in The Lord Of The Rings, the goblins here are a little more child-friendly in their talk and tone. The Uruks of “The Uruk-Hai” are the kind of beings you would never imagine singing or cracking jokes to the extent that these goblins do, and the same could be said for what we hear in “The Tower Of Cirith Ungol“. But we should still be clear, and recognise that the goblins of the Misty Mountains are an irredeemably bad lot, as the following pages make clear.

Tolkien is careful to repeatedly note the ponies throughout this chapter, and before, in their usefulness, value, and the efforts to which the company goes to keep them safe. When they first find the cave the ponies are noted as contentedly “champing in their nosebags”. When the crack at the back of the cave is first opened, it’s the ponies that are nabbed first, and it all leads to the unwelcome revelation that the ponies are destined for a goblins’ belly. The reference to this is almost throwaway, but it is a potent sign of how Tolkien wants to depict the goblins. At worst, in Tolkien’s eyes, ponies are useful pack animals, and so not the kind of thing that you should be eating. At best, as seen in the case of Sam and Bill in The Lord Of The Rings, they are beings you would count as allies and friends. That the goblins just eat them is clear evidence of their own evil and total lack of civilisation. This section also calls attention to Tolkien’s repetition of the word goblin to emphasise their numbers and insidiousness: “Out jumped the goblins, big goblins, great ugly-looking goblins, lots of goblins…being rummaged by goblins, and smelt by goblins, and fingered by goblins, and quarrelled over by goblins.

That being said, the goblins have their ingenuity, it’s just all in the wrong places:

Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones…Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well…It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them…

The bolded part is my emphasis, with the audiobook reading, by Rob Inglis, really great at making the point that “beautiful” and “clever” can often be found on different ends of the spectrum. The emphasis on this kind of stuff is interesting, and one wonders if Tolkien was calling back to his time in the trenches of World War One. The goblins don’t immediately make you think German or British or anyone really, but it’s hard not to think that the author was imagining his wartime experience when he wrote the line “ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once”. It also calls to mind an early draft of “The Fall Of Gondolin”, previously mentioned, wherein the goblin armies had tanks for their assault on the elven city. Tolkien is nakedly scathing of such advances: “as it is called“.

The goblins are led by “the Great Goblin“, a figure that at one point I would have sworn was called the Goblin King, but I digress. The Great Goblin is a fantastical figure, literally an enlarged version of the goblins, perhaps an Uruk if future amendments to the canon can be allowed. Of all the goblins that we will encounter in the course of the story, the Great Goblin is the only named one to have lines, and he comes off, again, as a comically cruel character, that you kind of wish you had a bit more time with. And he’s strangely well-spoken to boot, his opening being “Who are these miserable persons?”, before threatening Thorin with “something particularly uncomfortable”. In line with stuff like the goblins referring to the cave as their “porch”, and their hilarious claim that Thorin is lying about his companies intention while lying about what happened in the cave, you can tell that the goblins like to present a façade of civility, but that’s all it is.

Thorin, standing as the company’s spokesman (especially in the absence of Gandalf), makes a show at social nicety, even if the goblin idea of xenia is almost non-existent. Manners are still important it seems, even in these circumstances, and Thorin is smart enough to know that outright defiance, in this moment, is probably not the best idea. But it’s all just a time buying exercise.

Things are probably going to end badly for the company as it stands – the goblins aren’t eating the ponies and whipping their captives if they’re planning on having them stick around for too long – with the narrator specifically noting the possibility of enslavement as about as good as they can reasonably expect. But then out comes Orcrist, already noted as a blade famed for the amount of goblin’s its killed – “It had killed hundreds of goblins in its time, when the fair elves of Gondolin hunted them in the hills or did battle before their walls” – and that’s all she wrote. The Great Goblin’s reaction is equal parts hilarious and terrifying, his civility vanishing in an instant, the true face of the goblins revealed:

Murderers and elf-friends!… Slash them! Beat them! Bite them! Gnash them! Take them away to dark holes full of snakes, and never let them see the light again!” He was in such a rage that he jumped off his seat and himself rushed at Thorin with his mouth open”.

And let’s not forget the difference between the elves and goblins in naming the swords – We have Orcrist, the goblin-cleaver, and Glamdring, the foe-hammer, nice poetic flowery names, and the goblin equivalents are “Biter” and “Beater”. That’s the difference right there.

And then Gandalf – again, noted initially separate to his actions, as in “Roast Mutton” – springs into action. No easy capture for the wizard, who sneaks in behind and launches some more gunpowder magic, before cutting the Great Goblin open, in The Hobbit’s first example of traditional swords and sandals-esque fantasy action. In line with his limited wordplay, it might come as a bit of a disappointment that the supposedly Great Goblin is defeated so easily. The goblin confusion is vividly rendered:

The yells and yammering, croaking, jibbering and jabbering; howls, growls and curses; shrieking and skriking, that followed were beyond description. Several hundred wild cats and wolves being roasted slowly alive together would not have compared with it. The sparks were burning holes in the goblins, and the smoke that now fell from the roof made the air too thick for even their eyes to see through. Soon they were falling over one another and rolling in heaps on the floor, biting and kicking and fighting as if they had all gone mad.”

Glamdring is apparently happy with the bloodshed that is occurring: “…it was bright as blue flame for delight in the killing of the great lord of the cave.” Swords that have some manner of personality to them is another Tolkien thing, most notably perhaps in “Of Turin Turambar” in The Silmarillion, which features a talking variety that tells a guy how happy it’ll be to assist in his suicide. This is a bit more obtuse, and more than that, establishes firmly that these elven swords glow blue when goblins are close, something that is going to be very important later.

The company flees down a tunnel, though to where and what end is not clear. Few of the dwarves get much in the way of characterisation in this chapter, save Fili and Kili who find the cave, but Dori does get a mention at this point, as “a decent fellow“, who begins the process whereby the company take turns helping Bilbo. Bilbo’s usefulness is again called into question here, although it will be one of the last times. For now, Bilbo is a burden, and the necessity of carrying him about will cause the last crisis of the chapter.

Bilbo’s lack of impact is a lot different to Gandalf, who is commanding and critical in equal measure, guiding the dwarves on after the rescue, and even providing a light in the blackness for them to follow (curiously written as coming from his “wand”, when surely the author meant “staff”). In another semi-comical moment, he takes the time to count out the company, like a schoolteacher coming back from an outing with his class, an instance that also allows Tolkien to emphasise how crowded this tunnel must be: “Let me see: one — that’s Thorin; two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven; where are Fili and Kili? Here they are! twelve, thirteen — and here’s Mr. Baggins: fourteen!

Giving the company a brief bit of a breather, he hands Orcrist, that he had the thought to grab, back to Thorin, doing so with a bow, another curious moment, a little out of character for the wizard we have dealt with so far: the two were noted as arguing earlier in the chapter.

Onward the company goes, with the goblins not far behind, and this provides another possible contrast with The Lord Of The Rings, this time with the chase in “The Bridge Of Khazad-Dum“, which also took place in the roots of the Misty Mountains. The company are forced to turn and fight, if only for a moment, which instantly calls attention to the fact that only Gandalf and Thorin are actually armed, a curious thing considering the apparent danger of the quest and the surrounds that they are travelling through. It’s only a very quick bit of swordplay, as the wizard and Thorin drop the two leading goblins quickly, sending the others scattering back, like Han Solo in the Death Star. But the sense of impending doom is still very much present.

The devious intelligence of the goblins is displayed brilliantly here, as they see the problems they have encountered, and devise new tactics. The younger sneakier goblins are sent forward so that they can catch the company unawares. This kind of thing, wherein the goblins look far more dangerous than the trolls of “Roast Mutton”, will be seen to a much more devastating effect in some of the following chapters.

“Over Hill And Under Hill” ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, as poor overweight Bombur, huffing and puffing with Bilbo on his back, is tripped from behind, the beginning of the goblin ambush. But Bilbo, and not for the last time, see’s none of it, the final words of the chapter leaving the reader in suspense: “…the hobbit rolled off his shoulders into the blackness, bumped his head on hard rock, and remembered nothing more.”

Having somewhat muddled through the events of “A Short Rest”, this chapter sticks us right back in the epic work of the Quest for Erebor and the multitude of dangerous fantasy landscapes that need to be traversed in order to fulfill it. Not as well-remembered as the next chapter “Over Hill And Under Hill” is still a fun ride, between the stone-giants, the goblins, the Great Goblin, and the furious escape down the mountain tunnels. Our first real bit of action since Thorin’s brief fight with the trolls occurs in these pages, even if it is limited, and there are neat bits and pieces all over, from the company’s relaxation in the cave, the goblin song, the fleshing out of the elven swords and Bilbo’s own increasingly small looking part to play in proceedings, soon to be reversed.

Character wise though, “Over Hill And Under Hill” is a weak enough one. Gandalf is occasionally grumpy, but decisive when it comes right down to it; Thorin knows when to speak and when to swing a sword, Dori is nice enough to help the less fortunate out if he can, while Bombur does it begrudgingly; Fili and Kili have the impatience of youth; and Bilbo is a man who recognises that some adventures are too big to be easily tackled. While there is plenty to infer and extrapolate, it’s still all a bit shallow, and large parts of the company remain as just names without any bit of character to them.

But I still like this chapter. It’s fun, traditional fantasy adventure, with peril aplenty and tantalising hints of what’s to come. And what’s to come next is, arguably, one of the most famous individual chapters in fantasy history, with one of its most famous characters.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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9 Responses to The Hobbit, Chapter-By-Chapter: Over Hill And Under Hill

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