It won’t take a genius to figure out what general direction the story is going, just from a look at the chapter title here. “Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire” will not be a transitionary affair as the company goes from one set of troublesome circumstances to another. No, they are still in the troublesome set of circumstances.
This chapter opens up with what is essentially a recap of the how things turned out in “Riddles In The Dark”: “Bilbo had escaped the goblins, but he did not know where he was”. This makes me think that it was written a bit after the initial chapter, or maybe it is tying into the episodic nature of things, with the author imaging a break before another recitation to one’s children.
A quick summation of Bilbo’s current position allows for some humour in how he orders the things he has lost: “He had lost hood, cloak, food, pony, his buttons and his friends”. – and we can well imagine that a hobbit like Bilbo would put them in that order. In a somewhat clever turn, Tolkien doesn’t expressly state that Bilbo has come out on the other side of the mountains initially, but instead allows this fact to first belong to Bilbo alone:
“He wandered on and on, till the sun began to sink westwards — behind the mountains. Their shadows fell across Bilbo’s path, and he looked back. Then he looked forward and could see before him only ridges and slopes falling towards lowlands and plains glimpsed occasionally between the trees.
“Good heavens!” he exclaimed. “I seem to have got right to the other side of the Misty Mountains…”
Of course, we might well have guessed that this is what would have occurred from all that running around underground, but I still think that it is nice for the author to allow his main character the opportunity to figure this out for himself.
Regardless of what side of the Misty Mountains Bilbo is on, he’s still on his own, without any of the things mentioned above. The story has been building Bilbo’s heroic credentials slowly, and the previous chapter allowed some individual daring-do, but Bilbo is still nominally part of a larger group, and he wouldn’t be much of a hero or a team player if he didn’t go look for them. The decision to go back towards the mountains is a dismal and, if we’re being honest, a reluctant one for Bilbo to make, but make it he does: a small, but important, thing to note on his journey to greatness. It’s no casual thing after all, magic ring or no, to voluntarily head back into the “horrible, horrible” goblin and Gollum infested caves.
But he doesn’t have to, thankfully, stumbling upon the company as they have the very same argument he was just having internally. But unlike Bilbo, plenty, or even all of the dwarves seem satisfied that they have no obligation to go back into the tunnels: “He has been more trouble than use so far…If we have got to go back now into those abominable tunnels to look for him, then drat him, I say.” Despite hilariously claiming that they are “friends” of Bilbo, this seems remarkably two-faced.
The marked difference between them and Bilbo seems huge, but we might, perhaps, not be too harsh on the dwarves. Tolkien seems at pains not to single one out – when they openly discuss leaving Bilbo behind, the dwarf or dwarves speaking are not identified, and it could have been any of them bar Balin – and its likely enough that we have here is typical dwarven grumbling that we’ve seen before, and maybe even just a loud minority. From a characterisation point of view, this section is perhaps meant to emphasise the current dwarven opinion of Bilbo – very low – and how it will all suddenly start changing very soon.
Regardless, it’s all academic anyway, as Gandalf isn’t leaving anyone behind, and Gandalf is still in a leadership role here. His word is final and he doesn’t “bring things that are of no use”.
Tolkien also gives himself the chance to fill in the gaps here, in a manner somewhat similar to the way that Merry and Pippin will do so in The Two Towers’ “Flotsam and Jetsam“. Dori’s recitation is a bit exposition-ish, but is framed effectively as a grumpy riposte to Gandalf, almost sarcastically pointing out details the wizard is presumably well aware of. It seems we missed another brief fight scene in the tunnels, featuring more swordplay – “You nearly chopped off my head with Glamdring, and Thorin was stabbing here there and everywhere with Orcrist”- and more of Gandalf’s deadly light show, along with a cacophony of dwarves and goblins. Therein lies a nice example of the “Rule of three” in writing: introduce something, remind the audience, payoff. Gandalf’s magical ability with light and loud bangs is introduced once again to the reader, and more on it in a second.
Bilbo’s sudden arrival into the clearing, done in a manner to maximise the surprise, speaks to the Took side of the character, and is very similar to the manner in which he will vanish in “A Long Expected Party“. Bilbo likes to make an entrance, or so it seems. Poor Balin, one of the nicer dwarves, is unintentionally humiliated in the process, and we’ll come back to that later. For now, Balin and Bilbo have to go through the needed formalities, in a moment of polite society hilariously out of place given the circumstances:
“Well, it is the first time that even a mouse has crept along carefully and quietly under my very nose and not been spotted,” said Balin, “and I take off my hood to you.” Which he did.
“Balin at your service,” said he.
“Your servant, Mr. Baggins,” said Bilbo.”
There then follows Bilbo’s tale of what happened in the tunnels. Obviously, Bilbo leaves out the very important and rather pertinent detail of the Ring, and the riddle contest is changed accordingly. Why Bilbo does this is not rightfully explained in the text, beyond brief internal asides – “not just now” – but readers of The Lord Of The Rings can surmise what is occurring neatly enough. The sinister influence of the Ring has already hooked into Bilbo, and it doesn’t want knowledge of his possession to spread too far too quickly: not to the gold hungry dwarves, and certainly not to Gandalf the Grey, who alone among the company would probably know the most about such things. And so, probably not with his own conscious consent, Bilbo persuades himself to keep the Ring a secret, for now at any rate, and positively revels in being the show-off otherwise.
Bilbo’s story grants him some varying reactions. The dwarves are bowled over by his slightly exaggerated tale of immense coolness under pressure, and begin to respect him and his burglar abilities a lot more going forward. But Gandalf, while overly praising Bilbo’s escapades, isn’t entirely convinced: “He gave Bilbo a queer look from under his bushy eyebrows, as he said this, and the hobbit wondered if he guessed at the part of his tale that he had left out”. The wizard didn’t get to where he is by being an easy mark, and knows the signs of deceit. Gandalf will outline his feelings on the matter more overtly in “The Shadow Of The Past”:
“A shadow fell on my heart then, though I did not know yet what I feared. I wondered often how Gollum came by a Great Ring, as plainly it was – that at least was clear from the first. Then I heard Bilbo’s strange story of how he had “won” it, and I could not believe it. When I at last got the truth out of him, I saw at once that he had been trying to put his claim to the ring beyond doubt. Much like Gollum with his “birthday present”. The lies were too much alike for my comfort. Clearly the ring had an unwholesome power that set to work on its keeper at once.”
From there, Gandalf gets to show off his own expertise, and his ego, being a man who “never minded explaining his cleverness more than once“. His role in the company’s escape is detailed, though little in the way of additional material is added to what we know already. What is important is the “rule of three” reminder to the audience: “Gandalf had made a special study of bewitchments with fire and lights (even the hobbit had never forgotten the magic fireworks at Old Took’s midsummer-eve parties, as you remember).” This will be coming into play in a very short while. For now, I want to note a particular turn of phrase Gandalf uses, in reference to their escape:
“‘A very ticklish business, it was,’ he said. ‘Touch and go!‘”
Which is also uses in The Lord Of The Rings’ “Many Meetings“, in reference to Frodo’s adventures:
“But you have some strength in you, my dear hobbit! As you showed in the Barrow. That was touch and go: perhaps the most dangerous moment of all.”
Tolkien is happy to note the general air of success among the company – “…they had killed the Great Goblin and a great many others besides, and they had all escaped, so they might be said to have had the best of it so far” – but almost straight away he also wants to sum up the cold hard reality. The company is here, “over the Edge of the Wild on the borders of the unknown“, with no supplies, no pack animals, very little in the way of arms, and no clear idea even of where they are, other than east of the Misty Mountains. Oh, and to top it all off, the moment the light fails, the goblins “will be out after us in hundreds“. So, the peril of the company’s situation is still very real. Much like the Fellowship in the aftermath of “The Bridge Of Khazad-Dum“, Thorin and the rest aren’t quite out of danger.
Now that the excitement of being an adventurer and hero has worn off, Bilbo has more practical concerns in mind, leading to this wonderful exchange of witty wordplay and black humour between himself and Gandalf:
“I am dreadfully hungry,” groaned Bilbo, who was suddenly aware that he had not had a meal since the night before the night before last. Just think of that for a hobbit! His stomach felt all empty and loose and his legs all wobbly, now that the excitement was over.
“Can’t help it,” said Gandalf, “unless you like to go back and ask the goblins nicely to let you have your pony back and your luggage.”
“No thank you!” said Bilbo.
“Very well then, we must just tighten our belts and trudge on — or we shall be made into supper, and that will be much worse than having none ourselves.”
The poor hobbit, so used to full larders and second breakfasts, is reduced to eating the random fruit he finds on the way (and, pointedly, there is no mention of sharing with the dwarves). From here, there is another period where Bilbo becomes a more passive character, but it will be temporary.
There are geographical dangers aplenty still as well, as the company navigates a rocky slope that quickly descends into a miniature avalanche. Tolkien emphasises the barren nature of the ground by waving goodbye to an assortment of greenery: “They still went on and on. The rough path disappeared. The bushes, and the long grasses between the boulders, the patches of rabbit-cropped turf, the thyme and the sage and the marjoram, and the yellow rockroses all vanished…”. In another moment of foreshadowing, the company uses trees to save themselves from the slide.
The company seems to have marched a long way, and the reader can perhaps feel it a bit more than usual owing to the lack of food, when the main danger and crux of the chapter comes into view. Wolves have been an element in fiction for as long as there has been fiction: The Epic Of Gilgamesh features a shepherd who is turned into one by an angry God. Being predatory animals that were often a scourge to Eurasian peoples, it is not surprising that wolves in fiction are often associated with violence, destruction and death, being a symbol of both warriors and evil (notwithstanding the occasional references of them in a positive light, as with the tale of Romulus and Remus, or the origin stories of the Mongols). A man like Tolkien would presumably have taken much influence from Norse and Germanic traditions, which includes the monstrous wolf Fenrir which has a major part to play in Ragnarok, and the very concept of a werewolf. Even up to today, we continue to be reared on tales of the “Big Bad Wolf”, portraying the animal as both murderous and duplicitous.
The wolves of Middle-Earth aren’t going to buck that trend. The first of several animal groups that will receive anthropomorphic characterisations in The Hobbit (and the next one is coming quick), the wolves are our latest antagonist group. Their howling is sign enough, being noted immediately as a terrifying sound, and Tolkien makes their alignment explicit in the course of Bilbo’s reaction: “Even magic rings are not much use against wolves — especially against the evil packs that lived under the shadow of the goblin-infested mountains…Wolves of that sort smell keener than goblins, and do not need to see you to catch you!”
The company’s predicament – “Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!” – brings us to the title of the chapter, which the narrator claims finds its origin in this specific instance. It’s a bit of a stretch if we’re being honest. If interested, the saying “Out of the frying pan, into the fire” actually dates to Thomas More in 1532, using the term to describe the actions of long term rival William Tyburn in their pamphlet war, though the sentiment expressed can be found as far back as Greek writings from the first century CE.
The dwarves have little else to do but scramble up the trees they previously used to find safety, but, as before, they leave Bilbo in serious peril. Dori, having previously dropped Bilbo before making excuses for his behaviour, is the one to be given the opportunity for a bit of redemption here, scrambling back down to give the burglar a hand. Such a moment of simple humanity might well be seen as being necessary, as the dwarves weren’t painted all that positively earlier on in this chapter.
Tolkien takes the time now to greater discuss the wolves, who are no run-of-the-mill variety lupines. No, these are directly identified as “wargs”, a word with its origins in the norse “vargr”, a term that was specifically used to describe the aforementioned Fenrir and his kin, wolves of great destructive power (the root of the word itself means “destroy”). These wolves are intelligent and have a rudimentary society, evolved enough that they can negotiate and team-up with other races when the need requires. There is an identifiable leader, a “great grey wolf“, which will naturally make one think of the Great Goblin back in “Over Hill And Under Hill“. And they have a language that is advanced enough that Gandalf can even understand it, though Tolkien won’t go as far as letting us see directly what the wolves are saying, in contrast to the later eagles. The wolves are noted as simply making a “dreadful clamour” of “growling and yelping” as they discuss “cruel and wicked things“.
The wolves are noted as being in a league of convenience with the goblins, with both sides helping the others when it comes to attacks on encroaching local communicates, who have been spreading from the south. The wolves can only do so much, but wolves operating as goblin cavalry is another thing altogether. This terrifying image again emphasizes that these are no ordinary wolves out to hunt down a stray morsel: indeed, the very reason they are here is to meet up with the goblins to plan out their latest atrocity against the “brave woodmen“, a community that we will get some small insight into in the next chapter.
But before all that, there is a company of dwarves and wizards and hobbits to contend with. Gandalf is smart enough to know that there will be no walking away peacefully from this confrontation. They could wait it out, but the goblins are on their way, so there is a ticking clock to all this. And so, having reminded the reader of his skill with pyro techniques, Gandalf unleashes his latest trick, turning pine cones into flammable grenades. The sudden confusion and madness that the bombs cause is vividly rendered by Tolkien, though it is still child-friendly enough that you can’t mistake any influence from the military days:
“The rage of the wolves was terrible to see, and the commotion they made filled all the forest. Wolves are afraid of fire at all times, but this was a most horrible and uncanny fire. If a spark got in their coats it stuck and burned into them, and unless they rolled over quick they were soon all in flames. Very soon all about the glade wolves were rolling over and over to put out the sparks on their backs, while those that were burning were running about howling and setting others alight, till their own friends chased them away and they fled off down the slopes crying and yammering and looking for water.”
The commotion is seen by some faraway eyes, and the author cuts to the next animal faction to be introduced, the eagles, those giant birds that will play such a crucial part in the rest of his mythology. Tolkien is almost at pains to portray these birds as morally ambivalent, creatures who have no great fondness for men or dwarves or even wizards, but who do have a natural dislike for goblins and wolves as a matter of principal. He specifically notes that there are “cruel” and “cowardly” cousins of the eagles elsewhere in the world, but these are the “greatest of all birds“, who, for sport if no other reason, are happy to interfere with what is occurring down below. Just as in “Roast Mutton” and “Over Hill And Under Hill”, Tolkien notes this incoming force of allies before the crucial moment, so they do not come as an absolute surprise.
The arrival of the goblins allows for more general characterisation of this race, who fall around laughing at the sight of their mounts fleeing in terror of fire, before turning their minds to the company. The cruel ingenuity of the goblins has already been mentioned, and here they elect to turn Gandalf’s fire back on him, leaving the company in a remarkably bad place. The gloating and bullying nature of the goblins comes to the fore in another nasty song, as they seem positively gleeful at the idea of the dwarves roasting alive, or being forced to come down and fight a hopeless battle.
Gandalf, for his part, tries a brief bit of intimidation, treating the goblins like rogue children who need to be reined in: “Go away! little boys!” shouted Gandalf in answer. “It isn’t bird-nesting time. Also naughty little boys that play with fire get punished.” But this show of authoritative bravado is just that, a show, and the goblins, delighting too much in the misery they plan to cause, aren’t buying it.
The author goes to some dark places in this moment, noting Bilbo’s feelings on his apparent impending doom – “Smoke was in Bilbo’s eyes, he could feel the heat of the flames; and through the reek he could see the goblins dancing round and round in a circle like people round a midsummer bonfire.” – to describing how Gandalf is prepared to leap off the tree and crash to the ground “like a thunderbolt“, essentially committing suicide while taking as many of his foes with him as possible. But luckily, it won’t come to that, as rescue arrives even as the flames begin to lick the company’s feet.
This brings us back to Tolkien’s famous, or infamous if you prefer, concept of “eucatastrophe” which I have spoken on before. There have been rescues before in this text, with the trolls and the goblins, but in both instances it was established characters doing the rescuing in circumstances you wouldn’t altogether describe as incredibly miraculous. Gandalf tricks the trolls into being turned to stone, and later causes confusion and terror among the goblins. But here, giant eagles swoop down from the sky, having only been introduced to the narrative a page or two previously, to snatch the company up and carry them to safety. It must be remembered that Tolkien did not consider eucatastrophe moments like this to just be convenient ways for his heroes to escape impending doom, but thought the very idea to be a core theme of his works, that of hope, optimism and happy endings being rendered as part of the very narrative, and went further to say that classical myth as we understand it is intertwined with the concept. So, when Tolkien has the eagles come to the rescue here – and later – he’s saying something deeper than “I have written myself into a hole and need to get out of it”.
The actual fight here is a nice moment of justified commeuppance for the goblins, now set to flight:
“There was a howl of anger and surprise from the goblins. Loud cried the Lord of the Eagles, to whom Gandalf had now spoken. Back swept the great birds that were with him, and down they came like huge black shadows. The wolves yammered and gnashed their teeth; the goblins yelled and stamped with rage, and flung their heavy spears in the air in vain. Over them swooped the eagles; the dark rush of their beating wings smote them to the floor or drove them far away; their talons tore at goblin faces.”
The rescue by the eagles means we say goodbye to the goblins and the wolves, for now, but Tolkien has laid the groundwork for their return, both in noting how the two team up with each other when the occasion arises, and in how they both now have a reason to seek revenge against the company. But that’s in the future. In the present, the moment of saving allows for some physical comedy, as we picture the wizard and the dwarves being snatched up in sequence, with poor Bilbo, almost left behind again, now forced to step and save himself by grabbing onto Dori’s ankles. This unexpected flight might be captivating – “Soon the light of the burning was faint below, a red twinkle on the black floor; and they were high up in the sky, rising all the time in strong sweeping circles.”- but Bilbo would, of course, rather be anywhere else: “At the best of times heights made Bilbo giddy. He used to turn queer if he looked over the edge of quite a little cliff; and he had never liked ladders, let alone trees (never having had to escape from wolves before). So you can imagine how his head swam now…”
Now a guest of the eagles, Bilbo has reason to once again embrace the values of civilisation and polite society: “He wondered what other nonsense he had been saying, and if the eagle would think it rude. You ought not to be rude to an eagle, when you are only the size of a hobbit, and are up in his eyrie at night!” This emphasizes again the apparent neutrality of the eagles, who didn’t really help the company out of any great love for them, their cause or their general alignment. Indeed, Tolkien plays around for a bit with the word “prisoners” to describe the company in the eyes of the eagles, as if he really wants the reader to consider that the they are out of the frying pan, out of the fire, and into the gullet of some horrible beast.
But they have no reason to fear really. Gandalf’s entire presence on Middle-Earth revolves around making alliance with every race going, or at least with the ones who aren’t evil. The eagles, the great eagles anyway, are no exception. The wizard’s backstory with the eagles is only briefly commented on, but draws allusions with the Roman tale of Androcles and the lion, or maybe sections of Finnish epic The Kalevala. The moral of all these stories is more or less the same: that kindness shown to those in need, while being in itself a reward, may well result in future positives.
The “Lord of the Eagles”, in a manner very much like Elrond, holds counsel with Gandalf, and allows the company a release from the recent dread, and it provokes a cathartic feeling of relief in both Bilbo and the reader: “As Bilbo listened to the talk of Gandalf he realized that at last they were going to escape really and truly from the dreadful mountains.” The last word on the eagles here again notes their apparent lack of honour in comparison to other races – stealing the sheep of the “brave woodsmen” – but they really aren’t all bad.
The last boon the eagles will grant is some food for the company, in the form of roasted meat. It doesn’t take long for the old Bilbo to assert himself: “‘I am nearly dead of it,” said Bilbo in a weak little voice that nobody heard” is what is said at first, but once feed “he would have liked a loaf and butter better than bits of meat toasted on sticks.” We might be over the “Edge of the Wild“, but a hobbit is a hobbit.
And yet, there is the final moments of the chapter, which point to something different:
“He slept curled up on the hard rock more soundly than ever he had done on his feather-bed in his own little hole at home. But all night he dreamed of his own house and wandered in his sleep into all his different rooms looking for something that he could not find nor remember what it looked like.”
We shouldn’t discount this, as Tolkien repeatedly uses dreams as premonitions or as moments of subtle characterisation, most obviously with Frodo’s dreams in The Fellowship Of The Ring. Here, the obvious question is what Bilbo’s subconscious is seeking for, and my own interpretation has always been that it’s the Baggins side of him, that is vanishing more and more the farther away from Bag End Bilbo gets. The Took side is driving the ship now: in his dreams, set in the location most associated with the more conservative, restrained part of his personality, he can’t find nor remember something that used to be vitally important to him. Bilbo has already seen and done so much in this adventure, and the strangest is yet to come. The Baggins side is going to have to stay buried for a while.
It would have been easy for Tolkien to turn this into a short transition chapter in line with “A Short Rest“, or to skip it entirely and just have the company trot right into the events of the next chapter. But instead, we get a small episodic adventure, involving new factions, serious peril and more characterisation for more dwarves (and Gandalf). There is a depth to proceedings here that shouldn’t be ignored, like Bilbo’s deception over how he found the Ring, the politics of evil factions, or Gandalf’s willingness to sacrifice his life just to take out a few goblins. While “Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire” will never be considered one of the more memorable chapters in The Hobbit, it still goes beyond being a pit-stop in the narrative, and it’s also notable for setting up the existence of the wolves and the eagles, who will have such an important part to play later in the tale.
The actual transition chapter – though it seems a bit derogatory to term it so – comes next.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.