Get the titters about the title out of the way now folks. “Queer Lodgings” is our second transitionary chapter, as the company leave the terror of the mountains behind and look forward to a whole new kind of terror in Mirkwood. However, it is an incredibly lengthy transition, with “Queer Lodgings” coming in as the third longest chapter in the story behind only “An Unexpected Party” and the next chapter. This is something I always tend to forget when I re-read, but Tolkien does fill in an awful lot of pages here, albeit with a distinct lack of significant plot events or even characterization.
We begin where we left off in “Out Of The Frying-Pan Into The Fire“, with Bilbo and the others still up in the eyries of the great eagles. Bilbo’s status is re-emphasised twice in the opening few paragraphs:
“…he sat down and wished in vain for a wash and a brush. He did not get either, nor tea nor toast nor bacon for his breakfast, only cold mutton and rabbit…’Don’t pinch!’ said his eagle. “You need not be frightened like a rabbit, even if you look rather like one. It is a fair morning with little wind. What is finer than flying?”
Bilbo would have liked to say: “A warm bath and late breakfast on the lawn afterwards;‘”
As this comes so close after the last mention, to the point it could be considered needlessly repetitive, it indicates once again that Tolkien meant for The Hobbit to be read out loud to children, a chapter at a time.
The company are soon back in the sky, soaring majestically, with the earth described beautifully far below them: “The morning was cool, and mists were in the valleys and hollows and twined here and there about the peaks and pinnacles of the hills. Bilbo opened an eye to peep and saw that the birds were already high up and the world was far away, and the mountains were falling back behind them into the distance.” Bilbo of course, is still terrified, and has every reason to be, not least because the eagle he is riding hilariously compares him to the rabbit they all just ate. Regardless, they all cover a great distance, and are dropped close to the un-named Anduin River.
We’re past the “Edge of the Wild” and have been for a while, but now Tolkien takes the time to note the transition from the mountains to the in-between ahead of Mirkwood. The eagles leave the company at the “Carrock“, a great rock described as “a last outpost of the distant mountains” and the author will be at pains to emphasise that the previous adventure is now over, and something worse is coming, all throughout “Queer Lodgings”.
The eagles leave the story, for the moment, in a flurry of formal goodbyes:
“Farewell!” they cried, “wherever you fare, till your eyries receive you at the journey’s end!” That is the polite thing to say among eagles.
“May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks,” answered Gandalf, who knew the correct reply.”
Such niceties seem oddly out of place in this wilderness, but in fact it is here that the company will find themselves right back in places where the traditional rules of civilization, xenia and all, will be adhered to.
It’s here that the narration takes a strange turn, with the author deciding to, essentially, spoil the ending of his own story. The dwarves promise the eagles gold in return for their help, before they leave the eyries, and then at this leave-taking it is noted:
“…though the lord of the eagles became in after days the King of All Birds and wore a golden crown, and his fifteen chieftains golden collars (made of the gold that the dwarves gave them)…”
So, we know from this point that the quest to win the gold back from Smaug is going to be a success. While the outcome of such a book being a happy ending can hardly be called a major surprise, it is a little astonishing that Tolkien felt it was OK to drop this titbit. He also adds the following:
“Bilbo never saw them again-except high and far off in the battle of Five Armies. But as that comes in at the end of this tale we will say no more about it just now.”
Which also tells us that the book is ending with a big battle involving five armies (and that the eagles will be there), though we don’t really need to talk about it right now. It’s all rather curious, the dropping of plot pivotal climax details, and the statement that we shouldn’t talk any more about it.
The company regroups at the base of the Carrock (in a “small cave” that the author quickly points out as a “wholesome” place, unlike some of the other caves encountered in the story, lest we get concerned). Here, Gandalf announces his intention to depart the company soon, having inadvertently come farther along than he intended to. The “pressing business” he has elsewhere is not going to be elaborated upon in this chapter, but it is going to take him southwards.
This reality makes the reader ponder on what exactly is Gandalf’s role in this quest. He states that he aimed to get the company safely over the mountains, which he has just about managed to do, but what’s the end game? Why is Gandalf doing all this? Slaying the dangerous dragon is all well and good, but I don’t believe this is ever made clear as Gandalf’s objective, at least in The Hobbit (the appendices of The Lord Of The Rings will state this more bluntly, as the wizard worries what Sauron might do with a dragon). The dwarves, as is typical for people obsessed with wealth, offer Gandalf “dragon-gold and silver and jewels” if he’ll stick around, even though the wizard doesn’t seem the type to lust after material enrichment. Even still, he snarkily notes that “I think I have earned already some of your dragon-gold“, which is quite true, though he also adds, rather pertinently “when you have got it“: by no means a sure thing just yet.
There follows a brilliantly comedic exchange that a language expert like Tolkien probably delighted in, on the origin of words and the importance of capital letters:
“And why is it called the Carrock?” asked Bilbo as he went along at the wizard’s side.
“He called it the Carrock, because carrock is his word for it. He calls things like that carrocks, and this one is the Carrock because it is the only one near his home and he knows it well.”
If wondering if Tolkien invented this word just for The Hobbit, he didn’t: it’s from the Cumbric language’s “carrec” which means…rock. Yup.
This brings us swiftly onto the chapters central section, that involving Beorn. The company is still in the middle of nowhere with no supplies and a long way to go, so they need some more help. We get introduced to Beorn bit-by-bit, learning lots of important things about him before he ever actually appears, the most important being that he is a “skin-changer” which, as a horrified Gandalf insists in an overblown manner, does not mean he is a taxidermist (and woe betide anyone who makes such a mistake, apparently, though Beorn is not adverse to skinning wolves as we’ll find out).
The idea of a human who can change his form into that of an animal is, as you might guess, a very old idea, going back to even pre-literature times. Plenty of ancient traditions feature anthropomorphic deities who turn into animals for earthbound adventures and we’ve briefly touched already on the Germanic origins of the were-wolf concept. Even Irish myth carries the concept in The Children of Lir. But Beorn is something a bit different. In literature, shapeshifting of this kind is typically a curse of some description, or is used for evil purposes. Shape shifters are tricky, deceptive, and often murderous characters. Elsewhere in the Tolkien works, you only have to look at Sauron in The Silmarillion, the “Lord of Werewolves”, for an example.
But Beorn, while not entirely pleasant, is on the side of good. He’s going to be an aid to the company, and an enemy to its foes. But we won’t get any concrete clues as where Beorn gained this power, or if there are others like him, only that he likely came from the mountains, a place he prophesises he will return to someday, once the goblins are gone. The language used to describe Beorn, by the narrator and by Gandalf, mirrors that used for other characters, most notably Tom Bombadil, as beings that operate of their own will. Beorn is “under no enchantment but his own” for example, just as Bombadil is described as “his own master” and may not even be a man at all. Like Bombadil, he might be something a bit different, a spirit of nature (hence the vegetarianism and almost parental love of animals and insects), an avatar of bears (Beorn coming from the Scandinavian Bjorn, meaning “bear”) or some such. Anyway, we’ll learn more as we go.
Like Beorn’s apiary skills, with “Queer Lodgings” full of bees, hornets, drones, hives, buzzing and numerous applications of honey. And these are no ordinary honeymakers, these are “bigger than your thumb” and shine “like fiery gold“. Indeed, so large are they, that they don’t collect honey from fields, but from all-out “bee-pastures“. Beorn needs the honey, as he puts it in everything, including food that may or may not have magical properties. Tolkien’s depiction of these somewhat giant insects as mostly useful beings is at odds with what will come in the next chapter and provides a useful contrast between what lurks in Mirkwood and what buzzes around nearby. For the record, the largest bee species that we know is the Megachile pluto, an Indonesian native that can reach 1.5 inches in length and 2.5 in width (wing to wing) which would be there or thereabouts for what Tolkien is describing, though I don’t suppose he was aware of the Megachile. Hornets can get a bit bigger, with the Asian giant hornet, also known as the “yak-killer” (!) 1.8 by 3.0 inches.
Having arrived at Beorn’s sprawling estate, Gandalf outlines his plan for actually getting some help, and it will presumably sound a little familiar:
“I shall introduce you slowly, two by two, I think; and you must be careful not to annoy him, or heaven knows what will happen. He can be appalling when he is angry, though he is kind enough if humoured. Still I warn you he gets angry easily.”
And later, after the fact:
“Mr. Baggins saw then how clever Gandalf had been. The interruptions had really made Beorn more interested in the story, and the story had kept him from sending the dwarves off at once like suspicious beggars.”
Which, of course, is exactly what Gandalf did to Bilbo in “An Unexpected Party”. Knowing the hobbit might just dismiss a troop of dwarves that all turn up at his door at once, he instead sent them in ones and twos, to soften the blow and pique his curiosity. Bilbo, perhaps not realizing that he was the rube previously, even notes how smart this is. And now, Gandalf does it again, and is successful again.
Gandalf and Bilbo go in first, with Gandalf starting to set Bilbo up as his representative in absentia, which we’ll note again before the end of the chapter. They find their soon-to-be host, forewarned by some unusually intelligent horses, is there to meet them, every inch the stereotypical lumberjack: “…a huge man with a thick black beard and’ hair, and great bare arms and legs with knotted muscles. He was clothed in a tunic of wool down to his knees, and was leaning on a large axe.” Beorn’s opening words are astonishingly blunt and outright rude, considering that Gandalf has indicated he is a potential ally, as he first dismisses the duo as any kind of threat – “Ugh! here they are…They don’t look dangerous” before he very directly gets to the point with his next line: “Who are you and what do you want?” he asked gruffly, standing in front of them and towering tall above Gandalf.” The wizard’s “I am Gandalf” reply reads a bit confrontational, but he soon adopts a politer tone as he explains who he is, and who Bilbo is, though Beorn doesn’t get any nicer: “Well, now I know who you are, or who you say you are. What do you want?” But as soon as goblins as an enemy are brought up, things start to change: “Goblins?” said the big man less gruffly.”
The resulting conversation is a comedy scene, as Gandalf strings out telling Beorn the true number of the company, and the dwarves keep arriving in dribs and drabs. In another rejection of the traditional niceties, Beorn actively prevents the dwarves from talking, or offering their service: “I don’t need your service, thank you,” said Beorn, “but I expect you need mine.” Beorn remains impolite to a fault, but then again, the company is, essentially, trying to mooch a place to stay off of him.
Gandalf’s recitation is essentially the greatest hits of everything that occurred after “A Short Rest” and, in the end, the wizard’s ploy works out, with a hint that Beorn, a solitary figure, might actually enjoy a brief few days of more company than his animals: “He never invited people into his house, if he could help it. He had very few friends and they lived a good way away…”A very good tale!” said he. “The best I have heard for a long while. If all beggars could tell such a good one, they might find me kinder.” However, he stays a bit condescending, treating the dwarves very much like the “comic troupe” he describes them as, performing for their bread: “You may be making it all up, of course, but you deserve a supper for the story all the same.”
Beorn, finally giving in to xenia’s obligations, feeds the company – presumably a vegetarian feast of cream and honey: my illustrated edition depicted it as bread, salad, soup and fish – and Tolkien goes as far as to directly compare the experience to that given by Elrond in Rivendell, as if “Queer Lodgings” needed any more labelling as a transition chapter. But it carries with a bizarre Doctor Doolittle-esque scene of the company being served by animals, up to and including dogs on their hind legs. But the only thing that I thought was really worth noting here was how Beorn is happy to tell detailed stories of the local area and Mirkwood – a terrible sounding place, with Beorn perhaps deliberately trying to unnerve the dwarves – but when the company tries to reciprocate, he isn’t interested. It might be because the dwarves, for the second time in the chapter, misjudge their audience: “They spoke most of gold and silver and jewels and the making of things by smith-craft, and Beorn did not appear to care for such things: there were no things of gold or silver in his hall, and few save the knives were made of metal at all.”
Bilbo is entranced by Beorn’s home, as he hears “a sound like wind in the branches stirring in the rafters, and the hoot of owls” that appears to come from nowhere. It’s a short paragraph, but again should draw comparisons between Beorn and Bombadil in the readers mind, with Bombadil’s home also a place where the night-time hours brought mysterious noises and sleep-induced visions. Beorn, like Bombadil, also vanishes in the night.
The dwarves seem less bothered by what is occurring (or maybe it is just in the mind of the hobbit) choosing to spend their night on another song. Similar in some respects to the song they sung in Bag End, with the same verse structure, it has a certain melancholy tone, as they sing about a great west wind that passes “down from mountains cold” through the hissing and whistling forest and on past “the Lonely Mountain bare“. The song would appear to be about the literal wind as a sort of tangible identifiable entity – a not uncommon approach to elements – and, obviously, another nod to the sound of a coming dragon, a noise that “roared and rolled“. Beorn’s words on Mirkwood clearly have the dwarves thinking about the rest of their journey, and how survival through Mirkwood will only bring them an even greater foe. The song is a welcome moment for the dwarves, who are otherwise largely character-less in this chapter, lacking any individual focus. In fact, I think they are described as speaking collectively throughout this chapter – “they asked“, “they all cried” – with a few brief exceptions.
Beorn’s status as a “skin-changer” is confirmed in the night and after, as Bilbo has the disconcerting experience of hearing Beorn’s animal form scratching at the door, leading the hobbit to worry about getting killed: a not impossible possibility, as Gandalf’s previous warning to stay inside made clear.
The company is left alone the following day, to essentially sit around and be waited on by Beorn’s animals, with Gandalf absent as well. Tolkien goes through this sequence quickly, and that’s both a good and bad thing. Good, in that he doesn’t belabour the point, but bad in that it seems another good opportunity to get the dwarves and Bilbo talking, showing some character, etc/ Much like the company’s brief moment of relaxation in the cave back “Over Hill And Under Hill” you can’t help but wonder what they spend their time actually doing. They could talk about Beorn, or Mirkwood, or even Gandalf, but they don’t. Instead, the only thing really worth noting is how Bilbo is in a relegated role once again, with the dwarves eating breakfast without waking him, and dismissively leaving him the scraps when he finally does get up. Later still, Bilbo will be essentially dismissed by Gandalf when he starts to ask questions about Beorn that are a bit too aggravating, and ordered to bed as his “wits are sleepy“.
Gandalf’s return from his little side-adventure is interesting, though I wasn’t overly fond of the teasing out of what he’d been doing, with a paragraph focusing on his smoke rings (for the third time I believe). “…he said at last” is how Tolkien describes Gandalf beginning his tale, and that sort of fits what the reader is presumably thinking.
The wizard’s been busy, having traversed the local area around the Anduin, following in Beorn’s overly-large footprints. The exact point of doing this seems a bit fuzzy: so Gandalf found out that Beorn led a group of bears into the mountains. He wasn’t able to follow, and he already knew that the goblins and wargs would be out after them at some point. This recitation allows for an interesting description of what I choose to call “bear moot” – “There must have been a regular bears’ meeting outside here last night. I soon saw that Beorn could not have made them all: there were far too many of them, and they were of various sizes too. I should say there were little bears, large bears, ordinary bears, and gigantic big bears, all dancing outside from dark to nearly dawn“- but that’s about all that it does.
The chapter is seriously starting to lag, but is buoyed up a bit by Beorn’s homecoming, who injects some badly needed energy into the scene, even if he is astonishingly rude to Bilbo: “He picked up the hobbit and laughed: “Not eaten up by Wargs or goblins or wicked bears yet I see”; and he poked Mr. Baggins’ waistcoat most disrespectfully. “Little bunny is getting nice and fat again on bread and honey,” he chuckled.” Beorn’s happiness is juxtaposed nicely with the blood-soaked evidence of his night-time activities, wherein The Hobbit turns all George R.R. Martin for a moment: “A goblin’s head was stuck outside the gate and a warg-skin was nailed to a tree just beyond. Beorn was a fierce enemy.”
Beorn’s story draws attention to the general lifelessness of the chapter, as its almost like we’ve stumbled into some other, very exciting story for a moment. Goblin raids, rampaging wargs, brutal interrogations of the enemy and bloody vengeance abound, but we only see a brief glimpse of this frontier warfare, before we are sent resoundingly back to earth.
More pertinent to the characters we are following, we get concrete information of what the dwarves are going to be going up against in the next chapter. Beorn’s warnings about Mirkwood are grave, outlining the vision of a dark and scary place, where opportunities for succour will be non-existent:
“…your way through Mirkwood is dark, dangerous and difficult,” he said. “Water is not easy to find there, nor food. The time is not yet come for nuts (though it may be past and gone indeed before you get to the other side), and nuts are about all that grows there fit for food; in there the wild things are dark, queer, and savage…I doubt very much whether anything you find in Mirkwood will be wholesome to eat or to drink… you must depend on your luck and your courage…”
From there, we’re of on the journey north, with Tolkien taking the time to outline exactly why Mirkwood cannot be (easily) bypassed. Its description, with signs of life decreasing the closer the company gets to “the great overhanging boughs of its outer trees” matches some other places in Tolkien’s writings, though he is at pains to draw a line between Mirkwood and other wooded areas, depicted in “The Old Forest” and “Treebeard”. Those places are old and carry enchantment: Mirkwood has those things, but a clear and unmistakable malevolence, even when just observed from outside: “Their trunks were huge and gnarled, their branches twisted, their leaves were dark and long… it had seemed as dark in there in the morning as at night, and very secret: “a sort of watching and waiting feeling,” he said to himself.” The company are watched by Beorn, not out of a sense of allied protectiveness, but concern for his animals. The dwarves foolishly indicate they’d rather like to keep them, an astoundingly bad idea: you don’t need Gandalf to tell you that booms from supernatural beings should not be abused or taken for granted.
The time comes then for Gandalf’s departure, to be about his “pressing business”. Obviously, Tolkien doesn’t want to go into details, but the Necromancer is namechecked in these last few pages, so the eventual revelation of Gandalf’s activities will not be too shocking. Having been diminished and at times ridiculed in this chapter, Bilbo starts growing again here, with Gandalf tapping him directly as his representative for the rest of the journey: “…I am sending Mr. Baggins with you. I have told you before that he has more about him than you guess, and you will find that out before long.”
The goodbyes become exceedingly drawn out – farewell or goodbye is said nine times in the last two pages, to the extent that it eventually becomes an acrimonious thing: “O good-bye and go away!” – but the readers eye will be drawn more to the constant warnings for the dwarves not to leave the forest path, in even put in capital letters, a sure sign that this is exactly what will occur.
All that’s left is for the company to take the final plunge into the forest, and the return to more active adventures, the very act leaving a tantalising sentence for the reader: “Now began the most dangerous part of all the journey.”
“Queer Lodgings” may be the weakest chapter in the story. Tolkien litters his major works with transition chapters, but they are usually short, like the aptly titled “A Short Rest” or are otherwise an interesting glimpse of part of Middle-Earth with a larger point to make, like the Lothlorien trilogy in The Fellowship Of The Ring. “Queer Lodgings” has Beorn, and he is fascinating, but we really see fairly little of him, in an otherwise very lengthy chapter.
Tolkien indulged himself a bit too much here, and while that sometimes works out, it always feels to me that the story stops dead in “Queer Lodgings”, lodged as it is between two of the more exciting parts of the narrative. And the characterisation is seriously lacking here: Gandalf gets the majority of the dialogue, with the dwarves often speaking in unison, and not saying anything especially notable when they aren’t. Even Bilbo is left to carry on in observation mode, not really making any kind of an impact on proceedings, with not even the Ring, apparently such a pivotal object, mentioned once in these pages.
But, in terms of characterisation, there is an unspoken thing we should note. The company spends this chapter on the run and then hearing terrible tales and warnings about the rest of their journey, through the horror of Mirkwood and on to face the Lonely Mountain and the dragon beyond. They’re uneasy about it, in dismay, grumbling and angry. But there is never even the slightest hint that they want to give, up, turn back and forget about their “long-forgotten gold”. The journey isn’t even half over really, but they’re harder than they were when they started.
Still, I’m not a huge fan of “Queer Lodgings”. But something very special is coming up next.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.