Tolkien is on record as regarding forests in his works as synonymous with the “Otherworld” of Faeries, places of the supernatural and of magic, where normal rules do not apply. He did not, obviously, invent the concept: enchanted forests have featured in many tales and myths, as places where heroes must travel to, overcome faery obstacles, and come out the other side changed, hopefully for the better. In western society especially, the forest often represents something akin to the Underworld of other, more easterly stories. In The Hobbit, Tolkien dedicates his lengthiest chapter to such a journey, as the company, and most importantly Bilbo, have their brush with the faerie world, and the horrors that its enchanted forest contains. The result is one of the most enthralling episodes of the book.
Mirkwood likely takes its inspiration from “Myrkviðr”, from the Old Norse Poetic Edda, a piece of work an academic like Tolkien would have been intimately familiar with. Tolkien, in his writings on his writings, makes it clear that the forest is named for more than just its murkiness, and it’s more like one of the original translations of Myrkviðr: “home of darkness”. In Edda, the place is a barrier between the world of men and the world of the Gods, again showing the point of the forest as a supernatural test for those who enter it, on the way to something greater. Mirkwood, the last great barrier between the lands to the west and the company’s eventual destination in the east, is Tolkien’s version.
As has become common, Tolkien sums up the mood of the chapter right from a simple opening line: “They walked in single file.” Such a clipped and oddly morose statement is the perfect beginning to “Flies And Spiders”, where Tolkien dips his hand right into the realms of horror, both in terms of physical danger, and in the SAD-esque mental disintegration of the company.
The opening pages, lacking dialogue of any kind, showcase some of the authors obvious skills in descriptive writing and mood-setting:
“The entrance to the path was like a sort of arch leading into a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves…Soon the light at the gate was like a little bright hole far behind, and the quiet was so deep that their feet seemed to thump along while all the trees leaned over them and listened…Occasionally a slender beam of sun that had the luck to slip in through some opening in the leaves far above, and still more luck in not being caught in the tangled boughs and matted twigs beneath, stabbed down thin and bright before them.”
Everything about Mirkwood seems downbeat and oppressive: even the very trees themselves appear to be encroaching on the company, exhibiting something akin to an evil sentience, a concept Tolkien will revisit in “The Old Forest”: ” Everything in it is very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak, than things are in the Shire. And the trees do not like strangers. They watch you.” Tolkien is also careful with his wording: “gloomy“, “old“, “strangled“, “hung“, blackened“, “tangled, “matted“, stabbed“, making, emphasising and re-emphasising his point, without it ever becoming too blatantly obvious to the reader what Tolkien is trying to construct.
The only inhabitants of the great forest that the company see for the moment are the “black squirrels” that cross their path, and that, when one is eventually shot down, are noted only for their “horrible” taste, perhaps a fair result, considering Tolkien’s previous comments on eating animals outside the norm in “Over Hill And Under Hill“. Black squirrels actually do exist, an offshoot of grey and fox squirrels found mostly in the United States, but I’m afraid that I can’t comment on their taste.
More pertinent are the biological obstacles that the company notice very early on in their trek: “The nastiest things they saw were the cobwebs: dark dense cobwebs with threads extraordinarily thick, often stretched from tree to tree…” Where Tolkien is taking the company is thus made obvious, though I’ll reserve my commentary until the arachnids themselves appear.
The reality of Mirkwood, and the seemingly endless march through its northern path, easily leads to feelings of immense dislike, that are almost strange for a company that has rarely gone beyond grumpy whinging: “It was not long before they grew to hate the forest…they had to go on and on, long after they were sick for a sight of the sun and of the sky, and longed for the feel of wind on their faces.” That the dwarves, and Bilbo, are moved as far as hatred for their surroundings, a sentiment that wasn’t even expressed for the tunnels back in “Over Hill And Under Hill” is to be noted. Tolkien, taking an unusual amount of time in these initial pages, clearly wants the audience to understand the depths that the company has sunk to, in this journey into darkness. This is no mere collection of trees, it’s an enchanted labyrinth that seems to keep going forever, and where the very concept of time has increasingly little meaning the further you walk into it.
The nights are the worst, and here Tolkien starts building on the foundation laid by the cobwebs for the horror of what will come later, having the camped company assailed from every side by “pairs of yellow or red or green eyes” and “horrible pale bulbous sort of eyes“. No attack comes yet, but the uneasy feeling of being watched by insectoid creatures of abnormal size will be enough to unnerve even the least arachnophobia of readers. For Bilbo and the company, for whom there is no easy escape, to have to sit and endure on the edge of this terrible threat is horror enough. That’s the true threat of Mirkwood in a way, the manner in which the forest and its malevolent inhabitants attempt to drive you mad – and off the path – before moving in for the kill, rather than just go straight to the second part. That too is true for past stories of this kind: the company is safe on the path, on the known road which, it is implied, has some kind of magical protection, but they are then inevitably drawn off it.
The first real event of consequence in “Flies And Spiders” is the crossing of the enchanted stream. Bilbo, having once again been relegated to the role of a dismissed reactionary hanger-on in the last two chapters, actually gets some acknowledgement for being useful starting from here, as Thorin notes “Bilbo had the sharpest eyes among them“, eyes sharp enough to see the boat at the other side of the stream. It will be a steep curve going forward, as by the end of “Flies And Spiders” Bilbo will suddenly find himself leading the company.
I wouldn’t say that the subsequent paragraphs are overflowing with tension – how could they be, amounting to little more than throwing a hook into the darkness? – but Tolkien does set-up some of the peril that is about to transpire. Thorin has harsh words for a complaining Bombur, who doesn’t like going last all the time: “You should not be so fat. As you are, you must be with the last and lightest boatload. Don’t start grumbling against orders, or something bad will happen to you.” Alas for poor Bombur then, who is indeed about to experience “something bad“, perhaps for the temerity of complaining about his mistreatment.
The resulting sequence is a rapidly escalating series of encounters. First, a magnificent looking hart suddenly bounds up to the company, and leaps over the stream, a stunning image after the monotony of the last few pages. The last thing we might expect from such a moment is for one of the dwarves to step up and showcase some martial skill, but Thorin, who has spent many chapters now being little more than a passenger to the narrative like Bilbo, does so, sending “a swift and sure shot into the leaping beast” while the rest of the company stands slackjawed. His calmness under pressure and cool accuracy compare favourably to the rest of the dwarves, who will shortly waste the last of their arrows firing recklessly into a small crowd of animals (including a white deer, an animal with significant mythological implications).
It’s poor Bombur who gets the worst of it though, falling into the stream and only just retrieved, but in some kind of magical coma as a result. Waterways that cause such drowsiness and, as it will later emerge, forgetfulness, occur throughout literature. Rivers in the Ancient Greek Underworld cause the dead to forget their past lives for example, and Tolkien re-produced a similar story involving the Irish St Brendan during his academic career. This particular stream might be enchanted by the Wood-Elves or may be polluted by an evil source, but either way it simply produces more work for the rest of the company, now obligated to carry Bombur with them. Perhaps we can view that as a punishment for their continual denigration of Bombur for his weight, a nasty habit they now have to physically atone for.
Recovering on the eastern bank, the company has cause for more unease from the expanse of forest around them: “…as they sat it seemed they could hear the noise of a great hunt going by to the north of the path, though they saw no sign of it.” Tolkien won’t overegg this concept too much in the course of the following pages, but it naturally brings to mind the old mythological idea, shared among many traditions, of the “Wild Hunt”. The common characteristics are of an illusionary band of hunters on horseback, often led by a great Kingly figure, the sight of which presages some kind of calamity for the viewer or the surrounding area. The hunt is variously described as being led by ancient Gods, the dead or the faerie realm, and it is last that most fits in this instance. The company has crossed into an other-worldy place now, as signified by the border of the stream, the strange animals (a white deer is sometimes identified as an animal that lures hunters into Faerie, and here lures the dwarves into wasting their arrows), and the evidence of a magical civilisation nearby.
As the company struggles on, not learning the lesson of what happened at the crossing, more unsettling occurrences happen, as it becomes clear they are not alone in the forest: “At times they heard disquieting laughter. Sometimes there was singing in the distance too. The laughter was the laughter of fair voices not of goblins, and the singing was beautiful, but it sounded eerie and strange, and they were not comforted, rather they hurried on from those parts with what strength they had left.” These ghostly apparitions will lead the company to further disaster, as they are inevitably led off the path, the one thing they have been warned repeatedly not to do.
And there is also a hole in the story to consider here: the existence of the Woodland Realm is no secret, and it appears Thorin at least is well-aware of them, yet there is no indication that the company recognise who might be responsible for the singing or the sounds of a hunt. Indeed, such signs should be encouraging, as it indicates they are coming to the eastern end of Mirkwood. But instead, like there may be some kind of magically induced malaise, they simply continue a trudge into greater despair.
It eventually becomes all too much for the company, who stop and insist Bilbo climb to the top of the forest ceiling and have a look out. In a chapter that will be full of memorable individual moments for Bilbo, this is the first, as he clamours up and bursts out into the daylight. His worries about spiders are turned on their head, when he only encounters the ordinary kind, that are after the hundreds of “purple emperor” butterflies he sees around the tree tops. Only, these are black. You would think the butterflies would have some kind of deeper significance, but I can’t really think of one, aside from the fact that, like the squirrels, their colour is another indication of the insidious influence of Mirkwood on all the living things that reside there. Purple Emperors are quite real, and Tolkien may well have been familiar with them from his time in rural England.
The larger point of Bilbo’s trip to the top is wasted, as the natural geography leads the company to think they are still stranded in the middle of the forest, when they are actually rapidly coming up on the eastern exit. This sort of mistake, framed almost like a failing on the side of the dwarves, seems connected to the standard course of this kind of tale, as the weary traveller foolishly leaves the path, even though staying on the known course will lead to their salvation, if they will only trust in it as they have been instructed to. In the end, the experience only generates more despair from the easily bothered dwarves: “They did not care tuppence about the butterflies, and were only made more angry when he told them of the beautiful breeze, which they were too heavy to climb up and feel.”
The only good thing that seems to happen is Bombur waking up, but even that is rapidly twisted into a negative, as the company are forced to outline everything that has happened on their journey, and then deal with his suicidal obstinacy, as he just gives up, lies down and expresses a preference for sweet dreams and a painless death than going on. Bombur’s dreams are obviously foreshadowing for what will occur shortly, and would indicate that the stream got its power from the elves: “I dreamed I was walking in a forest rather like this one, only lit with torches on the trees…and there was a great feast going on, going on for ever. A woodland king was there with a crown of leaves, and there was a merry singing, and I could not count or describe the things there were to eat and drink.” Still, such a presented wonderland, with everything that the dwarves and Bilbo need, can easily be perceived as a trick, a vision implanted in Bombur’s mind to continue the process of leading the company off the path, and it seems unlikely that even the stiff-necked Wood-Elves would be responsible for that. Bilbo also escapes to food and drink in dreams later, so it may be some sinister aspect of the environment.
Certainly, Bombur’s return to the land of the wakeful simply brings more despair. Thorin snaps at Bombur’s dream recitation and makes the ghoulish threat that the company were close to leaving his comatose body behind. The resulting march is as low as the company has been: “There was nothing now to be done but to tighten the belts round their empty stomachs, and hoist their empty sacks and packs, and trudge along the track without any great hope of ever getting to the end before they lay down and died of starvation.” Bombur takes to “wailing” about his predicament, hardly the most positive response, and eventually throws himself down hoping to sleep and “never wake up again“. Such a grimly self-defeating sentiment, never before encountered, really shines a light on how miserable Tolkien has aimed to make the Mirkwood experience.
Any resulting argument is put to the side when Balin spies lights in the distance, “off the track” rather pertinently. Twice already in the tale the company has changed course from the expected when surrendering to the desire for comforts, and twice it has led to near disaster: the first in “Roast Mutton” when the rain-drenched dwarves stumbled into the trolls’ clutches, and the second when they sought a cave to rest in during the sojourn over the Misty Mountains that, as per Gandalf’s warnings, turned out to be far from unoccupied. Both times, Gandalf was there to save the day, but now the wizard is missing.
But the third times the charm it seems. Bombur, given more dialogue in these few pages than many of the dwarves have had the whole story, becomes an almost agent provocateur in these moments, actively trying to get the company to leave the path with promises of food and drink and safety. Like the snake in the Garden of Eden, his temptations prove too much to ignore and even the basic safeguards of sending out a few scouts get pushed to the side by the apparent necessity of hunger. We might recall how quickly the dwarves wasted all their arrows shooting at the white deer, and here again they are all too easily led by the nose into danger.
The following sequence, where the company thrice walk up to the feast taking place, and thrice find it vanishing before their eyes when they step into the clearing, and thrice find themselves lost in the dark in the forest, is a mixture of blackly humorous and depressingly tension-filled. There are several memorable moments: the description of the feast in progress, attended by “elvish-looking folk” and chaired by “a woodland King with a crown of leaves“; the desperate stumbling into the middle of it “with the one idea of begging for some food“; the clamour they raise in the aftermath “till they must have waked everything for miles“; Thorin, perhaps with a bit of undeserved pride, suggesting Bilbo go alone the second time as he is less likely to be frightening (“What about me of them?” the hobbit wonders); the way the Ring refuses to co-operate for Bilbo, indicating it doesn’t want to be in the company of elves; the dwarven response to Bilbo’s dreams of food; and finally, the climactic disaster, as the company lose their wits and vanish into the darkness the third time their begging fails.
The end result is that the company, having strayed from the path, are now hopelessly lost in the trees, ensnared by Faerie like so many others before them. Of course, the elves will claim later they were attempting no such ensnaring, but it happened all the same: perhaps in this case we need to draw a line between the actions of the elves, and the malevolence of Mirkwood itself. The forces of darkness close in quickly to punish the company for their foolishness in leaving the path, in their faithlessness in not heeding the words of Gandalf and Beorn, for their recklessness in pursuing the elvish feast over and over: “…the cries of the others got steadily further and fainter…it seemed to him they changed to yells and cries for help in the far distance.”
Bilbo, for the second time in the story, is left alone, “in complete silence and darkness“. Tolkien is forthright in his description of the situation: “It was one of his most memorable moments.” In the goblin-tunnels Bilbo briefly gave into despair before going on; here he can’t take it physically anymore, and just falls asleep. The key difference between then and now, of course, is little golden trinket in his pocket and, not to be forgotten, a world of subsequent experience with peril and the otherworldly. “Riddles In The Dark” was a vital singular moment for Bilbo, but “Flies And Spiders”, from this point on, will be a spectacular showcase of the skills he has, the skills he’s learned and his ability to rise to the challenge presented before him.
And boy will he have to, because the antagonists he will face are not to be under-estimated. The “great spiders” presented here are just one example of a recurring enemy Tolkien loved to introduce to his works, the most memorable being Shelob in The Lord Of The Rings, but also Ungoliant in The Silmarillion, with the latter being a personification of night. Spiders have been referenced in stories and tales almost as long as they have existed, though the interpretation of them has changed frequently, from being useful creatures that Gods have a tendency to change into, to being fearsome monsters. Over the last century, every other fantasy and sci-fi writer, from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Stephen King to J.K Rowling has included giant spider foes in their works, and many would trace the modern preponderance of this foe to Tolkien.
Some make much of an encounter in his early life when he was bitten by an arachnid in South Africa, but Tolkien himself claimed he could barely remember the incident, and that he had no especially negative feelings towards spiders; indeed, his use of them in his works was more of a reaction to the arachnophobia of his son Michael, one of the very people he was writing The Hobbit for. We shouldn’t read into it too much maybe: spiders have long been a creature that make people squeamish and uncomfortable, being predatory beings that are as alien to humanity as it is almost possible to be and still be from the same eco-system. It’s only natural that writers would take such a thing and enlarge it for horror’s sake. For the record, the largest spider that exists, by mass, is the Goliath bird-eater spider, which has a span of up the 28 cms: not exactly on a par with Tolkien’s inventions.
Bilbo is surprised by the attentions of one such “great spider” and is moments away from being ensnared. What follows is an extraordinary moment for Bilbo, who stands up, fights the spider off with his bare hands, then draws his long-forgotten dagger and kills the thing with one sure stab to the eyes.
We should not underestimate the power of this moment. Bilbo has been largely shown as a pacifist thus far, the nearest that he has come to violence being his desperate efforts to hold on to a leg of the trolls in “Roast Mutton”. Against the goblins and Gollum and the wargs, he has done nothing to even defend himself adequately aside from wave his dagger about, and in “Riddles In The Dark” he explicitly rejected the violent course when the possibility was given to him.
But Bilbo has changed a bit since then. He’s lost in the enchanted wood, hungry, thirsty and frankly, it looks like he isn’t going to take it anymore. The battle between the Baggins side and the Took side temporarily sees the Took side totally triumphant, as the hobbit becomes a furious animal fighting for its very life, and seemingly ferocious in the process. Bilbo’s first bloodshed – because the spider does seem to be a sentient creature – happens very quickly, but marks him forever as a changed person. Bilbo was cowering in the underbrush, happy to sleep his way to death as long his dreams included food and the comforts of home: the Baggins side in other words. But now, he might as well be Bilbo Took, changed utterly by the enchanted forest, and Bilbo Took isn’t going quietly into the good night.
The crucial object is the sword. It’s been there with Bilbo since his first brush with true adventure, an elvish blade similar to Orcrist and Glamdring, if perhaps a bit less illustrious. But since “Roast Mutton”, it’s been largely forgotten, save when Bilbo used it as a makeshift torch in “Riddles In The Dark”. Now, Bilbo uses it to defend himself and to kill, and to stake a serious claim to hero territory: “Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder...”
Bilbo’s transformation into this new kind of being is completed by adopting a name for his sword that amounts to both an appropriate title given its use in these circumstances, and a wry bit of hobbit wit: “Sting”. Naming an object naturally grants it a certain power, at least in the mind, and swords no less than anything else: Sting might not exactly be Excalibur, but its more than just a random elvish dagger now. It’s been personalised based on experience, and is more of a partner than a tool.
No longer the man snivelling in the dark on his own, Bilbo is imbued with new purpose, and a new goal: “After that he set out to explore. The forest was grim and silent, but obviously he had first of all to look for his friends…” He never once thinks about cutting and running, though this may be just a recognition that there is no point in doing so. He happens to pick the right direction, and comes across a fearsome sight: a colony of spiders, who have the capability of speech and emotion, putting them in the same category as the wargs and eagles. Their talk is loathsome to imagine – “sort of thin creeking and hissing” – and the content, much like the trolls, seems almost doltish in its simplicity, but unnerving in its blunt evil: “Kill’em, I say,” hissed a fourth; “kill ’em now and hang ’em dead for a while.”
Seeing the captured dwarves in direct peril – Bombur gets a moment to actually be a positive here, kicking a particularly malicious spider off his perch – Bilbo is forced into action. In the preceding paragraphs, Tolkien is at pains to suddenly emphasise what Bilbo has going for him. He’s naturally “clever at quietness“, he has an unusual aptitude for “games of the aiming and throwing sort” (to the extent that he was the terror of woodland animals in the Shire, a rather bizarre sidebar), he has the Ring and he’s just shown that he can fight, to the death if needed. More than that, Bilbo has the one thing that every true hero needs: “luck (and he was born with a good share of it)“. He’s one hobbit against an entire army of giant spiders, but he can actually do this.
And he does it by recognising that him alone against the spiders is not going to work out, and so he has to use his brain. Freeing the dwarves will help to even the odds, but that’s not possible, so he must draw the spiders away. This might seem simple, even obvious, but it’s the kind of tactical thinking Bilbo hasn’t shown, or been able to show, in the story thus far. Very importantly, it’s showcasing Bilbo as a leader in the making.
He also has a certain understanding of psychology too, as evidenced by how he gets the spiders to follow him. Attacking them with stones is all well and good, but the draw has to be more powerful than that, based on a blind emotional response, and so Bilbo sets out “to make them curious, excited and angry all at once“. As would be most effective against such creatures, Bilbo does this by basic insults, in the form of a loosely arranged rhyme:
“Old fat spider spinning in a tree! Old fat spider can’t see me! Attercop! Attercop! Won’t you stop, Stop your spinning and look for me!”
Bilbo’s insults are real “ye olde” style, though the narrator insists that words like “attercop” and “tomnoddy” are “insulting to everybody“. I’m not sure why “attercop” would be, as it is simply the Middle-English word for spider, with a literal translation coming out as “poison head”. However, in different languages it has come to be more of an insult, like the Dutch “etterkop”, an “ill-natured person”. “Tomnoddy”, on the other hand, simply means a foolish person, with its complicated origins stretching back to descriptions of snails and those of little height.
The evil facing Bilbo is genuinely terrifying – “…the whole lot of them came hurrying after the hobbit along the ground and the branches, hairy legs waving, nippers and spinners snapping, eyes popping, full of froth and rage” – but the spiders aren’t especially intelligent, being easily led out into the forest, and allowing Bilbo, acting with a coolness under pressure that belies his physical condition and stature, to return back to the colony. There’s one last obstacle in the way of the initial rescue of the dwarves, “an old slow wicked fat-bodied spider” but Bilbo takes care of this threat with remarkable quickness: “…Mr. Baggins was in a hurry, and before the spider knew what was happening it felt his sting and rolled off the branch dead“. The suddenness of this action is astonishing, as Bilbo kills quickly and the narrator thinks little of it. It’s already become the new normal.
While this whole action sequence is largely the Bilbo show, the dwarves, some of them at least, do try and help out a little at Bilbo frees them, especially the young duo of Fili and Kili. It might seem minor, but the dwarves have been characterized as grumpy and constantly bothered so much it’s almost a surprise to see them assisting Bilbo – later on, they won’t be so helpful. The only exception is, of course, Bombur, who collapses to the floor and rapidly finds himself in greater peril, and apparently in no position to help himself.
Good thing that Bilbo is there then, as it’s suddenly Rambo time:
“He gave a shout and slashed at the spiders in front of him. They quickly gave way, and he scrambled and fell down the tree right into the middle of those on the ground. His little sword was something new in the way of stings for them. How it darted to and fro! It shone with delight as he stabbed at them. Half a dozen were killed before the rest drew off and left Bombur to Bilbo.”
Bilbo’s veritable slaughter of the spiders – this is eight now – seems just par for the course at this point. To a certain extent, it makes some sense that the spiders, used to dealing with quickly poisoned and easily captured prey, might not be the best when an all-out fight is what’s on offer, something Tolkien also noted for Shelob in The Two Towers. But things still seem rather perilous.
We mighty also note the numbers being talked about in this section: “There they were at last, twelve of them counting poor old Bombur…“. And Bilbo makes thirteen. Which means one is missing. It would be easy to miss this detail, the first-time round, as you are instead caught up in the most sustained action sequence that the book has had so far. I certainly missed it the first time I read The Hobbit. But one of the dwarves is absent, and conspicuous in his absence of naming in this section is, of course, Thorin.
“And then the battle began“. Oh boy. Tolkien’s description of the subsequent brawl is limited, but it conjures up an incredible image of one furious hobbit slashing left and right, twelve slightly poisoned dwarves fighting with hands and feet, and hordes of giant spiders descending on them all.
With the bad guys closing in on all sides, Bilbo has to play his trump card, the Ring, one more time, since creatures as limited as the spiders will probably fall for the same trick twice. Balin comes to the fore here, consistently shown as one of the more capable dwarves, grasping Bilbo’s words faster than the others, and organizing some rudimentary tactics of his own: “The dwarves huddled together in a knot, and sending a shower of stones they drove at the spiders on the left, and burst through the ring.” This concentration of numbers and resort to sheer force of mass seems like a very dwarven thing to do alright, and it actually manages to work on this occasion.
The rest of the battle is a draining encounter, as the dwarves, and then a charging Bilbo coming on the flanks like Aragorn at the Pelennor Fields, slowly head away from the colony, the spiders charging all the time. The sheer sense of exhaustion in this section is almost palpable, but so too is the terror being inflicted by Bilbo and Sting, with the spiders now afraid to even come close to it. And, eventually, the company stumble back to the rings where the elves were seen earlier, and this is the last straw for the spiders, who begrudgingly retreat. It’s been a great action sequence, one of the only true ones in the entire story (as the Battle of Five Armies later will be cut short rather suddenly) but in terms of tangible outcomes, the dwarves are mostly left as they were before.
Given the opportunity to catch a breath, the dwarves naturally inquire about the Ring. Bilbo is obligated to give the story again, with Balin insisting that it now be told “with the Ring in its proper place“, a call back to Bilbo’s somewhat untruthful telling of the story earlier. Dwarven interest in magic rings will only be natural, considering they used to have a few themselves, but it doesn’t go too far, at least at this point. The important thing is that they accept the existence of the Ring without too much trouble.
If there is any doubt about Bilbo’s status, it’s banished with the narrator’s description of the dwarven behavior towards the hobbit now: “From which you can see that they had changed their opinion of Mr. Baggins very much, and had begun to have a great respect for him…Indeed they really expected him to think of some wonderful plan for helping them…They knew only too well that they would soon all have been dead, if it had not been for the hobbit…they praised him so much that Bilbo began to feel there really was something of a bold adventurer about himself after all…“. In essence, from being the hanger-on, Bilbo has suddenly graduated to the leadership of the company. He’s saved them from the spider’s webs, he got them out of the colony, and now they all look to him for additional rescuing.
But getting out of Mirkwood, now that they have lost the path, seems a hopeless task. “He just sat staring in front of him at the endless trees; and after a while they all fell silent again.” The bigger problem in the short-term is the shocking realisation that they are short a dwarf: “Where is Thorin?” The shock of losing their leader is bad enough, but also is the pathetic sight of the company, too physically spent to even consider the possibility of going to look for him “as they lay lost in the forest“.
From there, it’s a sudden change of perspective, which is a rare enough thing in The Hobbit. I don’t believe there has been a scene in the story up to now where Bilbo has not been present or at least listening in. Tolkien has actively avoided such situations, as with how Bilbo stumbles into the assembled company outside the Misty Mountains, and overhears the details of their adventure without him. I believe the only other time this will happen is with Smaug’s attack on Lake-town.
Thorin, thankfully, is not in the bellies of a dozen hungry spiders, but has instead been taken a prisoner of the Wood-Elves and their King. The following paragraphs are remarkable enough, essentially a brief outline of how elvish society stands in Middle-Earth, and why the Wood-Elves are a little different to the elves of Rivendell or elsewhere. This section sums up a lot of information otherwise found in the pages of The Silmarillion, with some changes in terminology: Valinor, the home of the demi-gods of Tolkien’s universe, is “Faerie” here, for example, as if the comparison between the two concepts needed to be made clearer.
In describing the Wood-Elves, Tolkien is clear from the get-go that they are not antagonists: “These are not wicked folk.” However, within a sentence or two, he comes out with a marvellous rejoinder to sum-up the Wood-Elves’ character, in comparison to others of their kind: “They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise.” They are so because they never went to the Blessed Realm in the west, and so don’t have that extra spark of divinity in them, that marks characters like Galadriel and Glorfindel. So they have their immortality, and their beauty and their own form of magic, but they can be cruel, isolationist and extremely xenophobic. Still, Tolkien finishes his descriptive paragraph with another note on their general alignment: “…elves they were and remain, and that is Good People.” Though, they still ignored the company’s begging, and left them to the spiders’ mercy, so a big asterisk should be placed on that.
The Wood-Elves are ruled by “a great king” who will go un-named in the course of The Hobbit, but whom additional works title Thranduil. His Kingdom also goes unnamed here, I think, but is subsequently identified simply as “the Woodland Realm“. The Elf-king is summed up briefly as a greedy figure with “a weakness…for treasure, especially for silver and white gems; and though his hoard was rich, he was ever eager for more, since he had not yet as great a treasure as other elf-lords of old.” However, Thranduil can be considered a more complicated character than the miserly old royal he is portrayed as here, though you have to take in a wealth of additional material. He came into his throne after the end of the Second Age, when he fought in the Last Alliance against Sauron: his father, and multitudes of his people, were slaughtered in the fighting, and he inherited a Kingdom that was greatly depleted. Since then, the former Greenwood has become Mirkwood owing to the depredations of the Necromancer and other evils, and so Thranduil rules a Kingdom that is slowly contracting, with his opulent underground halls merely the latest fastness they have had to retreat into. We know, of course, that Thranduil has a son who will be prominent in The Lord Of The Rings, but he never appears to have a wife, perhaps indicating some family tragedy in the past. As such, we can firmly understand why Thranduil would be an isolationist King of a hidden people, who hoards resources and actively distrusts outsiders, especially dwarves.
Notably, while Thranduil is greedy for hordes of wealth, he and his people are not willing to work for it: they “neither mined nor worked metals or jewels, nor did they bother much with trade or with tilling the earth.” It would be my opinion that Tolkien wrote this as a negative appraisal, though I wouldn’t go so far as to take it as meaning the Wood-Elves are shiftless or lazy. Rather, they have become too meshed with the darkness and gloom they surround themselves in as part of this fey world in northern Mirkwood, and Faerie creatures do not farm, sow or mine. They instead surrender themselves to an easy, yet ultimately unfulfilling, magical existence, and time is running out for the Elder race to enjoy such a lifestyle.
The author also notes a previous conflict between the dwarves and the Elves, over some manner of treasure, though he does not go into the particulars. This is presumably a reference to events from The Silmarillion, in the chapter “Of The Ruin Of Doriath”. I won’t transcribe the whole tale, as it would be most of that chapter, but a brief summation might be instructive. Doriath is one of the great elvish Kingdoms of the First Age, ensconced within a mighty forest, not all that dissimilar to Mirkwood in its earlier days. It is ruled by Thingol, a figure who is similar to Thranduil in many ways. Through a variety of complicated circumstances told elsewhere in The Silmarillion, Thingol gets his hands on both the Nauglamir, a necklace of extraordinary beauty and value, forged by the dwarves of Nogrod and Belegost, and one of the Silmarils, a shining jewel of great radiance and power, the pursuit and history of which forms the backbone of the entire Silmarillion.
Thingol gets it into his head to combine the Nauglamir with the Silmaril, the latter of which he has become obsessed with. For this purpose, he hires a group of skilled dwarven craftsmen from Nogrod who, after great labours, fulfil the King’s desire: “for now the countless jewels of the Nauglamír did reflect and cast abroad in marvellous hues the light of the Silmaril amidmost.”
However, the dwarves are both greedy for this fabulous wealth, and affronted that Thingol deigns to lay claim to the Nauglamir. An argument breaks out where Thingol, an overly proud elf, insults the dwarves using racial epitaphs. Furious, the dwarves kill him and flee with the Nauglamir, but with a few exceptions they are hunted down and killed, and the Nauglamir returned to Doriath, which starts to decline rapidly, absent its long-standing leadership.
The surviving dwarves return to Nogrod and tell a partial version of the story, stoking the fires of outrage in their kin, and soon an army is marching on Doriath. A terrible battle ensues, in which the dwarves are victorious: Doriath is sacked and plundered, with the Nauglamir and the Silmaril taken again. The dwarves start marching home, but, reduced in number and not wary enough, they are waylaid by a new force of foes, that includes the famous hero Beren (Thingol’s son-in-law), and the “Shepherds of the Trees“, aka, the Ents. The dwarves are destroyed, and Beren takes the Nauglamir, with the Silmaril, back to his wife, the famed beauty Luthien.
There’s lots more to it, before, during and after, but the general theme is clear, and it ties into the events now taking place in The Hobbit. Now its Thranduil as the greedy Elvenking of the Woodland Kingdom, who isn’t being especially careful with his words, and its Thorin representing the dwarven race, who needs to walk a bit of a tightrope himself. Thranduil’s treatment of Thorin, basing it off a grudge with dwarves who Thorin has no connection to, reeks of racist ideology, but Thorin’s obstinance over what he and his company are doing is also going to be a serious issue. A greater conflict can easily begin over what occurs between these two in this moment, and such events do come dangerously close to occurring in the latter end of the story.
We only get a brief snippet of the interrogation Thorin is subjected to from the Elf-King, and it isn’t a pleasant conversation, from Thranduil’s snarky probing and Thorin’s almost sarcastic repetition of “we were starving“. This is a clash of two large personalities, and it simply isn’t going to end positively. Thorin, refusing to divulge his purpose, is locked up and left alone. It is left to the narrator to offer hints of the adventure to come, in “which the hobbit again showed his usefulness.” Jail break!
“Flies And Spiders” is another master-class from Tolkien, who weaves a variety of themes, situations and action sequences to form a very satisfying episodic adventure. From a few chapters where the environments and the events have dominated proceedings, character comes back into it here: for Thorin, who shows leadership, martial skill, irritability and intransigence; for Bombur, easily swayed, lazy and self-destructive; for Balin, wise and quick on the uptake; and most especially for Bilbo, who rises to become the hero he was destined to be the moment he left his comfortable hobbit-hole without a handkerchief, showcasing leadership, intelligence, bravery and an unexpected fighting skill.
We get a great environment, suitably fleshed out in the opening pages; a great examination of steadily deteriorating morale in the company; a sense of desperate tension in every other page; an exciting action sequence and a cliff-hanger for the following chapter. It’s everything you really need from an episodic fantasy adventure novel, and it has set things up nicely for the next part of the tale.
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