With “Barrels Out Of Bond”, we have gone past the recent series of very lengthy chapters, and most of what remains of the story will be made up of much shorter entries, emphasizing even more the episodic nature of the narrative. In the last few chapters we’ve gone from under-ground fighting in “Over Hill And Under Hill“, to one-on-one tests of wisdom and guile in “Riddles In The Dark“, to desperate escapes in “Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire” to fantastical surrounds in “Queer Lodgings” to horror fairy tales in “Flies And Spiders“. Now, we do something a bit different: a jail break story, where Bilbo will come to the fore once again.
But that must seem a whiles away from the situation at the beginning of the chapter. The exhilaration of defeating the spiders fades away, as the reality of being lost in Mirkwood, without food or water, sinks in. Hopelessly lacking even the vaguest sense of what direction to go, the company is forced to pick a random one by a democratic vote, a fairly pathetic image: “They got up and staggered on in the direction which eight out of the thirteen of them guessed to be the one in which the path lay…”
Not that it matters, as the group are soon waylaid – or perhaps saved would be a better word, if we are being honest – by the Wood-elves, whose sudden torches are like “red stars” in the blackness of Mirkwood. The dwarves have “no thought of a fight“, such an action very likely to be suicidal. The only one not interested in just passive acceptance is Bilbo. He’s just as hungry and thirsty and tired as the rest, but the Took side is alive and well inside him, as the hobbit has the wit to slip on the Ring and get out of the way before he has a chance to be captured as well. After all, the company has no idea, at this point, if the elves mean them well.
The following paragraph sets up the main stage of the chapter, the underground halls of the Elvenking, which will be the prison Bilbo needs to get the dwarves out of. While being very different to the holes of the goblins, they still command respect, a yawning maw – literally described as a “cavern-mouth” – built into the side of the hill, protected by a mighty drawbridge and a deep rushing river, with the interior a labyrinth of “twisting, crossing, and echoing” paths. It’s all Bilbo can do, at this moment anyway, to summon up his courage and follow the captives inside, a little bit of the Baggins side poking through. But he does make the plunge, going voluntarily into this imposing prison. As if to make the point even more, Tolkien resorts to traditional auditory tropes: “…the great gates of the king closed behind them with a clang.”
The company, and an invisible Bilbo, are brought before the Elvenking, who has a mostly similar conversation with them as he had with Thorin. Unlike that meeting though, Thranduil has come arraigned properly for this kind of audience, perhaps looking to dazzle and intimidate with “a crown of berries and red leaves, for the autumn was come again“. Tolkien further emphasises the changeable nature of this elf by noting he wears a greener crown in Spring, as well as his direct attuning with nature in the “carven staff of oak” he holds in place of a royal sceptre.
Thranduil puts on a bit of a show for the company’s benefit, appearing at first to be merciful and magnanimous in having the dwarves be unbound, but then following that up with a wonderfully haughty and arrogant statement, where he places an appropriate emphasis on the situation the company is now in: “…they need no ropes in here,” said he. “There is no escape from my magic doors for those who are once brought inside.” Foreshadowing!
At the end of the last chapter, we had a confrontation of two equals, both royals, both obstinate, both in the wrong and both in the right. Here, it’s a little bit different, insofar as Thorin’s refusal to elaborate changes to Balin’s angry denunciation:
“What have we done, O king?” said Balin, who was the eldest left. “Is it a crime to be lost in the forest, to be hungry and thirsty, to be trapped by spiders? Are the spiders your tame beasts or your pets, if killing them makes you angry?”
This outburst is positively dripping with angry sarcasm, and its notable that Balin, “the eldest left“, is confident enough to make such a statement (Fili is the next in line for the throne as Thorin’s eldest nephew, but the dwarves seem to favour experience when it comes to leadership in these situations). But Thranduil gives as good as he gets in an equally angry reply, placing the blame for the company’s battle with the spiders on them, further demanding to know what they are doing in Mirkwood, and putting them behind bars until they fell inclined to tell him (indeed, the terms of their imprisonment are strict enough, amounting to solitary confinement with no exercise: Gloin will memorably snap “You were less tender to me” recalling this episode in “The Council Of Elrond” when the elvish imprisonment of Gollum comes up). The Elvenking is thus made to look somewhat emotionally led and prone to fits of pique, but the dwarves are being insulting to the local ruler, who isn’t all that wrong in wanting to know just what the company are doing there.
This whole sequence also calls back to the hole in the story that I brought up briefly in the last chapter. The Woodland Realm is not some secret underground Kingdom. It is mysterious certainly, and presumably little-visited by the outside world. But people know that it exists. They trade with Lake-town, they fought against Sauron. Yet, we are apparently supposed to think that the dwarves are unaware of the Woodland Realm’s existence, or were unaware that the northern path through Mirkwood would take them there. Neither Gandalf nor Beorn saw fit to say something to the effect of “Watch out for the Wood-elves when you are getting near the end”. The company is trespassing, and while Thranduil is being haughty and dictorial in response, Thorin hasn’t exactly carried himself as appropriately as he could have.
Tolkien spends the next few paragraphs outlining the unique and rather awkward situation that Bilbo finds himself in, hidden from detection from the elves but essentially trapped himself. Brief trips outside carry their own dangers and hopelessness, since Bilbo doesn’t really know where to go, and no thoughts of abandoning the dwarves have entered his mind yet anyway. Two weeks fly by quickly as Bilbo endures this terrible limbo, permanently invisible: “I am like a burglar that can’t get away, but must go on miserably burgling the same house day after day…This is the dreariest and dullest part of all this wretched, tiresome, uncomfortable adventure!“. His moral compass is also in flux, as related later in the chapter: “He no longer thought twice about picking up a supper uninvited…“.
Bilbo’s thoughts naturally turn to Gandalf, and whether the wizard would be able to do anything to save them. But Bilbo’s new-found sense of responsibility comes through, as he eventually abandons such thoughts, and realizes that there is only one person in a position to do anything to help the dwarves.
He starts this process by finding where the dwarves are all being held, including Thorin. You have to admire both the extent of the Elven-king’s halls – able to keep 12 dwarves locked up and secure in different parts of the complex – and his strategy here, isolating the company until one of them breaks, because he only needs one of them to do so.
He reckons without Bilbo though, and Bilbo’s intervention is crucial. Thorin’s attitude, and the attitude of the rest of the dwarves, is well elaborated upon here. Thorin is described as “low-spirited” because he is considering cracking and telling Thranduil about his quest. His conversation with Bilbo enlivens him, and his message to the rest of the dwarves is to stand firm, and not entertain even the thought of parting with their share of the treasure (despite the fact that they still have to slay an “unconquered dragon” to get it). They don’t consider that it might be much easier to get out of their situation by just offering the Elven-king some of their bountiful wealth, more than any of them could ever spend. No, they’ll stay locked up and take the risk on Bilbo’s plan over such an idea.
In the last chapter, Tolkien commented on the Elvenking’s lust for wealth, and on the Wood-elves’ general lifestyle of not sowing, tilling or mining, and it had an undoubtedly negative tinge. But you wonder if that is truly worse than raw dwarven greed as it is depicted here, which prevents a would-be King-under-the-mountain from dealing with Thranduil in a more civilized manner. The dwarves obsession with their “long-forgotten gold” is such that they discount even Smaug as an obstacle. Such blind commitment to the idea of their financial legacy will result in an explosion late on in the story, and indicates that even the very idea of the treasure is starting to have an unwholesome effect on the company.
It’s up to Bilbo to enact a rescue by “thinking of something clever“. The narrator is upfront with the extent of the dwarven respect and admiration for Bilbo, even if it is very much newfound: “…the remarkable Mr Invisible Baggins” as Thorin now describes him as, and “they all trusted Bilbo“. It’s a far cry from only a few chapters ago when the hobbit was being described in baggage terms. Bilbo has had to work very hard for dwarven approval – fighting a battle with spiders single-handed is a veritable labour of Hercules in this context – but he’s got it, for the moment. The narrator ponders whether this was all part of Gandalf’s plan when he left the company, but that does seem bit of a stretch: it wouldn’t come off as quite so clever if Bilbo hadn’t stumbled upon the spider colony when he did. As it is, Bilbo is the man on the spot, reluctantly so, but he knuckles down and gets on with the job: “He sat and thought and thought, until his head nearly burst…”
A jailbreak story requires some important elements: a suitably imposing prison (done); a suitably imposing jailor (done); a detailed plan of escape, that doesn’t stretch the bounds of believability (getting there); the possibility of discovery (oh yes) and a serious sense of tension and excitement. Much of what left of “Barrels Out Of Bond” is about filling all these necessities out.
Bilbo, snooping around the caves, discovers the method that the Wood-elves use to get imported wine: an additional entrance/exit through the use of a subterranean stream and barrels propelled by water. In a paragraph you can almost imagine being filmed in montage style, Bilbo observes the lake, the portcullis, and the manner in which the elves operate the same. Ideas form, and the reader is thinking alongside Bilbo.
I believe this is also the first proper mention of what is soon to be a very important location:
“Bilbo…learned how the wine and other goods came up the rivers, or over land, to the Long Lake. It seemed a town of Men still throve there, built out on bridges far into the water as a protection against enemies of all sorts, and especially against the dragon of the Mountain.”
While Lake-town looms large in the narrative, this small mention helps set it up nicely, as a remnant of the men who used to live in the area during the time of Erebor’s height, and as a practical place dedicated to defending themselves from fiery lizards in any way that they can.
Bilbo’s formulation of a plan leads him to over-hearing the first exchange of what I shall call “Elvish Bantz”:
“Now come with me,” he said, “and taste the new wine that has just come in. I shall be hard at work tonight clearing the cellars of the empty wood, so let us have a drink first to help the labour.”
“Very good,” laughed the chief of the guards. “I’ll taste with you, and see if it is fit for the king’s table. There is a feast tonight and it would not do to send up poor stuff!”
We’ve already seen that the elves are whimsical, laid-back beings, but I always thought this kind of familiar, sarcastic back-and-forth went a bit farther. It marks the Wood-elves out from their Rivendell brethren as a bit more cut-off, a bit darker and a bit more prone to the jibing kind of comedy, instead of the child-friendly stuff Bilbo was presented with in “A Short Rest“. You wouldn’t imagine these guys referring to Bilbo’s situation as “delicious“.
Anyway, Bilbo has a plan. The major hole in the chapter emerges here, as Bilbo somehow manages to free the 12 dwarves, explain his plan to them all in turn, and then successfully sneak them as a group into the wine cellar. In fairness, Tolkien does have the excuse of a feast going on that has the denizens of the caves distracted, but I do feel it is a bit much. It is a moment for some basic comedy though, as Bilbo winces with every noise: “Drat this dwarvish racket!”
More acceptable is the dwarven reaction to Bilbo’s plan: “We shall be bruised and battered to pieces, and drowned too, for certain!” they muttered. “We thought you had got some sensible notion, when you managed to get hold of the keys. This is a mad idea!“. And they are right. It is a “mad idea“. But Bilbo, continuing to grow as a character and as a leader, simply isn’t having it, and he’s right too. This is the only shot that the company has, and whinging about the situation isn’t going to change that. Bilbo, who might have quailed under such criticism earlier in the story, is now uncompromising in defence of his own plot (and, if we choose to infer a bit from the last part, a tad threatening): “Very well!” said Bilbo very downcast, and also rather annoyed. “Come along back to your nice cells, and I will lock you all in again, and you can sit there comfortably and think of a better plan-but I don’t suppose I shall ever get hold of the keys again, even if I feel inclined to try.”
But this hard-nosed and somewhat intimidating hobbit still has that quintessentially decent nature, as evidenced by his treatment of the unfortunate guard whose keys he took to spring the dwarves. Bilbo returns the keys to their proper place, ensuring that, in what is sure to be a rancorous review of what has occurred the next day, the guard will at least be somewhat saved from the inevitable scorn by the mystery of a jailbreak where the jailed have the politeness to return their means of escape before they escaped. Then again, he’s drunk on duty, and I doubt Thranduil is all that understanding.
The matter of putting the dwarves in the actual barrels is inherently humorous: being ever on watch in case the mad scheme is discovered; discussing the finer points of what kind of barrel is most suitable (wine barrels are too hard to open and close) and the image of the dwarves having to be packed in tightly with straw, or being scrunched up “like a large dog in a small kennell“. Thorin is specifically pointed out as being in an especially unenviable position, and in some ways we might consider this is lowest point of this would-be King-under-the-mountain: a figure of the narrator’s ridicule, packed into a food container as part of an escape from abject imprisonment at the hands of a regional rival.
More “Elvish Bantz” occurs as a few more of the caves inhabitants turn up to go about the task of rolling the barrels onto the river. There is something so remarkably uncouth about it all – “There is nothing in the feeling of weight in an idle toss-pot’s arms” – and it once again gives the impression that the Wood-elves are a people apart from their elder cousins elsewhere. I think this might be the only example of an elf grumbling ever noted in Tolkien’s works.
The elves go about their work with a song, a sort of play on “Row, row, row your boat” in a way, a simple working tune probably sung many times. If the casual words between the Wood-elves mark them as different, this sort of inventive and rich rhymery shows that the elder race has some pretty clear common characteristics, especially when it comes to artistry of any kind. It’s also not all that different to the dwarven song sung in Bag End, indicating a regional similarity as well. In the end, the song is a typical elvish veneration of nature, as well as a suitable work-song:
“Down the swift dark stream you go
Back to lands you once did know!
Leave the halls and caverns deep,
Leave the northern mountains steep,
Where the forest wide and dim
Stoops in shadow grey and grim!
Float beyond the world of trees
Out into the whispering breeze,”
As the narrator positively delights in telling us, now is the moment when the problem with the plan becomes clear: Bilbo isn’t in a position to get or be stuffed into a barrel himself. That Bilbo didn’t apparently think of this is a bit strange, and may just be an avenue for the author to insert more comedic moments into what has already turned rather quickly into a comedic episode in the story. Important to note is that, in this desperate time, Bilbo thinks not only of his own fate – “It looked as if he would certainly lose his friends this time (nearly all of them had already disappeared through the dark trap-door), and get utterly left behind and have to stay lurking as a permanent burglar in the elf-caves for ever” – but of the dwarves too: “He wondered what on earth would happen to them without him; for he had not had time to tell the dwarves all that he had learned, or what he had meant to do, once they were out of the wood.”
With no other option, Bilbo musters up his courage once again, clings to a barrel, and gets into the river. While not quite on the same level as his one man show against the spiders, or even his confrontation with Gollum, it still shows that a certain decisiveness and willingness to act has crept into the hobbit’s character. The Baggins in him might well have stayed in the caves, but the Took, though perhaps driven by “despair and not knowing what else to do” takes the plunge.
In the water, it’s all Bilbo can do to just hold on and not be “hustled and battered to bits” by the other barrels all around. This a moment of apparent tension, as the escape is carried out but it remains unclear if the dwarves are simply drowning inside their casks. And yet, it still seems almost comical more than anything, the image of this hobbit, like a drowned rat, clinging precariously to his support until the barrels hit the shoreline.
Peter Jackson, for the The Desolation Of Smaug, elected to make this part of his trilogy a more traditionally exciting action sequence, replete with a battle of elves and orcs, death-defying barrel based stunts and lots of twirling cinematography. For a trilogy that invites such (undeserved) disdain, it’s a sequence that I noted a lot of critics enjoying, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s fun, it’s rollicking and its inventive. It’s a marked difference to the literary escape which, with the exception of Bilbo’s lack of foresight for his own egress, goes off mostly without a hitch or without anyone coming all that close to stopping the dwarves. And while I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Tolkien should have taken such a course – it is important to acknowledge the difference between the two mediums, and the necessity of change in adaptation – I do feel that “Barrels Out Of Bond” is missing a little something at the end of the chapter, to make the escape that bit more thrilling and enjoyable to read. As it is, Bilbo washes up at a small settlement of the elves on the edge of the river, and his exciting escape now amounts to a clumsy effort to steal some food and stay warm.
The narrator notes the importance of this moment in the closing paragraphs: “There is no need to tell you much of his adventures that night, for now we are drawing near the end of the eastward journey and coming to the last and greatest adventure, so we must hurry on.” If we are to infer that the author considers The Hobbit to be a book of two halves, then the conclusion of “Barrels Out Of Bond” is the half-way point, where the journeying to the east is (mostly) finished, and the business of tackling a dragon can take centre stage. I don’t happen to agree with cutting such stories into two parts: if we were to consider The Hobbit in the form of a traditional three-act structure, then “An Unexpected Party” to “Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire” might form a first act where the journey begins and then eventually reaches a firm interregnum point. A second act would consist of “Queer Lodgings” onward, perhaps as far as “Fire And Water”, where the company advances as far into the wilds and the dangers as they can, and the obstacle of Smaug is overcome, with the remaining chapters, detailing the build-up to and execution of the Battle of Five Armies, forming a final conclusive act.
At every stage of the escape, Bilbo has benefited from a fair amount of luck, as noted by Tolkien towards the end of this chapter. He reaches the shore just in time, and wakes the following morning just in time to re-join the lashed together barrels, on top of the unlikelihood of the escape itself going off without a hitch. I’m sure Gandalf would insist that a higher power is involved in some capacity, and Bilbo’s good fortune does seem a little bit more than just that.
The chapter ends on an unexpected piece of foreboding summation: “They had escaped the dungeons of the king and were through the wood, but whether alive or dead still remains to be seen.” After the trials and tribulations of “Flies And Spiders”, it’s the escape from Mirkwood that is the more impressive feat in many ways, and also this escape from the land of Faerie: perhaps it is fitting that the departure from such a fantastical place occurs in such a fantastical manner. As for the last few words, well it’s fair to say that the audience might not have that much fear in them for the company.
“Barrels Out Of Bond”, close to the literal halfway point of the story, is a funny old chapter. Short and sweet, Tolkien provides us with an interesting escape for the dwarves, that emphasises Bilbo’s ingenuity, observation, survival instincts and, at the crucial moment, courage. It also showcases Bilbo more as a leader, this time in organising and executing a plan, as opposed to coming up with one in the midst of a terrible battle.
But the chapter has its weaknesses. I feel that more could have been done to expand out this home of the elves, perhaps in a scene where Bilbo eavesdrops on the King in conversation with his servants (they could be talking about Lake-town, Smaug or Erebor), and, as stated, the escape itself could do with a bit of punching up, perhaps if the company is discovered by a wandering elf and needs to undertake some quick shutting up in order to not be discovered. Perhaps it is just because it comes on the heels of the much lengthier, much more detailed and much more action-packed “Flies And Spiders”, that would make any neighbouring chapter look less than sparkling in comparison. Perhaps Tolkien simply wrote himself into somewhat of a dead end, and wanted to get on with the business at hand as quickly as possible.
And the business at hand is immense. The next chapter will be another transitionary affair, before we finally get to the real meat and bones of the entire tale: the Lonely Mountain is on the horizon.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.