The Hobbit, Chapter-By-Chapter: A Warm Welcome

It hasn’t been all that long since our last transition chapter really, though it may seem like it’s been an age since the company trooped up to Beorn’s home in “Queer Lodgings“. But here we are again with “A Warm Welcome”, Tolkien’s proper introduction for Lake-town and the area surrounding the Lonely Mountain. We are on the borders of the second act finale, and the set-up for much of what is to come in the remainder of The Hobbit will occur in the following pages.

That set-up begins with an expansive look at the end-point of the entire quest. Tolkien skilfully builds up the moment with short-clipped sentences, as the landscape of the great forest falls away, and the expanse before it becomes clear:

Suddenly the cliff fell away. The shores sank. The trees ended. Then Bilbo saw a sight: The lands opened wide about him…And far away, its dark head in a torn cloud, there loomed the Mountain!

We briefly inhabit Bilbo’s perspective again for this moment, a glimpse of the monstrous final destination. The majesty and awe of the sight is quickly placed squarely in terms of Bilbo’s own thoughts, and they are that of a Baggins: “Bilbo had come far and through many adventures to see it, and now he did not like the look of it in the least.”

Now might be a good moment to think about the concept of a “Lonely Mountain”. Not all that lonely of course, as Tolkien notes a stumbling wreck of lower slopes and hills leading to a distant mountain range, but isolated all the same. Is such a thing possible? Well, yes, but primarily when the peak in question is a volcano, active or extinct. Japan’s Mt Fuji is a good example of such a summit, largely isolated from other rises and ranges. However, there is little indication that the Lonely Mountain is a volcano – indeed, it is my understanding that its extensive mineral wealth would indicate that it can’t be, going by real-world geology – and it does not appear realistic to expect such a mountain to spring into existence in the manner that Tolkien describes it. But, then again, this is a fantasy world, and we have to make some allowances.

The next few paragraphs offer a brief summation of the areas politics and general state of being, now so long past the glory days of Erebor and Dale, whose time is described in suitably murky tones as “a shadowy tradition” whose memory is slipping from the people still living there. The times aren’t the best, as Bilbo overhears: the Lakemen and the Wood-elves bicker about trade and trade routes, the paths through Mirkwood have become unkempt and dangerous (moreso than even Gandalf realised, it is noted) and there is always the threat of the dragon, reactions to whom vary between non-belief in the younger crowd who mock “the greybeards and the gammers” who claim to have seen Smaug to those who blame every calamity on him in almost ritualistic fashion, “chiefly with a curse and an ominous nod in the direction of the Mountain“.

The general idea of a gradual disintegration of things reminds me very much of certain sections of “A Long Expected Party” and “The Shadow Of The Past“, where Tolkien grimly nods at trouble in the outside world and a feeling that a tide of darkness is on the rise, and cannot be held back. The area of the Lonely Mountain is, for the moment, still home to life and even success – Lake-town is noted as still thriving as an important trade-route – but it all feels very temporary, like the last vestiges of a great civilisation about to finally collapse and vanish.

And this part of Middle-Earth is worth examining in greater detail, being, as far as I can see, the only part of the world where men and elves live relatively close and interact with each other on a daily basis. And those interactions are surprisingly tawdry: the rudimentary exchanges of basic trade and the bitter squabbles of local politics. You couldn’t imagine Elrond and Galadriel arguing with local merchants over the cost of wine and butter, but this, once again, marks Thranduil and the Wood-elves out. Still, it’s a time of peace all the same, and the Woodland Realm and Lake-town seem like civil neighbours at the very least: “Except for occasional squabbles about river-tolls they were friends with the Wood- elves.”

The narrator’s name-drop of Gandalf, now finished with his mysterious business to the south and heading back in the direction of the company, is similar to the way in which his return was flagged to the reader in “Roast Mutton” and “Over Hill And Under Hill“, just in a more distant way. Tolkien obviously prefers to instil a “When is he going to turn up?” style of tension over “Is Gandalf ever coming back?”.

Tolkien’s descriptive flair is substituted for a geography lesson as Bilbo glimpses the Long Lake for the first time, with hobbit ignorance of large bodies of water calling to mind Frodo’s dream in “A Conspiracy Unmasked“. Bilbo, seemingly as a way of comforting himself with faced with such immensity, is to place the Long Lake in its correct position relative to the forest river, the river running from Erebor, and other landmarks, though Tolkien does allow himself some beautiful imagery at the end:

…away up there, where the stars of the Wain were already twinkling, the Running River came down into the lake from Dale and with the Forest River filled with deep waters what must once have been a great deep rocky valley. At the southern end the doubled waters poured out again over high waterfalls and ran away hurriedly to unknown lands. In the still evening air the noise of the falls could be heard like a distant roar.”

We move from that back briefly into the memory of that “shadowy tradition“. In chronological terms, it’s worth remembering that Smaug’s attack on Dale and Erebor happened 170 years before this, so you couldn’t call it ancient history really, but its long enough that those who still live here treat Erebor like some kind of utopia with religious overtones, albeit one that most are content to relegate to a pleasant daydream:

…some still sang old songs of the dwarf-kings of the Mountain…and of the coming of the Dragon, and the fall of the lords of Dale. Some sang too that Thror and Thrain would come back one day and gold would flow in rivers through the mountain-gates, and all that land would be filled with new song and new laughter. But this pleasant legend did not much affect their daily business.”

The harsh reality is that Lake-town, while not exactly as poor and run-down as Peter Jackson choose to depict it, is still just a thrown-together place that is a shadow of Dale and “the great days of old“, built on the still sometimes visible “rotting piles of a greater town“.

But enough of that for the moment, we’re back to the more immediate business, as the company finally washes up on the shore after what must be a fairly lengthy spell inside the barrels. Bilbo gets one out, and the description is amusingly rundown, and calls back to the previous description of “a large dog in a small kennel“:

Wet straw was in his draggled beard; he was so sore and stiff, so bruised and buffeted he could hardly stand or stumble through the shallow water to lie groaning on the shore. He had a famished and a savage look like a dog that has been chained and forgotten in a kennel for a week.”

Poor Thorin is understandably not in a very good state, but Bilbo has little patience, giving out to the leader of the company, rather unjustly for once: “Well, are you alive or are you dead?…Are you still in prison, or are you free? If you want food, and if you want to go on with this silly adventure- it’s yours after all and not mine-you had better slap your arms and rub your legs and try and help me get the others out while there is a chance!” That the hobbit is confident enough to verbally harangue dwarven royalty is sign enough of his increased self-confidence and sense of authority.

Poor Fili complains of being stuffed tightly into an apple barrel, sans actual apples, in a torment that seems a nod to the mythical Greek figure of Tantalus. It’s played mostly for laughs, as is the imagery of the dwarven troop lying half-alive on the beach, “so soaked and bruised and cramped that they could hardly yet realize their release or be properly thankful for it.”

Once the dwarves have sufficiently recovered from their thrilling escape, it’s time to discuss next moves, a reminder that the company is, just as they were at the beginning of the last transitionary chapter, without food, supplies, mounts, weapons (except for Sting) or an immediate plan. Thorin, after a suitable section of praise for Bilbo’s escape plan – though not without a dig at the lack of “a more comfortable journey” – is left asking “what next?“. Bilbo is the one to answer, very matter-of-factly, pointing at Lake-town: “What else is there?“. This rejoinder comes off as a little snarky, but also as leaderly, and Thorin, very notably, defers to Bilbo in the matter.

But Thorin’s time of being a ragged vagabond rapidly come to a conclusion, as he sweeps into Lake-town’s guard post and announces himself with strong words and a flourish:

Who are you and what do you want?” they shouted leaping to their feet and gipping for weapons.

“Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror King under the Mountain!” said the dwarf in a loud voice, and he looked it…The gold gleamed on his neck and waist: his eyes were dark and deep.”

Thorin’s words and action are that of king, unused to being challenged. It isn’t clear if this is just him, or if he is consciously putting on a show for the benefit of the locals. His high language continues as he describes his nephews – “The sons of my father’s daughter…of the race of Durin” – and Bilbo, not of the Shire, but “out of the West” (with a capital W). Those nephews, the younger generation, have little time for “the solemnities“, yet still speak with a royalish authority: “We are worn and famished after our long road and we have sick comrades. Now make haste and let us have no more words, or your master may have something to say to you.”

And, if we’re cataloguing the signs of a change in Bilbo, we should note his unseen action here, hiding his own sword after Thorin declares the company have no weapons, a wily move very unlike the hobbit who was so panicked by the arrival of the dwarves at his front door a few months before.

Thorin and the others barge into an ongoing feast in the centre of Lake-town, allowing Tolkien to introduce the otherwise nameless “Master”. We won’t really get too much in the way of details about Lake-town and how its leadership works, but we know from a later chapter that the Master is elected “from among the old and the wise“. Lake-town bears obvious similarities to Venice, and their Doges were elected by the leading merchant families, and primarily for their business acumen. The Master – really Mayor might be a more accurate title – immediately comes off as opportunistic and mindful of mob opinion, even in this initial introduction, which would also mark him out as a person who has gotten to where he is on the back of popular support. From his first line, Tolkien establishes him as speaking one thing while appearing more thoughtful in his own mind, in other words, a politician:

Is this true?” asked the Master. As a matter of fact he thought it far more likely than the return of the King under the Mountain, if any such person had ever existed.”

The presence of some Wood-elves also allows for another nod to local politics, as the Master fears “enmity” springing up if he shows support for Thorin and his claims. It seems a logical fear: Lake-town is just a small trading town, probably dependent on the Woodland Realm for much of their own prosperity, and Thranduil doesn’t seem like the kind of person who bears slights easily. Fugitives from his dungeons would certainly constitute an international incident in the making. It isn’t clear if there is much of a disparity in population here, though the later Wood-elves response might indicate the Lakemen are not as limited as we may seem. Thorin is clever in his response, appealing to the Master directly – and, by extension, the people of Lake-town – over the Wood-elves, making the issue a matter of sovereignty.

The people of Lake-town settle the matter for the Master, who happily goes along with what the mob wants. And, like any mob, they are driven by emotion and short-term fantasies. The “shadowy tradition” has sprung to life before them, a veritable return of the King. Indeed, the Lake-town perception of Erebor and its wealth bears much similarity to the common “King in the mountain” or “Sleeping King” myth, which you find throughout western cultures, that of a long-dead or mythical sovereign who is actually just sleeping agelessly, typically inside or at the top of a mountain, waiting for the right moment to spring back to life and return, usually at a time when his people or country need him most. Tolkien was no stranger to such a tradition – his own national hero, Arthur, is probably the most famous example – with Aragorn’s part in The Lord Of The Rings mimicking the trope in many ways.

The Lake-town mob celebrate the occasion through the singing of an old song, which has obvious Dwarven influences in its structure, but is a just a tad earthier:

The King beneath the mountains,
The King of carven stone, 
The lord of silver fountains 
Shall come into his own!

His crown shall be upholden, 
His harp shall be restrung, 
His halls shall echo golden 
To songs of yore re-sung.

The woods shall wave on mountains 
And grass beneath the sun; 
His wealth shall flow in fountains 
And the rivers golden run.

The streams shall run in gladness, 
The lakes shall shine and burn, 
And sorrow fail and sadness 
At the Mountain-king’s return!

It bears some similarity to “All that is gold does not glitter” in its prediction of the return, resumption and recovery of that from long ago. It’s emphasis on material wealth is also telling for what is expected of Erebor, and we might also note the subtle foreshadowing in the last verse: the Long Lake will indeed “shine and burn” shortly, on account of “the Mountain-king’s return“, just not in the way the singers expect.

The effect is powerful, with the Wood-elves, who you would think to be unflappable in most circumstances, beginning “even to be afraid“, not least because of the company’s escape. They even start to wonder if Thranduil has made “a serious mistake” in his detention of the dwarves, which says something for the popular support Thorin suddenly has.

Amid all of this, and with the benefit of hindsight, we should briefly talk about the absence of an introduction here, with no mention sight or inference of one of the most critical characters in the whole story: Bard. I might go over it in more detail when we reach Smaug’s attack on Lake-town in a few chapters, but I have always considered it to be a quite serious flaw in the story that Bard is introduced so late, and fleshed out so poorly. “A Warm Welcome” would seem to the perfect place to allow him some time, maybe just off to the side grumbling about the dwarves, but Tolkien elected to only bring him into the tale a few pages before his defining act. I’m a big fan of Jackson’s interpretation of the character, and of giving the above song to him.

The actual transition period goes by swiftly, as the company regroups and recovers over the pace of a few paragraphs. Some important things are written about swiftly, but that will grow to be quite important in a few chapters, including the Lake-town populations expectation, driven by the Master, that they will be rewarded monetarily for their titular welcome (that the dwarves are not pleased about), Thorin’s continuing change into a more outwardly royal figure acting as if Smaug has already been “chopped up into small pieces” and the growing dwarven respect and appreciation for Bilbo, who, in the second half of this chapter, is mostly reduced to a comedic figure suffering from a cold.

A more interesting aside is Thranduil learning of Thorin’s intent, and thinking little of it:

Very well! We’ll see! No treasure will come back through Mirkwood without my having something to say in the matter. But I expect they will all come to a bad end, and serve them right!” He at any rate did not believe in dwarves fighting and killing dragons like Smaug…He sent out his spies about the shores of the lake and as far northward towards the Mountains as they would go, and waited.”

As we can see, Tolkien is laying groundwork for the coming explosion quite nicely here. If you’ll recall, there are now four factions – the goblins, the wargs, the Wood-elves and the Lake-men – and one wizard, all with a reason to track Thorin down, be it revenge, reward or assistance. And they will all come together at once in the finale.

The time comes for the company to continue on, much to the amazement of the cynical Master, who was expecting the company to turn out to be hoaxsters. His base motivation is clear, as Thorin has brought business to a standstill, and this is the Master’s sole real goal. I do love his actual lines here, a wonderful back-and-forth between honeyed words, unsubtle nods towards expected reward, and actual grim internal thought processes:

Let them go and bother Smaug, and see how he welcomes them!” he thought. “Certainly, O Thorin Thrain’s son Thror’s son!” was what he said. “You must claim your own. The hour is at hand, spoken of old. What help we can offer shall be yours, and we trust to your gratitude when your kingdom is regained.”

But I also love the focus on Thorin, and dwarven motivation that would push someone even into a dragons lair:  “…there is no knowing what a dwarf will not dare and do for revenge or the recovery of his own.” As stated before, there is a disconnect between the respective goals of this entire expedition. The dwarves are looking to turf Smaug out of their home, and there are occasional nods towards Erebor as a promised land, but the primary thing appears to be wealth. It’s “long-forgotten gold“, not “long-forgotten home” after all. But I suppose we should not really look at it as a disconnect in a way, because for dwarves it seems like gold and home are one and the same thing. It’s all their “own”.

The final departure is a solemn occasion, with Tolkien spending time to note the passing of the autumn season in almost ominous tones (the slipping of the days will be an important plot-point in the next chapter). The final line is one that is half-comedic, and half-foreshadowing: “The only person thoroughly unhappy was Bilbo.”

“A Warm Welcome” is short and sweet, very much in the same vein as “A Short Rest“. At the same time, it’s impressive how much Tolkien manages to cram in here, in terms of our introduction to Lake-town and the wider region, an outline of its society and politics and some important foundations for plot points of serious significance to come. Bilbo and Thorin get very important characterisation as well, in terms of Bilbo’s continued growth to a position of authority, and Thorin’s assumption of a royal dignity.

Perhaps much more importantly we have now done the requisite set-up for the next big step in the journey, perhaps the defining step. Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, Smaug, they have always been distant goals, the end-point once the company has gotten past a multitude of other dangers. But now the Mountain looms over the company, and within lies the entire point of the quest.

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

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