We go from one short chapter to an ever shorter one. “On The Doorstep” is a bit of an odd entry, a set-up chapter for the more momentous events to come when we get to meet Smaug. As such, there isn’t a whole lot to note in it in terms of truly plot-critical events, save for the climax. But, if that is an issue, at least it is short.
The author sets the mood for the chapter right from the off as the company surveys the ever-nearer Lonely Mountain, “towering tall and grim” over a lonely land. Just a few days out from Lake-town, the land about is without people or major signs of life, to the extent that the company can leave a store of supplies near the river, unguarded, while they hike the remaining distance to what is left of Erebor.
The Lakemen who have accompanied them this far won’t be going on. Away from the mob and the holiday in Lake-town, the almost manic effect of the dwarves’ arrival has worn off. As noted, “It was easier to believe in the Dragon and less easy to believe in Thorin in these wild parts” and no one will be voluntarily spending a night in the surrounds “until the songs have come true“.
That gloom brought on by the surrounds – the “Desolation of the Dragon” – is the defining element of “On The Doorstep”. We’re only two and a bit paragraphs in and already “their spirits fell“. In a land that is seemingly nothing but “broken and blackened stumps“, and memory of what once was, it is easy for morale to slip alarmingly. Tolkien will re-use much of this same kind of language in “The Passage Of The Marshes” when Frodo and Sam encounter “the desolation that lay before Mordor“, though the experience is more fleeting.
So overwhelming is this apparent feeling that I wonder if it is part of the “dragon-sickness” that Tolkien will briefly touch on in the next chapter, the supernatural effect that dragons have on those nearby. Such morale-sapping magic would not be unique to Smaug, as Tolkien has Saruman doing something similar in The Two Towers:
“There is something strange at work in this land. I distrust the silence. I distrust even the pale Moon. The stars are faint; and I am weary as I have seldom been before, weary as no Ranger should be with a clear trail to follow. There is some will that lends speed to our foes and sets an unseen barrier before us: a weariness that is in the heart more than in the limb.’
‘Truly!’ said Legolas. ‘That I have known since first we came down from the Emyn Muil. For the will is not behind us but before us.’ He pointed away over the land of Rohan into the darkling West under the sickle moon. ‘Saruman!’ muttered Aragorn.”
I may be over-complicating the matter though: visiting an old homeland now wrecked and without life, contemplating their own mortality and ever worried that the wrong noise will bring the wrath of a dragon on them, perhaps the gloom is simply a logical outcome of the circumstances.
Getting closer to the mountain allows for two different grim trips down memory lane. The first, a scouting party that looks down upon what’s left of the once prosperous town of Dale, now just “the grey ruins of ancient houses, towers, and walls“. Balin, one of Thorin’s companions who survived Smaug’s attack, wistfully narrates the scene:
“There lies all that is left of Dale…The mountain’s sides were green with woods and all the sheltered valley rich and pleasant in the days when the bells rang in that town.” He looked both sad and grim as he said this…”
The second is the gate of Erebor itself, cut into the mountain and an ominous sight for any lucky (or unlucky) enough to view it:
“…they could look out and see the dark cavernous opening in a great cliff-wall between the arms of the Mountain. Out of it the waters of the Running River sprang; and out of it too there came a steam and a dark smoke. Nothing moved in the waste, save the vapour and the water, and every now and again a black and ominous crow…”
The purpose of these brief looks at the only structures worth seeing in the desolation is to emphasise to the reader that Smaug is no longer a distant, theoretical issue to be dealt with down the line: he’s here, and he’s a very practical problem that needs to be overcome. The potential threat that he poses is immense, as evidence by the once-beautiful town he destroyed, and the wasteland he has made of the area around Erebor. The mention of “dark smoke” coming out of the gate is our first active sign that the dragon is alive and well, even if Balin momentarily ponders that the smoke is not necessarily proof of such a thing.
If it feels like I am harping on about the glum mood, that’s only because Tolkien is. The dwarves find themselves in a malaise of sorts – “None of them had much spirit left” – and are only driven on by the impetus of Bilbo, who draws the company’s attention back to the whole point of their quest. Bilbo is slightly less susceptible to the prevailing mood it seems, perhaps because the state of the waste is not so personal for him, but this also continues to illustrate that Bilbo is no longer just a follower in the company, he’s a leader. And it will be shown again before the end of the chapter.
The secret door itself is practically a forgotten task. I’m not even sure if it has been mentioned since the discovery of the hidden writing on Thror’s map back in “A Short Rest” which is strange considering how vital this plot point was. Walking in the main gate is suicide, but the side door allows for a way in that may bypass the dragon, even if it is only temporary. But no thought has been put into figuring out the cryptic words that accompanied the note on the side-door, which Tolkien doesn’t even feel the need to repeat here. I will though:
“Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks…and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.”
Even finding the door is not the result of a careful examination and thought process, but just blind luck. It’s almost like Tolkien came up with the idea of the side-door but then got bored of it, and by by the time he got to this point he wanted to bypass any major exploration and seeking of it as quickly as possible. Perhaps he was as eager to get inside to the dragon as the rest of us.
Setting up a camp on the titular doorstep allows for a brief, but interesting, look at dwarven ingenuity in practise. The path up goes far and follows a narrow trail with a sheer drop on one side. The company jerry-rigs a system whereby they can have supplies and the occasional dwarf carried up, instead of a laborious and dangerous hike up and down. Tolkien is setting up for something here, as he very directly foreshadows in the case of Bombur (now happily admitting his own obesity) but I found it noteworthy as just an example of how the dwarves can be clever when it comes to the practicalities of a difficult situation, using their hands, strength and the tools at hand to find a solution. Such mountain craft also indicates their mining skill as well, and we’ll be seeing the direct result of such cleverness very shortly.
The door itself is an enigma, an obviously man-made surface in the side of an otherwise rugged mountain. Tolkien aficionados will obviously think of the gate into Moria from “A Journey In The Dark“, which will be similarly smooth and similarly fiendish to open. “Mellon” isn’t going to cut it here, though Tolkien provides some continuity by having the dwarves attempt to open the door by speaking “fragments of broken spells of opening“, without success. The dwarves, naturally, fall back to more practical efforts, but attempting the smash the door down only results in ruined tools.
The mood is still sombre enough, and indeed, there is now an added sense of immediate peril, exemplified by a brief exploration of how much further up this hidden path goes:
“Out up there a silence reigned, broken by no bird or sound except that of the wind in the crannies of stone. They spoke low and never called or sang, for danger brooded in every rock.”
Despite the negative description here, the silence is an ally: during the brief attempt to smash the door down “they grew terrified…of the echoing noise.” One wonders how they are planning to handle the dragon when they actually get to meet him, and this chapter is notable for the way the usually gung-ho dwarves aren’t racing in the front door.
As the narrator practically delights in reminding you, this is supposed to be Bilbo’s moment, noted as far back as the opening chapter/ in “An Unexpected Party”:
“Well, I should say that you ought to go East and have a look round. After all there is the Side-door, and dragons must sleep sometimes, I suppose. If you sit on the doorstep long enough, I daresay you will think of something…”
It was a very dismissive way of looking at the problem then, as distant from the Lonely Mountain as the company was. Earlier they “were too eager to trouble about the runes or the moon- letters” as they tried to smash the door down. But now, here they are, bereft of ideas for how to open this side-door, with no other option but to sit and think. Or rather, no other option but to watch Bilbo sit and think, but if Bilbo has been hired as a burglar, it doesn’t really seem like his moment to shine has come. Instead, Bilbo would rather sit and look to the west.
Such apparent malaise is hardly going to do much for the spirits of the dwarves, and very quickly leads to the positing of some more extreme plans:
“Since he has got an invisible ring, and ought to be a specially excellent performer now, I am beginning to think he might go through the Front Gate and spy things out a bit!”
You’ll recall going through the front gate was previously compared to suicide, and Bilbo, having overheard such casual ideas that may threaten his existence, isn’t having any of it:
“It is always poor me that has to get them out: of their difficulties, at least since the wizard left. Whatever am I going to do? I might have known that something dreadful would happen to me in the end. I don’t think I could bear to see the unhappy valley of Dale again, and as for that steaming gate… ”
It’s interesting to see Bilbo put in this position, complaining that it is “always poor me” that has to get the company out of trouble. How things change. But the spiders and the escape from the Woodland Realm was basically bonus work: getting inside the mountain is literally Bilbo’s purpose.
The critical day comes, and Bilbo is left with “a queer feeling that he was waiting for something“, another nod, perhaps, of a higher power interfering with affairs down below. Bilbo ascribes the feeling to expecting Gandalf to suddenly turn up, showing how, in Bilbo’s eyes at least, the wizard and a higher power are one and the same. But Gandalf will not be coming back just yet, and Bilbo, just as he did in the halls of Thranduil, will need to dismiss the hopes of magical assistance and get on with the job himself.
It’s more of Middle-Earth’s animals that come to the rescue, though these ones aren’t of the talking variety (yet). Bilbo spies a thrush banging a snail against the doorway at a particular point, just as the sun is setting and the moon rising, visible in the sky together briefly. It makes sense that Bilbo and the company would not decide to take the words written on the map as literally as they apparently needed to, but there all the elements are: a thrush knocking, a grey stone, the last light of a setting sun and a moon rising to replace it.
It’s to Tolkien’s credit that he manages to make something exciting out of what follows, as it becomes clear that the company will have mere moments to open the keyhole when it appears:
“”The key! The key!” cried Bilbo. “Where is Thorin?” Thorin hurried up. “The key!” shouted Bilbo. “The key that went with the map! Try it now while there is still time!” Then Thorin stepped up and drew the key on its chain from round his neck. He put it to the hole. It fitted and it turned! Snap! The gleam went out, the sun sank, the moon was gone, and evening sprang into the sky.”
Again, it is Bilbo directing things and being in command here, and someone has to be. The dwarves were within a hairs-breadth of having to trudge down the mountain and wait a year.
The keyhole discovered, the dwarves are able to open the doorway. The last moments of the chapter are full of suitable foreboding, with a line drawn between the passage and the likely ravenous monster lying within:
“It seemed as if darkness flowed out like a vapour from the hole in the mountain-side, and deep darkness in which nothing could be seen lay before their eyes, a yawning mouth leading in and down.”
“On The Doorstep” could arguably have been combined with “A Warm Welcome” rather than being its own thing, but at least more stuff of plot relevance occurs in its pages. “A Warm Welcome” sets up the area, but “On The Doorstep” fleshes it out a bit, with the grim looks at Dale and Erebor, as well as allowing us to experience the physical and mental effects of Smaug’s desolation. It also has its moments of excitement and interest elsewhere, such as the dwarven method of getting to the doorstep, and Balin’s mournful reaction to being home again.
Beyond that, “On The Doorstep” is a character challenge, insofar as the dwarves are faced with the up close reality of their previously vibrant home being destroyed, and all of them, Bilbo included, must suddenly contemplate their mortality in a way that they haven’t before. The result is a sombre, downbeat mood for the majority of the chapter, a different kind of test, but the company just about passes, especially Bilbo, who keeps his head well enough to understand that the moon-letters are not some kind of clever riddle or enigma, but a literal description of the conditions that must be met for the hidden side door to open.
With these preliminaries out of the way, we are on the verge of another of the story’s defining moments. Having finally gotten “there”, it is time that we meet the dragon.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.