“Not At Home” is an odd chapter in many ways. It’s partially another transition chapter, and when viewed in line with what comes after, it’s natural to think that its placement is a little strange. After all, “Inside Information” ended with a serious bang, as Smaug sent part of the mountain tumbling and then wheeled off to attack Lake-town. But then, rather than follow the dragon and his terrible vengeance, Tolkien opts to keep the focus on the company, now trapped inside the Lonely Mountain. He originally wrote the events the other way around, then switched them. The right choice? It certainly eschews what you would expect, and perhaps the events of “Not At Home” could have been combined with the first section of “”The Gathering Of The Clouds”.
The company, with the way out now blocked and the way down a bit too scary to contemplate, is left lying hopelessly at the start of Thror and Thrain’s escape tunnel, a miserable moment that calls to mind the suffocating blackness of Mirkwood with the sense of despair it invokes: “They could not count the passing of time; and they scarcely dared to move, for the whisper of their voices echoed and rustled in the tunnel…At last after days and days of waiting, as it seemed, when they were becoming choked and dazed for want of air, they could bear it no longer.” It will later be revealed that they have stayed prone in this spot for around two days, which seems extreme, considering they never tried the door once in that time, or thought about heading downwards. Tolkien’s emphasis is on how it’s hard to keep track of time in such a situation.
The dwarves are pitched into apathetic, almost suicidal tendencies when the door appears unmovable: “We are trapped!” they groaned. “This is the end. We shall die here.” This begs once again the continuing question of just what it was that the company at large was expecting, going up against a large fire-breathing dragon. Going to confront Smaug is treated like an impossible task, but this is the quest to kill the dragon and free Erebor, isn’t it?
Bilbo shows more of his leadership qualities in the face of this maudlin display, deciding to take an optimistic tone in the face of adversity:
“Come, come!” he said. “While there’s life there’s hope!” as my father used to say…I am going down the tunnel once again. I have been that way twice, when I knew there was a dragon at the other end, so I will risk a third visit when I am no longer sure. Anyway the only way out is down. And I think time you had better all come with me.”
It’s good stuff. It’s commanding, grabbing a hold of the company’s apathy and dismissing it. It’s understanding of how the dwarves are feeling without being patronising. And it’s practical, with the only way out to march down the tunnel, dragon or no. The company can’t be sure that Smaug is even there, and what do they have to lose? The dwarves respond to Bilbo’s pragmatism, and are soon marching in step behind him.
The moment allows for some light comedy, welcome in the darkness of what surrounds it, as the dwarves fail to quite grasp that Bilbo wants them to go quietly and make “a deal of puffing and huffing“, that so distracts the hobbit that he fails to realise he has come to the end of the tunnel, and tumbles forward into the hall.
This really should be a moment of dread, since we can have no real idea of where Smaug is, but Tolkien makes it clear that he isn’t around without saying so bluntly, by playing with the amount of light in the room. You’ll remember, in “Inside Information”, Bilbo’s initial approach to the great hall was marked by “a red light steadily getting redder and redder.” But here, of course, there is no light, not from the red-glow of Smaug or from “a spark of dragon-fire“, only “a pale white-glint” in the distance. Thus, it’s reasonable to assume the dragon isn’t home, the only sign of his presence being a lingering “wormstench“. After a comical interlude where Bile squeaks a challenge to the dragon (“Give me a light, and then eat me if you can catch me!“) it becomes apparent that Smaug isn’t here. But if Smaug isn’t here, and he set off to attack Lake-town “days upon days” ago, then where is he?
Very telling is the reaction of the dwarves to all of this, even the more capable Thorin, sitting huddled at the end of the tunnel when Bilbo falls, and only reluctantly giving in to his calls for light, before patronisingly waving away Bilbo’s suggestion that they all light up torches and follow him: “As Thorin carefully explained, Mr. Baggins was still officially their expert burglar and investigator. If he liked to risk a light, that was his affair. They would wait in the tunnel for his report.” They’re terrified and still look nowhere near a troupe of would-be dragon-slayers. Instead, Thorin decides that little Bilbo will now operate as a scouting party of one.
But such cowardice is going to be punished, in narrative terms, and Thorin will regret not following Bilbo into the piles of treasure. Because its Bilbo who finds the Arkenstone in this moment, a jewel that Tolkien takes great care in describing:
“…there could not be two such gems, even in so marvellous a hoard, even in all the world. Ever as he climbed, the same white gleam had shone before him and drawn his feet towards. Slowly it grew to a little globe of pallid light. Now as came near, it was tinged with a flickering sparkle of many colours at the surface, reflected and splintered from the wavering light of his torch. At last he looked down upon it and he caught his breath. The great jewel shone before his feet of its own inner light, and yet, cut and fashioned by the dwarves, who had dug it from the heart of the mountain long ago, it took all light that fell upon it and changed it into ten thousand sparks of white radiance shot with glints of the rainbow.”
I mentioned in the last chapter the rather unfounded idea that the Arkenstone is a Silmaril, and while that theory makes little sense, there is a certain commonality in description, as Tolkien writes in “Of The Silmarils And The Unrest Of The Noldor” :
“Like the crystal of diamonds it appeared, and yet was more strong than adamant…Therefore even in the darkness of the deepest treasury the Silmarils of their own radiance shone like the stars of Varda; and yet, as were they indeed living things, they rejoiced in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvellous than before.”
In both cases, these are no ordinary things, but objects of power, to entrance, to ignite greed and to ignite bloodshed. And they have a certain wary sentience of their own, like the Ring, evidenced by the way it seems to shine just for Bilbo here, and not for Thorin who, letting the hobbit blunder into possible danger, does not get the opportunity to claim it for himself.
Bilbo is the worthier, or at least so he thinks. He is led “towards it…drawn by its enchantment” much like the influence the Ring will later be shown to have, and once he takes it, he’s quick to come up with excuses for his actions: “They did say I could pick and choose my own share; and I think I would choose this, if they took all the rest!” Whatever about the excuse, Bilbo essentially steals this thing, and that is troubling enough, not at all in line with the person we have come to know and yet, not really surprising given the enormity of what he has discovered and the other-worldly powers it has.
While Bilbo had been previously able to shake off the “gold-sickness” and influence of Smaug, this might well be a sign of it returning, and in his more honest thoughts, Bilbo has premonitions of disaster for what has just occurred: “All the same he had an uncomfortable feeling that the picking and choosing had not really been meant to include this marvellous gem, and that trouble would yet come of it.” He’s quite right, and this is the instigating event for one of the key conflicts of the books third act. The power of the treasure is made clear in “Not At Home” repeatedly, with words like “enchantment” and bewitchment” used at times.
Bilbo is accosted by some bats – probably the only other living thing in Erebor currently – and loses his light, prompting the dwarves to finally find their courage, just as Bilbo loses his. This still comes off as a case of too little, too late, and there’s something rather eye-raising about Balin’s statement of “I am quite willing to go“. Is he just trying to cover-up for the mass cowardice of the dwarven company a few moments before, or is Thorin deciding things for the group, in conflict with some of their individual feelings?
In exchange for risking their lives, the company finally get their hands on the very object of their quest, and the effect is a mixture of joy and a certain negativity, as elaborated by the narrator. In the previous chapter he very notably commented on the nature of dwarven courage, loyalty and value, implying that the race are calculating and cold to a certain degree, but here their love of gold is outlined as a flood of emotion, and as a warning to Bilbo, who may not like the reaction should he reveal the Arkenstone (perhaps also a narrative excuse for his actions), as a dwarf, even a “respectable” one, who sees it can grow “suddenly bold, and he may become fierce“.
The company rejoice in the very touch of the treasure “caressing and fingering” the horde as if the objects are more than just mined minerals, but a very statement of their character, one part of a whole that is now reunited. The greed of the dwarves comes out in the almost pathetic sight of them stuffing their pockets with whatever they can carry, like real burglars, while the rest literally slips through their fingers, a potent metaphor, perhaps, for the nature of the dwarven relationship with their wealth. These do not look like dragon-slayers and liberators of a homeland, they look like desperate looters with “old cloaks…and tattered hoods“.
The exception is Thorin, who stands aside from the rest, focused only on one thing, “but he spoke of it yet to no one“, concealing his thoughts and maybe a little bit of encroaching madness. What he would do if he found out about Bilbo’s concealment is a worrying though for a new reader, as Tolkien has laid the groundwork for an explosive reaction.
Having indulged their lust for gold, the dwarves eventually get round to more practical matters, taking the available armour and weapons: “Royal indeed did Thorin look, clad in a coat of gold-plated rings, with a silver-hafted axe in a belt crusted with scarlet stones.” I’m sure it’s quite a sight, but one might wonder at the usefulness of such things, considering how soft a metal gold actually is. This also calls to mind, again, the under preparedness of the company, who have gone through most of their adventure without being properly armed for it.
Another important object of the continuity is introduced next, the mithril coat “wrought for some young elf-prince long ago“, now perfect for Bilbo. This “silver-steel” does not get the expansive description it will get in later works, on both its usefulness and rarity, but it is another important character moment for Bilbo, now clad in martial gear, very unlike the person that he used to be. Case in point, Bilbo imagines how strange he looks, but still has a burst of arrogant pride: “How they would laugh on the Hill at home! Still I wish there was a looking-glass handy!”
Bilbo keeps his wits long enough to note that they really shouldn’t stick around, not with a live dragon liable to turn up at any moment. He does so with a wistful memory of the Beorn’s halls and the food they got there, a reminder that the company does not have infinite supplies. Moreover, the central problem of their position remains: “We are armed, but what good has any armour ever been before against Smaug the Dreadful?”
Thankfully, Thorin now has the opportunity to resume his role as leader, and to showcase his own importance: “Let us go! I will guide you. Not in a thousand years should I forget the ways of this palace.” It’s a reminder of Thorin’s very direct connection to Erebor, a place that he is the rightful King of, a status that will soon provoke conflict and discord with many people.
For now though, Thorin is the King of nothing, with Erebor still an occupied land, burnt and ruined. Tolkien takes the time to give the remains of the Lonely Mountain’s interior a grim description:
“…all the old adornments were long mouldered or destroyed, and though all was befouled and blasted with the comings and goings of the monster…they met no sign of any living thing, only furtive shadows that fled from the approach of their torches…Before them light came dimly through great doors, that hung twisted on their hinges and half burnt…Tables were rotting there; chairs and benches were lying there overturned, charred and decaying. Skulls and bones were upon the floor among flagons and bowls and broken drinking-horns and dust.”
Much like Moria in The Lord Of The Rings, Erebor is a place of death and destruction, destroyed by evil forces, with only the ghastly remnants of life to give any indication of what once was there. That both places are abodes of the dwarves speaks to Tolkien’s mindset for this race, perpetually doomed to create wonders and then lose them, victims of their own largess and greed.
Thorin leads them true, through the winding stairs and vast halls of Thror, to the real doorstep, the main gate, a mixture of dwarven rock and natures waters: “Out of a dark opening in a wall of rock there issued a boiling water, and it flowed swirling in a narrow channel, carved and made straight and deep by the cunning of ancient hands.” The company come to their deliverance from the choking darkness, but in what may be seen as another bit of foreshadowing, getting what they wanted isn’t what they expected:
“…I never expected to be so pleased to see the sun again, and to feel the wind on my face. But, ow! this wind is cold!”
It was. A bitter easterly breeze blew with a threat of oncoming winter. It swirled over and round the arms of the Mountain into the valley, and sighed among the rocks. After their long time in the stewing depths of the dragon-haunted caverns, they shivered in the sun.”
The moment is one for a not-so-subtle discussion on who can be considered the true master of Erebor, and on sudden dwarven optimism clashing with hobbit realism:
“But I don’t feel that Smaug’s front doorstep is the safest place for a meal. Do let’s go somewhere where we can sit quiet for a bit!… I wonder how many breakfasts, and other meals, we have missed inside that nasty clockless, timeless hole?…
“Come, come!” said Thorin laughing — his spirits had begun to rise again, and he rattled the precious stones in his pockets. “Don’t call my palace a nasty hole! You wait till it has been cleaned and redecorated!”
“That won’t be till Smaug’s dead,” said Bilbo glumly.”
This all calls back to the chapter title itself. Who is “Not At Home” here? The plundering dragon resting on top of a stolen horde of treasure? Or the dwarves stealing into a subterranean labyrinth that they haven’t occupied in over a century? Or is it both? Or is it Bilbo, trapped to a certain extent as an outsider among gold-hungry dwarves?
The company march for shelter in a nearby (relatively speaking) guard post, allowing the author to chance for some light humour on the nature of the dwarves’ provisions, made up entirely of the suitably named “cram”. It’s a perfect food for the dwarves, in its drabness and simplicity: “If you want to know what cram is, I can only say that I don’t know the recipe; but it is biscuitish, keeps good indefinitely, is supposed to be sustaining, and is certainly not entertaining, being in fact very uninteresting except as a chewing exercise.” It’s a contrast to Elvish lembas, that Gimli son of Gloin will compare to cram in The Fellowship Of The Ring.
Reaching the guardroom allows for another maudlin recitation of what has been, as Balin, another Erebor survivor, posits that more alert guards might have made the difference on the day Smaug attacked. Without perhaps realising what he is saying, he offers another criticism of the accumulation of dwarven wealth: “But there seemed small need for watching in the days of our prosperity…”
The company’s conversation comes back to one thing consistently: “where was Smaug?” As confirmed by the narrator, it’s been two days since he departed, and there is no indication of where he is or what has happened to him. A new reader might well surmise that something has befallen the dragon, but he could just as easily still be around, up on the mountain “perched there like a bird on a steeple“.
The final moment of this chapter is dedicated to a curious, and very unnerving, natural phenomenon:
“They looked West and there was nothing, and East there was nothing, and in the South there was no sign of the dragon, but there was a gathering of very many birds. At that they gazed and wondered…”
We don’t know why or what kind, but a gathering of birds seems portentous. The mind naturally springs to carrion-fowl flying to a sight of death, or a “murder” of crows. There is also the ancient Roman practice of Augury to consider, that is seeking to know the future or will of the Gods from the movement of birds or other animals. This is especially notable as augury often depended on the exact location where birds gathered, which would make Tolkien’s note of birds to the south important. The combination of influences would indicate a momentous event of some description in that direction. What is to the south, is Lake-town.
“Not At Home” is short, and not an immaterial exercise by any means. In terms of establishing further the importance of the Arkenstone, and the nature of dwarven desire for gold in practical terms, it does some important work, especially for Thorin. Bilbo’s takes some more important steps as a leader and as a serious instigator of the remaining plot. And it is also important that we get our glimpse inside the Lonely Mountain proper and show what it is compared to what it once was. But Tolkien does sometimes have an issue with what constitutes a chapter, and “Not At Home” could very well have been combined with some of the later chapters, even if that removed that lingering sense of tension from the absence of Smaug.
The Hobbit is light on action, with our only real sequence of such being the spider fight in “Flies And Spiders“. That’s about to change big-time, with the next chapter being Tolkien at his action-packed best, in another of the books iconic moments.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.