The destruction of Smaug signaled the end of the books second act, and now we are marching on to the culmination of things. “The Gathering Of The Clouds” is a transitional chapter in a sense, as little true plot progression occurs, and from the perspective of the main characters it literally takes place within a very limited geography. But it does flesh out the central conflict of the final part of the book, and sets-up Bilbo’s momentous actions in the next chapter.
At the Ravenhill guard-post, the company are as they were at the end of “Not At Home“, observing the gathering flocks of birds and wondering where Smaug is. The mass of avians causes Thorin to, quite rightly, speculate that some sort of battle has occurred, and you might think it’s a bit strange that the company hasn’t at least jumped to a conclusion, considering the only settlement worth talking about to the south is Lake-town.
The “old thrush” returns at this point, much to the surprise of Bilbo, who had leveled suspicion at him before. It’s amusing to see Bilbo’s bluster when asked by Balin if he can make out what the thrush is apparently trying to tell them: “Not very well,” said Bilbo (as a matter of fact, he could make nothing of it at all); “but the old fellow seems very excited.” Having become a much more respected member of the company, Bilbo apparently doesn’t want to be thought less of, even if it is for something as impossible as understanding what birds are saying.
But not all birds are the same it seems, as The Hobbit decides to, in an incredibly casual manner, introduce the idea that some birds can communicate with the dwarves, and that they have already done so in the story. Balin distinguishes between the “nasty suspicious-looking” crows they saw previously, who were apparently “calling after” the company with “ugly names” and the ravens that used to populate the area: “…ravens are different. There used to be great friendship between them and the people of Thror; and they often brought us secret news, and were rewarded with such bright things as they coveted to hide in their dwellings.”
The old thrush apparently understands Balin better than Balin understands him, because he flies off at these words and comes back with the literal Chief of the Ravens.
Ravens have played a notable role in mythology for a long time. Western traditions often consider them a bird of ill-omen, owing to their all-black plumage and carrion diet, but there are other interpretations, most notably Huginn and Muninn, the two ravens that travel the world and bring information to the Norse God Odin. There is also the raven that is the first bird released from Noah’s ark, and the parable of Luke 12:24, where Christ uses the image of the raven as a metaphor for those who place their trust in God over material wealth. Tolkien’s writings are clearly influenced by the Norse traditions, and by the simple fact that ravens are smarter than your average bird, and are, indeed, classed as among the most intelligent of avians.
Roac, the 153 year old son of the raven Balin knew in his younger years, comes into the story at this point, to serve as an exposition machine for the company and as a litmus test for Thorin’s current mood. In a world where men, elves, goblins, wargs and eagles are all going to be marching for war, we perhaps should not be too surprised that even the smaller birds are playing politics with the situation around the Lonely Mountain, with Roac introduced quickly as a peacemaker, wanting to solidify a return of animal life to Smaug’s desolation by doing his best to stop any imminent bloodshed between the many forces roundabouts: “We would see peace once more among dwarves and men and elves after the long desolation…“.
It is Roac who brings the news of the dragon’s fall, saying so in a style that makes his species’ association with the dwarves very believable:
“Behold! the birds are gathering back again to the Mountain and to Dale from South and East and West, for word has gone out that Smaug is dead!…The thrush, may his feathers never fall, saw him die, and we may trust his words. He saw him fall in battle with the men of Esgaroth the third night back from now at the rising of the moon.”
The reaction, of course, is one of joy, with the task of taking down the dragon now removed from the company. Notably, their first thought is not about a reclaimed homeland, but what is contained within: “…the treasure is ours!“. That kind of greedy sentiment is going to be an increasingly problematic thing to deal with. But even while the rest of the company “caper about for joy”, there is one person who stays silent: Thorin. The newly undisputed King-under-the-mountain just wants silence to digest what other news Roac might give him. This is telling of Thorin’s mindset, perhaps immediately thinking that a vanquisher of the dragon not from among his company might well decide they are owed something for their trouble. Something from Thorin’s gold.
After giving an unseen account of the battle over Lake-town and the aftermath, Roac sums-up the situation in as neat a way as possible, as a straightforward introduction to the central conflict of the next few chapters, just in case you’ve only started reading from this point maybe, his manner being fairly expositionary:
“So much for joy, Thorin Oakenshield. You may go back to your halls in safety; all the treasure is yours — for the moment. But many are gathering hither beside the birds. The news of the death of the guardian has already gone far and wide, and the legend of the wealth of Thror has not lost in the telling during many years; many are eager for a share of the spoil. Already a host of the elves is on the way, and carrion birds are with them hoping for battle and slaughter. By the lake men murmur that their sorrows are due to the dwarves; for they are homeless and many have died, and Smaug has destroyed their town. They too think to find amends from your treasure, whether you are alive or dead…Your own wisdom must decide your course; but thirteen is small remnant of the great folk of Durin that once dwelt here, and now are scattered far.”
Roac’s words are a warning, and every sentence out of his mouth can be construed as being directed especially at Thorin. I suppose you don’t get to 153 without gaining some experience of how things work, and its obvious Roac is concerned that the death of Smaug will be mere prologue to greater bloodshed over the gold. In an effort to avert such a catastrophe, Roac even namedrops Bard specifically as a man who can be trusted to deal fairly, over the politician that is the Master.
Thorin’s angry reaction to this advice is telling of how rapidly things are escalating, as he immediately starts defining sides, insults those marching on the mountain, and prepares for a fight:
“Our thanks, Roac Care’s son. You and your people shall not be forgotten. But none of our gold shall thieves take or the violent carry off while we are alive…Also I would beg…that you would send messengers to our kin in the mountains of the North…and tell them of our plight.”
This is our first solid indication that Thorin isn’t going to hand over a single gold coin of the hoard and will actually fight for it if pushed. His comments that Roac’s “people” will “not be forgotten” is also notable for the way that he subtly implies that the dwarves and the ravens are allies now and will be for the long haul. Roac isn’t really given a choice in that, and it’s clear he’s uneasy with the way things have unfolded in this conversation as he ends it: “I will not say if this counsel be good or bad…but I will do what can be done.”
Thorin and the dwarves are ready to charge back to the Mountain, and its left to Bilbo to voice practical concerns, to the humorous ignorance of the rest:
“Back now to the Mountain!” cried Thorin. “We have little time to lose.”
“And little food to use!” cried Bilbo…”
“Back to the Mountain!” cried the dwarves as if they had not heard him; so back he had to go with them.”
Bilbo, for the first time in a while, feels useless, and he has a reason to: for all intents and purposes, his role in affairs has come to an end. The dragon is dead, so burglary is no longer required, and the front entrance will now be the preferred option. Bilbo is back, for the moment at least, to be being a hanger-on, and one who really just wants to go home: “…he would have given most of his share of the profits for the peaceful winding up of these affairs.” It’s hardly a surprising viewpoint, as it was the idea of taking on a fire-breathing dragon that got to Bilbo way back in “An Unexpected Party“. Now that the worst is past, all that’s left is the messy, uncomfortable aftermath and Bilbo, already shaking off the enchantment of the gold (if not quite the Arkenstone), isn’t even hung up on payment.
Re-entering the now empty Lonely Mountain, the dwarves set to work preparing for…well, something, trouble of a sort. We noted the ingenuity of the dwarves when it came to practical solutions to tricky obstacles in “On The Doorstep” and that is repeated here to an extent, as the company fortifies the one remaining entrance. The description of this new construction leaves no room for doubt that the dwarves are ready to withstand a siege, and give something back if they have to:
“…already the gate was blocked with a wall of squared stones laid dry, but very thick and high, across the opening. There were holes in the wall through which they could see (or shoot), but no entrance. They climbed in or out with ladders, and hauled stuff up with ropes. For the issuing of the stream they had contrived a small low arch under the new wall; but near the entrance they had so altered the narrow bed that a wide pool stretched from the mountain- wall to the head of the fall over which the stream went towards Dale.”
The new wall, the holes to shoot through, the obstacles that have been thrown up to make difficult the approach to the front gate, these are all clear signs that we have entered a prelude to battle. We can appreciate the skill and strength of the dwarves in constructing such a defence as quickly as they have, while still holding that growing sense of dread as events continue to escalate to what now seems like an eerily inevitable conclusion.
Evidence of that is the decision over the ponies, three of which survived Smaug’s hunt (the dragon told the truth on that, saying he had eaten “six fat ponies” the night before his talk with Bilbo). Having found them and relieved them of the supplies they carried, the company sets them loose to “return to their masters“, a decision I would liken to Hernan Cortez’ burning of his ships upon arrival in the New World in 1519. It’s a definite point of no return, a casting off of transport options, a firm declaration that the dwarves have reached the hill they are prepared to die on.
That night the company sees “many lights as of fires and torches” in the distance, surmised by Balin to be the armed forces heading towards them. I was always struck by the manner of describing their approach in the form of their night-time lights, which calls to mind the initial approach of Smaug to Lake-town, an oncoming threat represented by flames. Of course, Tolkien does not mean to draw a line between this alliance and Smaug, except perhaps in the mind of Thorin.
The initial arrival of this alliance of men and elves is notable for the presented equality of both. The initial scouting party consists of representatives of both parties, and both armed for war. Thorin commences the wrangling with a formal hail and challenge, wherein he first claims the fateful title: “Who are you…that come as if in war to the gates of Thorin son of Thrain, King under the Mountain, and what do you desire?” He gets no answer, just a tightening of the noose, as the great camp edges closer, close enough for the magical essence of the elves to reach as far as the company’s ears and nostrils: “The rocks echoed then with voices and with song, as they had not done for many a day. There was the sound, too, of elven-harps and of sweet music; and as it echoed up towards them it seemed that the chill of the air was warmed, and they caught faintly the fragrance of woodland flowers blossoming in spring.”
Bilbo’s unhappiness is one thing, but the others aren’t in the best of spirits. Even though they have been presented as a united front since the news of Smaug’s death, divisions are evident. It is to be expected I suppose, given how they fall to complaining and whinging at the slightest discomfort, but there is a special edge to this, as the dwarves begin to fall out internally:
“Then Bilbo longed to escape from the dark fortress and to go down and join in the mirth and feasting by the fires. Some of the younger dwarves were moved in their hearts, too, and they muttered that they wished things had fallen out otherwise and that they might welcome such folk as friends; but Thorin scowled.”
No orders, no denunciations, no plans: all we are told is that “Thorin scowled“, and that’s enough, for now, to keep the “younger dwarves” in line.
In a bid to relive some of the tension, the company bust out some of their ancient instruments and get to playing, matching the Elvish music with some songs of their own, while also trying to get a smile on Thorin’s face. We come full circle and the song sung in “An Unexpected Party” is re-worked into a triumphant recitation of victory, with a special emphasis on Thorin:
“Under the Mountain dark and tall
The King has come unto his hall!
His foe is dead, the Worm of Dread,
And ever so his foes shall fall.”
And then moves into a jingoistic expression of dwarven strength, both in terms of their defences, and their defining love of gold:
“The sword is sharp, the spear is long,
The arrow swift, the Gate is strong;
The heart is bold that looks on gold;
The dwarves no more shall suffer wrong.”
The last line is especially relevant, as it explains more fully why the dwarves will be taking the position they take, which is that they aren’t sharing anything with anyone under threat of force. They were robbed of their most precious things before, and they won’t allow it to happen again.
After a couple of verses praising their ancestors (dwarven religion is not a topic that ever really comes up in Tolkien’s work, as it would probably detract from the obvious obsession with material wealth as a defining trait, but we can see some faint strains of ancestor worship on occasion), the song becomes a direct exportation for the dwaven race at large to come to the Lonely Mountain’s aid, like Fili, Kili and others are singing directly to Dain Ironfoot of the Iron Hills:
“The mountain throne once more is freed!
O! wandering folk, the summons heed! Come haste!
Come haste! across the waste!
The king of friend and kin has need.
Now call we over mountains cold,
‘Come back unto the caverns old’!
Here at the Gates the king awaits,
His hands are rich with gems and gold.”
There is a small reference to the reclamation of a homeland here, the “caverns old” that now are “freed” for the “wandering folk” to live in once more, but it always comes back to what’s on offer: “gems and gold” from the hands of a mighty King, generous to his people and allies. The last verse is another exhortation of triumph, that connects Thorin, rather unjustly, to the death of Smaug:
“The king is come unto his hall
Under the Mountain dark and tall.
The Worm of Dread is slain and dead,
And ever so our foes shall fall!”
This subtle re-writing of affairs speaks ill of the dwarves, only in their position because of the sacrifice of Lake-town.
Thorin is delighted with the song anyway, and his internal thought process shows us his strategy, to hold out in the face of the coming siege long enough for his kin from the Iron Hills to reach the area. A battle, in such circumstances, seems likely. This is to the despair of Bilbo, whose Baggins side is making a re-appearance after a lengthy spell in thrall to the Took side: “Bilbo’s heart fell, both at the song and the talk: they sounded much too warlike.” This adventure has going a bit too far for the hobbit’s taste.
The next morning, a formal parley takes place, with Thorin on the one side, and elves of the Woodland Realm and Lake-town on the other. The details of this discussion bare some going into. The scouting party of the previous day is replaced with a more dignified procession that have banners flowing, a recognised sign that those flying them serve as representative for established powers. The green of the absent Elvenking and the blue of Lake-town also complement each other nicely. Perhaps tellingly, Thorin lacks a banner of his own, a subtle sign of his own dodgy position.
The spokesperson for the alliance is Bard, still described as “grim of face“. The manners of royalty appear to be genetic, as Bard speaks well and true, acknowledging their surprise, and indeed joy, at the fact that Thorin and company are alive, and we might well believe him, while also acknowledging that a certain buttering up is taking place. Still, he lands a quick punch before getting down to it: “Why do you fence yourself like a robber in his hold?”
Bard still gets to the point quickly, in an outlining of his case that is simply dripping with righteousness:
“I am Bard, and by my hand was the dragon slain and your treasure delivered. Is that not a matter that concerns you? Moreover I am by right descent the heir of Girion of Dale, and in your hoard is mingled much of the wealth of his halls and towns, which of old Smaug stole. Is not that a matter of which we may speak? Further in his last battle Smaug destroyed the dwellings of the men of Esgaroth, and I am yet the servant of their Master. I would speak for him and ask whether you have no thought for the sorrow and misery of his people. They aided you in your distress, and in recompense you have thus far brought ruin only, though doubtless undesigned.”
Bard is perhaps more like the Master than he would care to admit. He begins with a Thorin-esque declaration of his identity and, without saying so directly, his title and right to the Lordship of Dale, while also stating bluntly that the only reason they are having this conversation is because of his slaying of the dragon. He continues by stating that, regardless of who killed the dragon, he and his people have a claim on some of the hoard of treasure anyway. And he concludes by outlining the moral good of his motivation, which remains the welfare of those who survived Smaug’s attack, before offering a sop to the, perhaps, heavy consciences of the dwarves. Succinct, powerful, persuasive: Bard says everything he needs to say, but doesn’t come across as craven or supplicant.
Indeed, so powerful are his words that both the narrator and Bilbo are already convinced: “Now these were fair words and true, if proudly and grimly spoken; and Bilbo thought that Thorin would at once admit what justice was in them.” There’s also an amusing side-note of Bilbo’s own claim to have brought about the fall of Smaug, by discovering his weak-spot, something he doesn’t expect anyone to bring up “and that was just as well, for no one ever did.”
But on a more serious note, Bilbo doesn’t realise the depths that Thorin, and to a lesser extent the rest of the company, have already fallen. The mere sight of the treasure has “power…upon dwarvish hearts“. The gold-sickness lies heavy on Thorin especially, who wraps up his obsession with memories of who and what was lost in its creation and theft: “Long hours in the past days Thorin had spent in the treasury, and the lust of it was heavy on him. Though he had hunted chiefly for the Arkenstone, yet he had an eye for many another wonderful thing that was lying there, about which were wound old memories of the labours and the sorrows of his race.” In other words, the gold-sickness isn’t just simple, naked greed, it’s naked greed mixed with untold grief and regret.
Thorin’s reply to Bard is dripping in contempt for every bit of the Lakeman’s argument:
“You put your worst cause last and in the chief place,” Thorin answered. “To the treasure of my people no man has a claim, because Smaug who stole it from us also robbed him of life or home. The treasure was not his that his evil deeds should be amended with a share of it. The price of the goods and the assistance that we received of the Lake-men we will fairly pay — in due time. But nothing will we give, not even a loaf’s worth, under threat of force. While an armed host lies before our doors, we look on you as foes and thieves.”
He starts with a direct insult to Bard’s apparent concern for his fellow Lake-town survivors, then a rejection of any claim they may have as a result of Smaug’s actions, which Thorin considers to pale in comparison to what the dragon did to the dwarves. Then, he descends, with an icy tone, into base bartering with Bard over the cost of the supplies and support that was given to the company, to be paid “in due time“. He concludes with a blunt declaration that the armed nature of the alliance before the gates precludes further discussion, and then more insults.
His words are haughty and arrogant, lacking the finesse of Bard, and the attempts at reconciliation the bowman offered. In terms of the argument offered, the reader is left in no doubt as to its unworthiness. The hoard of treasure in the Lonely Mountain is more than any group of dwarves could ever hope to spend, the dragon is only dead because of Bard and even the simplest spirit of charity and mercy would result in a fair allocation of reward to those that deserve it. But that reckons without the gold-sickness.
Having acted so atrociously thus far, Thorin aims at Bard’s apparent moral high-ground:
“It is in my mind to ask what share of their inheritance you would have paid to our kindred, had you found the hoard unguarded and us slain.”
“A just question,” replied Bard.”
We should not presume that men are all heroic. We’ve already encountered the subtle wickedness of the Master, who you can be sure would not be in a rush to dole out treasure to Thorin’s kin if the company had been found dead. But what would have happened if Bard found the Lonely Mountain abandoned? Would he have shown his quality and dispensed the treasure justly? Or would the gold-sickness take him too, as it later takes the Master? Even Bard cannot answer directly.
Thorin’s last word is an attempt to sow divisions between the men and elves, like he thinks, secretly, he can dangle the possibility of further talks if Bard will just give up the alliance:
“I will not parley, as I have said, with armed men at my gate. Nor at all with the people of the Elvenking, whom I remember with small kindness. In this debate they have no place. Begone now ere our arrows fly! And if you would speak with me again, first dismiss the elvish host to the woods where it belongs, and then return, laying down your arms before you approach the threshold.”
“The Elvenking is my friend, and he has succoured the people of the Lake in their need, though they had no claim but friendship on him,” answered Bard.”
Things break up without agreement. Now might be a good time to mention something from the Appendices of The Lord Of The Rings, regards a similar dispute from sometime before the events of The Hobbit:
“Many lords and warriors, and many fair and valiant women, are named in the songs of Rohan that still remember the North. Frumgar, they say, was the name of the chieftain who led his people to Eotheod. Of his son, Fram, they tell that he slew Scatha, the great dragon of Ered Mithrin, and the land had peace from the long-worms afterwards. Thus Fram won great wealth, but was at feud with the Dwarves, who claimed the hoard of Scatha. Fram would not yield them a penny, and sent to them instead the teeth of Scatha made in to a necklace, saying “Jewels such as these you will not match in your treasuries, for they are hard to come by.” Some say that the Dwarves slew Fram for this insult. There was no great love between Eotheod and the Dwarves.”
It would stand to reason that Thorin would be aware of this story and would thus be wary of a dragon-slaying man deigning to lay claim to any part of a dwarves made treasure.
The second parley, a few hours later, is a good bit shorter than then first. An anonymous “banner-bearer” gives Thorin a final warning, that starts with a brilliant implication that Thorin’s title is name-only:
“In the name of Esgaroth and the Forest,” one cried, “we speak unto Thorin Thrain’s son Oakenshield, calling himself the King under the Mountain…”
This comes before an interesting demand that a portion of the treasure be given directly to Bard “as the dragon-slayer, and as the heir of Girion” from which Bard will “contribute to the aid of Esgaroth“. Is that a bit of greed evident in the would-be Lord of Dale? Further, the herald baits Thorin by suggesting the unthinkable, for a dwarf: “…if Thorin would have the friendship and honour of the lands about, as his sires had of old, then he will give also somewhat of his own for the comfort of the men of the Lake.”
Thorin’s reply is militant to the extreme: “Then Thorin seized a bow of horn and shot an arrow at the speaker. It smote into his shield and stuck there quivering.”
This is fairly shocking for a couple of reasons. First is the sheer disgrace of firing a weapon at a herald, there to continue negotiations and list demands, not to make war. Thorin, who it is indicated was aiming for “the speaker” has literally just first the first shot of this war, and with no direct provocation to his well-being. Second is the inherent, mindless violence of the act, something that we would not associate with Thorin thus far. He’s been occasionally grumpy and entitled, and we saw him use a sword in the goblin tunnels to deadly effect, but this sort of red mist is something different, evidence of a man who has seriously lost the run of himself.
A very formal declaration of the evolving situation follows, combined with a nasty threat:
“Since such is your answer,” he called in return, “I declare the Mountain besieged. You shall not depart from it, until you call on your side for a truce and a parley. We will bear no weapons against you, but we leave you to your gold. You may eat that, if you will!”
The alliance of men and elves, apparently expecting no other answer, now initiate a blockade of the mountain, and the impetus for ending this state of affairs is passed to Thorin, just like the blame. The Lakemen and the elves won’t assault Erebor – not yet – but they won’t give up.
Thorin is described as “grim” in the aftermath of this, a careful choice of words meant as a contrast and comparison to Bard. Perhaps it’s also meant as a statement of regret: all the players here are so similar, they really should just get along. It will take an unforeseen crisis to accomplish that, but for now they are placed as foes. As a veteran of the First World War, it’s not hard to imagine what Tolkien may have been thinking about how these events are falling out.
While the majority of the company remains firmly behind Thorin – “…most of them seemed to share his mind” – dissension is becoming evident. The youngest – Fili and Kili – and perhaps one more obsessed with food than gold – Bombur – are having second thoughts (more important in the case of the former, who are Thorin’s direct heirs). And of course, there is Bilbo, a civilised country hobbit who, in an understated summation “disapproved of the whole turn of affairs“.
The final words of the chapter go to Bilbo, who declares, in regards the Lonely Mountain, that “The whole place still stinks of dragon“. He’s speaking literally, reflecting on now being trapped inside, but the hidden meaning is clear. Thorin’s anger, greed and refusal to acknowledge those who may have a claim on the gold is similar to another character in the book. Smaug might be dead and gone, but his spirit is alive and well in the King-under-the-mountain.
As stated, “The Gathering Of The Clouds” is a bit of a transition chapter, as we move towards the final climax of the book. But important plot points occur in abundance here. The two main ones are the growing sense of Thorin’s madness, which is now the driving force for the central conflict, and the feelings of Bilbo, who is about to undertake a very dangerous action.
Tolkien needed to make clear how Bilbo’s dissatisfaction with what is occurring motivates him to, essentially, betray Thorin in the next chapter, and I think that “The Gathering Of The Clouds” accomplishes this very well. Bilbo acquiesces to the company’s build-up of Erebor’s defences out of a sense of companionship and not knowing what else to do, but the outcome of the parley, and Thorin’s lust for gold and what that means, now changes the course of Bilbo’s heart decisively. Aside from that, we also get some other interesting moments and titbits, including additional spotlight on Bard, the introduction of the ravens as a peace-making faction and the wonderfully written inversion of the dwavren song.
The way that the events fall out in this chapter are also well-written generally. Nobody takes any action that is extremely out of character, save for Thorin’s late bowshot, whose out of character nature is the whole point. The alliance’s gradual stranglehold on the mountain (which they thought was empty), Bard’s attempt at negotiations, Thorin’s gold-fuelled insistence on obstinate refusal, even the raven’s attempts to create a peace, they all fit with what we know or learn about these characters.
Bilbo’s last big defining action is next, as he becomes the only one in a position to stop what already seems like an inevitable bloodbath.
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