Having set up the central conflict of what remains of the narrative in the last chapter, Tolkien must now execute the final instigating act of the plot, in one of The Hobbit’s shortest, but most important, chapters. “A Thief In The Night” brings the story right back to Bilbo, having side-lined the hobbit for most of the last two chapters. Here, Bilbo will re-assert his own independence as a character, and will actually rise to become, once again, the most important player in what is going on.
The chapter opens with a nice visual for the pointlessness of what is occurring, as the dwarves, lacking anything more pro-active to do, “spent their time piling and ordering the treasure“, as if their primary focus should be on organising the unaccountably gigantic hoard of gold and jewels they are in no position to enjoy just yet. Are they already dividing it into 14 shares? Of course, it’s only the dwarves doing it, as Bilbo remains aloof, dissatisfied with how things have fallen out and about to showcase this dissatisfaction in a very memorable manner.
The whole time, an increasingly intense Thorin continues to obsess over the Arkenstone, his lust now manifesting in a megalomaniacal statement of claim and threat:
“…the Arkenstone of my father,” he said, “is worth more than a river of gold in itself, and to me it is beyond price. That stone of all the treasure I name unto myself, and I will be avenged on anyone who finds it and withholds it.”
Bilbo, secretly in possession of the Arkenstone, is rightly afraid of what Thorin may be capable of. He’s already shot at a herald over the gold, now he defines his very position as synonymous with the Arkenstone. His threat of vengeance is the sort of thing he was previously saying in reference to the dragon. The devolution into madness and paranoia is becoming ever more acute and bears a resemblance to Feanor and his sons reaction to the theft of the Silmarils in The Silmarillion, swearing ill-considered and fateful oaths to reclaim them, and treat as the worst of foes any who would hold one against them, actions unquestionably presented as a terrible evil.
The strategic situation continues to evolve, as Roac brings news of Dain’s approach, with 500 heavily armed dwarves with him. Roac is no longer offering a pretence of neutrality – “I fear lest there be battle in the valley. I do not call this counsel good” – and is also brutally upfront with Thorin on the desperateness of how things stand: “…they are not likely to overcome the host that besets you…Winter and snow is hastening behind them. How shall you be fed without the friendship and goodwill of the lands about you?“. Roac, remember, basically just wants a peaceful solution, even if he and the ravens have, almost as a result of their inherent nature, sided with the dwarves. Having previously hinted at his distaste for a bloody end to the whole affair, he now comes right out and says that Thorin’s plan is going to end badly for everybody. The fact that this character, whose entire goal is just a peaceful solution, has turned more on Thorin than was previously obvious should be considered telling.
Thorin’s reply, wherein he reveals his own designs, is illuminating:
“Winter and snow will bite both men and elves…and they may find their dwelling in the waste grievous to bear. With my friends behind them and winter upon them, they will perhaps be in softer mood to parley with.”
It’s a cold but not unwise summation of events, that illustrates a ruthless streak to Thorin’s mood change, as well as a hint that he isn’t entirely on-board with a violent showdown as the answer just yet. Still, it’s frightening that Thorin, having heard of the hardships being suffered by the Lakemen, wants to use such suffering as a negotiating weapon, a villainous act if ever there was one.
Indeed, so villainous is it that it is, essentially, the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Bilbo, already noted as having “the beginnings of a plan“. Thorin’s latest conversation with Roac, his heartless attitude towards the Lakemen and his refusal to deviate from a course that seems sure to end in bloodshed proves too much for the hobbit: “That night Bilbo made up his mind“.
Bilbo gets up in the middle of the night and engages Bombur, on watch, in conversation. Bombur has never been portrayed in a really positive way, having been mostly a burden to the company in “Flies And Spiders“, but his brief back-and-forth with Bilbo here is better, even if the entire point of Bilbo’s half of the conversation is to get Bombur out of the way. Both hobbit and dwarf express a longing for something they don’t have – the “feel of grass” for Bilbo, “a soft bed after a good supper” for Bombur – and both also express dissatisfaction with present circumstances. Bombur’s criticism of Thorin – “…he was ever a dwarf with a stiff neck” – is limited, yet still notable in the public airing of it. These two are some of the few who seem less interested in gold and more interested in a final end to the adventure. Bilbo easily convinces a tired Bombur to get some sleep while he takes over the watch.
Bilbo isn’t slow about his business: “As soon as Bombur had gone, Bilbo put on his ring, fastened his rope, slipped down over the wall, and was gone.” The exact details of the hobbit’s scheme will be revealed over the next few pages, but it is immediately apparent that this is not a one-way trip for Bilbo, and he is intending to come back. As will be elaborated upon a little towards the end of the chapter, Bilbo feels some responsibility for Bombur, and presumably wants to spare him any embarrassment from being culpable in Bilbo’s sudden departure.
His initial trek past the gate ends in a stumbling splash into the manufactured lake, a reminder, perhaps, that Bilbo is still Bilbo, and not a mighty warrior or cunning spy. He’s soon heard by scouts of the Elvenking, who refer hilariously to him as “that queer little creature that is said to be their servant” when they aren’t aware that Bilbo is nearby. It speaks to Bilbo’s actions thus far that he is being separated from the dwarves in terms of talk, though not so much if he is considered a mere “servant“.
Bilbo, of course, isn’t having any of that : “Servant, indeed!” snorted Bilbo“. The elves, in an uncharacteristically blunt, almost panicked manner, question him in a flurry – “Who are you? Are you the dwarves’ hobbit? What are you doing? How did you get so far past our sentinels?” – and again make the mistake of thinking Bilbo is some manner of servant or pet of the dwarves.
Bilbo has come a long way, and that shows in his reply to this questioning:
“I am Mr. Bilbo Baggins,” he answered, “companion of Thorin, if you want to know. I know your king well by sight, though perhaps he doesn’t know me to look at. But Bard will remember me, and it is Bard I particularly want to see.”
“Indeed!” said they, “and what may be your business?”
“Whatever it is, it’s my own, my good elves. But if you wish ever to get back to your own woods from this cold cheerless place,” he answered shivering, “you will take me along quick to a fire, where I can dry — and then you will let me speak to your chiefs as quick as may be. I have only an hour or two to spare.”
He speaks with a certain authority here, looking down on his captors even as he, presumably, looks up at them. His speech is that of a wise old leader, similar in some respects to Roac, who has a critical errand to accomplish, and no time to engage in questions from hangers-on. Bilbo gives orders and vague pronouncements and offers no explanations. He’s simply become too important.
Moreover, this exchange is a suitable point to reflect on Bilbo’s actions here. He’s undertaken his own plans and actions previous in the narrative, but always in line with what benefited the company. Here, he’s breaking with the company to a certain extent, and carrying out his own plans of his own volition and for his own ends. It’s one of the final great character moments for Bilbo, now influencing the larger narrative and its outcome to the greatest possible extent.
Tolkien takes great pleasure in describing the resultant scene:
“That is how it came about that some two hours after his escape from the Gate, Bilbo was sitting beside a warm fire in front of a large tent, and there sat too, gazing curiously at him, both the Elvenking and Bard. A hobbit in elvish armour, partly wrapped in an old blanket, was something new to them.”
And it is remarkably odd and would even be comical but for the serious nature of the things being discussed. From a country squire in the faraway west to parleying with leaders of an enemy army in the far east: Bilbo Baggins everybody.
Of course, we can’t pass this chapter without discussing, even briefly, the nature of Bilbo’s actions and whether they amount to a betrayal of the dwarves. From a strictly legal perspective Bilbo isn’t doing anything wrong, having been employed as a burglar to help with the regaining of the treasure, a job he has carried out to very best of his abilities. There is a sticky issue regards just how the fourteenth share was to be apportioned (Bilbo’s internal thoughts noted that his own belief is this doesn’t cover the Arkenstone) but Thorin’s obsession with the Arkenstone and his naked threat to any that would withhold it was not part of the equation until after Bilbo found it. It can be argued that Bilbo has taken his share and can do with it as he will, having no political allegiance to the dwarves and thus no reason to find himself as a belligerent player in a state of war with Lake-town or the Woodland Realm.
But on a less technical level, we must consider Bilbo’s actions. The dwarves are his companions, albeit grumbly, sometimes inconsiderate companions. He has, whether he wants to admit it or not, aligned himself with their cause. He could, perhaps, have walked away when the news of the dragon’s death came to the company, and there is no indication that he has voiced his dissatisfaction with affairs to Thorin (though fear could have played a part in that). Even now, he could leave the Arkenstone behind, scramble down the gate, and tell Thranduil, Bard and Gandalf that he just wants to go home, and one of the reasons he doesn’t is the connection he has with the dwarves.
So, does Bilbo have the right to take this action? To use the Arkenstone as a peace-making tool, sabotaging the position of Thorin, as part of seeking a greater good? To outline Thorin’s military strategy and offer critical intelligence to Thranduil? Even with the very best of good intentions, is this really Bilbo’s choice to make? There is no easy answer I suppose. It is natural to see Thorin’s violent descent into madness as justifying Bilbo’s decisions, but I can’t help but feel a bit queasy about it all. Bilbo’s general selflessness makes it easier to swallow I suppose: in “Not At Home” he pockets the jewel out of something that must be considered greed, but here he gives it up in the cause of preventing needless bloodshed. Intent is important is judging Bilbo’s actions and his intentions are honourable, almost to a fault.
And yet, keeping the larger canon in mind, we must remember the Ring, that malevolent entity in Bilbo’s pocket, created to dominate others, and whose evil influence on lesser creatures becomes obvious the longer they hold it. Here, Bilbo takes it upon himself to handover the Arkenstone of his own volition, to thwart Thorin’s own designs, putting the hobbit in a high position in terms of determining the outcome of the events. Can we see a little sliver of the Ring’s influence in such things? Perhaps.
Lastly on this topic, I feel it might be important to keep the title of the chapter in mind. Obviously, Bilbo is the thief in the night, and in today’s parlance the term has an undoubtedly negative connotation. But some may not know – I didn’t before my reading on this chapter – that the term’s origins are actually Biblical, it appearing in two passages – Matthew 24:43 and Thessalonians 5:2 – as a metaphor for the second coming of Christ, who will return to Earth “like a thief in the night“, to the surprise of those who should be guarding their house, ie, leading a Christian life. Is Bilbo a stand-in for Jesus then, doling out judgements on those just and unjust, who should all be prepared for his actions? Does Tolkien truly consider Bilbo to be the ultimate moral arbiter of his story?
Bilbo, for his part, is straight-forward, gentlemanly and civilised about the whole situation and we might remember his position in “An Unexpected Journey” as “putting on his business manner (usually reserved for people who tried to borrow money off him), and doing his best to appear wise and prudent and professional“. Bilbo outlines where he stands:
“Really you know,” Bilbo was saying in his best business manner, “things are impossible. Personally I am tired of the whole affair. I wish I was back in the West in my own home, where folk are more reasonable.”
He continues by tying his continued involvement with events to his expected reward, though the reader will know Bilbo has increasingly little care for this. Still, Bilbo is generous:
“I have an interest in this matter — one fourteenth share, to be precise…A share in the profits, mind you,” he went on. “I am aware of that. Personally I am only too ready to consider all your claims carefully, and deduct what is right from the total before putting in my own…“.
From there, the conversation turns to matters of strategy, and Bilbo does is very best to appear logical pointing out that, even if the elves and Lakemen are prepared to let Thorin starve – Bilbo agrees with Bard’s sentiment that Thorin is “a fool“, rather tellingly – the winter will hurt them too, and Dain’s army of Iron Hills dwarves will be upon them soon. Bilbo sums up the situation is rather under-stated terms: “When they arrive there may be serious trouble.”
Bard, still noted as speaking “grimly“, shows himself a cynical distrustful man in his ill-thought response:
“Why do you tell us this? Are you betraying your friends, or are you threatening us?”
And Bilbo, with the air of a man who is really quite sick and tired of all this adventuring lark, bites back with aplomb, showcasing his own trusting nature, the critical difference between him and all of the other chief players here:
“My dear Bard!” squeaked Bilbo. “Don’t be so hasty! I never met such suspicious folk! I am merely trying to avoid trouble for all concerned.”
The reveal of the Arkenstone is another moment for Tolkien to outline its incredible beauty, here through the eyes of Thranduil and Bard: “It was as if a globe had been filled with moonlight and hung before them in a net woven of the glint of frosty stars.” Bilbo ties a line directly between “the Heart of the Mountain” and “the Heart of Thorin“, and even echoes Oakenshield’s words regards its worth as more than “a river of gold“. Even now, in the act of rejecting wealth as a motivator – “I am willing to let it stand against all my claim, don’t you know. I may be a burglar…but I am an honest one, I hope, more or less” – Bilbo struggles to give the jewel to another as he “not without a shudder, not without a glance of longing, handed the marvellous stone to Bard.”
What’s left is how to handle the aftermath. Bilbo is set on returning to the Mountain “and the dwarves can do what they like to me“. Thranduil offers a grim warning not to do so: “I have more knowledge of dwarves in general than you have perhaps. I advise you to remain with us, and here you shall be honoured and thrice welcome.”
We can well believe the Elvenking’s warning. Thorin has already demonstrated a violent streak when being opposed, and it’s been noted that most of the company is still of his mind. When the handover of the Arkenstone is revealed, and Bilbo’s part in it, it is quite possible that Bilbo’s life will be in danger. So, why does he go back? In the end, it is little more than his unbroken commitment to “his friends…after all we have gone through together“. Bilbo is doing this for them, and while his self-claimed position as moral arbiter for the dwarves might be questionable, his loyalty to friends isn’t. Bilbo enunciates this as a very down-to-earth declaration that he needs to keep his promises, even one as immediate as waking Bombur when he said he would. Bilbo may be a titular thief in the night, but he is an honest one too.
As reward for Bilbo’s bravery in coming here, and in his well-spoken words to Bard and Thranduil, the hobbit is unexpectedly accosted by none other than Gandalf, returned for the first time since the closing moments of “Queer Lodgings“. Gandalf compliments Bilbo on his actions and claps him on the back, something we can take as a sort of absolution from the story’s personification of wisdom and good sense. He speaks briefly on the “unpleasant time” just ahead of Bilbo – I’ll say – and cryptically notes coming complications: “There is news brewing that even the ravens have not heard“.
Speaking in a larger sense, Gandalf’s whole plan here is a bit odd. It becomes apparent very soon that he is well-aware of the army of goblins and wargs heading this way, but isn’t saying so for a time, until the most dramatic moment really. Is it because he thinks Bilbo needs the time to perform this action, so that Thorin can be exposed for the man he has become? That would indicate an understanding of what is occurring that is almost omniscient, but Gandalf is essentially an angel I suppose. His sudden re-introduction at this point is not as a saviour per say, as he was in “Roast Mutton” or “Over Hill And Under Hill“, but more as an observer, and as the best possible character to judge the actions of Bilbo, Thorin and others, and pronounce definitively who is in the right.
As for Bilbo, he returns to Erebor, wakes up Bombur and goes to sleep, not carrying any kind of weighted conscience. The last line of the chapter is an affirmation of the extent of his desires at this time: “As a matter of fact he was dreaming of eggs and bacon“.
“A Thief In The Night” is actually the shortest chapter in the story, though it doesn’t really feel like it. There is a certain thrill in Bilbo’s scheme and the way that he undertakes it, and his conference with Bard and Thranduil is another fine set-piece. The events of the chapter could have been merged fairly seamlessly into the previous or following, but I think we can forgive Tolkien the desire to shine the spotlight on Bilbo once again, and indeed for the last time in terms of truly plot-pivotal actions. Bilbo is characterised as brave, resourceful, decisive and loyal in this chapter, without any sense of mindless dedication or unthinking action. The sense of moral greyness in the chapter’s defining event is something that may be off-putting, but it is undoubted that Bilbo’s moral centre is undamaged, and his role as an opposite to Thorin’s reckless war-mongering is important.
With the set-up out of the way, we are now ready for The Hobbit’s climax.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
NFB will be on holiday next week, posts will resume Tuesday 4th September.