We have come to the climax of the story, in the suitably titled “The Clouds Burst”. The chain of events that began back in Bilbo’s kitchen – or maybe even further back, to the sack of Dale and fall of Erebor – culminates here. “An Unexpected Party” becomes an unexpected battle, in a chapter full of tension, action and consequences.
Thorin illustrates starkly his own arrogance, but also his own metaphorical blindness, in the opening paragraphs, as he mistakes a new embassy as a coming submission due to the near-arrival of Dain: “That will be Dain!” said Thorin when he heard. “They will have got wind of his coming. I thought that would alter their mood!” The new King-under-the-mountain sounds positively gleeful at the idea that new enemies will be forced to parley on his own terms and doesn’t think for a moment that events may have transpired against him. Even with his growing paranoia, Thorin is still utterly self-confident.
This parley is automatically different, with both Bard and Thranduil attending, the Elvenking presumably wanting to be present at this moment of triumph. The reader must be on tenterhooks, awaiting what will be a humiliating moment for Thorin. But it is not undeserved, as evidenced by his snarky and ill-meant response to Bard’s opening question:
“Hail Thorin!” said Bard. “Are you still of the same mind?”
“My mind does not change with the rising and setting of a few suns,” answered Thorin.”
Thorin attempts to portray his foes as changeable and weak-minded, but the rest of the exchange will only showcase his own emotional and mental weakness.
The big reveal isn’t long in coming, as “the old man” who has accompanied this group – Gandalf of course, as anyone could guess – holds up the Arkenstone “bright and white in the morning“. For once, the King-under-the-mountain has nothing to say, as his plans and desires unravel before him: “Thorin was stricken dumb with amazement and confusion.”
Still, he recovers very quickly, and his sense of arrogance returns in just a few sentences, his voice “thick with wrath“. He asserts his own possession of the Arkenstone, and insults his enemies in one breath:
“That stone was my father’s, and is mine,” he said. “Why should I purchase my own?” But wonder overcame him and he added: “But how came you by the heirloom of my house — if there is need to ask such a question of thieves?…How came you be it?”, shouted Thorin in a gathering rage“.
Appropriately for this terrible scene of perceived betrayal, the answer that comes is described as a “squeak“: “I gave it to them“. Bilbo is rightfully scared of what is occurring, in “a dreadful fright“, but is too honest to hold back the truth, even if this puts him right in the crosshairs of a furious and likely-violent dwarf, who has sworn vengeance on anyone who comes between him and the Arkenstone. Bilbo can’t keep silent, evidence of a guilty conscience perhaps, even if doing so might actually forward his own aims of averting a violent confrontation between all of these respective armies.
Thorin’s reaction to this is one of the most emotional and visceral moments in The Hobbit, and in Tolkien’s whole legendarium really. You can feel the anger and outrage pulsing off him as he rounds on Bilbo:
“You! You!” cried Thorin, turning upon him and grasping him with both hands. “You miserable hobbit! You undersized — burglar!” he shouted at a loss for words, and he shook poor Bilbo like a rabbit.”
Thorin gets physical and insulting very quickly, using the term “burglar” here in a derogatory sense, as if the job Bilbo was paid for is some kind of dishonourable thing that Thorin had no part in. And it only gets worse, as Thorin then labels Bilbo a “descendant of rats“, an utterly obscene thing to say, that manages to be both personally insulting and racist (even if the narrator is also in on the act in comparing Bilbo to a shaken rabbit).
His anger isn’t reserved just for Bilbo though, with Gandalf, still distant as far as Thorin must be aware, also getting some nasty scorn: “By the beard of Durin! I wish I had Gandalf here! Curse him for his choice of you! May his beard wither!“. Why does Thorin want Gandalf there in this moment? Is it ready to try and kill the wizard too, along with unwise cursing of his name? Does he really perceive a vast conspiracy, of men and elves and hobbits and wizards “in league” against him and his greedy desire?
If this burst of frenzied rage wasn’t bad enough, Thorin now goes that extra, potentially irredeemable, step: “As for you I will throw you to the rocks!” he cried and lifted Bilbo in his arms.” While their opinion of what has happened is not going to be elaborated upon much, it is notable that the rest of the company do not intervene when Thorin undertakes this violent course.
The person who does intervene is, of course, Gandalf, perhaps the only person, in this moment, willing and able to stop Thorin from doing something monumentally stupid. Not physically of course, but Gandalf’s voice has power enough. All he needs to do is give Bilbo a chance to speak: “Put him down, and listen first to what he has to say!”
Bilbo’s reaction to Thorin’s insults and physical confrontation is remarkably civilised, deliberately so I would so, as he asserts his own independence in a calm, but still haughty manner. The “squeak” is gone here, and Bilbo is insulting in his own way:
“Dear me! Dear me!” said Bilbo. “I am sure this is all very uncomfortable. You may remember saying that I might choose my own fourteenth share? Perhaps I took it too literally — I have been told that dwarves are sometimes politer in word than in deed. The time was, all the same, when you seemed to think that I had been of some service. Descendant of rats, indeed! Is this all the service of you and your family that I was promised, Thorin? Take it that I have disposed of my share as I wished, and let it go at that!”
“…all very uncomfortable” is an understatement you would expect a country squire to say all right. Bilbo follows that up with his little bit of racial profiling on the dwarves – a fair shot it has to be said, in the circumstances – before going right for the jugular, bringing up Thorin’s previously praising words in “On The Doorstep” and even the offer of his service and his families way, way back in “An Unexpected Party”. Those words were more than just bland pleasantries, and Thorin’s dishonours himself by forgetting them.
But we can’t discount Bilbo’s own dishonesty in this moment, even if it might be a tad justified. The moment he took the Arkenstone and hid it, he knew that his fourteenth share was not meant to include such a precious jewel, and he’s stretching the terms of his contract to the breaking point by insisting he was free to take it and dole it out as he saw fit. Bilbo has guilt too, though Thorin’s violent reaction has resulted in some justified defensiveness. After all, he didn’t really hand over the Arkenstone over a contractual niggle, he did it to avoid a war. Is the reason he doesn’t bring this up due to his own sense of not having enough of the moral high ground to claim such grandiose motivations?
Thorin’s pronouncement following this is appallingly Smaug-like:
“I will,” said Thorin grimly. “And I will let you go at that — and may we never meet again!…I will give one fourteenth share of the hoard in silver and gold, setting aside the gems; but that shall be accounted the promised share of this traitor, and with that reward he shall depart, and you can divide it as you will. He will get little enough, I doubt not. Take him, if you wish him to live; and no friendship of mine goes with him.”
The rejection of every prior relationship he had with Bilbo is important, a real final sign that the gold – and the lingering remnants of the dragon – has taken over Thorin’s mind. He implies Bilbo will be betrayed by those he trusts when it comes to payment, the same thing Smaug said to Bilbo in “Inside Information“.
Thorin precedes to bartering over the price of the Arkenstone, and the delivery of the fourteenth share, which will be given “as can be arranged“, depressingly similar to his words to Bard in “The Gathering Of The Clouds“, words that sound and feel remarkably insincere. Gandalf’s response to this is appropriately cutting, one of my favourite lines of his, a direct attack on Thorin’s position and dignity, dripping with scorn: “You are not making a very splendid figure as King under the Mountain“.
It works because it’s true, and the depths of Thorin’s newfound dishonour are revealed by his internal thought process: “…already, so strong was the bewilderment of the treasure upon him, he was pondering whether by the help of Dain he might not recapture the Arkenstone and withhold the share of the reward.”
The only time the rest of the dwarven company is noted in this entire exchange is as Bilbo is hoisted down from the wall: “More than one of the dwarves in their hearts felt shame and pity at his going.” More than one, but not all. The feelings of the company are dividing, but it isn’t clear where the majority are lining up. Still, the noting of “shame and pity” here is enough to indicate that Thorin’s line of thinking may not hold sway for much longer.
Even as he is being separated from the company for what seems like the final time, Bilbo attempts reconciliation, though aiming at the company, not Thorin: “Farewell!” he cried to them. “We may meet again as friends.” Thorin is the one to respond though and makes more naked threats against Bilbo in doing so: “…if you do not hasten, I will sting your miserable feet.”
The following day brings no respite from the growing tension, as the contingent from the Iron Hills arrives ahead of schedule, surprising everyone. Tolkien’s description leaves little room for doubt on just what Dain’s dwarves are here for:
“Each one of his folk was clad in a hauberk of steel mail that hung to his knees, and his legs were covered with hose of a fine and flexible metal mesh…In battle they wielded heavy two-handed mattocks; but each of them had also a short broad sword at his side and a roundshield slung at his back…and their faces were grim.”
We should not discount the power of this relatively small group of dwarves. 500 might not seem much going up against the entire Woodland Realm and what is left of Laketown, but these are veterans of a terrible war against the goblins, fought above and below the earth. The Woodland Realm’s soldiers are presumably kept busy against the spiders and other nasty creatures infecting Mirkwood, but there’s no indication they have anything like the same recent combat experience. And Laketown may have just won a battle against a dragon, but it’s a town of traders, not warriors.
Yet another parley, the last one as it turns out, takes place, as forward representatives of Dain meet with Bard and, for some reason, Bilbo. Perhaps the hobbit just wants to witness events. The exchange is brief, with the narrator calling attention to the different between what is said and what is meant in a way that he hasn’t before, as if he wants to emphasise the likelihood of violence:
“We are sent from Dain son of Nain,” they said when questioned. “We are hastening to our kinsmen in the Mountain, since we learn that the kingdom of old is renewed. But who are you that sit in the plain as foes before defended walls?” This, of course, in the polite and rather old-fashioned language of such occasions, meant simply: “You have no business here. We are going on, so make way or we shall fight you!”
Bard’s position precludes allowing such a movement of dwarves. As outlined clearly and succinctly in the text, more dwarves in the mountain means more supplies for Thorin, and the possibility of opening a second gate, which means the sieges of the elves and men would become impossible to maintain. Thorin’s current untrustworthiness is plain, and it says something that Bard, a decent if somewhat headstrong character, does not believe the promises that were made the previous day. As if to underline the point, messengers sent to the front gate looking for the promised gold and silver find only arrows being fired in their direction, as close to a declaration of war as you can get. Bilbo’s presence at affairs adds little, the hobbit now just a little personality caught up in events much bigger than him.
Dain marches towards the front gate with the mountain to his side, a situation welcomed with uncharacteristic glee by Bard: “Fools!…There are many of our archers and spearmen now hidden in the rocks upon their right flank…Let us set on them now from both sides, before they are fully rested!”. Perhaps the bowman has simply been pushed a bit too far by broken dwarven promises, or maybe the Arkenstone is having a bit of an unwholesome effect on him. Either way, this sudden thirst for bloodletting comes a bit unexpectedly.
Perhaps just as surprising is the hesitation of Thranduil, having previously been so militant against the dwarves: “Long will I tarry, ere I begin this war for gold…Let us hope still for something that will bring reconciliation.” We might remember that the Elvenking’s initial march from the Woodland Realm was because of “the legend of the wealth of Thror“, but he did not, perhaps, expect to fight a battle for it. Does he think of former events, like the Sack of Doriath, that I spoke about in a previous chapter? Even with his faults – the aforementioned greed and lack of care for outside events – Thranduil isn’t willing to lose lives over the gold, though he won’t eagerly make peace either: “Our advantage in numbers will be enough, if in the end it must come to unhappy blows.”
The breakdown comes very quickly, as the dwarves, acting impetuously and with the image of the Arkenstone “burned in their thoughts” – they are willing to begin a war for gold at any rate – attack: “Bows twanged and arrows whistled; battle was about to be joined.” This would seem to be the natural outcome of everything that has occurred since the fall of the dragon, a final tragedy borne of Smaug, as men, elves and dwarves kill each other over his hoard. It would not be an inappropriate finale in a way but is too dark an ending for the story Tolkien is trying to tell, and the tone he is trying to adhere too. That tone is marked by the combat between good and evil, and no one about to come to blows in this situation could be described as solely one or the other. But some new players could.
Things take a very Biblical turn quickly, as the elements make their feelings known on what is happening:
“Still more suddenly a darkness came on with dreadful swiftness! A black cloud hurried over the sky. Winter thunder on a wild wind rolled roaring up and rumbled in the Mountain, and lightning lit its peak. And beneath the thunder another blackness could be seen whirling forward; but it did not come with the wind, it came from the North, like a vast cloud of birds, so dense that no light could be seen between their wings.”
This lends to the idea of some otherworldly power at play, heralding the arrival of the goblins and the wargs with literal storm clouds, and figurative clouds of swarming bats, a creature commonly associated in western myth with evil, darkness and malevolence (and provide a decent counter-part to the birds). While not stated outright here, it is not too much of a leap to think on the Necromancer, whose aims would be forwarded greatly by a victory for the forces of darkness in this moment. Sauron, as The Lord Of The Rings will make clear, has some form of control over the weather, as can be seen in the storms that issue from Mordor. Peter Jackson made Sauron’s intervention more obvious, and I think it fits.
It’s Gandalf who comes between the armies about to clash:
“Dread has come upon you all! Alas! it has come more swiftly than I guessed. The Goblins are upon you!…They ride upon wolves and Wargs are in their train!”
As mentioned in the last chapter, Gandalf’s apparent refusal to warn Thranduil, Bard or Thorin about the coming danger until this very moment is a bit strange. He notes it has come “more swiftly than I guessed“, so was he hoping that the free peoples would sort out their problems before the goblins and wargs arrived? Did he just think they wouldn’t believe him (as Jackson’s film depicted)? Who knows, but I do find it a bit curious, as if the wizard was waiting for the perfect time to put himself centre-stage, and perhaps make him the truly indispensable one when it comes to the forming of a rapid alliance. Perhaps Tolkien hints a little bit at this when he writes “How much Gandalf knew cannot be said…“. Gandalf is consistently accused of being a manipulator and doom bringer, and it isn’t an entirely unworthy complaint.
And, thankfully, it isn’t just an overly-convenient thing, the goblins and wargs showing up here. The foundations for this plot-point were laid all the way back on “Over Hill And Under Hill“, and the goblins learning of the death of Smaug was mentioned in “Fire And Water“. While it comes as a bit of a narrative surprise, the goblins and wargs are just doing what everyone else – elves, men and dwarves – have been doing, going after the gold, so their sudden presence should not be taken as a deus ex machina to avoid a more ill-fated battle.
Gandalf killed the “Great Goblin” of course, so the goblins lack a singular personality to lead them here, excepting “Bolg – of the north“, mentioned by Gandalf without any more elaboration, indicating that his name is supposed to be well-known to those present. I always found this a bit strange, and even more since Jackson’s trilogy, where Bolg – and his father Azog, allowed to survive the battle outside Moria in the adaptation – filled a decent role of recurring villains, giving some personality to otherwise faceless legions or orcs and goblins. Could Bolg not have subbed in for the Great Goblin, and survived? Could he not have turned up in “Out Of The Frying-Pan Into The Fire“? As it is, Bolg will remain an unseen figure, only to be referenced a few more time in the course of this chapter and the next.
Tolkien, already dubbing the fight the “Battle of Five Armies”, allows himself a brief moment to discuss how “it fell out“, which also constitutes a Middle-Earth geography lesson, that touches on issues of old and recent history. The actions of the company in “Over Hill And Under Hill” and “Out Of The Frying-Pan Into The Fire” were seemingly wide-reaching:
“Messengers had passed to and fro between all their cities, colonies and strongholds; for they resolved now to win the dominion of the North. Tidings they had gathered in secret ways; and in all the mountains there was a forging and an arming…a vast host was assembled ready to sweep down in time of storm unawares.”
That the goblins were apparently so numerous is to be noted, as is the immensity of their strength, enough that they feel capable of winning “the dominion of the north“. Tolkien drops names here, like “Mount Gundabad“, a major goblin fortress to the north, to further emphasise the goblins as an almost political entity (as opposed to bands of raiders and plunderers). All of this ties into the larger history of the region, and the old evil Kingdom of Angmar, through the remnants of which the goblins march, unseen by their enemies.
Also to be noted here is Tolkien’s refusal to let the dwarves off the hook in terms of cause and effect. The goblin host was assembled and ready to march before the news of Smaug’s death came to them: now the winning of the gold is just a bonus. Whether the quest would have succeeded or not, the Lakemen and the elves and maybe even the dwarves of the Iron Hills would have had to deal with this problem, and that situation lies at the feet of Gandalf and Thorin. One of them will pay the ultimate price for their actions and the other, well, it’s fair to say that the fallout of events is not entirely to his discomfort: to defeat such forces in one giant battle, and weaken the cause of evil in the region decisively, would be a great prize, a motivation that Tolkien sort of ret-conned in, as part of the Appendices to The Lord Of The Rings and his short addendum “The Quest Of Erebor”, that I might get to in time.
At Gandalf’s directions, Thranduil, Bard and Dain have just enough time to form a rapid plan. Tolkien’s account of the battle will actually be surprisingly distant, with notes on troop deployments, overall strategy and mass movements, over a focus on individual tactics, duels and fighting. For the next stretch Bilbo actually vanishes from the story, but his individual perspective will be returned to shortly enough.
The plan is simple enough, carrying with it both opportunities and dangers:
“Their only hope was to lure the goblins into the valley between the arms of the Mountain; and themselves to man the great spurs that struck south and east. Yet this would be perilous, if the goblins were in sufficient numbers to overrun the Mountain itself, and so attack them also from behind and above; but there was no time to make any other plan, or to summon any help…On the Southern spur, in its lower slopes and in the rocks at its feet, the Elves were set; on the Eastern spur were men and dwarves.”
I’m unable to find any reasonable claim that the Battle of Five Armies is inspired by something from actual history, or even something more fantastical. Tolkien’s set-up is simple enough really – forces of good taking the high ground and fighting on the defensive against evil hordes – and while it’s interesting to see his narrative of how the battle unfolds, it’s hard to even ascribe his experience from the First World War in it. There are no trenches, gas, artillery, muddy ground, and the language used, here and in the next chapter, retains a sort of high epic feel, not quite the same as the poetry-like approach in “The Battle Of The Pelennor Fields” but not too far off it. Sometimes, a climactic battle is just a battle. We can, perhaps, infer a few things, like the emphasis on defence that the forces of good have, and sudden attack from the mountain that is almost aerial, but that’s about it really.
The battle opens with skirmishing on the outskirts, with men placed by Bard taking on impossible odds: “A few brave men were strung before them to make a feint of resistance, and many there fell before the rest drew back and fled to either side.” Their sacrifice has a very important purpose though, both in delaying the enemy for a time, and in enraging them to the point that they charge recklessly thereafter “like a tide in fury and disorder” noted as being “As Gandalf had hoped“. The forces of good may well be outnumbered, but even an outnumbered army can win the day with well-prepared ground, the ability to charge a disordered foe and discipline, especially when their opponents have none of those things. The goblins and wargs may have the numbers, but they lack any sense of leadership at this point, massing between the spurs of the mountain before the gate. On the face of it, we’re just waiting for an all-too-obvious trap to close.
Here the narrator cuts to Bilbo, for his opinion on matters. You can hear the echoes of a war veteran in the claim that it was the “most dreadful of all Bilbo’s experiences, and the one which at the time he hated most — which is to say it was the one he was most proud of, and most fond of recalling long afterwards, although he was quite unimportant in it.” This certainly may be a nod to Tolkien’s own experiences in the industrial warfare of the western front, where his own part would have been quite small. Bilbo slips on the Ring early, though the danger remains: “A magic ring of that sort is not a complete protection in a goblin charge, nor does it stop flying arrows and wild spears“. That Bilbo will not take an active part of the battle may come as a bit of a disappointment, but it does fit. What is he going to do, fight Bolg single-handed?
The Allies let the goblins and wargs march into place, and then charge from both directions. You can see, perhaps, a bit of Cannae about it, though it will turn about soon enough. The onrush of the elves and dwarves and men is described as decisive and irresistible:
“Their spears and swords shone in the gloom with a gleam of chill flame, so deadly was the wrath of the hands that held them. As soon as the host of their enemies was dense in the valley, they sent against it a shower of arrows, and each flickered as it fled as if with stinging fire. Behind the arrows a thousand of their spearmen leapt down and charged. The yells were deafening. The rocks were stained black with goblin blood.
Just as the goblins were recovering from the onslaught and the elf-charge was halted, there rose from across the valley a deep-throated roar. With cries of “Moria!” and “Dain, Dain!” the dwarves of the Iron Hills plunged in, wielding their mattocks, upon the other side; and beside them came the men of the Lake with long swords.”
Tolkien likes describing combat in such terms, inspired by the epics of long ago. They all tend to have shining swords, roaring battle cries and enemies put to flight by the sheer force of a righteous charge. The forces of good have perfect coordination, charging and re-charging in sequences, compared to the forces of evil, who turn on each other all too easily, in apocalyptic imagery: “…many of their own wolves were turning upon them and rending the dead and the wounded.”
“Victory seemed at hand” but that would be a bit too easy, as the goblins, in a grim parody of the dwarfish ingenuity in scaling the mountain in “On The Doorstep”, do some scaling themselves, at a huge cost in lives: “…already many were on the slopes above the Gate, and others were streaming down recklessly, heedless of those that fell screaming from cliff and precipice, to attack the spurs from above.” The Allies are now surrounded, and things shift from optimism to despair: “Victory now vanished from hope. They had only stemmed the first onslaught of the black tide.”
The goblins and the wargs turn the screw now, massing again in the valley, bolstered by “the bodyguard of Bolg, goblins of huge size with scimitars of steel.” Things literally look dark for our heroes, thanks to the fading light and the blood-thirsty bats: “…actual darkness was coming into a stormy sky; while still the great bats swirled about the heads and ears of elves and men, or fastened vampire-like on the stricken“. On each spur, the Allies are pushed back, with Bard giving ground to the east, and Thranduil pressed in tight at the south. It isn’t the first or last time that Tolkien will outline a battle where the good guys are surrounded and seemingly doomed, only for an unexpected relief to come from somewhere.
That relief comes from the company inside Erebor, and Thorin, now redeeming himself for his recent actions. Everyone has forgotten him – we might wonder if they considered holding up in the mountain – but now he’s back with a trumpet call and a crash as the wall the dwarves threw up is rapidly thrown done. The narrator himself identifies Thorin as the “King under the mountain” here, as if by this very action Thorin has made himself worthy of the title. With the company, he looks a miraculous sight, like gold incarnate to a dwarf: “…they were in shining armour, and red light leapt from their eyes. In the gloom the great dwarf gleamed like gold in a dying fire.” This is, perhaps, Thorin’s most important moment, as he lays aside the binds of gold-lust and dishonourable greed to fight a terrible enemy, for his kinsfolk and for his newly re-won homeland. We needed to see this, to forgive Thorin for his worlds and dark throughs of the previous chapters.
Thorin appears to have gotten over his recent enmity, and issues a unity-calling rallying cry: “To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!“. The Allies give as good as they get, and soon everyone has charged back into the valley towards Thorin, which is not altogether to the delight of some: the dwarves of the Iron Hills charge “heedless of order” and Bard is unable to retrain his Lakemen soldiers.
The battle turns – the goblins “were piled in heaps till Dale was dark and hideous with their corpses” – and seems to reach a pivotal moment of victory on the back of Thorin’s glorious charge – “Thorin drove right against the bodyguard of Bolg” – but then turns once more:
“…he could not pierce their ranks…Already behind him among the goblin dead lay many men and many dwarves, and many a fair elf…His numbers were too few. His flanks were unguarded. Soon the attackers were attacked, and they were forced into a great ring, facing every way, hemmed all about with goblins and wolves returning to the assault…and upon either side men and elves were being slowly beaten down.”
Like Theoden charging out of Helm’s Deep, this has the look of an heroic, but ultimately failing last charge. The goblin and warg numbers are too great, and the Allied charge almost reckless in the way they did not account for being surrounded. It’s evidence of the huge size of the goblin population in the Misty Mountains that they are able to take repeated charges and losses, and yet still be in a position of victory.
It’s now, when things look their grimmest, that we return to Bilbo, who has “taken his stand” with the Wood-elves on the southern spur. He has done so for two reasons that, as noted directly, take their inspiration from the two sides of his personality. The Took side is ready for a last desperate stand and prefers to do so “defending the Elvenking.” You would think that he might prefer to be with the company, but then again it is probably a bit beyond his capabilities to reach Thorin in the maelstrom of battle, and Thranduil is as good as Bard. But the Baggins side isn’t without hope of life just yet, albeit a self-interested, almost cowardly hope: “…there was more chance of escape from that point“. Gandalf is there too, preparing, just as he was when the wolves were circling underneath the trees, “some last blast of magic before the end“.
Facing the end, it is left to Bilbo to frame a last lament, for himself, for the company, for the quest and for everyone seemingly about to die, in one of The Hobbit’s most emotive pieces of dialogue, that still retains Bilbo’s inherent knack for civilised understatement:
“Really it is enough to make one weep, after all one has gone through. I would rather old Smaug had been left with all the wretched treasure, than that these vile creatures should get it, and poor old Bombur, and Balin and Fili and Kili and all the rest come to a bad end; and Bard too, and the Lake-men and the merry elves. Misery me! I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious. It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing. I wish I was well out of it.”
Bilbo reasserts his quaint hobbit nature here. All he knows of battle (of this sort) is stories that glorify a fighting defeat, but the reality is different. If nothing else, this nods towards Tolkien’s own wartime experience, betraying, perhaps, a cynical dig at the “Dulce Est Decorum Est” sentiment that drove so many young men of Tolkien’s age into uniform, to the trenches and to their graves.
But of course, Bilbo isn’t going to die and the good guys are not going to be defeated. The dark weather and clouds of bats seemed almost divine in a malevolent way (and maybe they were) but a counter-attacking is coming:
“The clouds were torn by the wind, and a red sunset slashed the West. Seeing the sudden gleam in the gloom Bilbo looked round. He gave a great cry: he had seen a sight that made his heart leap…“.
They are certainly some of the most well-remembered lines of Tolkien’s, so good he used them twice, the written embodiment of hope and victory unexpected:
“The Eagles! The Eagles!” he shouted. “The Eagles are coming!”…If the elves could not see him they could hear him. Soon they too took up the cry, and it echoed across the valley.
In my writings on The Lord Of The Rings I have discussed Tolkien’s own concept of “eucatastrophe”, a sudden turn of events at the end of a story that produces a hither-to unlikely happy ending. The arrival of the eagles here (and in “The Black Gate Opens“) are the archetypical examples within Tolkien’s own works (he even referred to Bilbo’s cries here as a “eucatastrophic emotion”). For him, such things were not a convenient deus ex machina-esque way to get a happy ending, but a fundamental part of myth-making, and a very inherent part of how he set-up his own mythology to work. The eagles are their own being and, as the next chapter will outline, have very good reasons for their intervention here, but they have a religious symbolism too, with Tolkien comparing his concept of eucatastrophe to the death and resurrection of Christ, in the way that both things form an unexpected good for mankind.
But we won’t get to see any more of what should really be called the Battle of Six Armies (hell, make it seven with the bats). The Ring can’t protect Bilbo anymore, as the chapter ends on a cliff-hanger: “…at that moment a stone hurtling from above smote heavily on his helm, and he fell with a crash and knew no more.” This is obviously a little anti-climactic, since any reader will want to see the conclusion of the battle and Bilbo’s role in it. Yet, it is appropriate also. This is no longer Bilbo’s story: his last great part in it ended when he handed over the Arkenstone. More than that, it’s Bilbo Baggins we’re talking about: it would be just his luck to get knocked out by a random rock thrown from on high, just as the eagles were arriving, and even with invisibility to protect himself.
“The Clouds Burst” is another good half-and-half chapter, divided between the last of the parleys with an increasingly mad Thorin and then the Battle of Five Armies. The first part is another expertly written sequence that ratchets up the tension and provides some of our last moments of characterisation for Thorin and Bilbo. The second is an exhilarating action sequence, the like of which The Hobbit does not have elsewhere, a titanic and bloody struggle between good and evil that is both surprising and enthralling. And it isn’t even over, as the last part of the battle will go unelaborated upon until the next, penultimate, chapter.
As a finale, I think it works tremendously. Tolkien subverts expectations of a terrible clash between the dwarves and the Elvish/Lakemen alliance, and instead serves us a more traditional clash between the forces of good and the forces of not-so-good, replete with both strategic examination of the different forces engaged, and individual moments of daring-do, most notably with a redeemed Thorin. It could do with, maybe, a little bit more to do for Bilbo (even Pippin gets to stab a troll at the Black Gate) and a more personal focus for the goblins (why even bring up Bolg if you aren’t going to use him?). But, being one of only a few times when Tolkien allows himself to go into great detail on a battlefield, it serves as an awesome set-piece.
While we still have a little bit of this climax to get details on, that’s it in terms of the central drama of the narrative. All that’s left is the two concluding chapters, the first of which will have its fair share of heartache.
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