The Hobbit, Chapter-By-Chapter: The Return Journey

The central events of The Hobbit have come to a conclusion, all that’s left is the mopping up and the going home. “The Return Journey” gives us just what it says on the tin, but the more interesting part is what comes before.

The narrator welcomes Bilbo back to consciousness with a clever bit of stringing wordplay: “When Bilbo came to himself, he was literally by himself.” For the first-time reader, we can instantly assume that, being alive, the battle has ended in the right way, but there must still be a certain tension in awaiting the exact details.

Bilbo gets his bearings bit by bit, and quickly notes what is going on around him: “…he could see no living goblins“, “he thought he could see elves moving in the rocks below“, “Dwarves seemed to be busy removing the wall.” Victory it is then, but there is something wrong as well: “…all was deadly still. There was no call and no echo of a song. Sorrow seemed to be in the air.” Bilbo reacts in a down-to-earth fashion, seemingly not too bothered about his brush with death, the seeming inevitability of defeat turned to triumph, his cold after spending the night in the open, or the pain in his head: “Victory after all, I suppose!…Well, it seems a very gloomy business.”

Speaking to a Lakeman come to look for him, Bilbo realises the downsides of the Ring that he still has on, which has prevented him from being counted among the living and spending the night in a much more comfortable position. We can’t see too much malevolence in the Ring for this; frankly, it’s a miracle the thing did not slip off Bilbo’s finger when it seemed like the goblins were about to win the battle, the better to be discovered by a creature more to its liking. In the end, it is Bilbo’s famous cry about the eagles that has him re-discovered: “You would have been numbered among the dead, who are many, if Gandalf the wizard had not said that your voice was last heard in this place.”

Taken to the camp in Dale, Bilbo finds a wounded but happy Gandalf. To find Bilbo alive after assuming him dead is a tremendous boon to the wizard – “Well I never! Alive after all — I am glad! I began to wonder if even your luck would see you through!” – but is only a partial salve to the general grief that lays over those who have survived: “…there were few unharmed in all the host…A terrible business, and it nearly was disastrous”.

Gandalf’s happiness gives way to grief, as Bilbo is ushered in to a tent to see Thorin “wounded with many wounds, and his rent armour and notched axe were cast upon the floor.” Having redeemed himself with his heroic charge in the battle, the King under the mountain is now preparing to pay the ultimate price.

Choosing to kill off Thorin instantly imbues The Hobbit with a much darker and serious flavour than that of a normal children’s story. In a perfectly happy world Thorin would be reconciled with Bilbo, Gandalf, Bard and Thranduil, would let go of his greed, and would rule wisely and well as King for years to come. He’d by the Aragorn of this story, reclaiming the throne and living happily ever after. But no. Thorin’s redemption comes with sacrifice, and, in narrative terms, a line must be drawn under the line of Thror, whose madness and ill-luck have dogged the dwarves of Erebor many times over. It’s still a brave move for Tolkien, and Thorin’s death – and the deaths of his nephews, to be noted shortly – really do make The Hobbit a weightier story, with a cost to victory and consequences for actions.

Now, having redeemed himself in action, Oakenshield must heal himself in word, with the friend he so horribly abused before battle was joined. Then, Thorin used “burglar” as an insult, but now he uses a similar word in reconciliation: “Farewell, good thief“. Dying, Thorin’s thoughts have drifted to what is to come, and he touchingly lets go of his gold-sickness when that in mind: “Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friendship from you…“. Even the dwarves don’t consider gold something you can take with you.

Bilbo, obviously touched by this cathartic farewell, goes as far as bending his knee and acknowledging Thorin as royalty properly, something he has not done in the whole story. He too rejects the idea that piles of gold hold much value in such circumstances: “Farewell, King under the Mountain!” he said. “This is a bitter adventure, if it must end so; and not a mountain of gold can amend it.” For the first time in a while, Bilbo acknowledges the depth of the journey he has been on, and how it was only a small part of the dwarven trial back to Erebor: “Yet I am glad that I have shared in your perils — that has been more than any Baggins deserves.”

Thorin’s last words are addressed to Bilbo directly, a brief praising monologue that maxes a suitable summation of Bilbo’s character with one final lesson for the rest of the world:

There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!

Bilbo is understandably devastated by events – “…he wept until his eyes were red and his voice was hoarse. He was a kindly little soul” – and is, perhaps a bit too self-critical in response:

You are a fool, Bilbo Baggins, and you made a great mess of that business with the stone; and there was a battle, in spite of all your efforts to buy peace and quiet, but I suppose you can hardly be blamed for that.”

Indeed, as there would have been a battle either way really, and it’s hard to see things working out more positively if Bilbo had not given the Arkenstone to Thranduil and Bard, or if he had given it to Thorin. Either way, it’s clear that Bilbo is already separating himself from the grander narrative, with the tiredness in his voice tangible. Loss of this kind will do that. Bilbo is “weary of his adventure“, and already he thinks of what must come next, the fulfilment of a desire he has had almost since the moment he ran out of his front door: “He was aching in his bones for the homeward journey.”

But before we get to that, what happened next at the Battle of Five Armies must be relayed, with the narrator dropping back into that personal style: “…in the meantime I will tell something of events“. The bloody nature of its conclusion, between the dead members of the company and Beorn’s bear frenzy, may explain why Tolkien prefers to describe it as from a distance, rather than in the midst. The eagles, as previously noted, are no great lovers of men, but they hate goblins with a passion. Suspicious of their mustering and “smelling battle from afar” they swoop in on the goblin soldiers scaling the mountain and essentially eliminate that threat, giving the men of Lake-town, the dwarves and the elves enough respite to turn the tide. Air power will do that I guess.

But there was still fighting to do, and in this moment came Beorn:

In that last hour Beorn himself had appeared…He came alone, and in bear’s shape; and he seemed to have grown almost to giant-size in his wrath. 

The roar of his voice was like drums and guns; and he tossed wolves and goblins from his path like straws and feathers.”

This recitation comes back to the high epic language of a poet and might distract us enough from the strange reference to the sound of “guns“. Beorn tears the goblin lines apart and rescues Thorin “fallen pierced with spears“, before coming back to finish off Bolg. Such a confrontation could well have used a more detailed description, being as it is the closet The Hobbit will get to a climactic showdown between two foes, but Tolkien is instead brief: “He scattered the bodyguard, and pulled down Bolg himself and crushed him. Then dismay fell on the Goblins and they fled in all directions.”

Just as Tolkien will repeat in The Lord Of The Rings, the loss of such a commander turns the near-victorious goblin army into a routing mess who are driven “into the River Running“, their filth literally washed away, or hunted to destruction within the boughs of Mirkwood (as Saruman’s army at the Hornburg will be destroyed). The end result is a costly, but joyous, victory, with ramifications for years to come: “Songs have said that three parts of the goblin warriors of the North perished on that day, and the mountains had peace for many a year.”

Bilbo regrets missing the eagles, but we can tell that his heart isn’t even in that sentiment, more concerned now with the homeward journey: “I suppose I shall be going home soon?” But there are still formalities to be addressed.

Thorin is laid to rest “deep within the mountain” with honour, Orcrist and the Arkenstone laid with him. That the famous elvish sword is left there by Thranduil is a potent metaphor of reconciliation, and the decision to leave the Arkenstone with him is also fitting, what Thorin wanted most in life, and now in a position of reverence for the rest of the dwarves. Bard is respectful in the act, in recognition of what Thorin did during the battle: “There let it lie till the Mountain falls!” he said. “May it bring good fortune to all his folk that dwell here after!

Orcrist “gleamed ever in the dark if foes approached, and the fortress of the dwarves could not be taken by surprise.” The combination of this with Thorin’s resting place marks him as a figurative “King in the mountain” architype, in line with Arthur or Charlemagne, who sleeps eternally, awaiting the moment when his country or people will need him again. In death, with his sword, Thorin continues to protect Erebor, and remains a magnificent image of dignified royalty.

It’s only here that it is noted that Thorin was not alone of the company to die: “Fili and Kili had fallen defending him with shield and body, for he was their mother’s elder brother.” In the limited characterisation of the rest of the dwarves, the two young brothers have been shown as helpful, optimistic and brave, and their passing hurts a bit too, especially as it is so little-noted in comparison to Thorin, even if they sell their lives gladly in defence of kin, and not in defence of gold. It’s also a big deal in terms of dwarven lineage, since their deaths cut off the traditional line of Erebor royalty.

That leaves only one candidate left, the largely unseen Dain, the new King under the mountain. He’s quickly noted as a suitable choice, “for he dealt his treasure well“. The company may not get their contracted share – an amount “exceedingly great, greater than that of many mortal kings” – but they get their reward, in gold and in honour, as does Bard and the survivors of Lake-town, and even Thranduil. Friendship is given freely to them, the eagles and the Woodland Realm. In terms of the strife of the last few chapters, this is a happy and appropriate conclusion, even if we only got here through a profusion of blood.

The dwarves will be staying to rebuild their re-won Kingdom, but Bilbo is heading home. He lets go of his previous contractual claims, and echoes Smaug in wondering how he would ever get it all home, though he says so in his own charming style: “…really it is a relief to me. How on earth should I have got all that treasure home without war and murder all along the way, I don’t know.”. Bilbo also echoes Thorin in declaring such sentiments, since gold has never been all that important to him: “And I don’t know what I should have done with it when I got home.” In the end, he has to accept two small chests of silver and gold, with not even his humble refusals being enough to deny this limited reward.

The time comes for farewells, as Bilbo gets the chance for one last rollcall, with a poignant ending:

Farewell, Balin!” he said; “and farewell, Dwalin; and farewell Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur! May your beards never grow thin!” And turning towards the Mountain he added: “Farewell Thorin Oakenshield! And Fili and Kili! May your memory never fade!

We may not have gotten to know most of the dwarves very well – Balin and Bombur were the real stand-outs – but any leave-taking like this does bring sad feelings for any reader, of fellowships sundered and adventures ending.

Even before he sets off, Bilbo demonstrates that the Baggins/Took divide within him may be resolving itself in a nice compromise, as he offers an open invite to that most civilised of experiences, with an uncivilised approach to appointments: “If ever you are passing my way,” said Bilbo, “don’t wait to knock! Tea is at four; but any of you are welcome at any time!” Certainly, the Bilbo that panicked and invited Gandalf to tea without thinking too much on it would never have been so liberal with invitations.

Bilbo marches with the host of the Woodland Realm for the first part of his journey, and the author takes the time to strike a triumphant note, with a recurring motif of joy following sadness: “The dragon was dead, and the goblins overthrown, and their hearts looked forward after winter to a spring of joy.”

At the eaves of the forest, Bilbo, Gandalf and Beorn say farewell to Thranduil, now a changed character in our eyes, having moved from being an isolated, greedy King with an issue with the dwarves, to a peacemaker in diplomacy and a victorious leader in combat. He exchanges surprisingly friendly final words to Gandalf, before an interesting back-and-forth with Bilbo, who has enough of a conscience to still feel guilty for his secret activities in “Barrels Out Of Bond“:

I beg of you,” said Bilbo stammering and standing on one foot, “to accept this gift!” and he brought out a necklace of silver and pearls that Dain had given him at their parting. 

“In what way have I earned such a gift, O hobbit?” said the king. 

“Well, er, I thought, don’t you know,” said Bilbo rather confused, “that, er, some little return should be made for your, er, hospitality. I mean even a burglar has his feelings. I have drunk much of your wine and eaten much of your bread.”

That Bilbo is “rather confused” on this point simply makes him all the more endearing. Even this trifling wrong needs to be corrected. Thranduil is magnanimous, and unexpectedly humorous, in response to this gesture:

I will take your gift, O Bilbo the Magnificent!” said the king gravely. “And I name you elf-friend and blessed. May your shadow never grow less (or stealing would be too easy)! Farewell!

The road home will not be through Mirkwood “for the wizard and Bilbo would not enter the wood…the dreadful pathways under the trees“. Too many bad memories, with the person Bilbo was in that forest – the savage warrior who hacked down giant spiders en masse – someone that he would prefer to let rest. But the alternate route doesn’t exactly sound great either: “They intended to go along the edge of the forest, and round its northern end in the waste that lay between it and the beginning of the Grey Mountains. It was a long and cheerless road…“. Gandalf, you will recall from “Queer Lodgings” warned against this path, but with the destruction of the goblins it has been made markedly safer.

But still not completely safe, as Tolkien tantalisingly notes: “He had many hardships and adventures before he got back. The Wild was still the Wild, and there were many other things in it in those days beside goblins…“. Such lines have proven ample fodder for fan-fiction writers for many, many years, but the details of what Bilbo, Gandalf and Beorn encountered on their round trip over the north side of Mirkwood will be denied to us. We don’t need to know everything I suppose.

In fact, this is a partial reference to one of Tolkien’s original plans. In earlier drafts, what would become the Battle of Five Armies would have been fought at this point in the narrative, as Bilbo is heading home accompanied by armies, and then ambushed by a force of goblins. In a certain way this would fit but would require a completely different crisis for the third act, regards Thorin’s madness and the devolving situation outside the Lonely Mountain. Either way, the goblins are defeated, and the passage home laid open.

Having reached this far, the trio stay the winter in Beorn’s home “warm and merry” with the impact of the Battle of Five Armies being felt here also. Beorn is to become a great “chief of men” who will help to bring lasting piece to Wilderland, a task carried on by his own descendants: “The goblins of the Misty Mountains were now few and terrified, and hidden in the deepest holes they could find; and the Wargs had vanished from the woods, so that men went abroad without fear…a new peace came over the edge of the Wild.” It is a bit of an unexpected outcome for Beorn, portrayed as so solitary a figure up to now, more Bombadil than a would-be King. But every survivor deserves their happy ending.

Bilbo and Gandalf eventually go on again alone, through the very pass where they were waylaid previously. The moment allows for one last glimpse at a now distant Lonely Mountain, and another moment of remembrance:

There far away was the Lonely Mountain on the edge of eyesight. On its highest peak snow yet unmelted was gleaming pale.”

Bilbo marks the moment with a satisfied declaration of victory:

So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending!

The chapter ends with a direct statement on the nature of the Baggins/Took conflict within Bilbo, and how he only wishes “to be in my own armchair“, here at the final end of his adventure, that he has now “turned his back on“. The last chapter will have the extent of the change in Bilbo at its heart.

“The Return Journey” is a mopping-up affair. The four key things that it hits on are all about closing off the narrative and tying up loose ends. We have the death of Thorin, now fully redeemed from his past rashness. We have the account of how the eagles and Beorn saved the day at the Battle of Five Armies. We have the burial of Thorin, Fili and Kili, and Bilbo’s emotional farewells to the other members of the company. And we have the largest part of Bilbo’s journey back to the Shire, as he goes through twelve chapters worth of travelling in a few paragraphs. It’s a lot to cover, and not a lot of time to do it in, with Tolkien restraining himself here in a way that he later won’t in Book Six of The Return Of The King.

The result is a chapter that is a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, and a tad messy if we are being honest, swaying between grief at the passing of friends, victorious battle tales and sad farewells. But it is still enjoyable all the same, an almost appropriate mix of things, reflecting the emotional maelstrom that must be afflicting Bilbo as he turns towards home. That last part of the journey will be next.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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