The Hobbit Read-a-long Chapter 8: Flies and Spiders

My first contribution to The Hobbit Read-a-long!

Ah, Mirkwood.  Stop for a moment to bask in the deep shadows and fill your lungs with that heavy, still air.

Mmmm. It has been too long. There are some places I reach through books to which I return again and again out of sheer love and awe. Mirkwood is one of my favorites. I wonder how many of you who read this, if any, feel the same.

Even in this book, brimming with some of the best fairy-tale elements, this chapter stands out.  We have:

  • Dark enchanted forest
  • Instructions not to stray from the path
  • Water that puts one into an enchanted sleep
  • Enchanted dreams
  • Fey lights in the darkness, luring travelers off the safe path
  • Elven hunt and white deer
  • Eerie voices and laughter echoing in the woods
  • Vanishing faerie banquets
  • Giant spiders

The makings of a fantastic folktale! And it is fantastic!

Tolkien conjures a very ominous place for us, but unlike the realm of Mordor it is not ominous and barren. Mirkwood is filled with life as much as with darkness. It is a beautiful, mysterious, cursed thing, enduring under great oppression. We have a glimmer of green among the shadows, ivy-grown trees, black squirrels in the canopy, a dark hart, a brilliant white hind and fawns, giant oaks, hanging cobwebs, velvety-black butterflies and “endless lines of straight grey trunks like the pillars of some huge twilight hall.”

There are so many wonderful images. This is one of my favorites:

Their feet ruffled among the dead leaves of countless other autumns that drifted over the banks of the path from the deep red carpets of the forest.

Bilbo and Thorin & Co. do not share my enthusiasm, but then I was never forced to travel through the forest, nor have I gotten lost, been attacked by spiders or been imprisoned by elves in it, so I sympathize. Still, I am puzzled by the effects it has on the dwarves.  That they dislike dense forests makes sense, and as they fill their homes with light I assume they are not creatures of darkness. But the fact remains that they live mostly deep underground. Tolkien even mentions this, but passes by it, simply saying that they felt oppressed.

Being of claustrophilic tastes, this stretches my imagination a bit. I can only consider their reaction to Mirkwood stemming from the corruption under which it suffers. No other explanation satisfies me.

The elves in this chapter are more fey-like than in any other. While they irritate me later, I love the ethereal, magical and elusive side they show us here. The whole feel of this section is mysterious and magical.

Apart from my obsession with the setting, I love this chapter for what happens to our hero. This is where Bilbo truly discovers that deeply buried, slow-to-rise courage and daring that Gandalf was so confident he possessed. After this he is never quite the same either in his eyes, or the eyes of his companions.

Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, confronted with a terrifying death, kills a giant spider. Shortly thereafter he rescues 12 of his companions from an entire nest of the same. He kills at least ten spiders, doubtless more. How is that for our little hobbit who, at the words “may never return”, had a fear-induced fit at the beginning of the book!

“I will give you a name,” he said to it, “and I shall call you Sting.”

Bilbo’s experience reminds me of another hobbit who, all alone, in a place even more grim, faces the ancestor of the Mirkwood spiders with the same “sword” and a shining light. Sting, indeed.

Some other thoughts:

Humor continues merrily along in this chapter against all odds, rather like Bilbo (though I wouldn’t call the hungry hobbit “merry”).

Bilbo’s vocabulary seems to be rubbing off on the dwarves. “Confusticate”!

Also, when I first read this chapter I learned several new words for spiders and discovered where “cobweb” comes from.  Who knew?

In this, his first venture into his own Middle-earth, Tolkien calls what will become Valinor, Faerie. I love this!

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About jubilare

Just another tree in the proverbial forest. Look! I have leaves! View all posts by jubilare

21 responses to “The Hobbit Read-a-long Chapter 8: Flies and Spiders

  • emilykazakh

    Reblogged this on WanderLust and commented:
    Ah, Mirkwood. I’d like to visit you.

  • Rob

    Isn’t it strange that the ominous can be beautiful at the same time? We stop and stare with our mouths agape until the darkness takes us. It’s just not fair. Also, good point about Frodo and Shelob. Many echoes of LOTR in this book.

    OK. Fey is a way-cool word!

    • jubilare

      It is, very strange, but so very true! Forgive me for trailing after bunnies, but I am reminded of a quote from C. S. Lewis in his introduction to George MacDonald’s Phantastes. “I had already been waist deep in Romanticism; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity.” I think the love of strangeness and dark that is inherent in us needs watching closely, though I also think that it, in itself, is no bad thing, but rather part of the original blueprints. One reason Mirkwood and Moria pull at my heart so (apart from woods and caves being my two favorite environments) is the impression they give of being good (though perhaps still terrible) places that have been tainted but still lie in wait, their greatest good waiting in the darkness until their curses are broken. I wonder if that is part of morbid fascination, at least until the fascination itself becomes corrupted.

      Poor Frodo. He does face Shelob, but it was Sam I was thinking about. I can just imagine Tolkien being astounded by the links that formed themselves between his works.

      It is! It’s so perfect sometimes. Sadly, I have to avoid it in my fiction most of the time because it is so perfect that it gets over-used. :(

      • Rob

        “I think the love of strangeness and dark that is inherent in us needs watching closely . . . ” Very true. Look at so many of the themes in popular culture these days, particularly in the music of rap and death metal. That’s just a piece.

        Doh! Sam! Of course.

        Have a great weekend.

  • Rob

    Reblogged this on The Old Book Junkie and commented:
    Further into The Hobbit with jubilare. Beautiful Mirkwood!

  • David

    Reblogged this on The Warden's Walk and commented:
    The beauty of Mirkwood.

  • David

    This is a wonderful chapter — I too love the beautiful, dark Mirkwood and the fey Elves. The High Elves are great and all, they really are, but I’ve always felt slightly more kinship to the Wood Elves. It’s interesting to compare Mirkwood to the very similar kingdom of Doriath under King Thingol. Both woods are vast and dark, protected by magic, and impossible to navigate without the aid of the monarchs. Both palaces are a great network of caves. Both kings are proud and prone to harshness. Yet there are probably some differences, seeing how Thingol’s people were High Elves and had seen the light of Valinor (he even married a Maia!). I don’t remember Tolkien telling of Thingol’s people having wild and nomadic parties in the woods, though they certainly had rangers watching over the paths. They also had some negative encounters with dwarves.

    I agree with you regarding the dwarves. They seem distinctly unprepared for this journey, and unaware of the sort of dangers they must face. I expect this is something the movies will change a bit; after all, the trailers and promo photos show each dwarf having a specialized axe or weapon and Thorin swearing that each is as good as an army, whereas in the book they have only their little knives and a good deal of stubbornness mixed with fear of the unknown. None of them come across as very experienced, for all their bluster. Also, it’s worth noting that by this time in the book, even the grim Thorin thinks very highly of Bilbo.

    • jubilare

      The Wood Elves seem more child-like, and more unchanged from the first awakening of the elves.
      Ah yes… the clashes between elves and Dwarves never strike me as one-sided, though in Thingol’s case I place more blame on the Dwarves, whereas in this case I place more blame on the king of the Wood Elves.

      Aye, not until the end are we given much reason to take the dwarves seriously. I am interested in seeing Jackson’s take.
      Indeed, they think highly of his skills. This is the first time, though, that he does something truly heroic! :)

  • brentondickieson

    This is well done, “unlike the realm of Mordor it is not ominous and barren. Mirkwood is filled with life as much as with darkness”–loved reading this to my son.

  • palecorbie

    [of dwarves who growl at trees] It’s artifice vs. nature – the close spaces of the dwarves, they can easily map and control and fashion…nothing’s going to “suddenly” grow there and hem them in in a mere couple of decades, no animals not introduced by themselves or dangers unheralded by signs they can read will be encountered etc. etc. Dwarves are essentially a city folk…there are some who love the housing estate “forests” to the point of having become semi-arboreal in many cities, but would feel verily oppressed in a jungle, I suspect.

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