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!