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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!


Poison

During my hiatus, someone poisoned my house.

The termite-letter for my home was through Ace Exterminating and so when it was time for me to have my place inspected for termites, I went to them. It seems I should have read the fine print.

Apparently this company thinks it is a good idea to give a “complimentary” spray to the exterior of houses when they do a termite inspection.  This possibility never even occurred to me. I imagine many people see a free “pest-control” treatment as a good thing. I most certainly DO NOT.

I called them to vent my feelings. The poor woman who received my call seemed to think I was worried about hypothetical children or my pets and immediately assured me that the insecticide was “safe.”

“It’s not my pets I worry about. It’s my spiders and bees,” I replied.  I could have said much more, explaining the thriving community of living things that I cultivate on my property, but I doubt it would have helped.

A brief silence followed, after which she offered to put a “do not spray” note on my record. Despite this, I will not use their company again. They may refrain from spraying my house, but their policy of “complementary insecticide treatments” is not one I am willing to forgive. I have sympathy for the woman who took my call and for the technician who was just following orders, but the company will not have my business.

I am not wholly against the use of insecticides. I will put down borax to end the ant-plague in my kitchen and I will use what means I must to keep moths out of my woolen clothing. These things have a minor impact on the arthropod population and are taking place in a fundamentally unnatural environment: the interior of my house. As I am relatively ignorant about the use of pesticides in agriculture, I will refrain from opening that debate here. This is merely representative of my feelings on the unnecessary use of pesticides around our homes.

What possible good could spraying the outside of my house do? No good at all, and the ill effects spread out before me like a miniature nuclear holocaust, with my brick walls as ground zero. This impacts everything living in my yard be it insect, arachnid, reptile, bird or plant. The  predators, be they spider, or lizard, or ladybug take longer to recover than their prey making everything worse, in the long term, for me as well! If this careless company has indirectly killed my garter snake or my blue-tailed skinks, I will weep as well as rage.

It is the thoughtlessness that deeply troubles me. One must assume that most people never consider the impact of using insecticides around their homes. Presumably all they consider is a reduction in the number of creepy-crawlies around their abode and their thoughts on the matter end there. No one has taught them better. If this were the attitude of a few people, the problem would not be great, but when I consider the number of buildings and yards this effects, I am horrified.

The health of any ecosystem rests largely on its tiny members. I wonder how much healthier my entire nation would be, ecologically, mentally and medically, if we confined our use of home insecticides and pesticides to “necessary only”  and cut out the use of such compounds for “convenience.”  No doubt we would even have fewer “pest problems” if we did this, considering that these populations manage themselves more effectively than we can when they are left intact.  Even if we only confined the use of insecticides to the interiors of houses there would be a large positive impact. Our indiscriminate spraying  harms the insects that most people love, like fireflies and butterflies, and can indirectly harm larger wildlife. Hummingbirds eat insects and spiders, as do robins and the above-mentioned blue-tailed skinks. These are beautiful creatures whom even the most insect-phobic person would not wish to harm.

We are shooting ourselves, repeatedly, in both feet and it frustrates me all the more because it ought to be an easy thing for us to change. There are more pressing issues for my nation to grapple with, but those problems are, for the most part, more complex and more difficult to face. This one ought to be a no-brainer. With a little bit of education and a tiny bit of self-control we could simultaneously save ourselves time and money and make a huge positive impact in our communities. I have little hope that we will, but to be silent about it would only make me part of the problem.

And so I urge you, as I will urge others, to Just Say No to the Unnecessary Use of Pesticides and to urge your friends and families to do the same!


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