All week we are reading J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit together here at the Inkpot. Be sure to come back tomorrow for Chapters 13-16!
The Wood-elves take the dwarves prisoner at the beginning of Chapter 9 ("Barrels out of Bond"), though all concerned are so hungry and miserable that "they were actually glad to be captured." Luckily for the dwarves, Bilbo has the magic ring, so the elves don't know he has snuck into their underground realm, where he uses his growing talents as a burglar to find his way around, pilfer food, and discover the deep cell in which the elves are holding Thorin. (THE HOBBIT is a book very rich in caves, by the way!) Bilbo's task is to get all those dwarves safely out of prison. He does this using, as the chapter title suggests, barrels, into which he packs the dwarves in order to float them down the river to the Long Lake.
Bruised and waterlogged, the poor dwarves finally get to crawl out of their barrels, and the Master of the town greets them with some suspicion. His hand is forced by the townspeople's enthusiasm, however; the people of Lake-town promptly dig up all the old songs about the "return of the King under the Mountain" and sing them with gusto. That's why Chapter 10 is called "A Warm Welcome"! Fortunately for the Master of Lake-town, the dwarves are eager to set off in the direction of the Lonely Mountain, and they don't end up lingering too long.
Chapter 11, "On the Doorstep," takes us right to the "skirts of the Mountain," and even farther than that, up to the back door, but unfortunately for them, that door is closed, and nothing they do makes it budge. It's up to Bilbo to save the day again by figuring out the secret message represented by an enormous thrush busily dining on snails near the hidden door. Aha! Just as the moon-letters on the map had told Elrond long before: "Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the key-hole." (I am impressed by a map thorough enough to mention local birds!) Sure enough, the sun sets, the key is brought forth, and the stubborn door into the mountain finally opens.
Does Thorin say, "Why, thank you, Mr. Baggins, for your sharp eye and useful bird-watching habits! Why don't you take a nice rest now?"? Why, no, he does not say that. He says instead, "Now is the time for our esteemed Mr. Baggins . . . to perform the service for which he was included in our company; now is the time for him to earn his Reward." The narrator, by the way, is much more mocking of a hero like Thorin than the LotR narrator will later be: "You are familiar with Thorin's style on important occasions, so I will not give you any more of it, though he went on a good deal longer than this." Poor Bilbo! He will spend Chapter 12 ("Inside Information") chatting with dragons. A particular dragon, that is: the dragon named Smaug.
Dragons are tricky conversationalists. Before Bilbo really understands what Smaug is up to, he spills a little too much information about, for instance, places the company has recently been. The dragon flies off, intent on showing these bipeds who's in control around here. Not a good time to be living in Lake-town!
Questions: More echoes here of Lord of the Rings, did you notice? A door into a cavern that will only open under very particular circumstances! Another question: would you rather ride a river INSIDE or ON TOP OF a barrel? What does THE HOBBIT teach us about how to converse with ancient and dangerous creatures like dragons? In his adventures thus far, has Bilbo done something you would find especially hard, if not impossible? I, for instance, would have quailed in the face of Chapter 8's spiders. And how how how did the map's rune-writer know that thrush would be there at the appointed hour?
Anne Nesbet is the author of THE CABINET OF EARTHS, which came out earlier this year from HarperCollins, and A BOX OF GARGOYLES (appearing in May 2013). She lives in California (but not the warm part of California) with her dear family and an only moderately well-behaved Border Collie. More info about Anne and her books at www.annenesbet.com.