Reading The Hobbit: Under Hill and Over Hill or Bilbo Saves the Day…Sort of

Under Hill and Over Hill marks the first time in the quest that the inclusion of Bilbo in the Company proves its worth. Travelling from Rivendel, they head for the path through the Misty Mountains. It is a challenging journey, and the punishing weather continues to stalk them, even up the mountain pass. As is fairly common in Tolkien’s tales, we find ourselves back in familiar territory: bad weather and slight misfortune or danger forcing the path towards apparent safety or opportunity. This is how the dwarves are caught by the Trolls, and later by the spiders and then the elves. Unwittingly, the company follows the same pattern here.

Fili and Kili find a cave in which they can shelter for the night out of the weather and the path of the stone giants’ projectiles. Gandalf, of course, mistrusts this sudden turn of luck, but is ultimately satisfied after completing his own inspection.

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something…You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” (TH 69)

This slightly omminous truism prefaces the finding of the cave. But while well suited for this particular circumstance, it bears thinking on in a larger context as well. The dwarves were looking for a fourteenth member to their band, a burglar to be precise. They looked, and on Gandalf’s prodding, found one: Bilbo. He is not what they were after, that can be assured, so the question becomes: what did they find in Bilbo, and what will Bilbo find in himself because of the finding?

This is the first time, at the Goblin’s front door, that Bilbo proves authentically useful to the company. They all settle down to sleep in the cave, but Bilbo

“…could not go to sleep for a long while; and when he did sleep he had very nasty dreams. He dreamed that the crack in the wall at the back of the cave got bigger and bigger…he dreamed that the floor of the cave was giving way, and hew as slipping…At that he woke up with a horrible start, and found that part of his dream was true.” (TH 71)

The crack is opening! The ponies disappear in the dark! And Bilbo, naturally, yells out in surprise. He wakes the dwarves and Gandalf. His shriek gives Gandalf the warning to wake and fight, to remain free; and therefore it follows that Bilbo has saved the day! Alright, I’ll admit this is a vast overstatement, but none-the-less this is a turning point for Bilbo. It is the first action in a string of seemingly small choices and acts which begin his transformation into the burglar hero the dwarves originally sought.

It can be argued where Bilbo’s unease came from, and what caused him to apparently dream true. As with the great coincidence of the Moon Runes in Rivendel and the coming to the Side Door for Durin’s Day, there is implied a certain level of Fate, or outside help. This moment in particular reminds me of the coming of Ulmo to Finrod and Turgon or the guiding of Tuor to Vinyamar. This of course stretches fairly non-existant hints in the tale, which now that I’ve an eye open for it, I seem to be seeing all over the place. However, as before, it bears thinking about. What does it say about Bilbo that he would be granted these visions? What more would it say if we suppose these visions find their origin in the Valar?  At the very least, it lends further authority to Gandalf’s choice of Bilbo. It also raises up the smallest of the company (in every sense of the word) rather than the greatest.

We are left with this instant of inadvertent heroism which leads to the later liberation of the dwarves and the hobbit, and then instantly set back to the modus operandi: Bilbo the extra company member, the lucky number. He and the dwarves are forced down to Goblin-Town. Later, once freed, Bilbo is again little more than baggage, carried by one dwarf or another in order to gain the speed necessary for escape. He becomes nothing more than a hinderance. And so it is little wonder that when goblins attack, he falls from Dori’s back and is, again by chance, set on the path towards his destiny.

It should be noted here, though it is more evident later as Bilbo begins making his own luck, how much luck and chance is inextricably tied to the actions of Bilbo. He is the lucky number, being the fourteenth member of the company, eliminating the inasuspicous number thirteen created by the dwarves. But he is also followed by luck throughout his adventures; luck, chance, Grace, Providence…take your pick. In the initial stages of the journey such circumstances define all Bilbo does, but later come of his own making as he discovers his own heroic nature.

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