One of humanity’s most primal fears is the darkness. Not just the darkness of lack of light, but the darkness of not knowing. Being afraid of the dark is an incredibly common trait for children growing up. To a certain degree this fear remains, even through adulthood. By this point, it has morphed into a fear shared throughout the whole human race: the fear of the unknown.
In history, there have been many great quotations regarding the nature of fear and the nature of courage, the most famous of which being FDR’s proclamation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” At the start of this chapter of The Hobbit, Tolkien shares his own insights on fear.
At the end of the previous chapter, the secret door is opened and the way is clear. Thorin pontificates at length, as usual, regarding the duties of the hobbit, ie. he may now earn his keep and begin burglering. Bilbo protests, and rightfully so, that he has already earned some share in the treasure, but being a wholly different hobbit than he once was, agrees to go on (TH 246-7). He enters the dark tunnel with only Balin for company, and that short-lived.
Alone in the darkness, creeping along the dark echoey tunnel, Bilbo is confronted first by a “red light steadily getting redder and redder” (TH 248-9). Then a radiating heat and mist. Finally he hears, resonating through the stone, the “bubbling…[and]… gurgling…of some vast animal snoring” below (TH 239). He is frozen.
This is a pivotal moment in Bilbo’s carreer. Here Tolkien describes the battle within:
“It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.” Tolkien, The Hobbit p. 249
Unlike the confrontations with the Trolls, Gollum or the Spiders, in this instance Bilbo is given the opportunity to stop, to hesitate, while also being aware of the present danger. In almost all other instances, he is confronted by danger immediately with no time for thought or doubt. Here, magnified by the stone and the tunnel, Bilbo is granted foreshadowing of the horror which awaits him.
Though he is certainly fearful later in the presence of Smaug, in the tunnel Bilbo is struck by the terror of the idea of Smaug. The mind fabricates horrors out of the unknown, hence the fears which arise from shadows in the dark or unexpected sudden motion. Humanity has a constant desire of awareness and foreknowledge which can never be fully met, creating an uncertainty which can often lead to unease and fear.
This battle is a battle with the dragon of Bilbo’s mind, of his own making, and wholly separate from the battle of wits to come. Fear stems from a mix of uncertainty and a feeling of inadequacy. Fears are built up into insurmountable mountains, great ravening dragons, for which humanity’s feeble talents are unprepared. Or at least this is what the mind would have us believe.
As has been shown repeatedly in Bilbo’s adventures, the danger which is real and present does spur fear, but also spurs action. It is the fear which is unreal and unapproachable, the fear which is fabricated on the unknown foundation that defeats action.
This singular moment is the high point of Bilbo’s journeys. At this moment, he confronts his fears of the unknown and casts them aside.
After a long internal struggle, but a short pause, Bilbo goes on.