13 January 2017

The Role of Luck in 'The Hobbit'

It's Friday the 13th and I thought I'd get back into the swing of things by writing a quick post on luck. And what better example of luck in Middle-earth than in Tolkien's The Hobbit?

Luck plays a pretty prominent role in The Hobbit, beginning with Bilbo Baggins himself, chosen by Gandalf to even out the odd number of Dwarves:
You asked me to find the fourteenth man for your expedition, and I chose Mr Baggins. Just let any one say I chose the wrong man or the wrong house and you can stop at thirteen and have all the bad luck you like, or go back to digging coal. 
 From then on, luck seems to follow the Company in ways both subtle and more pronounced.

When Bilbo is tasked with scouting the Trolls' camp, he has the misfortune of setting off William's squealing purse, alerting the trolls of his presence and thus getting him captured. However, this bad luck is offset by Gandalf, who shows up at precisely the right moment and confuses the Trolls as they argue over how to cook the Dwarves and Hobbit, delaying them long enough for the sun to come up and turn them all to stone.

After they escape the Trolls' camp, the Company finds shelter in a small cave, which, as it turns out, is the entrance to Goblin-town:
It turned out a good thing that night that they had brought little Bilbo with them, after all. For somehow, he could not go to sleep for a long while; and when he did sleep, he had very nasty dreams. He dreamed that a crack in the wall at the back of the cave got bigger and bigger, and opened wider and wider, and he was very afraid but could not call out or do anything but lie and look. Then he dreamed that the floor of the cave was giving way, and he was slipping-beginning to fall down, down, goodness knows where to.
At that he woke up with a horrible start, and found that part of his dream was true. A crack had opened at the back of the cave, and was already a wide passage. He was just in time to see the last of the ponies' tails disappearing into it. Of course he gave a very loud yell, as loud a yell as a hobbit can give, which is surprising for their size.
Bilbo yells at the right moment: Gandalf awakens and uses his magic to light up the cave and strike down some of the goblins trying to capture them. However, in the chaos, Bilbo and the Dwarves are swallowed up into a crack in the cave, separating the wizard from the rest of the Company. Shortly thereafter, they meet back up in the halls of the Great Goblin, but as the Dwarves again try to escape the goblins, Bilbo gets separated from the rest of the group.

When Bilbo regains consciousness, he discovers that his sword (Sting), shines blue to alert him of the presence of goblins; normally a troublesome sign, but in the darkness of the cave, it is another stroke of luck for him. Fumbling around in the dark cave, he soon stumbles upon a ring – and its dangerous owner, Gollum, who wants to eat him. The two devise a game of riddles, with Gollum showing Bilbo the way out if the hobbit wins; or eating the hobbit if he loses. Towards the end of the game, Gollum begins to grow impatient, and Bilbo nervous.
He began to get frightened, and that is bad for thinking. Gollum began to get out of his boat. He flapped into the water and paddled to the bank; Bilbo could see his eyes coming towards him. His tongue seemed to stick in his mouth; he wanted to shout out: “Give me more time! Give me time!” But all that came out with a sudden squeal was:

“Time! Time!”

Bilbo was saved by pure luck. For that of course was the answer.
By now, Gollum is angry, hungry, and sick of riddles. He tells Bilbo to ask one last question. Unable to think of anything, Bilbo simply asks, "What have I got in my pocket?" and after three unsuccessful guesses, Bilbo declares himself the winner. He reminds Gollum of his promise to lead him out of the cave, and the creature scampers off to find his precious. His plan is to slip the ring on his finger, turn invisible, and eat the poor hobbit anyway. Angered by the discovery that his precious is missing, Gollum launches into a fit of rage and pursues Bilbo, who ultimately ends on slipping the ring on his finger, turning invisible and escaping Gollum just in the nick of time.

Bilbo manages to make it out of the cave and reunite with his companions; but Gandalf presses them to move on, knowing that come nightfall, the goblins will be out in the open air looking for them. After they make it some distance, they hear the howls of wild wolves. The Company soon finds themselves trapped in the tall trees above the wolves and goblins.

By another stroke of luck, the Lord of the Eagles just so happens to notice the commotion and sends some of his eagles to investigate out of curiosity. The Eagles generally take little notice of the goblins, and they do not go out of their way to help others; but "as a matter of fact, Gandalf, who had often been in the mountains, had once rendered a service to the eagles and healed their lord from an arrow-wound" (p. 110), and so the eagles returned the favour by rescuing the Company from the wolves and goblins.

After the depart from the eagles' eyries, the Company seek a short rest at the House of Beorn, who loans them steeds to bring them to the edges of Mirkwood. Once they reach the strange forest, Gandalf leaves them with a warning to stay on the path and don't stray for any reason.  While trying to board their small boat to cross the waters, the Company is startled by a deer, which Thorin shoots down. At the same time, Bombur falls into the enchanted water and begins to drown. When he is pulled out, he is fast asleep; he remains in a deep slumber for several days while the Company struggles to carry him along.

Bilbo is again separated from the Dwarves, this time in the forest. At one point, he dozes off and wakes up just in time to see a giant spider tying up his legs – "It was lucky that he had come to his senses in time. Soon he would not have been able to move at all" (p. 155). Bilbo saves himself and his companions from the spiders and, later, the halls of the Elvenking. They arrive in Lake-town, where they receive a warm welcome as they make their way toward the Lonely Mountain.

Once the Company reaches the top of the mountain, they are unable to locate the secret entrance, nor do they have any idea how to open it. Bilbo, upon hearing the knocking of the thrush, remembers Elronds words back in Rivendell and is able to solve the riddle; the Company watches as the last rays of light fall upon the entrance and illuminate a small door on the side of the mountain. They are able to use Thorin's key to unlock the door and enter the mountain.

When Bilbo sneaks into Smaug's lair and attempts to find the Arkenstone, he happens to notice a weak spot in the dragon's armour; but he has also angered the dragon, and the Dwarves find themselves trapped in the mountain as Smaug launches his first attack:
Something in [Thorin's] voice gave the dwarves an uncomfortable feeling. Slowly Thorin shook off his dreams and getting up he kicked away the stone that wedged the door. Then they thrust upon it, and it closed with a snap and a clang. No trace of a keyhole was there left on the inside. They were shut in the Mountain!

And not a moment too soon. They had hardly gone any distance down the tunnel when a blow smote the side of the Mountain like the crash of battering-rams made of forest oaks and swung by giants. The rock boomed, the walls cracked and stones fell from the roof on their heads. What would have happened if the door had still been open I don’t like to think.
Meanwhile, the thrush, who has been listening to Bilbo's tale of meeting Smaug and noticing his one weak spot, flies back to Esgaroth to tell Bard the bowman just as he's about to loose his final arrow; with a single shot to the breast, Bard defeats the dragon and saves the people of Lake-town.

After some time, the Dwarves begin to wonder at the silence outside the mountain, and the sudden gathering of birds. The raven Roäc appears and informs the Company that Smaug is dead and the birds are returning to the land; without this lucky appearance, the Dwarves would have had no idea of the death of Smaug. Roäc reminds Thorin of the deal he struck with the men of Lake-town, but Thorin sends the raven off, unwilling to share any of his treasure with 'thieves'. 

Thorin's unwillingness to part with even one piece of his treasure ultimately leads to an almost-battle between the Dwarves and the men of Lake-town and the Elves of Mirkwood; by another stroke of luck, they are warned just in time by Gandalf of an attack by goblins, bats and wargs. As the Battle of Five Armies ensues, Bilbo slips on the ring to avoid being in the way. Upon noticing the arrival of the eagles, he is struck by a hurtling stone and knocked unconscious, eventually coming-to after the battle has ended and several members of the Company have died.

After all that the Company has been through, Bilbo suggests that he has been quite lucky throughout his adventure; to which Gandalf remarks that it was not necessarily luck, but instead prophecies of old finally coming true:
Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!

What do you think? Was Bilbo as lucky as The Hobbit seems to suggest, or was it more fate than luck? Leave a comment with your thoughts below or Tweet me @TolkienBritta!

1 comment:

  1. Oddly enough in the Sagas and older stories that Tolkien would have reflected on, luck is prominent in different forms. In modern English and our modern understanding we may associate it closer to fate than luck. A better word would be doom (in it's natural sense)