Rivendell is the transition point of Middle-Earth, where fact and legend collide. To the west are all things hospitable and civilized. To the east are all things wild, unknown, and dangerous. For Bilbo, leaving Rivendell is the scariest thing he can imagine, especially in light of how incredible he found it to be. And yet, he is still somewhat naïve as he enters the mountains, thinking he has seen the Lonely Mountain itself. Reality is a harsh mistress.
The weather here is horrific. Even fun and games in the wild is deadly, which Bilbo learns firsthand when the party encounters stone giants at play. For a hobbit who thinks “roughing it” means missing bed and breakfast, an encounter with orcs is truly a new level of dangerous. And yet, Bilbo isn’t too much worse off than his dwarven companions. They are just as bewildered, frightened, and out of their depths.
In the goblins’ cave, Bilbo becomes the first alert system, waking up a split-second before they’re attacked. The dreams he’s having seem to be connected to a hyper-awareness of the real world, for those dreams echo what will happen, and he wakes up just in time to experience whatever it may be.
The crack in Bilbo’s dream leads to Goblin Town.
It should be noted that goblins and orcs are the same creatures, the terms used interchangeably. Orc is an old medieval term that carries more of a real-world weight behind it, where goblin is a term from classic fairy tales.
We are introduced to the goblins the same way we were introduced to dwarves and elves, with a song. First comes a plot summary, retelling the capture of the party. Most of the words are simple, blunt, harsh sounds turned into words. The very sound of it is violent, not unlike the dwarves’ song in Bilbo’s kitchen, though nowhere near as playful. After that comes a glimpse of the goblin culture, telling us that they are smiths and craftsmen, much like the dwarves. It should rightfully echo the dwarves’ song. The third verse opens us to the true nature of the goblins. They take pleasure not in crafting things, but in sitting in idleness with whips, forcing others to do the work for them. Therein lies the difference. It marks them as cruel and lazy. Contrasting to the elven song, the orcs see no beauty or laughter in the purest sense. Everything they translate into those terms is a twisted mockery of what the elves would understand. Where elves find amusement and appreciation in what is, orcs find amusement in their power to make others suffer. The narrator surmises that many of the clever and destructive weapons of the world were created by orcs. Given Tolkien’s experiences in World War I, this is a powerful slap in the face to the devastation he witnessed. He was largely opposed to industrialization, not just because of the destruction of greenery, but because he correlated bigger factories with bigger and more powerful bombs.
The other comparison and contrast between dwarves and goblins is that both races like the dark. But where dwarves can move around in the light and simply prefer the dark, the goblins are bound to the darkness. Unlike the elves, the dwarves are more than capable of fighting the goblins on their own turf, and the history of Middle-Earth says they’ve done just that in retribution for the murder of a king, Thorin’s grandfather. When the goblins are chasing Gandalf and company at the end of this chapter, they are doing so for the exact same reason, in reprisal for the murder of the Great Goblin.
The recent history between the goblins and the dwarves is meant to echo the ancient history between goblins and elves. Not only does this offer quite a bit of world building and provide for personal animosity, but it connects the two sets of enemies, who also oppose one another, in the minds of the goblins through the legendary swords. What the goblins see are the descendants of their most hated enemy, wielding magical swords that burn in their presence, and history itself made flesh in the here and now. It lends weight to the meanings of the swords’ names and sets up the conflict at the end of this book, the Battle of the Five Armies. For the reader, Middle-Earth just got a lot bigger, and for the adventurers, things just got all too real.