As with the goblins and the eagles in the previous chapters, this chapter is devoted more to the idea of the wild. In this case, the wild is personified in Beorn, whose very nature is in question. Gandalf states that he doesn’t know if Beorn is a bear in man form or a man in bear form, though he suspects the latter. The fact is, Beorn is both man and bear, and that distinction is ultimately irrelevant. The name Beorn is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning both “warrior” and “bear.” While Beorn lives in the woods, his house is that of a man. This version of The Hobbit that I’m working with uses the original drawings from Professor Tolkien, and in it his illustration of Beorn’s house resembles an old mead hall that would not be out of place in a story such as Beowulf.
As Bilbo misunderstands the eagles and is afraid of them, so too does he misunderstand Beorn. And in both cases, his assumptions aren’t without foundation. But this is the nature of understanding from his civilized perspective. The wild isn’t about civilization. Social customs and manners are out the window, so to speak. And yet, Beorn’s hospitality is top notch. Politeness in the wild will save your life, and it doesn’t always equate to manners. A lack of manners denotes a lack of fear, and Beorn’s attitudes towards Bilbo and the dwarves demonstrates that he does not fear them. But he offers his hospitality simply because they are opposed to the goblins.
Bilbo’s perspective hasn’t yet undergone any evolution. He has adapted, but that’s not the same. He can sleep on rocks and dirt. He can endure great heights and underground depths, but his heart still cries out for the comforts of home. And yet, the evolution has begun. His dreams reveal that he cannot find what he’s looking for, despite that he dreams of home.
There is all manner of “coincidence” to be had in this part of the story. The goblins just happened to be meeting in the one place where the dwarves just happened to be treed. This just happens to be where the eagles could find them and be rescued. This just happened to lead them to Beorn. The string of coincidences implies more of Tolkien’s thrust of destiny, and the misfortunes of the dwarves may have shifted the balance of power in the wild, uniting several factions against the goblins.
The song of the dwarves… I have to thank Professor Corey Olsen for my full appreciation of this. The rhyme and meter is the same as their song in chapter 1, and likely would be sung to the same tune. I tried this, using Howard Shore’s version of the tune that appears in the film adaptation by Peter Jackson. This song tells the story of a particular wind that journeys through the path of their quest to the Lonely Mountain. And since all of Middle-Earth is put together quite literally through song, we are seeing one tiny portion of the great music that is the whole of its story. It’s rather beautiful in its simplicity and aspiration, I think.