When Tolkien was 4 years old, living in Orange Free State before moving to the UK, he was frightened by a large spider. It had a profound effect on him, and that fear found its expression in Middle-Earth. In The Lord of the Rings, it will manifest as Shelob. In The Hobbit, the great spider’s progeny are the antagonists of this chapter. It’s only natural, then that Bilbo should find his great courage and wield his magic sword against this foe.
But I get ahead of myself.
In this chapter, our group enters into the forest of Mirkwood, which is at the edge of the realm of the Necromancer. It’s also known to be the woodland realm of Legolas, Galadriel, and Glorfindel, for those who’ve read The Lord of the Rings. It is the realm of Faerie, which has its origins in Tolkien’s expertise subject matter of old world legend. It’s a land of wonder, enchantment, and danger.
If you’ve read Tolkien’s essay “On Faerie-stories,” then you already know that such tales are never about Faeries, but rather about the humans who trespass into their realm and encounter them. Corey Olsen points out the example of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which Tolkien himself translated. I highly recommend readers new to Tolkien read both of these just on account. The point is, Fairy and Elf mean the same thing, and they suggest not evil, but inhuman, magical, and certainly dangerous.
The name Mirkwood says it all: it’s dark. It’s so thick, the sun and wind are blocked out entirely. And the representatives of darkness here are the aforementioned spiders, though there are other signs that are less evil, such as black water, black trees strangled with vines, and so forth. There are the sounds of distant hounds and horns, as though a great hunt is taking place. The symbolism of the black hart and the white hind (buck and doe) suggests both darkness and light within this forest, and both are of the wild. They also cause the dwarves to fire all of their arrows, thus rendering their bows useless and causing stirs of laughter all around them.
It is dangerous to enter the Faerie world, and when the dwarves attempt to do so three times (always a number that ratchets up the drama), they’re essentially intruding on a private feast. That’s simply not done. It’s uncivilized. The fear in such traditional stories is that the travellers may never return to mortal lands, or worse.
In this case, they are scattered and separated from one another, and Bilbo’s first response is to dream of home just as he did before encountering Gollum. But this time he finds a more helpful comfort in his sword, the symbol of his Tookish side. A spider is already upon him, wrapping his legs. When he draws his sword, the spider jumps back, visibly impressed in much the same manner as the goblins. Bilbo presses the attack, proving himself to have made great strides in the last few chapters. Killing the spider, without help from anyone, is another turning point. He may be weak with hunger, but now he’s not complaining about it. The turning point is marked in very medieval fashion by bestowing the sword with a name, for all great swords of legend have names. And as a swordsman in the medieval style myself, I highly approve of this whole ceremony. He holds it up and addresses it aloud, calling it Sting. A legendary, named sword… for a legendary, named hero.
There’s a reference to a ball of string that Bilbo uses in Tolkien’s first draft of this book to follow his way back to the spider’s nest to rescue his friends. The string is the silk of the spider itself, which Bilbo winds into a ball as he goes. Prof. Olsen reminds us this is right out of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, a part of the story that Tolkien rejected and very nearly eliminated from the final version, replacing it with simple luck. In this case, luck becomes Bilbo’s ally in pursuit of his destiny, but he has to actively pursue it for luck to take hold.
When Bilbo makes it to the nest, he takes the offensive in song, taunting and insulting the spiders, because everyone knows spiders don’t like being called Attercop or Tomnoddy. I love that. The spiders, true to form, are blinded by rage. Here Bilbo proves that he’s becoming quite the adventurer, sneaking in, taunting, and striking as quickly as they come. It’s as though he’s actually enjoying himself at this point.
I know I am.