The Hobbit – Chapter 17: “The Clouds Burst”

Demands are made.  Terms are ignored.  Further distrust is sown.

Bard makes good on his use of the Arkenstone as a bargaining chip, informing Thorin that he only wants a share of the treasure commensurate to that of his prize.  The armies will leave in peace if Thorin agrees.  Thorin, however, will not buy back that which is already his, and demands to know how it is the Arkenstone is in Bard’s possession.

When Bilbo confesses, explains, and makes appeals to friendship and to contract.  All of this is batted aside.  Thorin seems immune to any of it, declaring that the mail Bilbo wears is too good for him.  He denounces all that Bilbo is, all that’s between them, and threatens to kill him.  Bilbo makes his exit, and shame settles in the hearts of the dwarves.  Thorin, now a complete victim of dragon-sickness, sends messages to his kin via ravens.  Even the Elven-king can see how bad it’s gotten and seeks to delay the inevitable, which may be too little too late, but it does redeem him a bit in my mind and speaks highly of the elven race as a whole.  The dwarven armies are upon the mountain by the time the trade is to happen, and men are fighting back.  Rather than meet Bard’s terms of peace, Thorin’s actions call down what will forever be known as the Battle of Five Armies.

Assembled and fighting already are dwarves, and men, as I say, with the elves caught in the middle.  Goblins comprise the fourth army, and the elves are the first to attack them, such is their rage against the goblin race.  Their blades shine just as the elven weapons found by the dwarves all those chapters ago, thus bringing legend to life.  The men join in, and Thorin himself leads the dwarves, resplendent in their armor and shouting cries of “Moria!”  This too recounts legend of the past between dwarves and goblins, and brings it to life in the present.  Thorin’s leading the charge demonstrates that he is healed of his dragon-sickness.  It’s as though the very appearance of the forces of evil reminds these other races which side they stand for.

As these armies collide, Bilbo has a front-row seat for the greatest battle of his time, but instead he uses his ring to advantage to simply get out of the way.  As the narrator says, magic rings such as his are of little good against arrows or spears, but they are excellent for simply avoiding the situation.

The specifics of the battle echo back to the word choices Tolkien used in the songs, just as the moon letters on the map outlined the events at Smaug’s doorstep.  It comes together quite beautifully, all in all, and with subtlety.  Just because Tolkien wrote it, that doesn’t mean that the average reader will draw those conclusions.  I certainly didn’t the multiple times I’ve read this book.  But this time I have Corey Olsen’s magnificent scholarly assessment along for the ride.  The more he points out, the more I see on my own, and the more it reinforces my belief that Middle-Earth is the greatest literary setting ever thanks to Tolkien’s skills and fertile imagination.

The fifth army arrives towards the end of the chapter in the form of the eagles.  For those who have never really put it together, eagles are Tolkien’s way of hitting the “I WIN!” button, which is why he goes out of his way to declare them neutral the first time we meet them in this book.

This sort of sudden and happy turn in the story is what Tolkien himself called a “eucatastrophe,” which is the opposite of a catastrophe.  To those who don’t see the setup or appreciate why Tolkien uses such a device, they will simply see it as an easy victory.  Fiction, however, is not real life, and Tolkien’s fiction is mythology.  It has to be greater than real life, which means it has to mean something.  Eagles are not made of plot-onium.  They fight for the life and the land of Middle-Earth, not for the greed of wealth or power.  This is why they are neutral in the power struggles of mortals, for whom such things matter.  When they arrive, Bilbo is overjoyed to see them and while he is not heard, the elves see his celebration and quickly spread the word.  Those on the ground have to look up in hope.  That is the very essence of what the eagles bring to this battle.

And then Bilbo is hit over the head with a rock and knocked out cold, thus he misses the remainder of the battle.

Why would Tolkien do this? There are two reasons that come to mind.

The first is that Tolkien has always despised war, having been in the middle of it himself.  The version of the tale he tells here is heroic, grand sounding, and ultimately glossed over.  We’re told how dangerous the armies are, how amazing their armor and weapons are, and how noble they are when they fight.  But it is through Bilbo’s eyes that Tolkien’s true voice comes through, seeing none of the glory and only how “uncomfortable” it seems.

The second is that Tolkien knows his limitations.  To write something well is to be enthusiastic about it.  Being highly unenthusiastic about warfare beyond its mythical implications and necessities, Tolkien limits it.  He gives us enough for it to matter, but not enough for us to dwell on its realities or become mired in them… the complete opposite of what Peter Jackson gave us on screen.  Besides, it’s still a children’s book, and Tolkien consciously wrote The Hobbit as such, regardless of how grown-up it gets in the wake of Smaug.  This will provide us excellent means for comparison and contrast when we get to Helm’s Deep or the Pelennor Fields.

In the end, the Battle of Five Armies demonstrates the same kind of high providence that has been bestowed on our heroes from the beginning of this book.  It is not an “easy” victory by any stretch of imagination, as we will see.  There are still actions and consequences, and nothing is tied up with a ribbon and bow.  Many children’s books do exactly that.  Tolkien not only avoided that, but in doing so, he paved the way for a greater and more meaningful adventure to come, for which I am eternally grateful.