Way back in my first entry in this series, I commented that I like the fact that Tolkien apparently doesn’t care about spoilers. The title of this chapter proves it again. Before you even start reading, it is pretty obvious that the dwarves will be imprisoned and will escape in barrels. Like all good stories, the what isn’t nearly as important as the who and the how.
After dealing with the spiders in the last chapter, the company is exhausted, hungry and completely lost. When they stumble upon the elves and get captured, they are almost grateful. Luckily, Bilbo slips the ring on his finger and turns invisible. He is able to follow the prisoners and hide out while coming up with a plan to free his friends.
I’ve mentioned before that I like the size and scope of Tolkien’s world. The dwarves are imprisoned and Bilbo is trying to figure out a way to help for weeks. In so many other books, the whole thing would take fifteen minutes and be done. I like the fact that not everything is quick, easy or obvious. It takes time to build which makes the payoff better.
This is also the chapter where Bilbo comes into his own as a burglar. That is, after all, his role in the party. He is supposed to burgle things. He made a clumsy attempt way back with the trolls, but he’s never shown himself to be successful before now. (I suppose someone could argue that Bilbo burgled the ring from Gollum, but really the ring chose Bilbo.) It turns out that Bilbo is pretty good at it, although he doesn’t enjoy the job very much. As he says, “I am like a burglar that can’t get away, but must go on miserably burgling the same house day after day.”
While Bilbo is clever in coming up with his plan to free the dwarves, he is certainly possessed of a lot of luck. Bilbo finds that the elves get supplies in barrels from a nearby town and then send the empty barrels down the river to be collected by the townsfolk. He decides to pack the dwarves in the barrels and send them down river away from the elves. That’s fine, but the plan couldn’t have worked if the guard hadn’t gotten drunk and fallen asleep. And it couldn’t have worked if the king weren’t throwing a big party to keep everyone distracted. And it couldn’t have worked without the magic ring. Lucky for the dwarves that Bilbo has so much luck.
In the end, the dwarves do ride in barrels out of bondage. They are bumped and bruised and faced with a lot of uncertainty, but they are away from the elves and further along their journey.