The title of this chapter betrays the age of The Hobbit (First published in 1937). People just don’t use the word queer in this way anymore. I suppose if it were a modern book, the chapter would be Weird Lodgings. As a kid, I’m sure I didn’t even notice the title of the chapter. As an adult, I just can’t help noticing. It just shows how much things have changed in the last eighty years.
This chapter functions similarly to chapter III, A Short Rest. After a lot of danger in the mountains, our group finally gets a bit of a reprieve. After the eagles drop them off, they come to the home of Beorn. Gandalf describes Beorn as a “skin-changer.” He can either be a very large, wild looking man or he can be a bear. Gandalf warns the hobbit and the dwarves that either way, Beorn is a dangerous enemy so they should all be on their best behavior.
Another way this chapter is similar to A Short Rest is the way it contributes to Tolkien’s world building. Beorn, like Elrond, is a minor, almost incidental, character in this book. No one would notice or complain if Tolkien had just said Gandalf had a friend in these parts and the group stayed with him for a couple of nights. Instead we get a lot of characterization for someone that we’re never going to see again. We get Gandalf speculating about whether he is a bear, descended from the great bears or whether he is a man, descended from the first men. We learn that he doesn’t trust strangers. He accepts Gandalf’s story, but still goes out to verify it for himself. We learn about his love of all animal life. He has animals serve his guests and he hosts great gatherings of bears. He eats a lot of cream and honey. The honey is made by very large bees. He hates the goblins. He likes stories, but doesn’t care for the dwarves’ stories about gold and silver because he doesn’t care about such things. He is also intimidating, but has a genuine sense of humor. I’m leaving out detail, but the point is that he is a more fully drawn character than the main characters in other books.
In terms of the overall story, there are a few important points in this chapter. First, the group lost their ponies, their packs and all their supplies in the mountains. Beorn loans them ponies to go as far as Mirkwood, although they are to be sent back upon reaching the forest. He also gives them food and water-skins for their journey. And he gives them advice. Mirkwood is a dangerous place. He warns them not to leave the path for any reason, not to drink the water in the forest and not to eat anything they find in the forest.
The most important development, though, is that Gandalf is leaving the party. The dwarves try to convince him to stay, but he says he has business to attend to and that this was never his journey. Gandalf’s departure leaves everyone in a bad mood as they prepare to enter the dark forest.