It is difficult to express quite how disappointing chapter seven, ‘Queer Lodgings’, turned out to be.
If you’ve been following this, you might understand when I tell you that the only cave in this chapter is ‘a little cave (a wholesome one with a pebbly floor)’.
Sure, there’s the self-important Lord of the Eagles, who’s a little camp. (He will, we are told, become the King of All Birds. Quite how every avian species and society came to be governed by the dynasty Accipitridae remains unclear. I bet it was by bloody violence. It is always by bloody violence).
Beorn is a bit more interesting. He is a shapeshifter or skin-changer, and there is something queer in his were-bear duality; after all, he is the kind of bear who is ‘a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard’.
But there is something uncanny about him, too. Something a little unpleasant.
It’s not just that his grey dogs can walk around upright on their back legs, a detail that becomes all the creepier for the way Tolkien just throws it in without elaboration.
It is that Beorn keeps trophies from his kills. A goblin head stuck on something outside his gate. The flayed skin of a Warg nailed to a tree just beyond it.
No doubt, if there were buffalo roaming between the mountains and Mirkwood he would skin his humps.
Then Gandalf – as arbitrarily as an author just making stuff up – buggers off, leaving Bilbo and the dwarves to the perils of Mirkwood.
The perils of the arachnid monstrous-feminine, the archaic mother:
The entrance to the path [into Mirkwood] was like a sort of arch leading into a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves.
Like Giger for kids. And with spiders. You know, evil female weavers, and that whole shtick about weaving supposedly originating in women, driven by phallic envy, plaiting their pubic hair.
There they wander, losing their way, slowly running out of supplies. Exhausted. Starving. Trolled by wood-elves. Who are basically dicks.
Bilbo, separated from the company, has ‘one of his most miserable moments’, but steadfastly refuses to let despair overwhelm him, and instead starts thinking ‘of his far-distant hobbit hole with its beautiful pantries’ and ‘of bacon and eggs and toast and butter’.
Is it still a truism of children’s literature studies that food, in its sensual excess, stands in for sex? That would explain what happens next: ‘he felt something touch him. Something like a strong sticky string against his left hand’
Bilbo finds where the dwarves are all hanging, tightly bound in spider threads. He puts the ring on and runs around for a while, with only his little sword visible – ‘I don’t suppose [the spiders] knew what it was’, Tolkien adds, but – like Bilbo – you might want to take a wild stab in the dark. Anyone? Anyone?
You want a clue?
When the spiders are distracted, Bilbo frees his companions, beginning with Fili, identifiable by ‘the tip of a long nose poking out of the winding threads’.
Having escaped the spiders, the dwarves are next captured by the wood-elves who, just a little mysteriously, do not live in the woods but in – you guessed it – caves. Invisibilbo rescues them. And they escape by nicking a trick from Derek Flint.
Okay, chronologically that makes no sense, but I remember feeling cheated when I first read the novel because I had already seen the awesome James Coburn use the same method to save his, er, lady friends. (It is nice though that the chapter in which this happens is called, it turns out, ‘Barrels out of Bond’.)
There is actually, in passing, a really bleak moment. Bilbo used his ring of invisibility to avoid capture, but finds himself hiding in the midst of the wood-elves for days and weeks (and possibly months, but I nodded off a little in the middle):
‘I am like a burglar that can’t get away, but must go on miserably burgling the same house day after day,’ he thought.
Nicely played, JRR. As unexpected as dogs on the hind legs waiting table.