Hello and welcome to Chapter 8: Prequel to The Hobbit. This chapter is going to focus on the little known pre-Unexpected Party events that led up to the meeting of the dwarves and Bilbo in Bag End.
If you are currently going ‘whoah….hold on…there’s a hobbit prequel? then the answer is yes, there is. It is a short account in the Unfinished Tales, and despite its briefness, it is non-the-less one of the most fascinating of all the unfinished tales of the book.
The first part of this chapter will be a short discussion on my thoughts on why Gandalf got Thorin and co. together, and the second part will be a discussion on the actual tale.
It has long been discussed amongst Tolkien fans whether there was any deep reason for the expedition to the Lonely Mountain. Those who take a ‘detached’ view of middle earth will argue that The Hobbit was wrote before the trilogy and therefore there obviously wasn’t any plans for the events to influence the war of the ring (which is true as you can see from the discarded drafts of the Fellowship…see chapter 6), however in Tolkienology we don’t play it quite like that- if Tolkien wrote it, it’s real, and it happens in real time.
So taking that in mind it doesn’t take much reflection to realise the huge benefits for Gandalf to arrange the company of Thorin. The fact that Smaug held a position of power in middle earth was of great concern. Not only was the dragon an extremely powerful being (apart from the mysterious desert worms, the only one known in the third age) capable of ruining entire armies and laying lands to waste (whether Sauron would have been able to control that power is another point of argument), he was also a barrier to a strong and reformed dwarven kingdom in Erebor. This in itself, if it could be achieved, would have been of great benefit- and as we can see, this is indeed played out as a frontline of combat during the end of the war of the ring. The outcome, if both Dale and Erebor hadn’t been as strong, would have been dire. An extra front for the allies of the west to worry about was the last thing they would have needed.
Therefore as we can see, it is plainly obvious that Gandalf intended to kill several birds with one stone (or hobbit burglar as it were). If Smaug could be removed, not only would a powerful enemy would be destroyed, a new kingdom could be set up, and the ever increasing threat from Mount Gundabad could be stayed as well.
Lastly to the matter of the finding of the ring- in this case, as Gandalf later points out- was an act of fate. Gandalf did not know of the ring’s location during the events of The Hobbit, and indeed it is only confirmed many years later during the early Fellowship chapters. Now whether we can rule out other meddling hands is a matter to wonder about- for instance it is not known just how much Eru Illuvatar really had in the events of the war of the ring- there certainly seems to be a lot of ‘coincidences.’ I.e out of all the tunnels under the Misty Mountains- our Hobbit friend just ‘happened’ to go down to Gollum’s pond, and just ‘happened’ to lay hands on the ring in compete darkness. Of this matter I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions.
With that said I would like to take some time to discuss the actual events that led up to the Hobbit, as described in the Unfinished Tales. This is a fascinating account, and if you haven’t had chance to get your hands on a copy- I heartily recommend it. I you haven’t got UT then a similar account can be found in the LOTR appendices.
The actual timeline of the events of the Hobbit go far back into dwarven history, however it wasn’t until a chance (or not?) meeting between Gandalf and Thorin near Bree (there are two accounts- UT gives it outside on the road, LOTR appendices give it in the Prancing Pony Inn, in this discussion I shall use the UT account) that the true plans were laid.
Note: The following account is the one as told by Gandalf to Frodo, Pippin, Merry and Gimli, in Minas Tirith after the fall of Sauron.
Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain II, was part of the exiled dwarven colony of Ered Luin in the Blue Mountains. His people were driven out of Erebor when Smaug descended upon it, taking the kingdom for his own.
Not long after their expulsion, Thror, Thorin’s grandfather, was murdered in Moria, by the orc chieftain Azog.
Note: Azog's son was Bolg who led the goblin army to the battle of five armies, later to be killed by Beorn…this is one of the few cases we hear of orc families in the entire works of Tolkien
His body was hacked, and his head was branded with Azog’s name. The dwarves, obviously infuriated by this led an assault upon the orc holds of the Misty Mountains leading to the infamous War of The Dwarves and Orcs which climaxed in the Battle of Nanduhirion outside Moria’s east gate.
The battle was costly, and Thorin was wounded, being forced to defend himself with a hewn oak branch earning his name Oakenshield. Despite being victorious, the dwarves knew they could not enter Moria and take it for their own. Dain knew that Durin’s Bane still lurked inside its depths.
So being exiled from both Erebor and Khazad Dum, the Dwarves took to the Blue Mountains, and there lived well, if not grandly. But the dwarves would never be content while Smaug held their beloved kingdom.
Thorin’s father, Thrain, was given the last ring of power by his father Thror before he was murdered in Moria. However in the year 2841, Thrain set out to journey to Erebor, however was captured near the Anduin and taken to Dol Guldur, where he was later to be found (quite mad by that time) by Gandalf, to give a mysterious map and key. The ring had of course been taken by Sauron.
Note: it is interesting to note the meddling hands of the dwarven ring in both Thror and his son Thrain. Whilst it is known that the rings did not have the corruptive power over dwarves as that of men, nor were the dwarves as resilient as the elves. Thus the rings had a different hold over their bearers- greed. So it is generally thought that behind both Thror’s and Thrain’s clearly mad ideas to wander alone into the hands of the enemy was the ring of power, trying to get back to its master.
So it was that when Gandalf was journeying near Bree, he met Thorin on the road. Gandalf was greatly troubled at the time, pondering both how to deal with the Necromancer in Mirkwood, and how best to deal with the threat of Smaug lingering in the north east. Dol Guldur was a more imminent threat he decided, and would urge the White Council to deal with it, while for Smaug he hatched a very cunning plan indeed.
Thorin, thinking only as a dwarf can, wished for battle with Smaug, as if he were a king of many thousands of warriors, however Gandalf knew better methods could be applied- secrecy could win where battle could not. So he persuaded Thorin to enlist the help of a certain Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of The Shire.
Now upon travelling to Bag End and seeing Mr Baggins, Thorin and his companions were furious- how was this over fed halfing going to help in their quest? He would hinder them if anything! After Bilbo had retired (where the Hobbit narrative cuts out) and the dwarves and Gandalf were still awake inside Bag End, Gandaf went about trying to persuade the company to take him along:
“Listen to me Thorin Oakenshield! If this hobbit goes with you, you will succeed. If not you will fail. A foresight is one me and I am warning you,” he said.
In an earlier version we get to see just what exactly the dwarves think if hobbits as spoken by Gloin:
“What! One of those simpletons down in the Shire? What use on earth or under it could he possibly be? Let him smell as he may, he would never dare to come within smelling distance of the nakedest dragonet new from the shell!”
Thorin doesn’t seem to have any better opinion of him either:
“He is soft. Soft as the mud of his Shire, and silly. His mother died too soon. You are playing some crooked game of your own Master Gandalf.”
After a hasty argument, Thorin agreed, reluctantly to let Bilbo come along (if he dared to that is), and on the condition that Gandalf came along also.
Again in an earlier version of the account, Pippin asks a very interesting question ‘why Bilbo out of all the hobbits?’
“I want a dash of Took (but not too much master Peregrin) and I want a good foundation of the stolider sort, a Baggins perhaps. That pointed at once to Bilbo.”
I began this chapter with the question of whether Gandalf had deeper motives behind bringing together Thorin and co. and we can clearly see now he did. His motives went far beyond the dwarves, who wanted their homes and their riches, and far beyond Bilbo’s, who was out to prove (mostly to himself) that he was no ordinary hobbit. He wanted to plant the seeds that would grow through the following decades to become a major player in the war of the ring. Just how major I do not think Gandalf really knew until many years after, when he discovered the real identity of Bilbo’s magic ring.