Darkness falls upon Bilbo and the dwarves as they enter the bleak forest of Mirkwood. Strange eyes peer out at them from the trees. Soon, the group cannot tell night from day. Everyone can think only of getting out of the stuffy, ominous woods, but there seems to be no end in sight. After a few days, they come to a stream that Beorn had warned them not to touch. They cross using a boat already moored there, but a dwarf, Bombur, falls in and is put into a sleep that lasts for days. The rest of the party is forced to carry him. Hungry, tired, and scared, they begin to despair.
One night, they see a flicker of lights in the trees and, ignoring the warnings of Beorn and Gandalf, they leave the path and move toward the lights. They see elves sitting in a clearing around a fire, feasting and singing. However, the moment they burst into the clearing, the lights are snuffed out, and the dwarves and Bilbo can hardly find one another. The same thing happens twice more. On the last occasion, everyone becomes separated, unable to find one another in the darkness. Soon, Bilbo stops hearing voices and, exhausted, leans against a tree to sleep.
When Bilbo awakens, his legs are bound with sticky thread and an enormous spider is advancing toward him. Whipping out his sword, he slashes his legs free and slays the spider. Flush with victory, he gives his sword a name: Sting. He then goes in search of the dwarves. To his horror, he finds them all hanging from a tree, tied up in the webs of the many spiders that sit atop the branches. Bilbo whips a few stones at the spiders and then leads them away from the dwarves by yelling. Fortunately, he is wearing the ring all the while, so the spiders cannot find him.
Having led the spiders away, Bilbo slips back and cuts the dwarves free. But the spiders soon return, and the dwarves, weak from the spiders’ poison, can hardly fight them off, even with the aid of the invisible Bilbo. Just when the situation looks completely hopeless, the spiders suddenly retreat, and the company realizes that they themselves have retreated into one of the clearings used by elves. There, they rest to ponder their next course of action. A moment later, they realize with horror that Thorin is missing.
Unbeknownst to the others, Thorin was taken prisoner by the elves when he stepped into the clearing before the spider attack. The elves are wood elves, who are good but suspicious of strangers. The Elvenking questions Thorin about his journey. When Thorin refuses to say where the company is going, the elves throw him in the dungeon, but they feed him and are not cruel.
Soon after Bilbo and the rest of the dwarves escape the spiders, they are surrounded by a company of wood elves and brought blindfolded to the Elvenking’s halls. Bilbo, still wearing his ring, remains undetected. The other dwarves are brought before the king and questioned. Like Thorin, they refuse to reveal their plan to reclaim the treasure from Smaug for fear that the elves will demand a share. Also like Thorin, the dwarves are thrown into the dungeon. Meanwhile, Bilbo, having followed the captured dwarves, walks invisibly through the halls, whispering to the dwarves in their cells and plotting an escape.
The elves exchange goods with the men of Lake Town via barrels that are floated on a river that flows under the elves’ dwelling. Empty barrels are sent floating back down the river from a storeroom. In the storeroom, Bilbo catches a guardsman napping. He steals the guardsman’s keys, frees the dwarves, and puts his plan into action. He helps pack each dwarf into an empty barrel just before the elves return and shove the barrels into the river; then, still invisible, he hops onto an empty barrel. The trapdoors open and the dwarves speed out along the river toward Lake Town.
A key turning point in Bilbo’s development comes when he kills the spider that wrapped him in its web as he slept. After killing the spider, Bilbo feels like “a different person.” The spider is the first enemy that Bilbo defeats in combat, and the incident serves as a rite of passage. This change is marked by Bilbo’s decision to name his sword. In ancient epic literature, named swords are important symbols of courage and heroism, so by giving his sword a name, Bilbo signifies his new capacity to lead and succeed. From this point on, Bilbo begins to take action and make plans on his own—his plan to free the dwarves from the wood elves is the first instance of his newfound resolve. The peril and enmity that Bilbo and his group encounter in Mirkwood, combined with Gandalf’s absence and the dwarves’ bad luck, provide Bilbo with a grand opportunity to continue his development into a hero.
The narrator’s description of the wood elves as “Good People” who have become less wise, more suspicious, and more dangerous than the high elves, their relatives, illustrates how race and moral condition are closely linked in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. We have not yet encountered any humans in The Hobbit, so it is still difficult to figure where humans fit within Tolkien’s hierarchy of good and evil. From the passing references that we do hear, we get the impression that humans are mortal, often unwise, out of accord with nature, and prone to feuding. Still, humans do not seem to be uniformly evil like the goblins and the Wargs. Soon, at the end of Chapter 9, we encounter more substantial evidence of man when the company, waterlogged but alive, floats toward the human settlement Lake Town, just south of the Lonely Mountain, which is the group’s ultimate destination.
An evil aura pervades the forest of Mirkwood. As Gandalf explains, the evil atmosphere stems mostly from the presence of the mysterious Necromancer in the south of Mirkwood. The Necromancer does not figure in The Hobbit in a significant way but provides another important link between this novel and The Lord of the Rings. The Necromancer later proves to be Sauron, the Dark Lord, who is rebuilding his evil power in Mirkwood before returning to his stronghold of Barad-Dur in the blighted land of Mordor.
Special Quotation for discussion
Somehow [after] the killing of this giant spider . . . [h]e felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath.
reflection on the quotation
This passage from Chapter 8 depicts Bilbo’s reaction to his narrow escape from the giant spider of Mirkwood, one of the novel’s major turning points. Defeating a foe in combat gives Bilbo a taste of the confidence that he has not previously enjoyed, making him feel “much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach.” From this point forward, Bilbo shows that he is capable of taking the initiative and acting in the best interest of the company rather than his own self-interest, as his ability to ignore his hunger shows. He upstages Thorin as a leader and establishes himself as a hero.
Bilbo’s decision to name his sword is also symbolic. Named swords are marks of reputation and prowess in ancient epic literature, and Bilbo’s naming of his sword essentially represents his laying claim to the mantle of heroism.