The barrels, with one hobbit on top and thirteen dwarves
inside, flow down the river and out of Mirkwood forest. Looking
to the north, Bilbo sees the Lonely Mountain, the group’s ultimate
destination. For the time being, however, the river takes them toward
Lake Town (its alternate name, Esgaroth, is mentioned in Chapter
Thorin, filled with a new sense of purpose, strides proudly up to the town hall and declares to the Master of Lake Town that he, a descendant of the King under the Mountain, has returned to claim his inheritance. The people of the town rejoice. They have all heard the stories of how gold flowed down the river when the King under the Mountain reigned before Smaug came. They treat the dwarves and even Bilbo like kings. After a fortnight, the company is strong and eager again. Though they still have no idea how to deal with the dragon, Thorin feels that they cannot wait any longer. He obtains boats, horses, and provisions from the Master of Lake Town, and the company sets off up the River running toward the Lonely Mountain.
As they approach the foothills of the Lonely Mountain, the land turns bleak and barren. All greenery and other living foliage have been burnt away by Smaug. When they reach the foot of the mountain, Bilbo and three dwarves are sent to investigate the main entrance on the south side. The entrance looks far too dangerous—it is the gate that Smaug uses—so the company decides to search out the secret door described on their map, which is on the west side of the mountain.
After hours of searching, Bilbo finally locates a narrow passage along a cliff that leads to a flat, smooth patch on the mountain’s side. Though the patch must be the door, the dwarves cannot find a way to open it, as they have forgotten the message that Elrond read from the map. The dwarves bang at the door with picks and axes but to no avail. They grow discouraged.
One evening, Bilbo is sitting outside the door, lost in thought, when a thrush lands nearby and begins to knock a snail against a stone with its beak. Suddenly, the hobbit remembers the riddle on the map. He quickly gathers the other dwarves by the door, and they watch as the sun slowly sets. With the sun’s last light, a single ray falls on a part of the door, and there a rock falls away to reveal a keyhole. Thorin quickly takes the key that came with the map and places it in the rock—when he turns it, the door’s outlines appear. The dwarves and the hobbit push open the door and stare into the depths of the mountain before them.
The way in which Thorin Oakenshield’s name and the name of his grandfather command immediate respect in Lake Town despite Thorin’s tattered appearance highlights the importance of ancestry and family name in Middle-Earth. We have already seen the importance of lineage in defining a person’s character and prospects, first through Bilbo’s oscillation between his Took side and his Baggins side, and also through Thorin’s obsession with his birthright, the treasure under the mountain. When the party arrives at Lake Town, we see that lineage also influences social interactions. Since strangers often bring trouble, a well-known name is powerful. A mark of social and familial stability, a name like Oakenshield represents a time when peace and prosperity prevailed. For the people of Lake Town, the return of the grandson of the King under the Mountain recalls a time before Smaug when gold came from the Lonely Mountain.
The introduction of the people of Lake Town places humans in Tolkien’s hierarchy of good and evil races. The human denizens of Lake Town are quite cautious when it comes to confronting the dragon. When the company sets off for the mountain, the humans refuse to go near it, leaving Bilbo and the dwarves to fend for themselves. Though they are concerned most about themselves, the people of Lake Town cannot really be blamed for fearing Smaug—they are convinced that he is invincible. Though Tolkien here emphasizes human fallibility and fear, he portrays humans as generally good creatures.
With the riddle of the secret door, Tolkien draws his readers into the story by presenting a confusing puzzle that we attempt to solve before the characters do. Tolkien employs this device often—we have already seen it in the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum. At the mountain, we have an even greater advantage over the characters. The company has passed through many dangers since their last night in Rivendell, where Elrond interpreted the moon runes on the map for them, explaining that the door could open only on Durin’s Day, one of the last days of autumn. Except for Bilbo, they have quite forgotten the message about “when the thrush knocks. . . .”
We are more likely to have the message fresh in mind,
however, especially since the narrator notes several times in Chapter