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Barrels Out of Bond?

Last week, we lost a man near and dear to a great many nerds. Sir Ian Holm passed away and left for the Undying Lands, and it shall be a sadder Hobbit Day this September. It is an utter shame and loss to us all that he couldn’t grow to Bilbo's ripe age of 131. Bilbo bookends the whole trilogy for us. Before we even start the epic journey through Middle Earth, we have Bilbo’s birthday, and we end (almost) with his trip to the Undying Lands. Bilbo is, in a way, our journey through Lord of the Rings. We’re borne into the series in fellowship with his birthday. We’re excited to see Frodo and his friends make it to the Last Homely House, and we’re jealous that Frodo has the Ring and not us. Finally, our journey ends with all of us on the ship to the Undying Lands with him. End of the story. How lucky we were to have such an excellent actor help us on this quest! This week we’re taking a look at one of the more dangerous events of Bilbo’s burglar career.



If you’ve read the Hobbit or watched any of the movie versions, (spoilers ahead) you’ll know how Bilbo, Thorin and company escaped the Elf King’s halls. After several days of sneaking around, Bilbo stuffs the dwarves into empty wine barrels, pads them with straw, and ends up riding a barrel himself while wearing the Ring. The elves float the barrels down the river, and our adventurers successfully make their escape to Lake-town. If you’ve read any of my other Hobbit posts, you’ll know I’ve been reading it to my 8 year old. While reading this particular chapter, he and I thought we’d come up with an alternate route of escape for our merry band. Detailed here are some of the possibilities we came up with: 

Honest Negotiations


Bilbo was entitled to a share of the treasure under the Lonely Mountain, and he essentially forgoes most of it in the end. Could Bilbo have revealed himself, spoken with King Thranduil and given away his own share for succor and assistance to move along their journey? Certainly, the Elves in these books seem kind enough to Hobbits. Thranduil is shown to be paranoid and a bit greedy, though. It’s likely he would insist on more once they’d all reached the treasure and defeated the dragon Smaug. No doubt Thorin wouldn’t be too happy about it, either. Would this even have been a possibility? Sure, maybe even one Bilbo thought of...and later thought better of, given his observances of the parties involved.

The Handoff


Bare with me on this one. There are thirteen Dwarves, one Hobbit, and one magic ring that makes the wearer invisible. Bilbo has already scouted out several hiding locations where he can sleep for a bit or eat. Bilbo slips Thorin the Ring through his cell bars and runs off to hide. An Elf guard comes with the regular rations to the cell, and sees nobody in there. Opening it up to investigate, invisible Thorin jumps him and knocks him out, taking the keys. Then he and Bilbo trade off the Ring as they free each of the Dwarves, one by one, and stick them in Bilbo’s hiding places. Once free with their stuff, they can launch an assault on the King himself. Ok, this plan is super foolish and has many major flaws. Bilbo actually giving up the Ring? Thorin being willing to give it back? The Ring letting any of this actually happen? Would there even be enough hiding spots for all of the dwarves? This probably wouldn’t work, but does feel very much like a TTRPG scenario.

Burglary and Ransom


The elf King Thranduil values many things, and his halls hold many treasures. Bilbo was brought along as burglar, and burgle he should. After all, he was already stealing food and drink for a good many days while trying to devise a plan. As established earlier, Bilbo’s found plenty of places to hide for naps and to eat his many small meals. Certainly, Bilbo had a hiding spot or two where he could stash a few of Thranduil’s artifacts. He could have even snuck a few of those baubles into barrels sent down the river. A few earrings here, a scepter there, maybe even Thraduil’s crown? The King would certainly notice at some point. Then comes the note, “Free the dwarves with their weapons and sufficient supplies for a journey. They mean you no harm. Or continue losing your lovely treasure horde. - B” Somehow, I don’t think Thranduil would have reacted kindly to this. The Elf King’s paranoia would likely go into overdrive, but what could he do about it? Even if Thranduil relented, the Dwarves would probably be dumped back into Mirkwood, with or without supplies. This leaves them almost exactly where they were before the Elves captured them… not an exciting place to be. 

Wait it Out


The Dwarves and our dear Hobbit may have avoided the whole situation had Gandalf not left them before they entered Mirkwood. As we learn later on, the Grey Wizard eventually wraps up his own business (for the moment) and seeks out Bilbo, Thorin and company once again to see where they’ve ended up. Had they waited it out, Gandalf may have deduced that they were stuck with the Mirkwood Elves, come to the rescue, and arranged with the King for their release. Certainly, Gandalf is known in these parts and the Elves seem friendly with him at the end of the book. This does have the unfortunate problem of the Goblins (Orcs) hot on the group’s tail, who may have shot through Mirkwood and ended up at the Lonely Mountain or Lake-town before Gandalf even got to the Dwarves. Perhaps they would have even laid siege to Thranduil’s home, once they figured out what had happened. Would Smaug have destroyed the Goblins if they had made it to the mountain? Perhaps the dragon would have enlisted them as his agents and crushed even more of the land with his fiery breath and new Goblin army. This seems an unclear solution at best, but maybe one of the better alternative options.

Take a Hostage


This one might be a little more than Bilbo can handle. Let’s not forget, though, that he is invisible and carrying a magic blade. Who could he take at sword point? Legolas? The Elf Queen? Maybe even Thranduil himself? “Let the Dwarves free or your King loses his life!” This also has a very TTRPG feel, but would be very, very dangerous for our poor Bilbo, and would likely end with Bilbo stripped of sword and Ring, and locked up, himself. Even in the best case scenario, the Dwarves end up... where? Likely pushed out the front of the halls back into Mirkwood with no supplies and no clue where to go. Definitely not the best option. 

Find a Sympathetic Ear


For those of you who don’t know, Thranduil is Legolas’s father. Yes, that Legolas. They don’t really mention him in the Hobbit. In Lord of the Rings, Legolas isn’t too happy about working with a Dwarf, but is willing to give working with Humans and Hobbits a try. Bilbo could have attempted to reveal himself to Legolas and bend his ear for some help. Legolas could have then spoken with his father and pleaded for the Dwarves’ release. Of course, we don’t even know if Legolas is there. Perhaps he’s off adventuring with Strider in some distant part of Mirkwood, or picking off some of the Goblin scourge. The Hobbit movie certainly puts him close to home though. This is probably one of the better alternative solutions, but still presents a lot of issues. It might work in a TTRPG session, but those persuasion and bluff checks better be high!


Was the barrel route still the best escape plan? I think it most likely was, even with the dangers. However, in a TTRPG scenario, many of these potential solutions could be viable escape alternatives. A few bad rolls with an unforgiving DM, though, could have gotten a Dwarf, two, or even Bilbo himself killed with the barrel riding shenanigans. Of course, that can’t happen in the book, or we wouldn’t get the rest of the story and Lord of the Rings would be completely different. No, with creativity, a few lucky rolls, and a decent DM, the company is bound to make it out one way or another. We’ll never know if their fates would have been better had they tried a different attempt, and that’s likely for the best. You might try running the whole adventure in Dungeons and Dragons or one of the licensed Lord of the Rings TTRPG systems, but who knows if your Dwarves would even get stuck in the same situation. We’ll leave this, then, with an open-ended healthy debate. What’s the best escape from the Elf King’s halls you can devise?

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