The Hobbit Reread 3: The Quest of Erebor

Gandalf and Thorin by Bentos

All right-ee, here is the third installment of the Great Hobbit Reread, and the last of the reread posts that doesn't actually come from The Hobbit. Today we'll be reviewing Tolkien's essay The Quest of Erebor, which I only recently stumbled across (as in several months ago). It's an incredibly interesting little piece that sheds light not only on Gandalf's motivations in working with Thorin and nudging Bilbo into the quest, but also reveals the dwarves' less than admiral opinions of our hobbit hero. Enjoy!

As with many of Tolkien's unpublished writings, the essay begins mid-paragraph. The scene opens after Aragorn's coronation, in a room given the four hobbits for their quarters. The hobbits are there, along with Gandalf and Gimli. They begin talking about what led Gandalf to participate in the Quest of Erebor, and more particularly, what made him select Bilbo as the party's Burglar.

Apparently, in the beginning Gandalf's only concern was defending the West, a goal that was being increasingly frustrated by Sauruman. The Grey Pilgrim's chief worry was that the recently rearisen Sauron would launch an attack on Lorien and Rivendell. Even then, before Sauron had reclaimed much of his strength, the situation in the North was dire. Dale and the Kingdom Under the Mountain were in ruins, and only the dwarves of the Iron Hills could resist any attempt by Sauron to take the passes of the Misty Mountains and the old land of Angmar. Worse, Gandalf feared that the Dark Lord might be able to use Smaug to devastate all of the North.

Luckily, it was just while he was wrestling with these problems that he ran into Thorin Oakenshield near (or in, depending on which version of the story you trust) Bree. Gandalf had never before had many dealings with dwarves, but to his surprise Thorin invited him to his halls in the Blue Mountains. Once there, Thorin told Gandalf all about his own troubles and his thirst for vengeance on Smaug. The Wizard was equally anxious to bring an end to Smaug and promised to help the dwarves do so; but he doubted that Thorin's plans of armies and battles would ever lead to victory.

Mulling things over, Gandalf goes to the Shire where he hears of Bilbo's exploits. Apparently, Gandalf had met Bilbo even earlier and the young hobbit had drank in the wizard's tales of the wide world beyond Hobbiton. Now, years later, Bilbo was already spending time with dwarves and elves and becoming the talk of the Shire. It was at that point that a brilliant Plan struck Gandalf. Unlike the stumpy dwarves, a Hobbit would be completely unknown to Smaug and might have a chance of sneaking up unawares on the dragon's lair. Unable to find Bilbo, Gandalf returned to Thorin's halls to confer with the exilded dwarves, never knowing that in the years since the wizard had first met Bilbo, the hobbit had grown fat (as hobbits are want to do) and become something of a home-body. Gandalf explains that Thorin was "in a rage" when he first met the wizard's proposed burglar, and that all of the dwarves thought Bilbo was something of a fool.

Speaking of Thrain's Key and Map, Gandalf explains that he had completely forgotten about the items until that night in Bilbo's house:
"It was not until I got to the Shire and had time to reflect on Thorin's tale that I suddenly remembered the strange chance that had put [the map and key] in my hands; and it began now to look less like chance."
Ninety-one years earlier Gandalf had snuck into Dol Guldur to determine just what evil power had taken root there. While wandering the dungeons he stumbled across an
"unhappy dwarf dying in the pits. I had no idea who he was. He had a map that had belonged to Durin's folk in Moria, and a key that seemed to go with it, though he was too far gone to explain it.
"Nearly all his ravings were of that. The last of the Seven he said over and over again. But all these things he might have coe by in many ways. . . But he gave the map and the key to me. "For my son," he said; and then he died, and soon after I escaped myself."
 For some reason, Gandalf had forgotten the whole encounter (yet still carried the map and key with him for nearly a century) until that very moment when he remembered them and turned them over to Thorin. And it was a good thing that the wizard had held on to them, since they turned out to be the tipping point for Thorin . . . Gandalf recounts that it wasn't until he received the heirlooms that Thorin truly decided to try the wizard's plan. Plus the fact that a bit of prophetic foresight fell on Gandalf and he promised Thorin two things:
"Go your own ways, Thorin Oakenshield, if you will. But if you flout my advice, you will walk to disaster. . . And curb your pride and your greed, or you will fall at the end of whatever path you take, though your hands be full of gold."

Now, that pretty much sums up the main body of the short story. Great, right? There are just a few more details of interest that follow in the appendix:

  •  In a longer version of the story, Gandalf explains that since his rebirth, he cannot remember much of his prior motivations and purposes . . . only that in the West he had been called Olorin and that some inner knowledge that even he didn't fully recognize drove him in his earlier adventures
  • Gandalf first began interacting with Hobbits during the Long Winter, in which he came to the Shire's aid
  • Bilbo was selected because he had "'a dash of Took' (but not too much, Master Peregrin) 'and I want a good foundation of the stolider sort, a Baggins, perhaps.'"
  • Bilbo remained "unattached" for so long because of his desire for adventure . . . a desire that he kept so secret even he didn't really know of it
  • Apparently, dwarves were pretty disparaging when it came to hobbits, calling them names like "food-grower", "simpletons" and "villagers"
  • There are some excellent/hilarious passages where we get to see just how shrewd and business-minded dwarves really are
  • Fili and the other dwarves thought that "Bilbo" was a ridiculous name (look who's talking)
  • Gimli was 62 (62!) at the time of the Quest of Erebor, but still considered too young to take part in it


I. Love. This. Story. I mean, it's like a stinking deleted scene from The Hobbit . . . or maybe from LOTR, seeing as how it actually takes place in Minas Tirith at the end of ROTK.

One thing that caught my attention was how right from the beginning––and much to the chagrine of all those Tolkien purists––Tolkien starts pounding into our heads the fact that Gandalf's primary concern was Sauron and protecting the West. It should be obvious to everyone that at least in private, Tolkien was continually reworking the importance and the meaning of the Hobbit in light of LOTR and the Silmarillion. So it's really not going to bug me that much if PJ decides to give the Ring and the Necromancer more prominence in the movies . . . as long as he's judicious about it.

It's fascinating to see a bit more of Gandalf and Bilbo's history. You would never guess (and really, even Tolkien didn't know at the time) that the complacent bachelor Bilbo you meet at the beginning of the Hobbit used to crave for stories of adventure and sneak off to meet with elves and dwarves. This particular "retcon" does, however, help explain why Gandalf was so insistant that Bilbo be included in Thorin's Company. It all makes sense now!

Now, this whole bit about Gandalf supposedly forgetting about Thrain's key and map seems like the weakest point in the story. Why did Tolkien decide to present it like that? I mean, I guess it's not impossible that an old man would forget about something after nearly an entire freaking century, but the coincidences just kind of pile up one after another (not to mention the fact that in a strict sense Gandalf lied to Thorin when he said the key and map belonged to his father; turns out the old dude was just guessing!) until the whole thing seems a little silly. But, Gandalf does point out that it's all of those "coincidences" that eventually convinced him that selecting Biblo had been no mere chance. So I guess I'll let the improbability slide. Once.

And can I just say that prophetic Gandalf makes me a little nervous. Had I been Thorin, I'd have fallen in line with the wizard's plans from the get-go. Just saying.

I really enjoyed the appendix material (almost more than the main story itself). Gandalf's frustration with the dwarves is hilarious, and their inability to think in terms other than financial bargaining offers a real insight into how dwarves operate. There is also an interesting moment when Gandalf has to explain that Bilbo is the hobbit's true name and not his "outer" name, which among dwarves is the only name you ever hear.

All in all, this is a fantastic essay and I highly recommend it. For those of you who have read it or sit down to do it now, feel free to leave your comments below!

Next time on The Hobbit reread Part 4: The Hobbit Chapter 1: An Unexpected Party


  1. Thank you Landon, I have looked forward too and enjoyed reading your postings very much.

    All the best to you and yours...

    1. Thanks! It's always good to hear that someone else is enjoying this like I am. I'll get another post up soon . . .

  2. I see people crying about how the Quest of Erebor can't be used in the film because it wasn't in the material which PJ has the rights to (although a little chunk of it is in the Appendices), but I keep seeing hints of it all over the place, especially in the skeptical attitudes of Thorin and the dwarves (like several betting against Bilbo coming in the alternate trailer endings) and most clearly in the mention that Gandalf uses the scent of dwarves vs. hobbits as one of his main reasons for needing Bilbo. Several people describe that argument at Bag End in the footage from Comic-con.

    1. DJ>>Yeah, I've been wondering the exact same thing. Because I've definitely noticed a certain "Quest of Erebor" feel to a lot of the movie stuff we've seen so far. It will be interesting to see how that all plays out. I wonder if PJ was only specifically denied the right to use Silmarrilion source material, and people have just assumed that the History of Middle-earth stuff was included in that. I really don't know . . .

    2. So, on that subject . . . I was just reading through the Collider article (70 things to know about the Hobbit) and I saw this little quote:

      They turned to Tolkien’s appendices for more backstory on why Gandalf chose Bilbo for this task. Gandalf remembers Bilbo as a young child who loves adventure and danger, and is disappointed to find that Bilbo has become stuffy and conservative 18 years later.

      That definitely comes from the History of Middle-earth stuff . . . doesn't it?