Bilbo and the dwarves march in single-file through the forest along the path. They quickly come to hate the constant sight of cobwebs, and the almost total darkness in which they sleep every night. At night, Bilbo sees bright, glowing eyes looking at him, and thinks that these eyes must belong to insects, not animals.
There’s a noticeable contrast between the accommodating way Beorn treats Bilbo and the dwarves and the group’s uneasy experiences in the forest. The forest, with its darkness and lurking giant insects, is like the opposite of a home.
Eventually, the group comes to a stream, and sees a boat on the opposite side. Remembering Beorn’s advice, they don’t swim in the stream, but throw a rope across to pull the boat over. Bilbo and the dwarves go across two or three at a time, with Bombur, the fattest, going last, despite his protestations. As they cross the river, they see an enchanted deer jump over the river. Though Thorin tells them to hold their fire, the dwarves waste all of their arrows trying to shoot the deer, making their bows useless. When it is Bombur’s turn to cross, he falls in the water, and immediately falls asleep; the dwarves must now carry him. The group begins to hear mysterious laughter; it doesn’t sound like it comes from goblins.
The enchanted hunt of deer is a familiar motif from early English and Celtic poetry, one with which Tolkien was extremely familiar from his academic studies. Here, the dwarves’ failure to use their weaponry effectively signals that they’re inadequately prepared for their quest, and that, for all his weaknesses, Bilbo might be a better adventurer than any of them. Where the dwarves rely on gut instinct and weaponry, Bilbo uses his ring, his trickery, and his words to survive on the open road.
The dwarves send Bilbo to climb a tree in the hope that he’ll be able to see the end of the forest. Bilbo climbs a tree, and at the top, he sees sunshine and beautiful butterflies, but no end to the trees. By the time he’s climbed back down, he is tired and miserable at having to return to the forest; when he tells the dwarves what he saw, they’re miserable, too.
There is something melancholy and deeply moving about the fact that the group is only a few feet away from sunshine and warmth—it’s just that these things are high above them, not around them. This situation is a metaphor for the dwarves’ larger situation: they know what their home is (the Lonely Mountain), but it is beyond their reach.
Bombur wakes up, saying that he’s been having lovely dreams of feasts and food. Thorin is irritated with this news, since the group’s supplies have almost ran out. Bilbo and the dwarves see lights, and what appears to be the king of the woodland holding a grand feast. Thorin is reluctant to step off the path, but eventually he and the others wander toward the food. As soon as they arrive, it becomes completely dark, and Bilbo becomes separated from the rest of his group.
Bombur is almost a parody of Bilbo at his weakest—he dreams of food, he has to be carried, he contributes nothing to the group. This signals that Bilbo is no longer the “weak link” in the group; he’s beginning to prove his worth and earn his fourteenth of the treasure. Even so, he’s no more responsible than the dwarves when they run off the path.
Bilbo falls asleep, and when he wakes up from dreams of food and home, he finds himself half-covered in spider thread—a giant spider has captured him and is about to poison him. Bilbo manages to free his sword and kill the spider. He names his sword Sting, and suddenly feels powerful and excited.
Here, Bilbo participates in a crucial act of renaming. By giving a simple knife an impressive, evocative name, he makes himself more imposing and heroic—no common person could wield Sting. (It’s interesting that this moment comes on the heels of Tolkien’s descriptions of Orcrist and Glamdring, swords that do have an impressive history and legacy.) Language, then, is Bilbo’s most important tool: when he uses words to make himself appear more impressive, his statement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and he does become more impressive. In naming his sword he gives it, and himself as its wielder, a legacy, and that legacy is connected to all other named swords.
Bilbo puts on his ring and follows the sounds of yelling, and, with a little luck, he comes to a web where a group of giant spiders is discussing the big group it has just captured. Bilbo recognizes the shapes of the dwarves, covered in thread. He finds a small stone and throws it at a spider, killing it. Confident that the spiders can’t see him, he begins singing a song, mocking the remaining spiders and luring them away from their web. Bilbo doubles back and hastily uses his sword to cut the dwarves free. They are tired and sick from the spiders’ poison, and Bombur is so exhausted that he falls out of the web. The spiders close in around Bombur, but Bilbo jumps down and kills half a dozen with his sword, while the dwarves use sticks and stones to help him scare away the rest.
Bilbo continues to use words to fight his enemies—his song accomplishes its intended purpose, confusing and maddening the spiders. Bilbo, it’s clear, has begun to enjoy his quest, and relish the battles with monsters instead of fearing them. It’s clear how quickly Bilbo has grown into a good adventurer by the way he saves the lives of the thirteen dwarves—who have much more experience than he does with adventures, after all. Bilbo also gains a new skill—old-fashioned sword fighting.
Bilbo realizes that he’ll have to explain his ring to the dwarves; he tells them that he can use it to disappear, and that they must run away from the spiders while he uses his ring and sword to fight them. For what seems a long time, Bilbo defends the dwarves, but eventually, the spiders give up and return to their lair.
Bilbo no longer hides his secrets from the dwarves, and perhaps this is because he’s confident enough in his own abilities that he doesn’t think he needs to hide them any longer.
The dwarves run away from the spiders, and eventually arrive at a place that they determine to be the home of the wood-elves, who are often hostile to visitors but are not evil like goblins. They are curious about Bilbo’s story, and ask him many questions. It is at this time that they begin to take Bilbo more seriously, as Gandalf hinted would happen. Suddenly, the dwarves notice that Thorin is missing.
Bilbo’s reputation goes up enormously after he saves the dwarves’ lives: they pester him with questions, much the way they’ve pestered Gandalf for information in the past. Yet the dwarves aren’t exactly brilliant adventurers themselves—they lose Thorin without noticing.
The narrator reveals what happened to Thorin: when the dwarves wandered off the path to find food, the wood-elves find and capture Thorin for supposedly attacking them at their feast. Thorin is taken before the king of the Wood-Elves; he tells him that he was traveling with his companions, but refuses to say what they were doing in the woods. The king accuses Thorin of lying, and, as a wood-elf, is hostile to dwarves in general, since the dwarves supposedly stole the elves’ treasure long ago (the dwarves say exactly the same thing about the elves). The king sends Thorin to prison, where Thorin is given only bread and water, and wonders what became of his friends.
Thorin’s behavior before the king is perfectly indicative of his personal strengths and weaknesses. Thorin has enough loyalty in his quest to the Lonely Mountain that he doesn’t reveal it to the king, and enough heroism to withstand any punishment. At the same time, he keeps his mouth shut when he could, presumably, apologize or be honest with the king and get a lighter sentence (or none at all). Yet Thorin wants his kingdom and all of its treasure for himself, and his refusal to divulge his goal is also a sign of his greed, and of his fear of the greed of others (which is itself a symptom of greed). At the same time, it is the long-standing conflict between dwarves and elves, not any individual conflict between Thorin and the Elvenking, that results in Thorin’s imprisonment. Separated from his companions, Thorin begins to lose some of his hope.