In The Hobbit, Chapter VII, ‘Queer Lodgings’, we are introduced to a rather singular character: Beorn the skin-changer, who can transform his shape into that of a massive and ferocious bear. Beorn listens with interest (if not very much patience or politeness) to Gandalf’s tale of Thorin & Co. through the Misty Mountains where they were waylaid by Goblins and again attacked by both Goblins and Wolves after having escaped.
Beorn is so amused by the tale that he grants the company a meal and a place to rest as a gesture of … I guess we’ll call it ‘goodwill’ (though, so far, Beorn has shown very little to suggest he’s particularly interested in gestures of goodwill). But in the night, Beorn leaves and is gone all that night and all of the next day, returning only the following day. The morning after that, Beorn returns and informs the dwarves that he has been abroad investigating their tale and, after having captured (and most likely torturing) a goblin for information, he has discovered their tale was true. He then shows Thorin & Co. the head of the goblin he captured and the warg’s skin which he has put outside his property as a warning to others.
A goblin’s head was stuck outside the gate and a warg-skin was nailed to a tree just beyond. Beorn was a fierce enemy. [Ibid.]
Beorn then offers to help the company in any way he can. He provides food and supplies, and guidance for their continued journey Eastward, especially with regards to travelling in Mirkwood Forest. Among other things, he tells them the best place to strike a path through the forest, what to expect in terms of food and water supplies while within the bounds of the forest (nothing), and advises them to stay always on the forest path. It is here that we get our first (of only two) uses of the word savage within the text:
“But your way through Mirkwood is dark, dangerous and difficult,” he said. “Water is not easy to find there, nor food. The time is not yet come for nuts (though it may be past and gone indeed before you get to the other side), and nuts are about all that grows there fit for food; in there the wild things are dark, queer, and savage.” [The Hobbit, Chapter VII, ‘Queer Lodgings’]
Considering what we know of Beorn already, we might be put in mind of the proverbial pot and kettle. Or perhaps, to stay within the bounds of the legendarium, we may be reminded of Aragorn’s words to Frodo at The Prancing Pony:
‘There are queer folk about. Though I say it as shouldn’t, you may think,’ he added with a wry smile, seeing Frodo’s glance. [The Lord of the RIngs, Chapter 9, ‘At the Sign of the Prancing Pony’]
Beorn’s calling anything savage seems all the more hypocritical when we also consider what we learn about his prowess during the Battle of Five Armies:
The roar of [Beorn’s] voice was like drums and guns; and he tossed wolves and goblins from his path like straws and feathers. He fell upon their rear, and broke like a clap of thunder through the ring.
Swiftly he returned and his wrath was redoubled, so that nothing could withstand him, and no weapon seemed to bite upn him. He scattered the bodyguard, and pulled down Bolg himself and crushed him. Then dismay fell on the Goblins and they fled in all directions. [The Hobbit, Chapter XVIII, ‘The Return Journey’]
To look at this idea of Savage through the Eyes of a Savage further, we should start at the roots. And for that, as ever, let us begin with what the word savage actually means. According to the OED:
savage /ˈsavɪdʒ /
1 (of an animal or force of nature) fierce, violent, and uncontrolled:
packs of savage dogs roamed the streets.
▪ cruel and vicious; aggressively hostile:
a savage attack on the government.
2 (of something bad or negative) very great; severe:
the decision was a savage blow for the town.
3 (chiefly in historical or literary contexts) primitive; uncivilized.
▪ (of a place) wild-looking and inhospitable; uncultivated.
1 (chiefly in historical or literary contexts) a member of a people regarded as primitive and uncivilized.
2 a brutal or vicious person:
the mother of one of the victims has described his assailants as savages.
3 Heraldry a representation of a bearded and semi-naked man with a wreath of leaves.
▸ verb [with object] (especially of a dog or wild animal) attack ferociously and maul:
police are rounding up dogs after a girl was savaged.
▪ subject to a vicious verbal attack; criticize brutally:
he savaged the government for wasting billions in their failed bid to prop up the pound.
savageness /ˈsavɪdʒnəs / noun
– ORIGIN Middle English : from Old French sauvage ‘wild’, from Latin silvaticus ‘of the woods’, from silva ‘a wood’.
I think we can eliminate adjectival definition (2) altogether for our purposes. But it would seem that definition (adj.1) is rather suitable to aspects of Beorn’s lifestyle. To begin with, he can (at will) quite literally be an animal. He can also be fierce (a word already used to describe him (see above) and violent. ‘Uncontrolled’ is, perhaps, dubious, for it does not offer specificity of where onus for inability to control lies: with the savage one, or with the ones being savaged. In Beorn’s case, nothing could withstand him but we are given no indication that he himself has lost control. On the other hand, Gandalf warns the company of coming across Beorn at unawares shortly after leaving the Carrock, and also of not making him angry:
He does not come here often, certainly not in th edaytime, and it is no good waiting for him. In fact it would be very dangerous.
You must all be very polite when I introduce you. I shall introduce you slowly, two by two, I think; and you must be careful not to annoy him, or heaven knows what will happen. He can be appalling when he is angry, though he is kind enough if humoured. Still I warn you he gets angry easily.” [Ibid.]
And when Beorn leaves the company to roam at night, he only does so after offering a stark warning.
“It is time for us to sleep,” [Gandalf] said, “–for us, but not I think for Beorn. In his hall we can rest sound and safe, but I warn you all not to forget what Beorn said before he left us: you must not stray outside until the sun is up, on your peril.” [Ibid.]
What, exactly, Beorn was warning them against may be speculated. It could be that he was warning them against his own savagery whilst in bear form (as indeed that is how he roamed that night). But we learn later from Gandalf that there were the prints of many bears outside the house, and not just Beorn’s alone.
Looking further at the definition, we come to cruel and vicious; aggressively hostile. Given all of the above, it seems reasonable enough to apply these adjectives to Beorn as well … certainly when he has a mind to be so inclined. But we mustn’t use too strong a glue when applying these descriptions to Beorn. As Gandalf already informed the dwarves, he is kind enough if humoured. And this brings us into definition (adj.3) fairly naturally: (chiefly in historical or literary contexts) a member of a people regarded as primitive and uncivilized.
In Tolkien, it is always good to take special note of the ‘chiefly historical or literary contexts’ definitions, because that’s how Tolkien rolls. Is Beorn primitive? Is he uncivilised? It’s true that he is somewhat of a hermit lifestyle (though we’ve no indication of any religious motives). And his lodgings and home comforts, while wholesome and no doubt very good, may seem crude, unsophisticated, and basic (wooden plates, bowls, spoons, etc.). Then there are his manners. His language towards Gandalf, Biblo, and the dwarves during their introductions is curt, dismissive, and borders on insulting. We are told he is never very polite and at one point in the chapter,
He picked up the hobbit and laughed: “Not eaten up by Wargs or goblins or wicked bears yet I see”; and he poked Mr Baggins’ waistcoat disrespectfully. “Little bunny is getting nice and fat again on bread and honey,” he chuckled. [Ibid.]
So yes, it would seem that Beorn fits the second definition rather well also. Yet he also shows civility when he chooses. The meal at Beorn’s house is a simple but lovely affair. The cloth and table are laid, there are eating and drinking vessels for all, there is table service (albeit provided by animals), and the food and entertainment are good. So is Beorn a savage? He certainly can be. But that is not all he is.
Yet it seems to put him into a position of authority. When he describes “the wild things” of Mirkwood as “dark, queer, and savage”, he knows full well what it means.
And Thorin & Co. aren’t exactly ignorant of the savagery of the land or those who dwell therein. Up to this point of the adventure, Thorin & Co. have met many various kinds of inhabitants of Middle-earth. From leaving Bilbo’s front door until arriving at Beorn’s gardens, they come across:
- the Green Dragon Inn (no doubt filled with any manner of people);
- hobbit lands filled with ‘decent folk’ with ‘good roads’ and ‘an inn or two’;
- dwarves or farmers ambling by on business;
- lands where people speak strangely or in songs Bilbo has never heard before;
- lone lands where no people were left, and there are no inns, and roads deteriorate;
- dreary hills with the ruins of castles which look as though they may have been made by ‘wicked people’;
- Rivendell, filled with only the very best kind of Good People;
- Stone Giants;
- Wolves/Wargs; and
The list contains a full spectrum of civility to savagery, and the Company know it well. But they seem to be little more prepared for Mirkwood as a result, and Beorn’s advice is appropriate.
But it is the ‘things’ of Mirkwood specifically which Beorn warns them against. So what do Thorin & Co. meet in Mirkwood?
- trees with blackened leaves
- black squirrels
- queer noises; grunts, scufflings, and hurryings in the undergrowth
- cobwebs, extraordinarily thick
- no movement of air or wind
- no light; pitch dark;
- yellow, red, green eyes
- bulbous, ‘insect eyes’
- black bats
- dark-grey and black moths
- black stream
- the black leaping hart
- hunting party
- white hind and fawns
- black emperors
- small, ordinary spiders
- giant spiders
So what does a cruel, vicious, aggressively hostile, primitive and uncivilised person such as Beorn consider to be savage enough to be concerned about? You can bet your brass buttons it isn’t the various dark-coloured creatures of the forest. Nor indeed will it be the Elves. Certainly, Elves are no strangers to fighting and slaughter. But you won’t find anything in Tolkien’s works that suggest they are in any way uncivilised or aggressively hostile. Indeed, as we find out near the end of the book, the Woodland King is anything but aggressively hostile:
But the Elvenking said: “Long will I tarry, ere I begin this war for gold. The dwarves cannot pass us, unless we will, or do anything that we cannot mark. Let us hope still for something that will bring reconciliation. Our advantage in numbers will be enough, if in the end it must come to unhappy blows.”
[TH,xvii,’The Clouds Burst’]
No indeed, it would appear that the one thing that the party meet within Mirkwood which match all our definitions of savage are the giant spiders. It is they who wish to kill the entire party of dwarves. They discuss openly whether to kill the dwarves outright or to let them hang a bit to make ‘fine eating’. They swarm the dwarves and chase them mercilessly through the darkened woods. They intend nothing short of the complete slaughter of every member of the company.
I point all this out because it’s easy to overlook just how savage they are. Tolkien was a master of taking the more ‘grown-up’ elements of the story and infusing them with just enough levity to keep them from being overbearing for young readers.
Dwarven noses sticking out of cobweb bundles and dangling from trees, for example; silly songs sung by our titular hero; and spiders whose legs comically flail about.
And when we meet Beorn, it’s easy to overlook his savagery as well. He lives with gentle animals. He appears to be vegetarian. He laughs loud, and makes jokes and tells stories to the dwarves. He aids them in their quest. But he is clearly capable of vicious, murderous cruelty when he feels it is warranted.