Dark Places

Dark Places

In chapter four of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic work, The Hobbit, the travelers are seeking a path over the Misty Mountains when they are assaulted by a monstrous, soul-wrenching storm. This is how Tolkien describes it:

…one day they met a thunderstorm – more than a thunderstorm, a
thunder-battle. You know how terrific a really big thunderstorm can be down in the land and in a river-valley; especially at times when two great  thunderstorms meet and clash. More terrible still are thunder and lightning in the mountains at night, when storms come up from East and West and make war. The lightning splinters on the peaks, and rocks shiver, and great crashes split the air and go rolling and tumbling into every cave and hollow; and the  darkness is filled with overwhelming noise and sudden light.

Bilbo had never seen or imagined anything of the kind. They were high up in a narrow place, with a dreadful fall into a dim valley at one side of them.There they were sheltering under a hanging rock for the night, and he lay beneath a blanket and shook from head to toe. When he peeped out in the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang. Then came a wind and a rain, and the wind whipped the rain and the hail about in every direction, so that an overhanging rock was no protection at all (Tolkien 65-66).

The travelers cling to their lives under an overhanging rock, while this dire scenario continues. They decide to send Fili and Kili ahead a short distance to find shelter. Soon, they return and report finding a dry cave where they could shelter themselves and their ponies for the duration of the storm. Gandalf questions them as to whether they have thoroughly explored the cave. They insist they have, even though they haven’t. Nevertheless, due to the severity of the storm, the travelers make their way down the path, around the corner, and into the cave.

A cave is a classic metaphor of the unconscious. The cave is a dark, primitive place of containment. There are some caves that are said to be endless; one could become lost and wander around for the remainder of one’s life without finding a way out. The cave usually lies below the earth (or in this case, under the mountains), just as unconscious contents lie below one’s conscious experience. The cave is the maternal womb where life originates, incubates, and from whence it issues forth. Just as the vault of heaven is inexplicable, so are the deep places of the earth.

Sometimes, there are irruptions from these deep places into one’s consciousness. Fissures and cracks open momentarily, at times, revealing glimpses of the depths below. There is great treasure to be discovered therein, so it is necessary, occasionally, to descend into the abyss to procure it.

As Bilbo sleeps, he dreams of a crack appearing at the back of the cave:

…he could not go to sleep for a long while; and when he did sleep, he had very nasty dreams. He dreamed that a crack in the wall at the back of the cave got bigger and bigger, and opened wider and wider, and he was very afraid but could not call out or do anything but lie and look. Then he dreamed that the floor of the cave was giving way, and he was slipping-beginning to fall down, down, goodness knows where to.

This is the archetypal journey into the depths of our unconsciousness. At certain points in our lives, the floor of the cave simply collapses and we fall headlong into the deep places. There are myriad dangers and much travail and suffering to experience, but there are amazing and wondrous treasures down there! It takes courage to descend into the darkness, and then make one’s way back up into the light. It is no easy task, indeed.

A multitude of goblins grabbed the travelers and dragged them down into the roots of the mountain. The only one not taken was Gandalf, the wizard, who had created an explosion just at the moment when Bilbo had yelled with a loud voice. The blast killed several goblins.

The Wizard is able to control the forces of Nature, pulling together the elements to create a force that keeps one in the light. No darkness can defeat it. Bilbo and the dwarves, however, had not yet mastered these things and must suffer for a season.

The way of the unconscious is a treacherous road. A comfortable journey is hardly ever in the cards. Bilbo and his friends would spend time in the belly of the beast, suffering for awhile, and exploring the depths before being brought into the Sun once more. They would return stronger and more fit for the remainder of their journey to defeat Smaug and liberate the Lonely Mountain.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: Ballantine, 1937.

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