"Don't Leave the Mirkwood Trail!" A Masterclass is Good Writing
When I read The Hobbit as a kid, the sequence in Mirkwood Forest really stuck with me.
Bilbo and the company of dwarves are desperate to get to Lonely Mountain, in order reclaim a great treasure. But to get there on time, they must past through an ancient (and very dangerous!) forest called Mirkwood.
The wizard Gandalf suddenly has pressing business elsewhere — of course! — and he can’t accompany them into the wood (in fairness to Gandalf, he has already saved their butts quite a few times). The good news is that mystical elves once created a magical pathway through the forest that still exists, allowing travelers to avoid the dangers in the trees. Before Gandalf departs, he gives them stern advice: “Don’t stray off the [path]—if you do, it is a thousand to one you will never find it again and never get out of Mirkwood; and then I don’t suppose I, or any one else, will ever see you again.”
In my mind, this is just a fantastic set-up. It’s obviously a “character” test of sorts.
And, of course, it’s also a great fantasy genre bit. Some impossibly old forest full of ancient evil that is held back by powerful, but fading elf magic? How will our inexperienced and mostly non-magical hero and his friends survive this peril?
As a kid, I remember thinking, “There is no way I would ever leave the forest path, no matter what happened!”
So how does the sequence actually play out? It’s a master class in good writing, so let’s unpack it, shall we?
The first thing the adventurers learn upon entering the forest is that the path is very, very narrow. So narrow, in fact, that they must walk single-file. That immediately ups the challenge of never leaving the path, doesn’t it?
For a bit, there is light through the trees, but soon it is all but cut off. So now the path is narrow and dark. There is just enough light to see impossibly thick cob webs (which is great foreshadowing). But the webs are somehow kept off the path itself by its magic. The adventurers are safe … for the time being.
Then the claustrophobia sets in. The party starts to feel like they’re being suffocated, even the dwarves who are comfortable being underground. It’s even worse at night when strange, unidentified creatures stare out of the darkness with red or yellow or green eyes. And even — shudder — the pale eyes of what seem to be giant insects! But whenever they shine the light into the trees, the creatures slip off into the shadows. Worse, their lights attract horrible giant moths.
Great atmosphere, huh? At this point, it should also be clear that the forest itself is the antagonist for this part of the story, and it’s a damn good one.
That said, Bilbo and company are still protected by the magic of the forest path. The wood is certainly creepy, but the danger still can’t actually touch them. So as long as they keep their wits about them, and follow Gandalf’s advice, they might be okay.
Then the path comes to a bridge over a stream … and the bridge is out! There’s a boat that can be used to cross, but — wouldn’t you know it? The boat is on the other side of the water.
Please note what Tolkien is doing here, how cleverly he is ratcheting up the tension: the characters have no choice but to leave the path, at least to try to get across the river.
The boat doesn’t even look like it’s tied up on the other side, so if they were to throw a grappling line across, they might be able to get it.
In other words, the forest is tempting them: You’re not really leaving the forest path! You’re just trying to get the boat, so you can continue on.
Suddenly the vow I made as a kid — that I would never leave the path, no matter what happened! — now seems a bit more difficult to keep; everyone’s expectations are nicely thwarted. Sure enough, getting the boat proves much easier said than done. Then when they finally do get the boat to their side of the river, it doesn’t have oars!
They do eventually manage to get across the river and are about to step back onto the path. Whew! But at that second, a deer bolts from the forest, surprising Bombur, who falls back into the water. Which is, of course, enchanted by the evil of the forest.
Despite their best intentions, the party has now left the path. Is that enough to ruin everything? The tension goes higher still.
They continue on, but the evil of the forest has breached the party. Slowly but surely, their despair begins to eat at them. They even send Bilbo to the top of a tall tree to see how much farther they have to go. Tolkien tells us they’re actually not that far from the end, but they’ve chosen the wrong tree (or perhaps the forest has guided them to the wrong tree!), and from there, their journey looks all but hopeless.
Next they run out of food, and as the days go on, they begin to starve. Now the forest tempts them with the sounds of a nearby hunting party, and the delicious smells of roasting meat, seemingly not too far off the path.
Finally, they agree to leave the path together in search of food. (Small quibble: I think even now it should have taken more than this, a bit more infighting at least, to get them to voluntarily leave the path. But hey, he’s J.R.R. Tolkien, and I’m not.)
And by leaving the path, things naturally go from bad to worse: from giant spiders, to vengeful wood elves. They eventually do get out of the forest again, thanks to Bilbo’s quick thinking — perhaps they were the one in a thousand Gandalf was talking about.
All in all, it’s a terrific sequence in a terrific book! It haunted me as a kid, and I still love it now.
But I confess: I was very disappointed in how this was dramatized in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. It looks pretty amazing, and I do love the addition of the cool elven gate at the beginning of the forest (not in the book). But as is typical of The Hobbit movies, they go way over-the-top, immediately turning the forest into a kind of Escherian stairway. It’s too much, squandering the subtle build of the book’s rising tension.
Even worse, it violates that great rule that has been laid out for the characters (and the viewer): the characters are safe as long as they don’t leave the path. Here, Bilbo and company quickly become so groggy and confused that the spiders basically attack them on the path.
As I said, the whole narrative point of Mirkwood is that it’s a character test: Can they resist giving into temptation and despair? Instead, the movie plays it like a silly set piece.