Having already captured Thorin, the Wood-elves now capture his companions as well. Quickly, Bilbo puts on the Ring. He follows the procession of captives to the hall of the Wood-elves king. The king charges the dwarves with trespassing and imprisons them. He does not tell them that Thorin is also captive in the dungeons, but Bilbo discovers that fact. After one or two weeks, Bilbo realizes that, if the company is to escape, he will have to take action by himself. The hobbit discovers that a stream runs from under the palace to the river outside; the enchanted gates are not the only exit. A portcullis opens to allow barrels of wine and other commodities to float from the palace to Lake-town, a city of Men, at the rivers end. Bilbo devises a plan in which he picks the dungeon keys off the chief guards person, frees the dwarves, and packs them in empty barrels. The Wood-elves thus unknowingly release their prisoners onto the river. The barrels float to Lake-town, the invisible hobbit riding atop the raft of them. The narrator ends the chapter on a suspenseful note by commenting that dwarves “escaped the dungeons of the king and were through the wood, but whether alive or dead still remains to be seen.”
This chapter allows Bilbo to “shine” as the true hero he is becoming. He has earned the dwarves trust by this point, and he proves that their trust in him is well-placed. Readers again see more of Bilbos transformation, and how the heros journey has affected him. In that mythic pattern, the hero at some point must undergo what mythology scholar Joseph Campbell has called a “descent into darkness”-for example, Odysseus descent into Hades in Greek mythology. Sometimes the descent into darkness even involves death, whether literal or figurative. Twice now, Bilbo has “descended into darkness.” Under the Misty Mountains, he found himself alone-save for Gollum-and managed, thanks to the help of the Ring and, as the narrator acknowledges, a good dose of luck, to escape. Now, however, in the dungeons of the Wood-elves, Bilbo escapes (again, admittedly, with the help of the Ring) thanks to his wits and practical abilities. The two sequences of episodes parallel each other, as if to emphasize the point: for instance, the company is captured and taken before the Great Goblin, as they are captured and taken before the Wood-elves king. In both instances, the narrator pays special attention to Bilbo-in the first case, however, Bilbo was among the imprisoned, while here he is an independent, freely acting character. Upon noticing the similarities between the two incidents, readers should be able to see how Chapter 5, as a “descent into darkness,” prepared Bilbo for this moment in the story. Once more, the mythic, archetypal pattern expresses a reality many people experience during their lives: their own, personal “descents into darkness” lead them to become stronger, more fully realized individuals.
Also note how the motif of animosity between elves and dwarves continues in this chapter, which specifically anticipates the way in which that motif will resurface in The Lord of the Rings: the elves of Lothlori?n initially take Frodo and his companions prisoner because they-including Gimli the dwarf-have trespassed in elven lands. Tolkien is further establishing the context of conflict against which the climactic events of the book will take place.