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  • Updated 6 January 2007
  • Updates planned: 2

Owls

Birds of the night

Night-stalking hunting birds. They were evidently familiar to the Dwarves of northern Middle-earth: when Bilbo was sent to investigate a mysterious campfire on the way to Rivendell, Thorin instructed him to signal by hooting twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl. Unfortunately owls were rather less familiar to Bilbo than to the Dwarves,1 and when he was captured by the Trolls that had made the fire, he had no way to warn Thorin and company of their danger. If Bilbo had known a little more about the hooting of owls, then, the Dwarves might have escaped capture themselves, but fortunately Gandalf was able to save them from the Trolls' larder.


Notes

1

These would be difficult instructions to follow even for those more familiar with owls than Bilbo. Barn owls do not hoot, but screech, for which reason they're sometimes known as 'screech owls'. Indeed, this is the only kind of owl likely to be found in Middle-earth that are given this name (there are other 'screech owls' in the Americas, but they would not be found east of the Great Sea during the Third Age). Thus a 'barn-owl' and a 'screech-owl' are actually the same kind of owl, a kind that does not in fact hoot.

So, Thorin's instructions were ambiguous at best, to the point where Tolkien considered revising this section of the story. These revisions did not find their way into print, but they would have had Bilbo cry like a night-hawk, then hoot twice like an owl. Bilbo was exactly as confused by these instructions as in the original version, but Thorin's intended meaning is at least easier to discern.

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About this entry:

  • Updated 6 January 2007
  • Updates planned: 2

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