Only a Fool's Hope

Disclaimer: Although my surname is also Germanic, it is not Tolkien. Therefore, I do not own Middle-earth. I just play in its sandbox and hope the good Professor does not come back to haunt me.

The patter of raindrops upon the tree leaves tinkled like some faint, faraway music, almost drowning out the occasional disgruntled Dwarvish murmur. The ponies' hooves did not so much clop upon the muddy path but squelched, tossing tiny bits of sodden earth up onto their riders' clothing and gear.

The Dwarves were all huddled under their cloaks and hoods, hoping to stay as dry as reasonably possible. Their thoughts dwelt upon futile hopes of a warm hearth, hot food, and dry clothing. Poor Master Baggins, without hood or hat, hunched miserably upon Myrtle, his chestnut pony, peering through the raindrops with squinted eyes. More than ever he seemed to regret running out of Bag-End, contract trailing after him.

If it were not for the grumbling of the disaffected Dwarves around him, Gandalf might not have noticed the discomfort of the rain. Under the shelter of his wide-brimmed hat, he listened to the music of the tinkling rain, hearing therein an echo of the Music of the Ainur.

Strange, that something so beautiful and refreshing as rainfall, the commingling of the domains of Manwë and Ulmo, should have been brought about by the discords of Melkor. In his desire to disrupt, Melkor had wrought both heat and cold immoderate, but he had not been able to quench the power of the sea. Instead, by some chance foreseen by Ilúvatar alone, the water had merely transmuted, resulting in the natural beauties of ice and snow, cloud and mist. Ever had Ilúvatar brought new wonders out of the calamities inspired by the dissenting Vala.

Nevertheless, it was now no dark lord brooding within the halls of Angband against whom this small party marched, nor yet Morgoth's lieutenant, Gorthaur the cruel, who had driven the men of Númenor to their own destruction and forced the Valar to lay aside, however briefly, their guardianship of Arda. These Dwarves had no motives for their quest beyond longing for the sacred halls of their forefathers, hunger for the riches left behind in Erebor, and revenge against the dragon that had deprived them of both. They cared nothing for the troubles of others; the struggles of the men of Rohan and Gondor meant nothing to them.

Those same struggles, however, weighed on Gandalf's mind, for he had been entrusted with the good of all Middle-earth. Once called Olorin in the uttermost West, he had taken on the guise of an old man, wandering among the Free Peoples of Middle-earth and ever inspiring them to work against the shadow. If Sauron were to rise in strength again, building up his fortress of Barad-dûr from the foundations that yet remained, the task of the Istari was to oppose him.

For many long, watchful years Middle-earth might have seemed free of Sauron, were it not for the trouble of the Úlairi, the Ringwraiths, who had targeted Gondor and slain the last of its kings. Indeed, at first the White Council had suspected that the dark power that had set itself up within the fortress of Dol Guldur upon Amon Lanc within the vastness of Greenwood the Great was only a Ringwraith. As the years turned over and Greenwood sank into the spider-infested darkness of Mirkwood, Gandalf had investigated Dol Guldur and learned the truth: the Necromancer who dwelt there was no Ringwraith, but Sauron himself.

He had urged swift deeds when he reported his findings to the White Council, but Saruman the White had counseled against him. If Sauron had regained possession of the One Ring, he would beyond doubt be a threat to Middle-earth, but Saruman assured them that it would never again be found until the mending of the world. It had long ago rolled down Anduin into the Sea, he had said, and he was content to let it lie there until the end of all ages.

The White Council had accepted his words, yet the hearts of Elrond and of Gandalf both had misgiven them. Elrond warned that the One Ring might yet be found, and he could see no other fate for Middle-earth in such a mischance but for everything to end in a second darkness.

"Unless," he said, "some strange chance deliver us that my eyes cannot see."

"Many are the strange chances of the world," Gandalf had agreed, "and help oft shall come from the hands of the weak when the Wise falter."

His own remark had reoccurred to his mind in the days since. If ever the Wise were to falter, now seemed as likely a time as any. Sauron was regaining a foothold in the world, the Ringwraiths were keeping Gondor occupied from the Tower of Sorcery, Minas Morgul, Isildur's Tower of the Moon that they had taken and defiled, Eriador was disunited and leaderless, and a dragon sat upon a bed of gold deep within the Lonely Mountain. It was much even for a member of the Istari to handle.

Returning to the Shire in the weariness of his heart, Gandalf had stopped at the Prancing Pony at Bree. There he sat, musing upon these matters as he produced smoke-ring after smoke-ring. He had looked up from his pipe to meet the gaze of a dark-haired Dwarf, all the pride and sorrow of his race smoldering in his eyes. Presently, the Dwarf approached and introduced himself to the wizard as Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror, who had been King under the Mountain.

A chance meeting, Gandalf supposed, as they called it in Middle-earth.

Thorin's grievances against the dragon did not fall on deaf ears. Gandalf had long feared the damage Sauron could wreak, were he ever able to persuade to work his will against the inhabitants of the Anduin vale and of Eriador.

It seemed that, with or without Gandalf, Thorin would set out against Smaug, and Gandalf had a hard time of it, trying to convince the stubborn Dwarf not to march upon the mountain in open war, as if he were already Thorin II, King under the Mountain. Stealth the wizard had counseled, and at last it seemed Thorin would trust him in the matter.

Gandalf thought then for the first time in years of the map and key he had been given by the mad old Dwarf in the dungeons of the Necromancer. Had it been, then, a broken and battered Thrain he had found? No name had the dying Dwarf spoken, but it seemed in hindsight that he could have been no other. The strange chances of Middle-earth seemed less and less like chance; Gandalf supposed that he was meant to help Thorin Oakenshield, and that Thorin was meant to set out on his quest.

As he wandered through the Shire on his way back from Thorin's halls in the Blue Mountains, his words to Elrond came back to him. As he heard the gossip about Bilbo Baggins – always speaking with travelers or running off in search of Elves on the day of their New Year – he followed the lead of chance. So he had taken it upon himself to visit this promising grandson of the Old Took.

It had not gone as well as Gandalf had hoped. At the sensible age of 50, Bilo was becoming set in his ways, and became flustered at the prospect of an adventure. Suggesting Gandalf try over the Hill or across the Water, the hobbit had fairly fled into the safety of his hobbit-hole.

Gandalf had come too far not to take Bilbo now, though, having brought the Dwarves through the Shire secretly so that no word of them would reach Mr. Baggins. Hoping that the Dwarves arriving in small numbers at first might pique Bilbo's interest and keep him from turning them away entirely, Gandalf sent them on one by one at first. Dwalin took it upon himself to arrive first and secure the area.

"Let us hope Dwalin has not frightened the hobbit half to death before we arrive," Bofur had remarked. The giant of a Dwarf had a naturally intimidating manner, with his scowling face and scarred, tattooed arms. Bombur scarcely dared to speak a word in Dwalin's presence.

Balin was an obvious choice for the next Dwarf to send; kindly, with a grandfatherly appearance, he would hopefully be reassuring to Bilbo and keep Fili and Kili from doing anything too terrible.

As he sent the two young Dwarves off, Gandalf hoped momentarily that Fili refrained from laughing at Bilbo's name when they met.

Gandalf had not originally intended for the next eight Dwarves to all arrive at the same time, but Bifur had other ideas. He forged on ahead with Oin and Gloin, leaving Bofur to chase after him. Bombur, who was tired of always being last, decided to follow them. In the meanwhile, Nori had vanished into thin air, leaving only Dori and Ori. Dori guessed that Nori would have slipped on ahead to ensure he did not miss out on any of the food, and took off to go collar him before he stole all the silverware. Ori had dutifully followed.

Making his own way across the Shire, Gandalf had found them wandering to in fro in search of the green door he had told them to look for. Was Bag-End that hard to find? At least a couple of them had managed to locate the g-rune on the door, and were ringing the doorbell and chattering among themselves as Gandalf and the stragglers arrived.

Then the door had opened suddenly, the Dwarves falling flat onto the floor of the entry hall, at the furry feet of a very flummoxed and upset hobbit.

Fonder now of doilies and his mother's dishes than the promise of adventure, Bilbo was appalled by the impromptu Dwarf party and protested to Gandalf about the state of his kitchen, his carpet, his pantry, and his bathroom. The wizard listened patiently, trying to marshal suitably persuasive reasons for Bilbo to join the Company. His work seemed to unravel as fast as he could weave it, however, with Bofur's lurid descriptions of a dragon.

The climax came as Bofur gleefully said, with a wave of his hand, "Think furnace, with wings! A flash of light, searing pain, and then poof! You're nothing more than a pile of ash."

Bilbo responded by collapsing to the floor in a faint.

As he stood up to rescue the hobbit, Gandalf noticed Bofur surveying Bilbo with a tilt of his head. Fool of a Dwarf! Laughing in the face of likely failure was one thing, but frightening his chosen and selected burglar from coming on the quest was quite another.

Not only had Bilbo at first refused to sign the contract, Thorin had also been displeased with Gandalf, not wishing to take along a hobbit who was more of a grocer than a burglar. He had wondered out loud if this whole detour was merely Gandalf making a mockery of him. Only by producing the map and key he had received from Thrain did Gandalf manage to placate the stubborn Dwarf.

At the very least, the Tookish side of Mr. Baggins had emerged in time for him to catch up with the Company the following morning.

As he rode through the rain now, musing upon the music of the raindrops rattling the leaves of the trees, Gandalf recalled saying in Bag-End, "If this hobbit goes with you, you will succeed. If not, you will fail. A foresight is on me, and I am warning you."

Was there any hope of it succeeding, this mad quest to fight a dragon and recover the long-forgotten gold of Erebor? Gandalf doubted that Thorin himself had any real hope of destroying Smaug. The Dwarf prince who had cut his beard short to commemorate the indignities suffered by his sire and grandsire would only remember all too well the dragon-fire beneath the sky and the ashes of Dale between the southern arms of the Lonely Mountain.

Did any of the other Dwarves hove hope for success?

Gandalf cast a speculative eye behind him down the line of drenched, unhappy Dwarves. Balin had urged Thorin against the quest, he knew, while Dwalin would follow Thorin to any end, regardless of his own thoughts on the matter.

It was hard to say what Dori, Nori, and Ori thought of the matter; Nori was shifty and Ori just wanted to go on an adventure with his brother, with Dori there to mother-hen him and bring him back home again safely.

Speaking of Dori, there he went again, nattering on about the rain…

Fili and Kili might have hopes of destroying Smaug, Gandalf reflected. Thorin's nephews, they carried with them the energy and determination of youth. They seemed to have taken to their burglar, at least. Kili had been the only Dwarf other than the deaf Oin to bet that Bilbo would come with them, even if he had seemed convinced that the Hobbit's surname was Boggins, not Baggins.

The first time he heard the name mispronounced, Gandalf had glanced over at Fili. He could recall quite well that Fili had been present as he discussed Erebor with Thorin, and that Fili, on asking which name the hobbit went by, had thought Bilbo Baggins to be utterly ridiculous. The wizard thought it likely that Fili had deliberately misinformed his cheerful brother about the Hobbit's name.

The young blond Dwarf's slight smirk seemed to confirm that theory.

Oin and Gloin, of course, believed in the portents Oin had described for them all, regardless of what Dori and the rest thought of such superstitions. How had Oin put it? Ah, yes: When the birds of yore return to Erebor, the reign of the beast shall end. It sounded promising enough as far as it went; Gandalf had had enough experience with the eagles of Manwë to see in them a sign of salvation.

However, did Oin and Gloin expect that the Company would be the cause of the downfall of the beast? They were old enough to have seen the devastation dealt in one afternoon by the great worm, and they would know that Smaug would only have grown more cunning and his armor harder with age.

Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur were the hardest to account for among the Dwarves of the Company. Not even numbered among the Folk of Durin, they did not seem to have any personal motivation for joining this quest. Miners turned toymakers, they had had no reason to leave the Blue Mountains. What had drawn them away? Gandalf momentarily wondered if they had come along because they had been told the beer was free.

The gray Wizard glanced back at the two brothers and their cousin. In another of his odd quirks, Bifur seemed to be actually enjoying the cool droplets of water on his face. He rode seemingly without a care in the world, content to let his pony follow the others. Bombur appeared to be snacking on a sausage link he had produced from somewhere about his person – he always seemed to have food with him.

Bofur, however, apparently unbothered by the rain, was attempting to smoke his pipe.

His unshakeable optimism struck Gandalf. Some might see Bofur's attempt as foolish, and the Dwarf himself would readily call himself a fool in the tales he spun. Gandalf reconsidered him now, and found that he did not think he was a fool at all. Bofur had proved that he knew exactly what danger into which they were all walking; his descriptions for Bilbo's benefit had been barely exaggerated. Despite that, he had left his home in the Blue Mountains and now rode on with the rest of the Company.

And he continued to fumble with his pipe.

Gandalf smiled to himself. In that moment, he knew he did not see amdir, or mere optimism, but estel, or true hope, as the Eldar distinguished it, something that looked past circumstances and would not waver.

No, there had never been much hope for the success of the Dwarves' quest for Erebor. But there was a fool's hope, and that was enough – for both Erebor, and for the fate of Middle-earth.

Author's Note:

Yes, the scene of Bofur smoking his pipe in the rain is one of my favorite small character scenes in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and somehow, while thinking about it, this one-shot emerged.

My apologies for having read The Silmarillion (quotes from Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age and from The Quest for Erebor in Unfinished Tales), and thus my persistence in making reference to things most people will not recognize. I also love J. R. R. Tolkien's names, even when I cannot keep them all striaght, so I feel compelled to throw in as many as I can. And I seem to have a need to open with a lot of boring backstory. Again, my apologies, and a few explanations:

(1) Gorthaur is an alternate name for Sauron. Why did I use it? I just like the sound of it. (2) Melkor was the original name of Morgoth, Sauron's ultra-evil boss in The Silmarillion. (3) The Ainur, angelic beings whom Ilúvatar, the Father of All, first created, are divided into the Valar (the fourteen most powerful of the Ainur, not including Melkor) and the Maiar, from whom the Istari, or the Wizards, were drawn. I have a headcanon that the first dragons were either incarnated Maiar or descended from Maiar somehow. At least, I think it's a headcanon; it may be described somewhere in The History of Middle-earth and I cannot recall where at the moment.

Seriously, in The Quest for Erebor Fili really does make fun of Bilbo's name. Thus, my theory is that he deliberately told Kili the hobbit was named Bilbo Boggins. He may be majesty in training, but I think he has some mischief in him. Yeah, Fili's my favorite of the Dwarves.

Yes, in various promotional materials it does say that Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur joined the Quest because they were told the beer was free.

And, yes, the mention of Bofur spinning tales is an allusion to The Widow and the Toymaker by cellotlix. It is seriously amazing. I cannot stress this enough: go read it! It has become my headcanon for Bofur.

Thank you for reading! If you support actual Silmarillion-based fanfic and eschew the shoddy romances the movie has spawned, please review! Tell me all about how I failed at seeing things from Gandalf's point of view and I will love you forever.