As the company winds its way through the narrow passes of the Misty Mountains, a storm breaks. The travelers take shelter in a cave. Unfortunately, the cave has not been thoroughly explored, and it becomes a trap: that night, terrible goblins enter through a crack in the wall and take the dwarves and Bilbo captive; Gandalf escapes in a tremendous flash of lightning that actually kills several goblins. After being forced to march far underground, the dwarves and hobbit face the Great Goblin, who demands to know the purpose of their journey. One of the goblins produces Thorin's sword, to his fellow goblins' dismay: "They knew the sword at once. It had killed hundreds of goblins in its time." Enraged, the Great Goblin orders that the company be imprisoned and executed. At just that moment, Gandalf returns and, powerfully wielding his own sword, enables the dwarves and hobbit to escape. He leads them to safety, lighting their way with his wand. Their goblin pursuers catch up to them, however, and Bilbo rolls off the back of the dwarf who is carrying him. He hits his head on the ground and loses consciousness.
If elves represent for Tolkien all the potential virtue of humanity, then goblins-or, as the same race is called in The Lord of the Rings, orcs-represent all of humanity's potential vice. (In fact, The Silmarillion reveals that orcs are "fallen" or corrupted elves.) The goblins of The Hobbit are more than mere monsters. They are monsters who create only to destroy. They are industrious, but their industry is cruel and harsh. In a most revealing passage, the narrative voice-which is, of course, Tolkien's own-speculates that the goblins "invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once." The dark, dangerous, deadly caverns of "Goblin-town" beneath the Mountains could not stand in starker contrast to the pastoral tranquility of The Shire or the idealized beauty of Rivendell. Tolkien loved nature. His keen knowledge of trees, flowers, and plants shows itself throughout his fiction. No wonder Tolkien viewed industrialization, mechanization, and other such social forces as opposed not only to nature but also to a truly human existence. Furthermore, these forces, for Tolkien, are inextricably linked to the massive folly of warfare-which readers should note Tolkien always views with sadness, no matter how justified and necessary warfare may sometimes be. The goblins of Middle-earth, then, are the embodiment of humanity's technological ambition gone terribly wrong. In a 1945 letter to his son Christopher, who was fighting in World War II, Tolkien comments: "The destruction of [Nazi] Germany, be it 100 times merited, is one of the most appalling world-catastrophes. Well the first War of the Machines seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter-leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines. As the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful" (Tolkien, Letters, p. 111).
The Hobbit: Novel Summary: Chapter 4