Bilbo and the dwarves make one last attempt to find the path, but instead find themselves captives of the elves. They make no fight and are almost glad to be caught instead of dying in the forest. Bilbo has the presence of mind to slip on his ring immediately. He follows the captive dwarves and elves right into the halls of the wood-elves and to their king who sits on chair of carven wood with a crown of berries and red leaves (182–183).
The king questions them, but gains no more information than he did from Thorin. They argue that there is no reason to be treated such, but the king charges them with pursuing and troubling his people, being in his realm and using his path without permission, and disturbing the spiders with their racket. In the end, each is put in a separate cell, but he does not tell them he has Thorin locked up as well (183–185).
Bilbo is miserable in the caves—and in the few chances he has of getting out. He manages to steal food here and there, but he feels like a burglar trapped in a house forced to burgle the same house day after day. He again wishes he was back in his Hobbit hole. Amazingly he calls his time in the elven halls the “dreariest and dullest part of all this wretched, tiresome, uncomfortable adventure!” But within a couple of weeks he manages to locate each of the dwarves, including Thorin (185–187).
Thorin’s hope revives after being found by Bilbo, just when he was thinking of revealing their quest for a chance to get out. But with Bilbo’s arrival, Thorin sends messages to all the dwarves not to say a thing until it is certain Bilbo is unable to rescue them. Bilbo is at a loss as to how to rescue the dwarves for “One invisible ring…was not much good among fourteen” (187–188).
Bilbo discovers that there is another entrance to the king’s caves. Barrels of wine are brought in and out of the cave through trapdoors down into a stream that runs under the cellars and a portcullis that allows the barrels to flow down stream, where they are collected by men and taken back to Lake-town (188-189).
One evening, several things conspire to help Bilbo hatch a plan. A great feast is being held by the king. Two guards (with keys) are sampling some of the king’s wine. As it turns out it is very potent wine, meant for small servings, not huge flagons the guards are using, and there are several empty barrels to be sent back. So Bilbo sets in motion his plan to rescue the dwarves. Bilbo steals the keys of the sleeping guards, who have had too much wine. He then begins going from cell to cell to release the dwarves, Balin first, Thorin in the deep dungeon last. However, when Bilbo reveals his plan, the dwarves don’t like it a bit and begin grumbling and complaining. Bilbo offers to take them all back to their cells, and they agree to try his plan. Before enacting the plan, Bilbo returns the keys to the sleeping guard—in hopes of keeping him out of serious trouble (189–192).
Bilbo packs the dwarves into food barrels—the wine barrels not sufficient for the task amid much grumbling and complaining. He finishes putting in the last dwarf when the elves arrive who are to push the barrels through the doors into the stream. The elves who come down think there is a mistake as the barrels don’t seem empty—as they are not—but the butler whom they awaken claims they are the right ones, and so the dwarves are rolled to the hole and plopped into the river (192–194).
It is at this moment that Bilbo realizes the hole in his plan: he’s not in a barrel. As the elves sing, Bilbo grabs hold of the last barrel and plummets into the stream with a barrel on top of him. He is stuck holding on to a barrel in icy water, for he cannot manage to get on top of it at all. As he and the barrels float down the stream, he hopes he put the lids on tight. As the barrels collect in a bend and all bunch together, Bilbo manages to scramble up on top and out of the water, and when they start moving again, he manages to stay on top. Finally the stream joins the larger Forest River and the party is finally out of Mirkwood. The barrels come to rest on the north bank in a bay, where they are roped together and left till morning. Bilbo climbs off and manages to steal some food and find a fire (195–199).
His wet, dripping clothes and sneezing give him away and instead of being able to dry by a fire, he has to spend the night in the woods—but not after having stolen a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and a pie. He wakes to hear the barrels being made into a barge. He manages to get on the mass of barrels just as they are being pushed out into the river (199–200).