The sentence in question is from The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (page 103).

Bilbo was on the look out, however, caught the rope, and with a piece of stick fended off the little black boat as it came rushing across the stream.

To add some context: there is a boat they need to bring to their side of the river. And when they manage to finally snap the boat (it was fastened with a rope), the boat could swim away and Bilbo fended it off. So, my question is - what exactly does 'fended off' mean in this sentence?

The nature of my confusion originates from the fact that to fend something off means to stop something from coming too close. But in this case the hobbit wants the boat to come close to him. So, why did he fended it off? Maybe to fend off means to slow down something - could this be a possible meaning?

There is all the possible meanings of the word 'fend' from my dictionary:

fend 1) (; foll by for) to give support (to someone, esp oneself); provide (for) 2) (; usually foll by off) to ward off or turn aside (blows, questions, attackers, etc.) 3) () archaic to defend or resist 4) () and Northern English dialect to struggle; strive 5) and Northern English dialect a shift or effort •

There is some broader context from The Hobbit:

It was well that Beorn had warned them against it, or they would have drunk from it, whatever its colour, and filled some of their emptied skins at its bank. As it was they only thought of how to cross it without wetting themselves in its water.

Bilbo kneeling on the brink and peering forward cried: “There is a boat against the far bank! Now why couldn’t it have been this side!”

“Can any of you throw a rope?” “What’s the good of that? The boat is sure to be tied up, even if we could hook it, which I doubt.” “I don’t believe it is tied,” said Bilbo, “though of course I can’t be sure in this light; but it looks to me as if it was just drawn up on the bank, which is low just there where the path goes down into the water.”

Fili picked up the hook when he had drawn it back, rather doubtfully all the same. This time he threw it with great strength. “Steady!” said Bilbo, “you have thrown it right into the wood on the other side now. Draw it back gently.” Fili hauled the rope back slowly, and after a while Bilbo said: “Carefully! It is lying on the boat; let’s hope the hook will catch.” It did. The rope went taut, and Fili pulled in vain. Kili came to his help, and then Oin and Gloin. They tugged and tugged, and suddenly they all fell over on their backs. Bilbo was on the look out, however, caught the rope, and with a piece of stick fended off the little black boat as it came rushing across the stream. “Help!” he shouted, and Balin was just in time to seize the boat before it floated off down the current.

  • 1
    The boat is moving fast because it has suddenly been pulled free. (Apparently it was not tied up, just drawn up onto the bank.) Bilbo wants it to stay afloat but not to crash into the bank on their own side, so he holds on to the rope but 'fends off' the boat. Feb 13, 2023 at 9:13
  • Oh, got it, thank you!
    – Antipups Z
    Feb 13, 2023 at 9:18

1 Answer 1


Here the verb 'fend' has a specific boat-related meaning. If someone is in a boat, they may wish to push it away from, or steer it away from, a dock, the river bank, rocks, other boats, etc. They are fending the boat (the one which they are in) off those things.

To fend off a boat

(Naut.) to prevent its running against anything with too much violence.

To fend off a boat (The Free Dictionary)

  • Did you know that before you looked it up? I have to admit I did not.
    – Lambie
    Feb 12, 2023 at 22:06
  • @Lambie - about 1974 I was in a shared house, and one of the guys came from Southampton. He was crazy about everything to do with boats; it ran in his family. I think we all learned a few nautical terms. Feb 12, 2023 at 22:35
  • The full OED has the "general" definition for fender as 2a Something that serves to fend or keep off something else: They have the specifically "nautical" definition 2b A piece of old cable, or other yielding material, hung over a vessel's side to preserve it from chafing or collision with a wharf or with other vessels. No mention of (barge-)poles. I always thought fenders were what Americans call bumpers, Feb 13, 2023 at 18:31
  • Did you learn between the devil and the deep blue sea? That's my favorite.//In the US, we say bumpers OR fenders. Actually, I hit my neighbor's fender two weeks ago and had to pay 1,200 bucks to have it fixed. It was a Range Rover from about 5 years ago, which explains why it was so expensive.
    – Lambie
    Feb 13, 2023 at 18:36

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