Sep 7, 2015

Let's Read Tolkien 12: Inside Information

For a long time the dwarves stood in the dark before the door and debated, until at last Thorin spoke:

So, if the previous chapter was a very short tension-builder, this one's got everything and a dragon in it. Now that the door into the Mountain is open, Bilbo heads inside to burgle the dragon. If that seems completely insane to you, you've clearly been paying attention. Balin comes along for a short way, but Bilbo is basically left on his own to make his way down the ancient dwarven passage, right into the lair of Smaug the dragon. On the way in, we get a description of Thorin and company, which finishes with this:

There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.

This is pretty well in line with what we've seen of them so far - at least if you don't assume that they're necessarily very good at calculating. I quote this to once again point out that the racialized notions in fantasy where dwarves are Always Good don't originate here.

So Bilbo heads down the pitch-dark passage, and we're treated to some pretty good buildup as a dim red light and vague throbbing noise slowly begin to resolve into a sleeping dragon. What follows is a decent take on courage:

It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

I don't care what you call me, but I very much like the idea that the real test of courage isn't murdering orcs or fighting dragons or whatever, but rather that it's facing your own fear of what's to come, alone. Poignant stuff from a veteran of trench warfare.

Having mastered his fear, on Bilbo goes, right into the lair of Smaug the dragon. Of the various Hobbit covers, my favorite has always been John Howe's, because it captures this magical moment so well:

Smaug, lit by a red glow, lying on a massive bed of treasure. The dragon's hoard isn't just any pile of treasure, though: as in Beowulf and the Volsunga saga, it has a magical quality of its own, and that enchantment, "the desire of dwarves", holds Bilbo spellbound. Eventually he recovers himself, and deciding to establish some better burglarizing credentials, grabs a cup from the hoard and heads back outside.

The dwarves are absolutely delighted by their first piece of treasure, patting Bilbo on the back and making grandiose plans to recover the rest of it, when Smaug wakes up and finds his cup missing.

Thieves! Fire! Murder! Such a thing had not happened since first he came to the Mountain! His rage passed description - the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.

Tolkien on privilege?

As Smaug comes roaring out of the mountain, the dwarves panic, and Bilbo has to take charge and start hustling them into the tunnel. Suddenly they remember that Bofur and Bombur were left behind in the lower camp. No doubt because Bombur is fat, as they rarely tire of pointing out. Dwarves are apparently really big on body-shaming. They manage to rescue him and Bofur, but then Smaug flies by and all they can do is hide in the tunnel, barely escaping being roasted by his fiery breath.


While Thorin and company camp out in the tunnel and their poor ponies are eaten by a dragon, a discussion is had that is somewhat satisfying to the attentive reader.

They debated long on what was to be done, but they could think of no way of getting rid of Smaug - which had always been a weak point in their plans, as Bilbo felt inclined to point out.

As I've said, up until now, it's been a complete mystery how a traveling circus of unarmed dwarves witty enough to walk into a troll ambush was ever supposed to be able to even mildly annoy a dragon. Now we know what the great plan to defeat Smaug was: nothing. There really never was one in the first place. Frankly, this whole expedition seems completely barking mad. The only real question is why Gandalf chose such an incredibly elaborate way of getting Bilbo killed. When I played Oblivion and did the Dark Brotherhood assassination quests, I murdered a particularly challenging target by crafting an enchanted shirt that did constant fire damage and reverse pickpocketing it onto him so he put it on when he got up in the morning. It was entertaining watching him go about his daily routine while noticeably on fire. Up until now, I thought that was a moderately elaborate way of committing murder; it never once occurred to me to persuade my target that he's a burglar and sign him up with a posse of incompetent dwarves who intend to assault a dragon without so much as half a plan.

The current plan, as near as we can tell, is to hide in the tunnel until something happens. In the meanwhile, Bilbo volunteers to sneak back into Smaug's lair, trusting in his magic ring and assuming that the dragon will be sound asleep. Of course, he's quite awake and expecting Bilbo, and their encounter is one of the best scenes in the book. The dragon tries to tempt Bilbo out into the open, but Bilbo knows better - because naturally a solidly middle-class gentlehobbit who's more like a grocer than a burglar knows how to talk to a dragon. There's a bit of repartee where Bilbo (and the reader!) thinks he's come off quite well, until his parting shot nearly gets him broiled alive. In reality, Bilbo didn't do nearly as well as he thought, since his clever riddling did give away that he'd come from Lake-town; our intrepid burglar has paid the people of Lake-town for their hospitality by siccing a dragon on them. Smaug has found out this and more, and planted a seed of doubt in Bilbo's mind as to the honesty and intention of the dwarves - but in his fatal vanity he rolled over to show off his under-armor to the hobbit, who clocked his weak spot. So in short, this epic dialogue between the hobbit and the dragon sets off the climactic events of the whole book, and in great style. Simply a brilliant scene.


Bilbo barely makes his getaway up the tunnel, and finds his way back to the dwarves. A long conversation on treasure, dragons and whatnot ensues, confirming that not only do the dwarves really not have any kind of a plan, but they're also a bit mad about the dragon's hoard, Thorin going particularly my precioussss over a fabled jewel called the Arkenstone. The talk is punctuated by Bilbo's unease as he uncharacteristically throws a rock at a nearby thrush, and eventually begs the dwarves to shut the door before the dragon gets there. They do so, barely in time to avoid certain death as Smaug batters the mountainside where he's worked out the door to the passage has to be. Having failed to catch the thieves, Smaug resolves to make the Lake-men pay for helping them, and swoops off to wreak his vengeance.


Next time: spelunking, and an absent dragon.

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