Oct 5, 2015

Let's Read Tolkien 13: Not at Home

In the meanwhile, the dwarves sat in darkness, and utter silence fell about them.

Smaug is gone, leaving the dwarves and hobbit huddled in the pitch-black corridor. They stay where they are, barely daring to move or speak, for what feels to them like days, in complete silence. Eventually the waiting becomes unbearable enough that they try the door, but Smaug's assault on the mountainside has jammed it solidly shut. The dwarves despair, but Bilbo again takes charge and decides that the only way out is down. The entire party heads down toward Smaug's lair, with Bilbo going the last stretch alone and invisible.

Admittedly, the chapter title gives away much of the tension: Smaug is indeed not in. Realizing this, Bilbo calls for light, and the dwarves produce some torches, but they're either too afraid to go into the chambers of the mountain yet or too willing to sacrifice the hobbit, so Bilbo goes out on his own. This turns out to be a costly decision for the dwarves, because as he wanders around the dragon's deserted lair, Bilbo finds a fabulous jewel: the Arkenstone, lusted after by the dwarves and Thorin in particular.

This, if you like, is the first payoff we see from the tragic conversation between Bilbo and Smaug, and the first real working of the curse of Smaug's hoard: Bilbo decides to pocket the Arkenstone. He reasons to himself that he was, after all, promised a share of the treasure, so why couldn't this be it? He knows full well that this would never fly with the dwarves, but grabs the jewel anyway and pointedly fails to mention finding it, although he guesses Thorin is looking for it.

Once they've established to their satisfaction that Smaug is gone, the dwarves join Bilbo in bumbling about the deserted dragon lair. Here I have to say that Tolkien's descriptive powers fail him; it's actually a bit difficult to get a handle on what the dragon lair is really like, or how the dwarves are moving about in it. But move about it they do, poring over the mounds of treasure. They find themselves weapons and suits of armor, and as an advance payment for his services, Thorin presents Bilbo with a coat of mithril armor that they find in the hoard. The dwarves, bewitched by the dragon's hoard, would gladly stay sifting through it forever, and it's up to Bilbo again to recall them to the present. Thorin and Company make their way through the deserted halls all the way to the front gate; again, we only get the barest impression of corridors and stairways of stone, and it's tough to form any real impression of what the inside of Erebor is actually like. This is a bit of a shame.

Eventually, the company treks as far as the Front Gate, where they stand in a chilly breeze, overlooking the ruins of Dale and a valley conspicuously empty of dragons. Finding no news of Smaug, Balin takes the lead and directs the dwarves and hobbit to an abandoned watchpost on Ravenhill, one of the spurs of the Mountain. The company camps out there, still completely ignorant as to the fate of the dragon, as is the reader.

Next time, we'll fix that.

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