Nov 2, 2015

Let's Read Tolkien 14: Fire and Water

Now if you wish, like the dwarves, to hear news of Smaug, you must go back again to the evening when he smashed the door and flew off in rage, two days before.

While Thorin and Company are busy bumbling around under the Mountain, it's now time for the Lake-men to reap what Bilbo and the dwarves have sown. We find some of them gazing north across the waters of the Long Lake at night, wondering what the occasional light they see in the distance is. Optimists suggest it's the dwarves forging gold under the Mountain; a "grim-voiced fellow", later identified as the archer Bard, descendant of the last lord of Dale, maintains it's much more likely to be the dragon.

"You are always foreboding gloomy things!" said the others. "Anything from floods to poisoned fish. Think of something cheerful!"

I don't know if the floods and poisoned fish are meant to suggest Bard as a kind of Old Testament prophet; I suppose the thought only occurs to me because I'm aware of the author's faith, but the Lake-men's enthusiasm about the treasures of the Mountain does have something of the golden calf about it. Properly speaking, a prophet shouldn't warn you that a dragon is coming now, but rather that because everyone is so wicked and impious, a dragon will come ten generations later. And anyway, the theological fact is that you're not a real prophet unless you can summon bears. Although I may have to revisit this later!

When a blaze lights up the northern end of the lake, the townspeople are overjoyed: the King of the Mountain is turning the river golden! That was one hell of a show the dwarves put on as they passed through. Bard, of course, realizes it's actually the dragon, and rushes to call out the warriors to defend Lake-town.


Smaug's descent on Lake-town is a very modern battle: the dragon swoops down on the town like a strafing aircraft, met not by individual heroes but by disciplined anti-aircraft fire and damage-control parties. Even Bard, the hero of the scene, leads his men like a modern officer, not a warrior from the sagas:

At the twanging of the bows and the shrilling of the trumpets the dragon's wrath blazed to its height, till he was blind and mad with it. No one had dared to give battle to him for many an age; nor would they have dared now, if it had not been for the grim-voiced man (Bard was his name), who ran to and fro cheering on the archers and urging the Master to order them to fight to the last arrow.

Even the way we learn Bard's name in a parenthesis is the exact opposite of the heroic saga traditions, and fighting to the last arrow is another one of Tolkien's deliberate anachronisms. Even the description of the battle appearing to onlookers as surpassing all fireworks, and the last company of archers grimly standing their ground are very modern images.

At this point, I have to mention the most shocking detail in this chapter: a woman! For what I believe is the first time in the entire book, women are present:

Already men were jumping into the water on every side. Women and children were being huddled into laden boats in the market-pool. Weapons were flung down. There was mourning and weeping, where but a little time ago the old songs of mirth to come had been sung about the dwarves. Now men cursed their names.

There they are! Granted, as useless non-combatants being loaded onto boats like so much cargo, rather than acting for themselves, let alone speaking, but at least they exist.

As for cursing the dwarves, well they might: inevitably, the dragon is overwhelming the Lake-men's defenses, and the town is going up in flames. Even Bard and his great yew bow are running out of arrows, and around him the archers are fleeing. But as Laketown is paying the price for Bilbo's clever riddling, so will Smaug pay for his vanity: the thrush Bilbo threw a rock at lands on Bard's shoulder. As a descendant of the men of Dale, Bard can understand the thrush, who, having overheard Bilbo reporting back to the dwarves, tells him to look out for the unprotected spot in the hollow of the dragon's left breast. The conversation is another example of Tolkien's notions of heredity and lineage, and has dramatic results: Bard fires his last shot, his prized black arrow, into Smaug's one vulnerable point, and the dragon crashes to his death on the ruins of Lake-town.


With Smaug dead and the town destroyed, the survivors gather on the shore of the Long Lake. Fully a quarter of the townspeople are dead, and more will die of their wounds; it's the innocent folk of Lake-town who pay the highest price for Bilbo's dragon adventure, and get the least in return. As they shiver on the beach, the townspeople are irate at their Master's lack of leadership and wish they could proclaim Bard king. When it turns out that Bard survived the battle, the crisis comes to a head, but the Master defuses the situation with a clever speech, reminding his people that none of this is his fault: if you want someone to blame for the destruction of your town, blame the dwarves. I think this is the first occurrence in Tolkien's works of the savvy, manipulative politician character. In this case, though, he's right, and soon enough, the townsfolk and even Bard are carried away with visions of the dragon's vast treasure lying unprotected under the Mountain.

As the Lake-men recover from their ordeal, news of the fall of Smaug spreads far and wide: his death is the talk of birds from the Long Lake to the Misty Mountains, and soon enough everyone from Beorn to the goblins of the mountains has heard the news. To the Lake-men's fortune, so has King Thranduil of the Wood-elves, who leads his host forth to get his share of the treasure. Fleet of foot, the elves soon arrive at the lakeshore, and help the former inhabitants of Lake-town as best they can. Having seen to them, a combined force of elves and men heads for the Mountain.

Next time: dwarven diplomacy.

No comments: