Dec 7, 2015

Let's Read Tolkien 15: The Gathering of the Clouds

Now we will return to Bilbo and the dwarves.

Meanwhile, back at the Mountain, Bilbo and the dwarves are wondering what's going on with all the birds: there are whole flocks of them flying around quite unseasonally. A thrush approaches them, but none of the dwarves can understand him. Balin explains to Bilbo that in the old days, the ravens of the Mountain were friends of the dwarves, and he remembers a raven he knew called Carc. Hearing this, the thrush vanishes, and soon returns with an ancient, venerable raven: Roäc, son of Carc, chief of the ravens of the Mountain at an improbable 153 years of age.

Roäc gives Bilbo and the dwarves the news of Smaug's death and the approaching armies. Everyone is overjoyed at the first, and as for elves and homeless Lake-men, Thorin asks the ravens to send word to his kinsman Dáin of the Iron Hills for help. The dwarves immeiately start fortifying the Mountain; the only remaining entrance is the front gate, and using tools they find in the ruins, they build a stone wall to block it. When the elves and Lake-men arrive, they find the dwarves and hobbit holed up in the Mountain.

To say the discussions don't get off to a particularly good start is an understatement. Bard speaks for the Lake-men; he points out that it was he who slew the dragon, and that as descendant and heir to the Lords of Dale, a fair chunk of the treasure Thorin is sitting on is his by right. Further, he reminds Thorin that the Lake-men helped him in his quest, and in return lost their town and a quarter of its population.

Bilbo, listening in, feels quite strongly that Bard is right and reasonable, and I'd agree. Thorin, though, responds in amasterpiece of dwarven arrogance and stupidity. The plight of the homeless Lake-men is singled out for special scorn, and in general Thorin maintains that the treasure in its entirety is his and his alone. He calls the Lake-men thieves and robbers, and won't even talk to Bard again unless the elves leave, and in a final insult, offers to pay for the ponies and supplies the Lake-men provided him with. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be a non-starter, and talks end. Later, the heralds of Bard return. Their message is that Bard requests a twelfth part of the treasure as dragonslayer and heir of Dale, out of which he's prepared to compensate the Lake-men for their losses. Thorin shoots at them. The Mountain is declared under siege.


I'd like to start my discussion of this chapter off by pointing out that Thorin is an asshole. The rousing song the dwarves sing has a refrain about the death of Smaug that ends "And ever so our foes shall fall!" By the hands of others and at the expense of others, one assumes; the dwarves haven't done anything to deserve the tiniest bauble of the dragon's hoard. Without Gandalf and Bilbo, they'd never have made it as far as Rivendell, let alone into the Mountain itself. They roused Smaug against the Lake-men; the dwarves never had a hope in hell of getting rid of Smaug, or indeed by their own admission any kind of plan or notion for it in the first place. Bard is clearly right: not only does Smaug's hoard undoubtedly consist of the treasure of Dale as well, but the dwarves' reckless treasure-hunting has directly led to the deaths of a quarter of Lake-town's population and the destruction of the town itself. The dragon only lies dead because of the unlikely tag team of a hobbit, a thrush and a man of Dale. Thorin's response to all this is that these homeless people can kiss his ass, because it's his gold and they can't have any of it. The people who paid the price for his wealth are thieves and robbers for appealing to him for compensation, and his answer is violence. There's no two ways about this: he really is a monumental asshole.

As we're told, what's at work here is the curse of the dragon's hoard, and the special suspectibility of the dwarves to it. In modern terms, the curse seems to turn dwarves into excellent caricatures of privilege. Thorin, sitting on a fantastic pile of wealth delivered to him by the work and sacrifice of others, moralizes on his inalienable right to it through his ancestors, and has nothing but violent scorn for anyone actually involved in the work of earning it. The worst thing anyone can do is appeal to his sense of charity.

To be honest, I don't remember reading a more devastating condemnation of unearned wealth and privilege in fantasy. Again, the engine of the story is the juxtaposition of the modern and the fantastical: the great quest to slay the dragon is over, and the romantic figure of the dispossessed King under the Mountain turns into a grasping, avaricious bigot. The only way King Thorin would ever make the river run golden would be by pissing in it because the poor drink from it. Here, if you like, is a precursor of the main theme of the Lord of the Rings: power corrupts. In a powerful allusion to Fafnir, Thorin, under the curse of the dragon's hoard, is turning into a dragon himself. One of Tolkien's key messages is that in setting out to slay a monster, you should take care lest you end up taking its place.


Next time: a hobbit gets bored.

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