Feb 1, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 17: The Clouds Burst

Next day the trumpets rang early in the camp.

For a second time, Bard and the Elvenking have come before the gates of Erebor to negotiate with Thorin. This time, though, Thorin's cockiness dies in his throat when he's offered a trade: the Arkenstone for a share of the treasure. Dumbfounded, he demands to know how the besiegers got their hands on it, and is enraged when Bilbo fesses up. If not for Gandalf's presence, he would've murdered Bilbo there and then; as it is, he's content to call him names, and agree to give Bard Bilbo's share in the treasure in exchange for the Arkenstone. Bilbo leaves with Gandalf; some of the dwarves are sorry to see him go, but Thorin threatens to shoot him if he doesn't get going.

Spurred on by raven messengers from Thorin, Dáin's forces arrive the next day. Incidentally, the standard equipment of Nethack dwarves is based on the description of Dáin's troops:

Each one of his folk was clad in a hauberk of steel mail that hung to his knees, and his legs were covered with hose of a fine and flexible metal mesh, the secret of whose making was possessed by Dain's people. The dwarves are exceedingly strong for their height, but most of these were strong even for dwarves. In battle they wielded heavy two-handed mattocks; but each of them had also a short broad sword at his side and a roundshield slung at his back. Their beards were forked and plaited and thrust into their belts. Their caps were of iron and they were shod with iron, and their faces were grim.

The dwarves mean to go straight on to the Mountain, carrying piles of supplies, but the Lake-men and elves block their way. A standoff ensues; Bard is happy with the besiegers' positions, but the Elvenking urges restraint, not wanting to fight a war for gold. Heralds are sent to Thorin to arrange for the handover of the treasure, but the dwarves inside the Mountain shoot at them and drive them off. Now that Dáin has arrived, Thorin no longer has any notion of negotiating: on the contrary, taking advantage of the hesitation of the elves and men, the dwarves attack them, opening fire with their archers and charging.

Just as the battle is about to begin, Gandalf steps in front of the dwarven advance to announce that a goblin army is nearly upon them; as he speaks, the swarms of bats flying above it are darkening the sky. The dwarves reconsider what they were doing, and the elves, humans and dwarves barely have time to redeploy before the goblins are upon them, and the Battle of the Five Armies has begun.

I have a confession to make: I find battle narratives incredibly boring. Usually the events themselves are profoundly uninteresting, and the action is scripted through a terrible suddenly this, suddenly that rigmarole. This one's decently written, but suffice to say that everyone fights a bunch, and it isn't going great for the defence. We get a sort of split perspective between the omniscient narrator and Bilbo's point of view; the decisively unwarlike hobbit spends the battle invisible, trying to not get killed. As things are starting to go badly, he has a bit of a moan by himself about how he should have stayed home, until he spots the eagles in the distance. As he capers around, shouting about the birds, someone throws a rock at him and he's knocked out.


Having been told several times that Tolkien glorifies war and violence, I tried to find examples of this in the battle narrative, and couldn't. The narration is somewhat sparse, and doesn't really interject any particular ethics into the story: the flow of the battle against the goblins is told as matter-of-factly as the dwarves' lunatic assault on the elves and men. The only real value judgements we get are through Bilbo's experience, which is miserable and abruptly over. The battle is described as his most dreadful experience, and he most emphatically feels that all the dragon's treasure isn't worth seeing his friends killed. Having actually read nauseatingly patriotic battle narratives gushing with honour and glory, this is no such thing. While it's true that the goblins mostly appear as a horde of faceless enemies, they're not completely dehumanized by modern standards either. The whole episode is actually more than a bit sordid: people are murdering each other over loot. Also, while a grand battle of armies is very much in the tradition of heroic epics, the protagonist of this story is anything but, and he spends his time hiding and trying to not get killed. So while this chapter is pretty much entirely dedicated to killing goblins in battle, it's brought to us from a distinctly unheroic viewpoint that sees nothing glorious in it.

This is strongly underlined by the astonishing fact that the Battle of Five Armies actually starts as the Battle of Three Armies, with the dwarves attacking the men and elves. Let's take a moment to consider how fucked up this is. Had the dwarves succeeded in killing Thranduil and defeating his army, this whole episode would have become as vile a dwarven treachery as the murder of Thingol; without the goblin host, Thorin Oakenshield would have gone down in history as one of the great villains of the Third Age. The Council of Elrond would have looked different without Gloin, and the Fellowship would have set off without Gimli. The decision to attack is insane. If Thorin and Dáin lose, they lose everything; if they win, they've slaughtered most of the fighting population of Lake-town, almost certainly meaning its end, and declared war on the Wood-elves. The Desolation of Thorin would have ranged wider than the Desolation of Smaug ever did. At this point, Thorin really has become the dragon: a monster driven to murder and destruction by his avarice. He's only rescued from insanity and infamy by the arrival of the goblins.

Reading Thorin's metamorphosis, it's impossible to understand how anyone can seriously maintain that Tolkien's world is populated by absolutely good and absolutely bad characters, and admits no nuance. I don't know what these people have read, because it isn't the book I've got, much less the Lord of the Rings. Thorin may be the villain of the piece - as Gandalf puts it, "[y]ou are not making a very splendid figure as King under the Mountain" - but even the Elvenking seems to mostly have shown up for the loot, and if Bard really intends to set up as Lord of Dale, then besieging the Mountain his future wealth and security will depend on really doesn't seem like the best idea. So the dominant theme of this chapter isn't the Battle of Five Armies, but greed and corruption. In this sense, it's not actually the winning of the ring that's the strongest foreshadowing, if you will, of the Lord of the Rings, but the glamour of the dragon's treasure.


Next time: the aftermath.

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