Monday, February 25, 2013

The Hobbit: Part 5: The Lonely Mountain

Bilbo Baggins has come a long way since the day last spring when he dashed out the door of his home in Bag End without his hat to accompany Thorin and his dwarves on their quest to recover their ancestral gold. He has lost his handkerchiefs and most of his buttons; but he has gained an elvish sword, (well, a dagger really, but for someone Bilbo's size it's close enough), a magic ring, and a bit of courage he never knew he had.

Twice now he has saved the dwarves: once from the spiders of Mirkwood and once from the dungeons of the Elf-king. Now the dwarves are within sight of the Lonely Mountain and are about to start the last leg of their journey.

Thorin and the dwarves have been welcome guests in Esgaroth, the Lake-town; a trading community built on piers in the midst of a great lake which lies at the confluence of two rivers. The people of Lake-town remember legends of prosperity when the dwarves lived under the Lonely Mountain, before the Dragon came; and hopefully retell the prophecies that this Golden Age will return when the the Dwarf King re-establishes his kingdom. They regard Thorin as the Prophecy personified.

The Master of the Town is more cynical and believes Thorin and his crew to be frauds, but is willing to play along with popular sentiment. He is surprised when Thorin announces plans to actually go to the Mountain, (he didn't think they'd actually go through with it), but he is not sorry to see them go and happily provides them with ponies and supplies.

The trek north to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, is a dismal one. At one time the river valley between the Mountain and the Lake had been a prosperous kingdom called Dale; but the surrounding lands had been devastated by the dragon. The grass was sparse and thin, and the old forest reduced to blackened stumps. Now that they are nearing the Mountain's shadow, things look far less simple than they did when the dwarves were being feasted in Lake-town.

Bilbo has been occupying himself by studying the map which Gandalf had given Thorin; which had been made by Thorin's grandfather, Thror. He is acutely aware that the dwarves have never had anything like a plan for their expedition other than "Go to the Mountain." What they would do when they actually got there and had to actually deal with the dragon was left deliberately vague. Unfortunatly, Bilbo is now a victim of his own heroism. Because of his success in rescuing the dwarves on the previous occasions, they are happy to just assume that Bilbo will think of something when the time comes.

So it is at Bilbo's urging that the dwarves, arriving at the Lonely Mountain, begin searching for the secret entrance to the Mountain, through which Thorin's father and grandfather escaped when the Dragon attacked. They find it, and by fortuitous chance are in time to catch the last full moon of Autumn, the first day of the dwarvish New Year, when the setting sun will reveal the door's keyhole.
"Now is the time for our esteemed Mr. Baggins," Thorin says, " earn his Reward."

"I have got you out of two messes already, which were hardly in the original bargain," Bilbo grumbles, "But 'third time pays for all' as my father used to say." Drawing his blade, Sting, and slipping on his Magic Ring, Bilbo ventures down into the inpenetrable darkness of the dwarvish passage. As he proceeds  he sees a reddish glow up ahead and hears the deep, rumbling throb of a huge beast snoring.
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.
Tolkien fought in the trenches during the First World War, and sometimes his thoughts and his experiences of war and heroism and courage come to the surface in his stories. I think this passage is one of them and it has always stuck in my mind.

He emerges out of the tunnel into a huge chamber, originally the deepest cellar of the dwarvish stronghold, now a kind of nesting place. The Dragon has gathered up all the gold and jewels of the dwarves and of the men of Dale and heaped it into an enormous pile; and on that pile lied the Dragon himself, Smaug the Terrible.
To say that Bilbo's breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the all the world was wonderful.
Tolkien later admitted that this was a philological reference, casting in mythological terms the linguistic theories of his friend and colleague Owen Barfield about how language and the use of words change. He didn't expect many readers to catch it, though. (I certainly didn't; I picked it up from The Annotated Hobbit)

Since he is the party's burglar and feels he should do something to justify his job description, Bilbo filches a large, golden cup from Smaug's pile of bling and hurries back to the dwarves. Here Tolkien might have been borrowing from a similar cup-stealing episode in Beowulf, and Tolkien confessed that it might have been in the back of his mind. In a letter he said that "the episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at that point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same."

The dwarves are delighted with his first piece of recovered treasure, but not for long. Soon the Dragon wakes, being troubled by a disturbing dream "in which a warrior, altogether insignificant in size but provided with a bitter sword and great courage, figured most unpleasantly." A delicious bit of deceptive foreshadowing on Tolkien's part. Immediately, Smaug senses that something is wrong. Having slept on it for over a century, he knows his inventory down to the last farthing and he soon spots that there's a cup missing.
His rage passes 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.
Smaug emerges from the mountain and the dwarves must flee into the secret tunnel for safety. Now they are trapped. They can't leave the way they came because the Dragon devoured or scattered the ponies the dwarves rode from Lake-town -- ponies are particularly unlucky in The Hobbit. The only other way out is down the tunnel and into the Dragon's lair.

The dwarves begin blaming Bilbo for stealing the cup
"What else do you suppose a burglar to do," asked Bilbo angrily. "I was not engaged to kill dragons, that is warrior's work, but to steal treasure. I made the best beginning I could. Did you expect me to trot back with the whole hoard of Thror on my back?"
Bilbo is as clueless as the dwarves about how to deal with Smaug, but although "getting rid of dragons" is not his line, he offers to go down into the dragon's lair again on a reconnaissance mission. "Perhaps something will turn up." He resolves to go down at noon the next day, when he hopes the dragon will be sleeping.

He finds the Dragon waiting for him. Smaug knew all along about the existence of the secret tunnel, but since he was too big to fit in it, he had always ignored it. "Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air. I hear your breath. Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!" Smaug can't see the hobbit, thanks to the Magic Ring, but he knows that someone is there.

Bilbo may not know a lot about dragons, but he knows better than to get too close; and here he begins to play another riddle contest. When Smaug asks who he is, Bilbo replies cryptically:
"I come from under the hill, and under the hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air. I am he that walks unseen... I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number... I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me. ... I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider."
He doesn't want to reveal his true name; neither does he want to risk angering the Dragon further with a flat refusal. Dragons love riddling talk, Tolkien assures us, and enjoy trying to figure it out. Smaug is shrewd; although there is much in Bilbo's riddles he does not understand, his remark about barrel-riding clearly points to the men of Lake-town.

But now it's Smaug's turn to play mind-games with Bilbo; games of a nastier sort. He knows that Bilbo accompanied a group of dwarves and now works to sow mistrust of the dwarves in Bilbo's mind. "I suppose you got a fair price for that cup last night? ... Come now, did you? Nothing at all! Well, that's just like them. And I suppose they are skulking outside, and your job is to do all the dangerous work..."

Smaug's insinuations do rattle Bilbo, but out of loyalty and maybe a little hobbit stubbronness he sticks to his mission. He flatters Smaug into letting him get a good look at the dragon's belly. Smaug may be armored with impenetrable scales, but Bilbo has always heard that dragons tend to have soft, vulnerable underbellies. "Your information is antiquated," Smaug grumps. Sleeping on a pile of jewels for a century has has caused loose gems from the dwarves' hoard to become embedded in the Dragon's flesh; he has virtually a waistcoat of diamonds. But Bilbo sees one bare spot in Smaug's armor, in the hollow of his left breast. He had earlier quoted a maxim of his father's: "Every worm has his weak spot," and his conservative stay-at-home father's trite advice has turned out to be true.

Pleased with his discovery, Bilbo withdraws; but makes one parting jab, which angers the Dragon. Smaug sends a jet of flame up the tunnel after Bilbo and the poor hobbit barely escapes being roasted.

Bilbo tells the dwarves about his conversation with the Dragon. They commend him for his discovery of Smaug's weakness, although they don't know how they can exploit it at the moment. Bilbo also tells them of Smaug's accusations. Here is where Smaug's mind-games fail; had Bilbo kept the Dragon's words to himself, his suspicions might have festered within him, leading to more misunderstanding. But Bilbo is too honest for that; he tells the dwarves frankly about his worries. Thorin reassures him that he intends to honor their contract and reiterates his promise that one-fourteenth of the treasure they recover will be his, and that Bilbo can choose his own fourteenth share. This will be important later.

As Bilbo talks with the dwarves, a thrush is perched nearby and seems to be listening to them. The bird kind of creeps Bilbo out, but Thorin assures him that the thrushes of the region are friendly. In fact, he says, the Men of Dale used to be able to understand the speech of the thrushes and used them as messengers.

From there the conversation turns to the treasure itself. There is one item in particular which Thorin is eager to recover; a beautiful gem called the Heart of the Mountain, the Arkenstone.

But when evening comes, the Dragon emerges again from his lair. He flies around to the side of the Mountain and tears off huge pieces of rock, sealing the entrance to the secret tunnel. Now the dwarves are truly trapped.
"Barrel-rider!" he snorted. "Your feet came from the waterside and up the water you came without a doubt. I don't know your smell, but if you are not one of those men of the Lake, you had their help. They shall see me and remember who is the real King under the Mountain!"
NEXT:  The Arkenstone; Lake-town attacked; Smaug vanquished, but is that the end?

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