Monday, March 4, 2013

The Hobbit: Part 6: The Fall of Smaug

Bilbo and the dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, have finally reached Erebor, the Lonely Mountain. Unfortunately Smaug, the terrible dragon who currently occupies the dwarven halls under the Mountain, has become aware of their presence. He has sealed them in the secret tunnel leading to the Dragon's treasure chamber, and is now flying off to Lake-town to punish the men of that community, whom he believes sent the dwarves.

Unable to go back the way they came, Thorin's party ventures down into the Dragon's lair; once again sending Bilbo first. The Dragon is gone for the moment, but as far as the dwarves know he could come back at any time. While exploring around Smaug's hoard, Bilbo comes across a large, glittering gem.
It was the Arkenstone, the Heart of the Mountain. So Bilbo guessed from Thorin's description; but indeed there could not be two such gems, even in so marvelous a hoard, even in all the world. ... The great jewel shone before his feet of its own inner light, and yet, cut and fashioned by the dwarves, who had dug it from the heart of the mountain long ago, it took all light that fell upon it and changed it into ten thousand sparks of white radiance shot with glints of the rainbow.
Impulsively, Bilbo shoves the jewel into his pocket. Why? He'd not sure he knows himself. His sensible Baggins-nature recognizes that he's probably making a mistake.
"Now I am a burglar indeed!" thought he. "But I suppose I must tell the dwarves about it -- some time. They did say I could pick and choose my own share; and I think I would choose this, if they took all the rest!" All the same he had an uncomfortable feeling that the picking and choosing had not really been meant to include this marvelous gem, and that trouble would yet come of it.
The Arkenstone is similar to the silmarils from Tolkien's Silmarillion; jewels of such intense beauty, that people become obsessed with possessing them. All things considered, Bilbo gets off pretty easily for his act of pilferage. If C.S. Lewis had been writing the story, I think that karma would have bitten Bilbo in the butt much harder. But perhaps his crime is mitigated by how he ultimately uses the Arkenstone. That comes later.

Meanwhile, what happened to the Dragon?

The men of Lake-town see flashes of light on the distant mountain and think hopefully that the King under the Mountain is once again forging gold. The grim-faced captain of the town's archers thinks the fires more likely come from Smaug, "the only king under the Mountain we have ever known." His name is Bard, and if he has a reputation among his peers as a Gloomy Gus, he comes by it honestly. His family were refugees from Dale, the kingdom lying in the valley between the Mountain and the Lake, when it was devastated by the Dragon; and he is descended from the Kings of Dale.

Bard rallies the towns defenses, orders evacuations of the townsfolk and organizes bucket brigades to try to control fires. The town's position in the middle of a lake makes it well-defended against conventional ground-based attack, but it is still built chiefly of wood and highly vulnerable to aerial flame attacks; which is just what Smaug begins to do. The arrows of Bard's bowmen do no damage to the dragon's diamond-and-kevlar hide. Then, when all looks lost, a thrush flies up and lights on Bard's shoulder.

Yes, this is the same thrush who was hanging around the dwarves' camp; whose cracking of snail shells reminded Bilbo of the inscription on Thror's Map, and who was listening when Bilbo told the dwarves about his conversation with Smaug. Earlier Thorin mentioned that the Men of Bard could understand the language of thrushes, and now this thrush tells Bard of the Dragon's weak spot which Bilbo observed.

I have to admit, I've always found this bit rather convenient. Yes, we have seen talking eagles and wolves and spiders, but the bit with Bard and the bird just seemed to be stretching coincidence more than I like. But what Tolkien is doing here is giving a shout-out to the old Norse sagas he loved so much. In the Völsungsa saga, the great 13th Century Icelandic epic, the hero Sigurn gains the ability to understand the speech of birds when the tastes the blood of the slain dragon Fafnir. Richard Wagner used this same bit in his Ring of the Nibelung, which was based on the Völsungsa saga.

Tolkien often became annoyed when people compared his Lord of the Rings to Wagner's Ring Cycle. "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases." he'd gripe. I don't know if he would have been less testy if people compared LOTR with the Völsungs instead of with Wagner, but I think that in the case of Bard and the Bird the similarities were deliberate.

Prompted by the thrush's advice, Bard spots the bare patch in the Dragon's armor and readies his lucky Black Arrow, and heirloom passed down by his family.
"Arrow!" said the bowman. "Black arrow! I have save you to the last. You have never failed me and always I have recovered you. I had you from my father and he from of old. If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!"
The arrow flies straight and true and finds the Dragon's weak spot. Smaug plummets from the sky, crushing a large portion of the town beneath him. In a hiss of steam he sinks to the bottom of the Lake. Bard himself only barely manages to escape the catastrophe of Smaug's death-throes.

The Dragon now is dead, but the town has been devastated. At first people are inclined to blame the Master of the Town, who fled at the first sign of trouble, and want to declare Bard king. The Master insists that if anyone is to blame, it's the stupid dwarves who went and got the dragon all riled up; (and he does have a point). "Why waste words on those unhappy creatures?" Bard says; "Doubtless they perished first in fire, before Smaug came to us."

Bard is not without ambition himself; the idea of re-establishing his forefathers' kingdom in Dale appeals to him, and it occurs to him that the unclaimed treasure of the dwarves would make some excellent starting capital. But he still has duties to the Lake-town and an obligation to help the Lake-folk left homeless by the Dragon's attack.

The Elf-king hears of Smaug's fall and he too thinks of all that gold and treasure lying unguarded under the mountain. But before he sends his own army to Erebor, he first has it escort food and relief down the river to Lake-town. He may be prejudiced against dwarves and have an unseemly fondness for the bling; but despite these personal flaws, Tolkien reminds us again that the elves are "Good Folk." Extending charity to his unfortunate neighbors will take priority over treasure-grabbing for the moment.

And there are others who also hear of the Dragon's death and regard the news with interest.

While all this is happening, the dwarves have been exploring the ancient halls of their ancestors and doing inventory of the treasure and armaments they find. Thorin gives Bilbo a short mail-shirt made of mithril, a lightweight metal as bright as silver and stronger than steel. The mail-shirt, along with Bilbo's elvish blade, Sting, get passed on to Bilbo's nephew Frodo in Lord of the Rings.
"I feel magnificent," he thought; "but I expect I look rather absurd. How they would laugh on the Hill at home! Still, I wish there was a looking-glass handy!"
I wonder if here Tolkien was thinking of a bit from H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, where the protagonist, Alan Quatermain, is given a similar shirt of mail. Like Bilbo, he feel's self-conscious wearing it, but it does prove to be useful.

In his inventory of the the Dragon's hoard, Thorin does not come across the Arkenstone. Now would be the time for Bilbo to mention finding it. He doesn't.

A day or two pass and still the Dragon has not returned. The dwarves begin rebuilding some of the hall's fortifications, expecting trouble. Just as the Men of Dale could speak with thrushes, the dwarves used to have a working relationship with the ravens of the Lonely Mountain. One of them comes now to Thorin: an ancient bird named Roäc, whose father served Thorin's grandfather Thror when he was King Under the Mountain. Roac brings Thorin tidings of Smaug's death, and also of the host of elves on their way from Mirkwood. He also warns that the Lake-men blame the dwarves for their trouble and also want to take reparations from the Dragon's hoard.
"Your own wisdom must decide your course; but thirteen is small remnant of the great folk of Durin that once dwelt here, and now are scattered far. If you will listen to my counsel, you will not trust the Master of the Lake-men, but rather him that shot the dragon with his bow. Bard is he, of the race of Dale, of the line of Girion; he is a grim man but true. We would see peace once more among dwarves and men and elves after the long desolation; but it may cost you dear in gold. I have spoken."
Before Roäc even got to the part about "cost you dear in gold," Thorin has already made up his mind. They can have his gold when they pry it out of his cold, dead fingers; not a moment sooner. He tells Roäc to go to his kinsman, Dain, who dwells in the Iron Hills a couple week's march away, and bid Dain to come with all the dwarves he can muster to defend their homeland.

"I will not say if this counsel be good or bad," Roäc croaks, but he can see that this is not going to go well. Still, he flies off to bear Thorin's message.

Bilbo doesn't like the situation either and wishes the matter could be settled quickly, but the dwarves pay even less attention to him than they do to the raven's advice.

NEXT:  Dwarvish Diplomacy; Bilbo's Desperate Gamble; Thorin's Rage; The Battle of Five Armies and Eucatastrophe!

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