Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Puttin' the Blog in Balrog III - The Hobbit, Chapters 13 - 19

Yowza! Everybody who's playing along and reading along and commenting along with us at PtBiB seems to be having a great time, largely due to EssJay's excellent discussion questions. In general, everybody is interested in determining just how much the Ring is influencing Bilbo, and just how big of a jerk Gandalf is to the Dwarves. My response on both of these is, eh, somewhat, but it could be worse.

I said I don't ever want to see another Dwarf again!

ANYWAY, we have six exciting chapters with battles and dragonfire and everything to get through! And I promise to be a little less verbose than I was last time. Or at least to try to be less verbose. Wish me luck!

Chapter 13
This is one of those chapters I want to point to when people complain that Tolkien isn't that exciting a storyteller, because to me this one just crackles with tension. Smaug is out putting the burn-down on Lake-Town because he's sussed that they gave "The Thief" some help. Bilbo and the Dwarves, for their part, are trapped inside the Mountain, safe from Smaug for the moment but helpless to assist any of his victims in the town or elsewhere, ignorant of when Smaug might come back, and in major danger if he does!

"I think I would rather be smashed by Smaug in the open than suffocate here!" Thorin says after an unknown, but I'm sure subjectively very long, period of time (we learn in Chapter 14 that it's two days) sitting with everybody in the dark. And then OH CRAP they can't get the door open.

I enjoy caves and caving now and then, but I, too, would pretty much freak the hell out to realize I was completely trapped in one. Even being trapped in a rapids-shooting barrel could not compare - if for no other reason than the Dwarves had a reasonable expectation that Bilbo or someone would let them out at journey's end.

Indeed, the barrel journey could even be construed as fun by certain weird types.

But I digress.

So anyway, of course it's time to go exploring, while the big scaly diamond-armored* cat is away. Down into the Deep Dark they go, until Bilbo gets tired of tripping over his own feet and asks for a light and then, when the Dwarves refuse in case the dragon is there, Bilbo puts on a bravura display of passive aggression, stomping around and yelling "light" until somebody complies and an unspecified number of these Brave Companions back way up the tunnels out of the light and, they hope, harm's way. No, I'm afraid the Dwarves do not come off well in this chapter. Lily livers.

But then Bilbo finds, and dreams of keeping as his own, the Arkenstone of Thrain, aka the Heart of the Mountain, a large white gem that apparently glows a little bit and is often speculated about by dorks like me as maybe being, in fact, a lost Silmaril. Given what is eventually done with it (basically, grave goods for Thorin), I'm disinclined to declare for its actually being one. Would Gandalf, who would surely recognize something so important, allow it to be interred forever on top of a Dwarf corpse?

Of course, maybe he just ganks it later and gives it to Galadriel, who then gives it to Frodo when he visits her in Lorien? At any rate, of all the baubles and fancy things that get passed around and found in Middle Earth, that jewel seems a better candidate for being a Silmaril than the Arkenstone does, especially since it is claimed to contain the light of Earendil, their most beloved star (which is star is itself Earendil the Mariner set in the heavens with a Silmaril lighting the prow of his ship).

Oh my, is that a beard growing all over my neck? Um. But anyway, the Arkenstone is quite the gewgaw, and Tolkien spends many, many lines describing it, as it takes "all light that fell upon it and changes it into ten thousand sparks of white radiance shot with glints of the rainbow" and all.**

And then a bat or something swoops at Bilbo and blows out his torch, and beautiful, ballsy blue-beared Balin*** is the one who steps up to come to the rescue. "It's about our turn to help... and I am quite willing to go." I find this interesting, that at this point, for Bilbo has just been wondering if he could just claim the Arkenstone as his share of the treasure but figures probably not, at least one of the Dwarves is thinking about the tremendous debt of gratitude they already owe him. To start, Thorin, while digging for the Arkenstone (d'oh!) presents Bilbo with his famous coat of mithril mail.

But Bilbo, while glad to get the armor that is maybe the most important armor ever, is more practically minded. "I would give a good many of these precious goblets... for a drink of something cheering out of one of Beorn's wooden bowls!"

Who wouldn't, Bilbo. Who wouldn't.

But instead, they get cram, which is sort Lake-Town's answer to lembas, after finally making it out of Thorin's decrepit kingdom (which Bilbo kind of unwittingly insults as a "nasty, clockless, timeless hole"***) on Smaug's doorstep and on the way down the mountain and back to civlization -- and danger!

Chapter 14
Oh dear, Lake-Town, for all its possible attractiveness (people do love to draw Lake-Town, don't they?) is very likely made, uh, mostly of wood, isn't it? But nobody ever draws the town with an extensive, um, system of pumps to draw water out of Long Lake to, um, put out fires, do they? So when their friendly neighborhood flying arsonist comes calling, they're kind of screwed, aren't they?

Especially if he decides to attack at night.

So yeah, where the last chapter was full of tension and mystery, this one is full of action! Villagers scrambling to safety, destroying bridges (just the thing to do when your assailant can... fly... oh, never mind), arguing over whether what's coming is the gleam of the river of gold they think will flow out of Erebor because Thorin is king again or the dragon. And oh yes, the dragon!

A hail of dark arrows leaped up and snapped and rattled on his scales and jewels, and their shafts fell back kindled by his breath burning and hissing into the lake. No fireworks you ever imagined equalled the sights that night. At the twanging of the bows and the shrilling of the trumpets the dragon's wrath blazed to its height, until he was blind and mad with it.
DUDE. And I love that most of this narrative of Smaug's attack is basically told from Smaug's point of view.

Good thing there's one guy in the town who has some guts. Bard! A hero come out of nowhere, narratively speaking, but just the sort of fellow you need when your protagonist and all his pals are still trapped inside a mountain. He rallies the town's defense amidst Smaug's orgy of "town baiting" (and people who just days before had feted Thorin and co with new threads and food and drink and blackjack and hookers and women throwing panties at a sold out performance of Dwarves 'N Da Hood now cursing our boys' very names for pissing off the dragon. Ever fickle is public opinion) and himself shoots at Smaug until he has one arrow left and then...

And then, Tolkien's second favorite flying deus ex machina, the THRUSH! Whom, miraculously, Bard can understand solely by virtue of being himself a descendant of Girion, Lord of Dale (a town of Men that used to be situated very near the Dwarves' Kingdom Under the Mountain). I'm guessing Thrush-Speaking is a dominant allele in that gene pool, because there are lots of generations between Girion and Bard. Just saying.

Anyway, the Thrush passes on what Bilbo discovered in his battle of wits with Smaug****, namely where there's a gap in the dragon's armor. And ZOOM, off goes Bard's very last arrow (after Bard, uh, talks to it, because he also, uh, speaks Arrow and it's an heirloom from way back in the day), THWACK it not only hits Smaug in the sweet spot but "vanished, barb, shaft and feather, so fierce was its flight" and I guess there's a vital organ right under said sweet spot because DRAGON DEATH.

Lots of lesser creators, imitators, etc. would probably want to wrap up the story real quick-like once the dragon was dead, but not Tolkien. Oh no. Smaug's death probably causes exactly as many problems as Smaug's life did.

Of course, it starts off all jolly. The Master of Lake Town took off in a hurry, early in Smaug's attack, to save his own skin, and don't think nobody noticed this. The Esgarothans know a hero when they see one, and are soon acclaiming their dragon-slaying savior as "King Bard!" But then the Master turns back up and points out that Esgaroth is a mercantile democracy and if Bard wants to be king he can bugger off and go rebuild Dale. And for some reason, instead of telling the Master to bugger off himself, the townspeople decide they'll take off with Bard (just pretty much assuming that he'll go along with the scheme. If there is one lesson that you take away from The Hobbit, my friends, it's that you can get people to do almost anything if you can convince them that they already agreed. Just ask poor handkerchief-free Bilbo).

And this introduces, pretty much for the first time in any force or seriousness, the theme of reactionary longing in these Middle Earth stories. I read a really in-depth article years ago that provocatively suggested that Sauron's and Saruman's real "evil" was that they were trying to lift Middle Earth out of its muscle-powered, feudal agrarianism and into a mechanized and more egalitarian, or at least meritocratic, future, which the descendants of the Kings of Old and the immortal Elves who hated all change on principle and all the nice people they had duped into believing that they were free under the Kings-and-Elves-and-Wizards' autocracies naturally opposed. I wish I could find the article now (I've been googling myself into a googly-eyed frenzy trying to find it to link here. If anyone knows of it, please tell me! I'd like to read it again). I suppose, though, that I should table this discussion until we're all reading the Lord of the Rings proper. I'll just point out here that I find it singular that pretty much everybody in Esgaroth decides on the spot to chuck their groovy lake town and the leader they elected and their robustly functioning economy and go try to live in the past again, under a king and pretend none of their progress ever happened.

And for his part, when he gets a chance to speak again, the being-deposed Master, instead of defending democracy and individual liberty and all that good stuff, instead tries to rouse the rabble against the Dwarves, because after all, it's their fault Smaug attacked. Which is true but... but... sigh.

Of course, we all know how I feel about feudalism in fantasy.

But for now, in the present crisis, good old Bard wisely and graciously decides to stick around. "I serve you still, though after a while I may think again of your words and go North with any that will follow me."

As for Bard's service, it is chiefly helping patch up people and places **** and listening to everybody rant about their hurts and how only a bit of that treasure from under the mountain can heal them. UH OH!

And then he sends for aid from Thranduil, only to find a little bird or two already reported in that Smaug was dead, and so there is a host of Elves already on the move. UH OH!

And those damned birds were really getting around fast, and lots of other people, apparently, speak bird in Middle Earth, because Beorn already knows (which makes sense) and so do the goblins (which doesn't, but okay). UH OH!

And soon the Elves get to Esgaroth, and while some of them get to work rebuilding the town, most of them, and most of the able-bodied male Men (the female Men, aka women, staying behind) start marching towards Erebor. UH OH!

Chapter 15
Have I sufficiently conveyed the UH OH factor here? Because UH OH. Bilbo and the Dwarves are kind of lollygagging their way down the Mountain until the Thrush shows up and he and Bilbo do a Lassie act and Balin has a good old rant about how the Ravens of Old lived for a long time and were faithful and wise and spoke English with the result that the Thrush flies off and brings a decrepit 135-year-old Raven named Roac (son of Carc) back with him to translate the news that while Smaug is dead, everybody else is converging, Simpsons-style, on the Mountain. Roac advises that Thorin show some character and at least treat with Bard but Thorin gets angry and says he's going to fight and would Roac and company be so kind as to summon all of his kin in the North, especially Dain of the Iron Hills. Drama button.

What is there to do now but head back to the Mountain and dig in. And suddenly every Dwarf is an engineer and the course of the Running River that flows out of the Mountain is changed to create a great big pool in front of the entrance and suddenly the only way to get into the hoard house is via a narrow little ledge. Thorin's going to wait the bastards out.

And here come the bastards. To, um, have a party in front of the pool in front of the gates, with elven harps and sweet music and "the fragrance of woodland flowers blossoming in spring." WINK WINK. Of course Bilbo and the boys want to go join the fun! Well, the younger ones. Thorin, of course...

Go out there and tell those Elves to get off my lawn!

But he is soon cheered up by a Dwarven poetry slam. "His foe is dead, the Worm of Dread/And ever so his foes shall fall." Seriously, Remusly, they make that stuff up on the spot! My personal record for sonnet composition (a mere 14 lines) is just under five minutes (on October 8, 2009, in a coffee shop in downtown Chicago, if you must know), but these guys whip out 27 lines (OK, with a little repetition, but still!) and set them to music, just like that. I am impressed!

Then next morning Bard and some Elves come up the hill to parley and Thorin tells them where they can stick their parley, even though, as Bard points out, some of that treasure belonged to his ancestor Girion and so maybe he would deserve some even if he hadn't killed Smaug, maybe? Of course, I can understand Thorin not appreciating the whole threat of invasion thing, but still... Oh, Thorin, Thorin, Thorin.

"We will bear no weapons against you, but we leave you to your gold. You may eat that if you will" the Esgarothans finally tell him, declaring the Mountain besieged. D'oh.

Chapter 16
So, the Dwarves are now all holed up making treasure castles and looking for the Disco Ball of Thrain. Which we all know that Bilbo has. Naughty Bilbo. Must be the Ring's fault, because no one who wanted a Disco Ball more than anything would pocket a Disco Ball otherwise, right? But of course, once Thorin starts making threats against anyone who withholds it from him, Bilbo does something that's really kind of noble and selfless (from one perspective) but which Thorin will consider a real douchebalrog move for a long time to come. Because now that Bilbo knows just how much Thorin wants the stone, he sees that the stone as a big shiny bargaining chip to prevent bloodshed.

I will confess to snarfing my icewater when, as I read Bilbo's conversation with Bard about the Arkenstone, Bilbo observes that "winter is coming." Damn you, George R.R. Martin! But maybe that's what summoned Gandalf. Hey, it's a theory. Anyway, Gandalf is very proud of Bilbo for bargaining with the stone and stuff and tells him "there is news brewing that even the ravens have not heard." Damn you, George R.R. Martin!

Chapter 17
And... cue Dain of the Iron Hills! Or so Thorin thinks. Now everybody's going to be sorry! But no, it's Bard. Neener and also neener, Your Scowliness! Look what he's got! So of course, Thorin has a fit and starts cursing everybody that brought Bilbo into his life, especially Gandalf, who asks him to kindly refrain from damaging the burglar. With a bigger bully than he is about, Thorin lets off but says all Bard can get for the Arkenstone is what would have been Bilbo's share of the treasure, so there. And take this tricksy hobbit with you.

But then the next day... cue Dain of the Iron Hills! For realsies this time! At the head of 500 Dwarves that are superstrong even for Dwarves! Now everybody's going to really be sorry! Because Dain brought more food than Bard did, so can hang out longer, so unless Bard's forces kick some Dwarf ass pretty much immediately, Dain can outwait him but hey! No waiting! Because it's clobberin' time!

But no sooner has everyone drawn his weapon than d'oh! Here come the goblins! Riding wolves! So Gandalf talks Dain and Bard into joining forces to fight off the goblins for now and The Battle of Five Armies (at this stage I guess the Wolves count as their own army, so it's Dwarves/Elves/Men vs Goblins/Wolves) is ON. The fighting is very exciting, so Bilbo puts on the ring again to conceal himself, so it's as a disembodied voice that he announces that "The Eagles are coming!" just when the good guys need them most. And then he gets knocked out by a flying stone and finishes the chapter invisibly unconscious. UH OH.

Chapter 18
Since Bilbo was invisible when he got knocked out, nobody found him when the battle ended -- not that Bilbo realizes this, since he seems to have forgotten he's invisible, so when he starts asking for news he scares the snot out of everybody.

He's been found just in time! Because Thorin owes him a big apology. A deathbed apology! I'm pretty sure that's the worst and saddest kind. "Farewell, good thief," he says. "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."

Why can't we all be more like hobbits, people? Now excuse me, I think I have something in my eye.

And now battle backstory time, in which, among other items, we learn that Beorn even showed up to help, in bear shape "and he seemed to have grown almost to giant size in his wrath." I would wear out this keyboard before I managed to give Beorn all the YAY he is due.

"Songs have said that three parts of the goblin warriors of the North perished on that day," we're told, but since we don't know an important datum -- three parts out of how many, exactly? -- I don't know if this is good or really good or epic amazing or what.

So Dain son of Nain becomes King Under the Mountain, because not only is Thorin dead but so are his nephews, Fili and Kili. And Bard is going to rebuild Dale, and everybody gets some treasure, though in the end Bilbo, perhaps haunted by all the shit-talking Smaug did about how does he think he's going to get all that loot home without getting robbed, murdered and taxed, not necessarily in that order will "only take two small chests, one filled with silver and the other of gold, such as one strong pony would carry, which, let's see... gold is currently trading at $1589 an ounce and silver at $27 per ounce... so... his share adds up to...


Oh, and everything that happens after this is totally Thranduil's fault. Totally. Because, as they're all heading home, he says to Gandalf "May you ever appear where you are most needed and least expected!" and then says "The oftener you appear in my halls the better shall I be pleased."

What a maroon.

Anyway, the rest is just a leisurely journey home. I cannot help but laugh bitterly at how Bilbo and Gandalf get to spend pretty much the whole winter at Beorn's house. I bet the cross country skiing there is very good.

Chapter 19
OK, by far the most interesting bit in this chapter is the song the Elves sing as Bilbo and Gandalf pull up at Rivendell on their way back to the Shire. It's interesting because, for me, it sums up in a mere 34 lines (plus some ragged Fa la-ing at the end) of short, mostly iambic poetry all that J.R.R. Tolkien is about: mining and industry and politics and kingsmanship bad, nature and singing and just hangin' out good. The Elves are like Douglas Adams' dophins in this regard. Only dummies try to accomplish stuff. Well, dummies and Dark Lords and that really needs to be the name of an RPG module someday.

But of course, we also learn where Gandalf went after he ditched Bilbo and the boys at the edge of Mirkwood. Did anybody else, when we were kids, cherish a secret hope that the Lord of the Rings would be all about what Gandalf was doing while Bilbo was fightin' spiders and riding barrels and all the rest? Sigh. But I suppose it's for the best: the Harry Potter books have given me a recent reminder that wizarding duels are actually kind of boring.

By the way, man is it hard to think of the Elves sitting outside Bilbo's window singing away as anything but a Middle Earth drum circle.

Why yes, I believe they could waken a drunken goblin!

More partying, then time for "the last road." I like how their "difficult crossing" of the river sort of prefigures Glorfindel's sic'ing the river on the Nazgul next book, but this time it's just runoff and rain. All that troll gold is still miraculously where they buried it and I guess the Dwarves have enough in Erebor so this is all for Gandalf and Bilbo. Poor ponies!

But good thing Bilbo has all that treasure, because when they get back to Hobbiton, they find he's been declared dead and his loathsome cousins, the Sackville-Bagginses, are auctioning off all of his stuff so they can move their own stuff into Bag End and live there for ever! And the auction is almost over! How's that for a hero's welcome, eh? Having to buy all your furniture back and never recovering all your spoons. That's what you get for adventuring, Bilbo.

And that's it, really, except for one unanswered question:

Did anyone ever manage to contain Gandalf's forest fire?


*By the way, as big as Weta Workshop are on visual (if not narrative) fidelity, I hope I finally get to see what that looks like, HINT HINT.

**Seriously, Balin is the man. And he's only begun to be ballsy, really, because he has an amazing future ahead of him as the guy who re-opens the Mines of Moria and whatnot. SALUTE!

***Okay, raise your hand if you didn't laugh, though, at Thorin's objection to this description.

You wait till it has been cleaned and redecorated!

****Help me out here, you guys. As I've said before, the stuff with the Thrush has always, always bothered me. And I have read and re-read the passage where Bilbo discovers the sweet spot and I cannot find where the Thrush could have found this out. The 1977 cartoon just sticks the Thrush in that scene, and at this stage after lots of anguish I still don't find a bit in the book that corresponds to this and can only conclude that Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr. saw this plot hole too and fixed it as efficiently as they could. Please tell me that I'm wrong, dear readers.

*****He does a heck of a job.


  1. I think a lot more people would pick up The Hobbit if you wrote the Cliffs Notes.

    And yeah, the thrush is a pain, but it's just a MAGIC THRUSH, that's all, which is why it's been knocking on that step for approximately ever and why it knows things that ought not to be wot of and such. (Maybe as a kid I was just so used to deus ex machina in bad children's fantasy that it never occurred to me to question it? Because I definitely never did.)

    I felt sorry for the ponies ALL THE TIME. They get the worst of it all through the damn book.

    1. Hey yeah. That would be some interesting fanfic (no, I'm not going to write it). The Hobbit from the ponies point of view!

      Day One: ate grass. Shire has lots of grass. That's why everybody's fat.

      Day Two: Carried a shit-ton of food and stuff. Hope it's just a short trip to Buckland or something.

      Day Three: Well, crap, we're out in the wilderness. At least there's lots of grass.

      Day Four: WTF Trolls.


      Go nuts, somebody who isn't me!

    2. [gasp!] Jericha, you said the same about me! Now I'm hurt and sobbing in the corner.

      Oh, wait. No I'm not. ;)

  2. * Love the Wonderfalls reference. I miss that show.

    * If you can find the post about Sauron and Saruman's true evil, I would love to read it. I think it's an interesting take on the situation, really.

    I noticed this time (and probably did before, but really didn't think much of it), that our narrator likes to make mention of things that have no place in Middle-Earth. Like, he compares things to trains, and there's mention made of gunshot...was he just trying to place things into context for the modern reader? I'm not really sure.

    * I laughed REALLY hard at Bilbo pretending to kind of be able to understand the Thrush.

    * I still don't understand why it's called the Battle of the Five Armies, because once the Eagles join in, it's really six. And Beorn is his own damn army, really.

    * It's interesting to me just how different Rivendell is here, from later stories. I mean, I get that there's a big war abrewin', but still. These elves seem much lighter hearted than they did in the Sil, as well. It's an interesting disconnect.

    * Man, I REALLY hope someone stopped that Forest Fire. So ridiculous, and as a Wizard, he should've known what the hell he was doing. Unless he just didn't give a damn cos at that point it was SEP, so...?

  3. I forgot about the thrush. In my memory it was Gandalf who helped open the door, and Bilbo who informed Bard about the weakness. Perhaps the thrush was Radagast the Brown? Except it couldn't speak the common tongue. I always thought it was a polymorphed wizard for some reason. The brain just fills up the holes I guess. You'd really have to rework that part of the story completely to make that all work without Magic Thrush.
    The destruction of the town always bothered me, caused by Bilbo's slip-up. It worked out great for everyone in the end, except all the people who died in the dragon attack. Oh, and the massive battle. Which was all directly caused by this quest.
    Was social engineering the main purpose of the council? Or did they want to distract the Goblin armies to make the fight with Sauron winnable? Both? Hmmm...


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