This is the last large chapter, before the story really breaks into smaller bitesize chunks: here, just as in “Riddles In The Dark” and “Flies And Spiders“, Tolkien lets loose, crafting a large self-contained narrative, with its beating heart being another of literary fantasy’s great moments. Like the riddle contest, like the showdown with the spiders, here is something that makes The Hobbit truly remarkable: our first look at, and a very important conversation with, Smaug.
This is Bilbo’s chapter – I suppose they all are, but this one especially so – and that is clear right from the beginning. Thorin begins a bombastic speech praising Bilbo before he sends him into the mountain, and the narrator frames it as being from Bilbo’s perspective: “It certainly was an important occasion, but Bilbo felt impatient. By now he was quite familiar with Thorin too, and he knew what he was driving at.”
Bilbo’s reply to Thorin’s unsubtle buttering is spectacular:
“If you mean you think it is my job to go into the secret passage first, O Thorin Thrain’s son Oakenshield, may your beard grow ever longer,” he said crossly, “say so at once and have done! I might refuse. I have got you out of two messes already, which were hardly in the original bargain, so that I am, I think, already owed some reward. But ‘third time pays for all’ as my father used to say, and somehow I don’t think I shall refuse. Perhaps I have begun to trust my luck more than I used to in the old days…but anyway I think I will go and have a peep at once and get it over.”
Bilbo not only shuts Thorin down immediately, cutting across his grandiose speech, he stands up for himself, refutes the idea that he has not yet earned his share of the treasure, and even goes so far as to suggest, even threaten, that he “might refuse” the idea of going down into the deeper halls. It’s a remarkable show of backbone from Bilbo in the face of dwarven royalty. He shows here that not only is he a much stronger character than he was before, he has a very firm idea of his own worth, that he certainly did not have before, in the not-too-distant days when he was just walking baggage.
More than that, Bilbo also displays a certain cynicism we have not come to expect of him, referring wistfully to the “old days” when he did not need to rely on his luck as much, and resignedly declaring that he will, after all, go and “have a peep” at what lies beyond. The impression you take away from Bilbo is of an aged tired veteran of adventuring, not a countryside hobbit who is on his first trip outside the Shire.
The only one of the dwarves that volunteers to go with Bilbo is “decent” Balin, and even that will only be to a certain point and no further: “He did not expect a chorus of volunteers, so he was not disappointed.” This leads into an unexpected mini-essay from Tolkien on the nature of dwarven courage, their concept of value and loyalty. It reads as if the narrator has suddenly realised that the consistent depictions of the dwarves as uncaring of Bilbo’s well-being, and frequent about-face’s when it comes to their gratefulness, require some attention, and this is as good a moment as any. I wonder if maybe Tolkien’s children made the point to him here, and he felt compelled to address the issue. He makes the valid argument that the dwarves tried to save Bilbo in “Roast Mutton” when they barely knew him, but then makes his own counter-point: that such an action may well have just been to preserve an investment, as “dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money.”
This does not mean that Thorin and company are bad people, just practical: it’s their other actions that define them as decent, in comparison to other unseen dwarves. The trick is to not “expect too much“. As we near the end of the books second act, and the beginning of Thorin’s descent into tyranny, this serves as ground-laying, but does not mesh well with some of Tolkien’s later depiction so the race. Gimli is certainly a hero, and even the actions of the company in the Battle of Five Armies will be heroic. There are some who infer anti-Semitic thinking, conscious or unconscious, in this bit of writing, as the dwarves share undeniable similarities to the Jewish people in both positive and negative stereotypes, and to then declare the entire race as “not heroes, but calculating folk” seems odd.
I understand the connections some will draw, but I’ve never considered Tolkien anti-Semitic, and I feel that using this section as evidence of such a sentiment is a bit of a reach: Tolkien’s views on the Jewish people were made obviously plain by the man himself, and I find it curious that other influences on the dwarves, be they Norse, Germanic, or anything else, tend not to receive the same kind of attention when it comes to assigning motives for depictions.
Bilbo begins his journey into the mountain, with Tolkien using some beautiful imagery to see him off, that calls to mind the task he has to do and the fortress he is entering: “The stars were coming out behind him in a pale sky barred with black when the hobbit crept through the enchanted door and stole into the Mountain.”
Once Balin leaves Bilbo’s side, it’s just us and the hobbit, with the narrator laying out the reality very clearly: “Already he was a very different hobbit from the one that had run out without a pocket-handkerchief from Bag-End long ago…“. As if to emphasise this point, when noting Bilbo has not had a pocket-handkerchief in some time, the next thing noted is Sting, which Bilbo loosens from its sheath. To go from a piece of cloth to a blade as an item of comfort: truly this is as meaningful a sign of change as anything else.
The Baggins side takes over briefly, noted very directly: “Now you are in for it at last, Bilbo Baggins,” he said to himself. “You went and put your foot right in it that night of the party, and now you have got to pull it out and pay for it!” But this is more of a resigned nod back to what Bilbo used to be, much like the earlier reference to the “old days“. Still, it works as a simple way to showcase the position Bilbo is in: alone, with only his own gallows humour for comfort.
Bilbo’s path takes on the appearance of a descent into hell, as a red light appears in the distance, the heat increases, and wisps of vapour start to coalesce. Such a vista, without knowing exactly what is at the other end, is certainly terrifying, and this paragraph carries a certain air of a descent to the underworld of antiquity as well, of Bilbo passing from the world he knew, with air and the dwarves and the Shire off to the west, and into a world of darkness, fire and, well, dragons.
Tolkien keeps things ticking over with the tension, with the dragon described first as just noises in the distance: “a sort of bubbling like the noise of a large pot galloping on the fire, mixed with a rumble as of a gigantic tom-cat purring.” The cat-like imagery will come again, and is appropriate for Smaug, as we will see. The picture we form is of some immense monstrosity, but unless we think of a literal cat, it must yet be shapeless.
At this point, Tolkien describes Bilbo’s choice to keep going as “the bravest thing he ever did“, which is a very simple yet very effective way of making clear how momentous this event is. Pick-pocketing the trolls, leaping over Gollum, charging into a colony of giant spiders, the break-out plan from the Woodland Realm are all preamble, to this lonely scared hobbit simply deciding that he isn’t going to turn back, and will keep going to take a look at the monster around the corner. If we had doubts, they should be dispelled: Bilbo has become the hero of this story, and nothing that comes after will be as heroic as this simple choice. And then we see him.
The first physical description of Smaug is surprisingly limited, especially on an analytical reading. “There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber…with wings folded like an immeasurable bat.” From there, Tolkien is almost more concerned with the horde of treasure, which I will get to in a moment. Perhaps the author assumes that the reader will have a picture of a dragon in their mind: a large fire-breathing winged lizard, with a long tail, fearsome claws, and towering wings.
The concept of a “dragon” – from the Latin “draco“, or “large serpent” – is one of those unique mythological things that has popped up independently in a wide variety of cultures and traditions, possibly as a result of common fears of reptiles and lizards inevitably becoming exaggerated stories of giant beasts. Dinosaur fossils may also have played a part. Perhaps the earliest references are from Mesopotamian literature which sometimes featured a large horned snake called an “usumgal”. From there, you see it everywhere: Ancient Egypt, the Levant, Greek and Roman traditions, the Far East, medieval west, and so on.
The exact form and nature of dragons changes drastically from place to place though, with whatever mix you like of morality, size, intelligence and supernatural power. Probably the two most famous depictions of dragons are the traditional medieval version of a large four-legged fire-breathing antagonist that usually forms the end point of a hero’s journey, had the Chinese/Japanese traditions, where dragons are frequently less dangerous and more spiritual, especially associated with water deities. We also should be mindful of off-shoots, like the half-breed “wyverns” or sea serpent “wyrm” with dragons frequently described as “worms” in the western European tradition, including Tolkien’s works, a reference to their long narrow bodies, as well as being just an insult. From antiquity, we pass into the present day, where dragons are a standard part of numerous fantasy universes, from Harry Potter to Game Of Thrones, though the modern depiction tends to be more animalistic than sentient.
Smaug specifically takes a lot of cues from the dragon of Beowulf, a text Tolkien would have been intimately familiar with. There, the titular hero’s final act is a showdown with a fire-breathing “draco” that rests atop a golden horde, and has been roused to furious anger after a single cup of its treasure was stolen. Beowulf defeats the dragon at the cost of his own life. Smaug differs in his intelligence, but the similarities in the story are obvious.
Smaug is far from Tolkien’s first rodeo when it comes to dragons. The terrible creatures were bred for evil work by the Dark Lord Morgoth, with the most prominent being the wingless Glaurung, who plays a very critical part in the most important sections of The Silmarillion, and Ancalagon the Black, one of the last terrors that Morgoth unleashed on the world. By the time depicted in The Hobbit, dragons appear to have become exceedingly rare, with the only other “recent” one mentioned in The Lord Of The Rings’ appendices being Scatha, who is defeated sometime prior, and from whose horde the Horn of Brandybuck is acquisitioned.
Tolkien himself drew an illustration, “Conversation with Smaug”, that represents his own image of the dragon, a simple picture that emphasises Smaug as the worm-type, long, slender and scaly, with a head that is almost dog-like. Other depictions of Smaug have differed; John Howe’s illustration, my favourite, emphasises the reptilian nature of Smaug, presenting him as snake-like, while visual adaptations have a range of influences, with Rankin and Bass’ animated movie showing Smaug as feline in many respects, while Peter Jackson’s CGI behemoth is part dinosaur, part Komodo dragon. The central tent-poles of the description remain the same: four legged, winged, fire-breathing, and quite large.
And yet, not large enough to grab the most of Bilbo’s attention, or the narrator. That is reserved for an image almost as important, maybe more important, than Smaug to the story: the long forgotten gold. Like a besotted dwarf, the narrator zeroes in on the wealth piled beneath the dragon, framing the sight in terms that make language insufficient to describe it all:
“…countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light…his long pale belly crusted with gems and fragments of gold from his long lying on his costly bed. Behind him where the walls were nearest could dimly be seen coats of mail, helms and axes, swords and spears hanging; and there in rows stood great jars and vessels filled with a wealth that could not be guessed. 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 days when all the world was wonderful…”
So, like, a lot. A lot, a lot. It’s taken so long to get here that the actual reward for the fulfillment of the quest might have fallen out of our heads – 1/14th share, etc – but Tolkien clearly wants it front and centre again. And, importantly, he wants us to consider the impact of this sight, especially on a countryside hobbit with no concept of such extraordinary wealth. Bilbo’s very soul is “filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves; and he gazed motionless, almost forgetting the frightful guardian, at the gold beyond price and count.” Such paralysis both serves to maximise the effect of the gold, but goes beyond that, to form a sort of literal sickness, that the author will elaborate upon later. Suffice to say that such boundless riches can infect and poison a mind, and this effect goes hand-in-hand with the effect of dragons.
Bilbo, echoing Beowulf, steals across the floor, grabs a single cup, and makes a break for it, thankful to avoid waking the monster. This is Bilbo’s apparent reason for being here, apart from finding a way into the mountain, and I suppose he does it well. But the act calls into a question what would appear to be a gaping hole in the company’s plan, that we will be getting into more detail about later.
For now, it is enough to note that the dragon is not just some mindless beast, as he dreams of “greed and violence“, an indication that we are dealing with a more potent force than might be immediately apparent.
The celebrations of the dwarves at Bilbo’s return and even greater joy at getting their hands on a piece of the horde, are inevitably short-lived. Indeed, at this point the reader will already be expecting the turnabout, and can envision the dwarves joy turning to despair in a few short pages. Any politeness or niceties sent Bilbo’s way always seem to get flipped around eventually. The frenzy over the recovered cup is also telling of the dwarven mindset, as they, like addicts, pass the thing around excitedly, as if the guardian of the treasure is no longer something to worry about. But of course he is, and Tolkien makes the point in language that is almost Biblical: “…suddenly a vast rumbling woke in the mountain underneath as if it was an old volcano that had made up its mind to start eruptions once again…up the long tunnel came the dreadful echoes, from far down in the depths, of a bellowing and a trampling that made the ground beneath them tremble.”
We pass backwards in the narrative a few moments and get our first proper examination of Smaug the being, as opposed to Smaug the fearsome monster. We learn some important things in this paragraph. Firstly, Smaug has intelligence to the extent of practical thinking, wondering about “that little hole” and pondering it’s about time to seal it up. Secondly, his intelligence extends to a minute understanding of what his gigantic horde of stolen wealth contains, right down to individual cups, that he misses from even the briefest glance. And thirdly, he dreams, as already noted, but his dreams have a shape and a form to them that is reminiscent of more human characters. And the one that has disturbed him is prophetic, calling to mind Shakespeare’s Richard III on the eve of Bosworth Field: “He had passed from an uneasy dream (in which a warrior, altogether insignificant in size but provided with a bitter sword and great courage, figured most unpleasantly)…“. Has Smaug been sent a vision of his own end? Sort of: it will be a bow and arrow that does him in, not a sword. Perhaps this is a direct nod, again, to Beowulf.
Smaug’s wrath upon learning of the burglary is immense, and the language used again has a sort of Biblical tone to it. There is a unique tense used here as well, a sort of in the moment detached description:
“Thieves! Fire! Murder! Such a thing had not happened since first he came to the Mountain! 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. His fire belched forth, the hall smoked, he shook the mountain- roots…coiling his length together, roaring like thunder underground, he sped from his deep lair…To hunt the whole mountain till he had caught the thief and had torn and trampled him was his one thought. He issued from the Gate, the waters rose in fierce whistling steam, and up he soared blazing into the air and settled on the mountain-top in a spout of green and scarlet flame.”
Notable here among the doom and gloom is Tolkien’s line on “rich folk” which could be construed as an attack of capitalistic thinking. Certainly Smaug, a greedy destroyer of lives who sleeps on a bed of wealth created by others, and flies into a range at even the slightest hint that it might be taken away, could be seen as the sort of industrialist that Tolkien would have had, putting it mildly, very little time for.
Out on the doorstep, it’s time for Thorin to be the man of action, an important thing after Bilbo has taken up the lion’s share of focus so far. The company despairs at the coming of the dragon, and seem intent of leaving those in the valley below for dead:
“They will be slain, and all our ponies too, and all out stores lost,” moaned the others. “We can do nothing.”
Note the word “moaned” there, like a petulant whinge as opposed to a genuine cry of distress. Thorin is having none of it:
“Nonsense!” said Thorin, recovering his dignity. “We cannot leave them. Get inside Mr. Baggins and Balin, and you two Fili and Kili-the dragon shan’t have all of us. Now you others, where are the ropes? Be quick!”
Thorin’s commanding air helps save the lives of all the dwarves, and as with his high manner in “A Warm Welcome“, indicate again that is now taking on a more Kingly bearing. The dwarves down below are dragged up with the ropes – even poor overweight Bombur who was convinced such a thing was impossible in “On The Doorstep“, and the company is saved from Smaug’s terrible wrath “licking the mountain-sides with flame, beating his great wings with a noise like a roaring wind“.
The dwarves are able to escape, but the episode is a frank look at how terribly unprepared they seem to be. Trolls, giants, goblins, wargs and spiders, these are all foes they have been, to some extent or another, been able to handle, but this giant fire-breathing dragon, that causes the earth to tremble and the rocks to scorch, is something else altogether.
Trapped in the corridor, the company are left considering their next move. Smaug is impossible to escape from easily now that he has eaten their ponies, and the idea of taking on the dragon remains little thought out – “which had always been a weak point in their plans, as Bilbo felt inclined to point out” – so, what now? As it has before, the gratitude to Bilbo turns to grumbles in such seemingly dire circumstances, as captured gold becomes soon forgotten. Bilbo, established now as very much not tolerating this kind of moping and finger-pointing, snaps back acidly:
“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?…I am sure it reflects great credit on your grandfather, but you cannot pretend that you ever made the vast extent of his wealth clear to me. I should want hundreds of years to bring it all up, if I was fifty times as big, and Smaug as tame as a rabbit.”
Bilbo’s annoyance on the point of how big the burglary is is important, as it will be used against him in a battle of verbal wits very shortly. But he’s right when he says the apparent plan of him stealing the gold bit by bit is absurd. I find Peter Jackson’s method to fix this apparent problem interesting, in making Bilbo’s task the burglary of the Arkenstone specifically: a tad more doable than “the whole hoard of Thror“.
Thorin defers to Bilbo’s thoughts on what they should do next, which includes practical suggestions of waiting it out and going outside only when it is safe to do so. And then he volunteers to go back down the tunnel for another look at Smaug and the great cavern of gold: “Perhaps something will turn up“.
There are two sides to this. Firstly, Bilbo is stepping up, one of only two members of the company trying to be pro-active, and find a way out of their predicament. He does so placing himself at great risk, and for people whose idea of gratitude is based very much on contextual surroundings. For the first time, the narrator places the title of commandership on Bilbo: “Now he had become the real leader in their adventure.”
However, there is a negative side to this as well. In this section, it seems Bilbo has begun to believe his own press a bit, and one can detect a very obvious hint of pride, and even arrogance, in the way he presents himself as the company’s only hope, and then as capable of out-smarting a dragon. The narrator is scornful of Bilbo’s sudden big-headedness: “Had he known more about dragons and their wily ways, he might have teen more frightened and less hopeful of catching this one napping.” It’s hard to fathom how Bilbo is suddenly so confident – “He can’t see me and he won’t hear me. Cheer up Bilbo!” – and one suspects a lingering influence from the hoard of gold that so enraptured him earlier in the chapter. Tolkien is eager to set-up the coming moment properly, inserting a paragraph break between Bilbo suddenly realising that Smaug is not so sleepy as he appears and the subsequent conversation, ending this section with the tantalising line “And then Smaug spoke“.
Compare Smaug here to the way that other antagonists have spoken and acted. The trolls were low-brow and prone to bouts of sudden mindless violence. The goblins were a communal hive-mind of wickedness, smart in their way, but lacking any kind of subtly or cunning. Gollum was a loathsome, frightening individual, but pitiable and sad at the same time. The wargs were just a step-up from beasts, interested only in bloodshed for bloodsheds sake. The spiders were animalistic and wanted nothing but meat. And the wood-elves were not really antagonists.
But Smaug, oh Smaug. He’s so well-spoken, something Tolkien places in the mouths of those to be taken truly seriously. He’s so smart. He’s so capable, and I don’t mean physically. Every word out of his mouth is a masterful psychological ploy, showcasing how his strength is not just in fire, but in brain. He knows how to manipulate his targets to get what he wants, even if that is just to be left sitting on a giant pile of gold.
Before we get into it, when reading The Hobbit before Peter Jackson’s adaptation more firmly defined the voice, I always imagined Smaug sounding like English actor David Warner, well known for his live-action and VA antagonist roles. That posh, smarmy, and undeniably evil tenor is what’s required. Cumberbatch does fine, aided by a bit of audio work to make the voice rumblier, and his received pronunciation is also a good fit. But I do still think the voice needs a bit more of a sneer.
Smaug’s opening gambit would be a fairly blatant attempt to entice Bilbo out of hiding, if it wasn’t so dripping in sarcasm: ” Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!“. Bilbo thinks himself too quick to fall for this, and proceeds to try and outwit Smaug at wordplay, a very dangerous game that will get Bilbo, and others, into serious trouble. The two have an enthralling back and forth:
“I only wished to have a look at you and see if you were truly as great as tales say. I did not believe them…Truly songs and tales fall utterly short of the reality, O Smaug the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities,” replied Bilbo.
You have nice manners for a thief and a liar,” said the dragon…Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask?”
“You may indeed! I come from under the hill, and under hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air, I am he that walks unseen.”
“So I can well believe,” said Smaug, “but that is hardly our usual name.”
“I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number.”
“Lovely titles!” sneered the dragon. “But lucky numbers don’t always come off.”
“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.”
“These don’t sound so creditable,” scoffed Smaug.
“I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider,” went on Bilbo beginning to be pleased with his riddling.
“That’s better!” said Smaug. “But don’t let your imagination run away with you!”
The conversation is laden with meaning. Note Smaug allowing himself to feel flattered even as he knows that Bilbo is trying to distract him. Note Bilbo’s continuing pride as he feels he is getting the better of Smaug, wrongly. Note Bilbo’s wit and intelligence in coming up with this “riddle-talk” from the sum of his own adventures, like a mini clip-show, while Smaug eagerly maintains control of the conversation by egging Bilbo on. Most importantly, note that Smaug is getting far more out of the conversation than Bilbo, learning about this adversary bit-by-bit.
Case in point: while Bilbo is right in “the way to talk to dragons“, seeking to confuse and befuddle them by appealing to their own logic and inquisitiveness, he’s just put Lake-town in a whole heap of trouble:
“I thought so last night,” he smiled to himself. “Lake-men, some nasty scheme of those miserable tub-trading Lake-men, or I’m a lizard. I haven’t been down that way for an age and an age; but I will soon alter that!”
Smaug follows up this terrifying thought process with a brutal combination of insult and threat:
“Very well, O Barrel-rider!” he said aloud. “Maybe Barrel was your pony’s name; and maybe not, though it was fat enough.”
Before going right for the jugular, reminding Bilbo of his own history and playing on his issues with the dwarves:
“In return for the excellent meal I will give you one piece of advice for your good: don’t have more to do with dwarves than you can help!…I know the smell (and taste) of dwarf-no one better. Don’t tell me that I can eat a dwarf-ridden pony and not know it! You’ll come to a bad end, if you go with such friends. Thief Barrel-rider. I don’t mind if you go back and tell them so from me.”
Smaug, of course, can’t have any idea of which dwarves exactly are behind this intrusion (though, once again due to Bilbo’s openness, he knows their amount “Mr Lucky Number“), but he knows dwarven nature very well, picking on the stolen cup and what reward Bilbo received for taking it:
“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 and get what you can when I’m not looking-for them? And you will get a fair share? Don’t you believe it! If you get off alive, you will be lucky.”
If Smaug can’t pin the invisible and unknown hobbit down, then he can use his words to cause a divide, working on a very real fear. And it works: “Whenever Smaug’s roving eye, seeking for him in the shadows, flashed across him, he trembled, and an unaccountable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug.” This kind of magic hypnosis, that calls to mind the general effect of the gold, adds a rising tension to the scene, as if it needed it. It’s not hard to think of Saruman reading these pages, and the mesmerising power of his words in “The Voice Of Saruman”.
Smaug continues on. The seed has been planted, now it’s time to water it a bit, as the dragon goes into very pertinent details:
“I don’t know if it has occurred to you that, even if you could steal the gold bit by bit-a matter of a hundred years or so – you could not get it very far? Not much use on the mountain-side? Not much use in the forest? Bless me! Had you never thought of the catch? A fourteenth share, I suppose, Or something like it, those were the terms, eh? But what about delivery? What about cartage? What about armed guards and tolls?” And Smaug laughed aloud.”
It’s a great tactic, a combination of using dwarven greed and ingratitude with the practicalities of how to get gold half-way across the world. Bilbo is risking all for a dwarven company that tends to turn on him at the drop of a hat, and are too cowardly to accompany him to such a critical moment, and he’s doing it all without any firm guarantee that 1/14th of the treasure will make it back to the Shire. Smaug’s strike lands home wonderfully: “Now a nasty suspicion began to grow in his mind-had the dwarves forgotten this important point too, or were they laughing in their sleeves at him all the time?”
Bilbo tries to re-assert some control over the conversation, to “keep his end up“, by, of all things, threatening Smaug:
“I tell you…that gold was only an afterthought with us. We came over hill and under hill, by wave and win, for Revenge. Surely, O Smaug the unassessably wealthy, you must realize that your success has made you some bitter enemies?”
It’s a desperate and clumsy verbal ploy, and Smaug pounces with glee:
“Then Smaug really did laugh-a devastating sound which shook Bilbo to the floor, while far up in the tunnel the dwarves huddled together and imagined that the hobbit had come to a sudden and a nasty end.”
It’s a terrible thing to envision, this tiny hobbit being outplayed so easily, and by a creature so massive and powerful. If Bilbo had aimed to get one over on Smaug, he’s failed miserably, and the dragon is only warming up.
What follows is Smaug’s threat, a verbal thesis of his own power and might, full of intimidating imagery and genuine menace:
“Revenge!” he snorted, and the light of his eyes lit the the hall from floor to ceiling like scarlet lightning. “Revenge! The King under the Mountain is dead and where are his kin that dare seek revenge? Girion Lord of Dale is dead, and I have eaten his people like a wolf among sheep, and where are his sons’ sons that dare approach me? I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old and their like is not in the world today. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong strong. Thief in the Shadows!” he gloated. “My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”
Smaug comes off as an unassailable god of death, who kills and eats as he pleases. The final thundering outline of his own weapons and strength would be enough to floor anybody.
But, there is one sign of weakness there. “Girion Lord of Dale is dead…and where are his sons’ sons that dare approach me?” The descendants of Girion do still exist, and one is not all that far away: is this another little hint of prophecy, similar to the nasty dream that disturbed Smaug earlier in the chapter?
But then, Bilbo actually does get the upper hand, even if Smaug does not realise it:
“I have always understood,” said Bilbo in a frightened squeak, “that dragons were softer underneath, especially in the region of the–er– chest; but doubtless one so fortified has thought of that.”
“The dragon stopped short in his boasting. “Your information is antiquated,” he snapped.”
It’s interesting that Smaug is stopped dead in his tracks by this statement. Clearly, someone in his position has had some time to consider weaknesses. And now, Bilbo successfully goads him into revealing his:
“He did not know that the hobbit had already caught a glimpse of his peculiar under-covering on his previous visit, and was itching for a closer view for reasons of his own. The dragon rolled over. “Look!” he said. “What do you say to that?”
“Dazzlingly marvellous! Perfect! Flawless! Staggering!” exclaimed Bilbo aloud, but what he thought inside was: “Old fool! Why there is a large patch in the hollow of his left breast as bare as a snail out of its shell!”
And thus is Smaug’s fatal flaw, his Achilles heel, revealed. It would be no fun if Smaug was invulnerable after all, but it remains to be seen how the company, or anyone else, can exploit this weakness.
I suppose we can call this verbal duel a draw then. Smaug has manipulated Bilbo for fun, manufacturing a wedge between him and the dwarves, as well as learning some valuable information about both Bilbo and where he has come from. And Bilbo has managed to find out a way that the dragon can actually be felled. But Bilbo, remarkably, lets his big head cause him serious peril before he’s done:
“Well, I really must not detain Your Magnificence any longer,” he said, “or keep you from much needed rest. Ponies take some catching, I believe, after a long start. And so do burglars,” he added as a parting shot.”
If Bilbo has said something thick, Smaug loses what composure he had in the face of the insult:
“…the dragon spouted terrific flames after him, and fast though he sped up the slope, he had not gone nearly far enough to be comfortable before the ghastly head of Smaug was thrust against the opening behind. Luckily the whole head and jaws could not squeeze in, but the nostrils sent forth fire and vapour to pursue him, and he was nearly overcome, and stumbled blindly on in great pain and fear.”
If that isn’t enough to shake some sense into Bilbo, you’re not sure what will, but both he and the narrator decide to turn the moment into a bit of well-earned, and badly needed, comedy:
“Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo you fool!” he said to himself, and it became a favourite saying of his later, and passed into a proverb. “You aren’t nearly through this adventure yet” he added, and that was pretty true as well.” It’s interesting that Bilbo quotes words of wisdom from his father twice previously in this chapter, but the third time pays for all as the elder Baggins once said, with Bilbo coming up with his own, another small sign of growth.
Bilbo is able to return to the astonished dwarves who, feeling Smaug’s earthquake one more time, assumed the worst. Bilbo finally cops on that some of his verbal sparring with the dragon may have an unintended consequence:
“…he was now regretting some of the things he had said to the dragon, and was not eager to repeat them…”I am sure he knows we came from Lake-town and had help from there; and I have a horrible feeling that his next move may be in that direction. I wish to goodness I had never said that about Barrel-rider; it would make even a blind rabbit in these parts think of the Lake-men.”
How responsible is Bilbo for what is about to occur to Lake-town? To a certain extent, it is fair to say, but we should, like Balin, think better of Bilbo than the hobbit apparently does. The company’s presence on the mountain was inevitably going to result in a confrontation with Smaug, and we’ve already seen Smaug’s thought process regards the theft of any of his treasure: “I thought so last night” is what he says to himself when Bilbo drops the “barrel-rider” clue. That Lake-town will be the ones to suffer most for the quest is unjust, even if the town was all too happy to welcome and embrace the company before, but Tolkien does not shirk from the natural consequences of this turn of events, as the Lakemen’s anger at what has occurred will form the backbone of part of the finale. We can’t place all the blame at Bilbo’s feet: when you’re out to kill a dragon, there is going to be some collateral damage.
Bilbo’s recitation of his story is partially interrupted by a curious thrush, that unnerves Bilbo but finds a friend in Thorin, who explains the breed who live around the mountain are of the somewhat magical sort, living for centuries and capable of speech with (some) men. It seems like nothing on a first reading, just Bilbo being nervous for no good reason, but this is Tolkien’s method of justifying Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug, by getting the news of Smaug’s weak-spot out to the people who need to hear it.
The talk turns to how to actually take Smaug on and win – How to Kill Your Dragon as it were – and its somewhat uninspiring how there is no firm plan or scheme in mind for how to actually eliminate their primary enemy. Catching Smaug asleep seems unlikely, but the apparent preference for a “bold frontal attack” is really no better. In Tolkien’s back catalogue, the deaths of dragons are limited, including Turin’s slaying of Glaurung with a stroke to the belly, and Earendil casting down Ancalagon the Black in a sky-battle, all written in a legendary style, and offering little pointers to the practical realities.
Bilbo can’t help but broach the topic of his share of the treasure and transporting it back to the Shire, indicating clearly that Smaug’s words have done their work. Thorin is forthright in his response, indicating that the venture is desperate and needs their full attention, and there will be time aplenty afterwards to discuss the minutia of transporting treasure. It’s a fair response but will take on a deeper meaning later when Thorin is not so friendly about the issue of the treasure. “…you shall choose you own fourteenth” is what he says, words the dwarf will regret, and you can’t help but get a queasy feeling at the way he closes the conversation, stopping any further discussion and putting Bilbo in the position of having to pick between Smaug and Thorin’s words: “Believe me or not as you like!”
The conversation turns to a more grounded outline of the works that the dwarves made in the forges of Erebor than has been previously outlined, a recitation mixed with sadness at glorious pieces of art and craftsmenship “never delivered and never paid for“. There are nods to mithril and again to the power and majesty of Girion, Lord of Dale, whose descendants will soon rise to prominence. And then there is the Arkenstone, the “Heart of the Mountain“:
“The Arkenstone! The Arkenstone!” murmured Thorin in the dark, half dreaming with his chin upon his knees. “It was like a globe with a thousand facets; it shone like silver in the firelight, like water in the sun, like snow under the stars, like rain upon the Moon!”
It’s the first mention of this apparently extraordinary gem, a late addition to the narrative that feels a little forced. It’s not difficult to see some religious allegories here, most notably with the Ark of the Covenant, a thing longed for by a displaced people, only in a form more suitable for the wealth obsessed dwarves. The name itself may be derived from the Gothic “arkins” or “holy”. The Arkenstone is going to become the ultimate cipher for Thorin’s increasing obsession and eventual quasi-madness, and that is clear here, as Thorin describes the thing “half-dreaming“, like an addict on a brief high.
There are some who think the Arkenstone, as it is described later, may have been intended to be one the Silmarils of the First Age, the one that Maedhros cast into a fiery pit when he could no longer stand the pain it gave him. But this is wishful thinking I feel: Tolkien’s own account of his end of days, the Dagor Dagorath, involves the Silmarils all being taken from their places of rest, sky, sea and earth, and brought back together. There’s no hint that one of them is found again in the Third Age, and the Arkenstone lacks other characteristics of the Silmarils. You can’t imagine that a creature like Smaug would have carelessly tossed the Arkenstone into his pile of treasure of it was a jewel that literally burned with the radiance of the Blessed Realm.
The final crisis of the chapter comes from a different demonstration of Smaug’s threat, and a very unexpected one as, with “silent stealth“, he glides to where the company is and threatens to bury them in rock. This again showcases the dragon as a terrible enemy, one with cunning and guile, and not just a monster who will use his strength and fire at all times. But he still lacks a certain control all the same: “This was the outburst of his wrath when he could find nobody and see nothing…After he had let off his rage in this way he felt better…”
The company survives thanks to a premonition of Bilbo, a lingering effect of the dragon-sickness perhaps, that allows him to sense when Smaug is close to a degree. The chapter ends, for both the company and Smaug, on a bit of a cliff-hanger: the company trapped inside the mountain, and the dragon turning for “vengeance” on “those men on the lake“. His final words on the subject are a terrifying pronouncement of power, as well as a rejection of any dwarven claim on Erebor: “They shall see me and remember who is the real King under the Mountain!” The chapter’s last image is a potent one of the dragon rising “in fire” and aiming directly for Lake-town.
“Inside Information” is one of The Hobbit’s great chapters. It’s lengthy, but never plods like other lengthy chapters in the story have, being excellently paced with a number of thrilling and well-constructed set-pieces. The obvious highlight is Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug, an iconic fantasy moment that may be one of the author best examples of meaningful dialogue between protagonist and antagonist. Smaug is a hugely impressive character, even if we won’t actually be seeing all that much more of him, and the chapter’s well-rounded treatment of Bilbo, from his arrogance, to his humbling to his continued usefulness to the company, is also excellently presented.
That’s not so say that there aren’t a few issues. Here, at what we can describe as the conclusion of the second act in progress, there are signs that Tolkien is cobbling together a few things, like the Arkenstone, the dwarven plan to regain their treasure and dealing with Smaug himself. That last point is particularly important, and I’ll be discussing some of the deficiencies in story-telling once we get to Bard’s showdown with the dragon in a couple of chapters. And there is also that paragraph on the nature of dwarves, and how they are “not heroes”, which reads so strangely.
But these are relatively minor things, that are easily covered for in the quality of the rest of the chapter. As the last of the really lengthy offerings, a lot of set-up for what is left has been done here, and whole things are going to slow a bit in the next few pages, they will still be well-worth reading.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.