The Hobbit’s first chapter sold the story to the reader on the basis of an eventual confrontation with a fire-breathing dragon, an enticing fantasy prospect if ever there was one. “Inside Information” provided the first part of that confrontation, in a verbal sense, but dragons don’t get slayed with words alone. “Fire And Water”, as action packed a chapter as The Hobbit will have, is the climax of the books second act and yet another iconic moment, where we finally get to see Smaug unleashed.
The chapter begins with Tolkien noting the time skip, as we jump back in the narrative to the moment when Smaug departed the Lonely Mountain after burying the dwarves in the hidden passage. As noted before, the nature of this jump can read a little strange, though it isn’t the last time that Tolkien will employ such a manner of writing, with Book Three of The Lord Of The Rings involving plenty of jumps forward and back through the narrative. The narrator is quite personable about it, engaging in a direct conversation with the reader almost: “Now if you wish, like the dwarves, to hear news of Smaug…”
Tolkien sets up Lake-town’s status quickly in the second paragraph. It is often referred to in this chapter as the more grand Esgaroth, but I personally think the simpler Lake-town is more appropriate; “Esgaroth” is an Elvish word meaning, roughly, “reed-lake”, and I never understood why a town of men would have such a name as its primary moniker, even with Elvish neighbours. Lake-town remains a sleepy place not all that alive to danger, similar to Erebor the day the dragon arrived. Tonight they are indoors, as, so memorably written “the breeze was from the black East and chill“. East of Lake-town is essentially empty wilderness with the exception of the Iron Hills (soon to be important to the story) so the description of it being “black” can be taken as “evil” or “ill”. The few Lakemen still out and about are enjoying the sight of the stars reflected on the lake, typically more of a mind for that immediately in front of them, and not the ominous mountain that isn’t all that far away.
The brief sight of a flicker of light on the mountain – presumably Smaug’s attack on the hidden entrance from the end of “Inside Information” – provokes some conversation. The initial responses from the unnamed townsfolk are mostly wishful thinking – “Perhaps the King under the Mountain is forging gold” – and worthy only of scorn even if we didn’t know Smaug was on his way. But then “a grim voice” interjects:
“Which king?…As like as not it is the marauding fire of the Dragon, the only king under the Mountain we have ever known.”
This unnamed person must immediately peek our interest, both for the noted grimness of his tone, and his overt rejection of the happy legend of the mountain, two things that we have not yet experienced from the inhabitants of Lake-town. And, of course, he’s right, so we immediately can grant him a degree of intelligence above his fellows.
It’s also interesting that he describes Smaug in such terms, “the only King under the mountain we have ever known“. What was it Smaug said at the end of “Inside Information”? “They shall see me and remember who is the real King under the Mountain!“. This nameless man’s acknowledgment that Smaug has a bigger claim on such a title forms a strange kind of parity between the two, and a connection in our minds, a connection before an inevitable confrontation.
For now, the Lakemen are full of scorn for the grim-voiced man, accused of being too negative and of some doom-mongering , “Anything from floods to poisoned fish“, which is an interesting character trait to have for such a figure.
The bright lights from the mountain invoke something akin to a reckless hysteria among the townsfolk – “The river is running gold from the Mountain!” they cried” – but like any ignorant mob in a fairy tale, they’re about to get their comeuppance. The “grim-voiced fellow” sets the action in motion with a thrilling rejection of all the positivity: “The dragon is coming or I am a fool!” he cried. “Cut the bridges! To arms! To arms!” Tolkien allows his narrative a little bit of black humour in this moment of terrible realisation: “…and not the most foolish doubted that the prophecies had gone rather wrong.” This calls to mind Emperor Hirohito’s surrender speech in 1945: “…the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage“.
Despite the ridiculous gullibility of the Lakemen thus far, for the remainder of the chapter Tolkien will actually be at pains to showcase the positive aspects of this community. Once the alarm is raised, the mood changes, but there is no mindless flight from danger just yet: Smaug will “not find them quite unprepared“, unlike Dale or Erebor a century before.
Lake-town has obviously been thinking about this possibility for a long time, and there is a plan in place. Water buckets are assembled, warriors are armed, bows and quivers are made ready and, most importantly of all, the bridge connecting the town to the land is thrown down rapidly. The lake “rippled red as fire” as Smaug approaches, but his own plan is foiled by the quick and steady action of the Lake-men: “The bridge was gone, and his enemies were on an island in deep water — too deep and dark and cool for his liking.” Unable to land on Lake-town itself, Smaug must engage in a more aerial assault, no less deadly to Lake-town, but decidedly more dangerous for himself. Smaug’s fear of the water is not elaborated upon greatly, but it is there: something that events the odd, and perhaps justifies the commitment of Lake-town’s defenders.
This act calls to mind both the ingenuity and bravery of men, in a way that stands out from the fat, contended hobbits of the Shire, the detached impersonal elves or the calculating, grumbling dwarves. Building a community on the water was an automatic defence against Smaug, but more active defences, like the destruction of the bridge, show some intelligent thinking also. And the courage of that same act must also be acknowledged: the bridge would be the natural avenue of retreat, and the Lakemen have voluntarily cast it down. Escape is still possible for some of the residents via the water, but Lake-town v Smaug is a fight to the death. Either one is going down, or both are.
Tolkien won’t spend a huge amount of time describing the details of the resulting battle, but what effort he does is expend is worth it, a mixture of high fantasy writing that calls to mind “The Battle Of The Pelannor Fields” for those familiar with Tolkien’s future works, and a more down-to-earth style:
“Roaring he swept back over the town. 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 equaled the sights that night…Fire leaped from the dragon’s jaws. He circled for a while high in the air above them lighting all the lake; the trees by the shores shone like copper and like blood with leaping shadows of dense black at their feet…A sweep of his tail and the roof of the Great House crumbled and smashed down. Flames unquenchable sprang high into the night. Another swoop and another, and another house and then another sprang afire and fell; and still no arrow hindered Smaug or hurt him more than a fly from the marshes.”
Mr Grim-voice finally gets a moniker, as he extorts Lake-towns warriors and archers to keep up the effort: “Bard was his name…who ran to and fro cheering on the archers and urging the Master to order them to fight to the last arrow.” If looking for any deeper significance to the name, there isn’t much. The Celtic word “bard” means “poet” and is a common fantasy/DND trope nowadays, but can also mean “guardian”. In the Old Norse language, closer to what Tolkien was going for with the language of Dale and Lake-town, it means “beard” or “battle-axe”. For now, it is enough to see this naysayer exhibiting leadership and courage, and also going as far as to order the Master, the apparent leader of the town, around. The resistance of Lake-town seems doomed against such a foe, but Bard is clearly a man who thinks they can win.
Denied the chance to advance on Lake-town over the bridge, Smaug is left with an aerial assault, as he swoops over Esgaroth repeatedly, laying down flame with every pass. In line with the dragon who so easily lost his temper at several points of “Inside Information”, he’s annoyed at the very idea of Lake-town’s resistance: “At the twanging of the bows and the shrilling of the trumpets the dragon’s wrath blazed to its height, till he was blind and mad with it. No one had dared to give battle to him for many an age…” The hold-out of the Lakemen, whose barbs and bolts are enough to be described in tempest-like language, provokes him to greater wrath and “down he swooped straight through the arrow-storm, reckless in his rage, taking no heed to turn his scaly sides towards his foes, seeking only to set their town ablaze.”
With his flames not doing the business on their own, Smaug takes to smashing Lake-town’s building one at a time, with the townspeople bravely fighting the fires as best they can: “…water was flung by a hundred hands wherever a spark appeared.” But the sheer power of Smaug’s assault cannot be borne for too long.
The Hobbit was written in the 1930’s, before the Luftwaffe and the Blitz and the true advent of “strategic bombing” made clear the terrible power of aircraft in wartime in terms of attacks on cities and civilians. But fears of just such military tactics, and beliefs that they alone would be enough to destroy the morale and fighting spirit of a nations people, had long since been articulated, most notably by early air theorist Giulio Dohet in his Command Of The Air of 1921. Tolkien, living and writing in a time when war with Germany was becoming slowly more inevitable, may well have been inspired by such fears of fiery death from above on an innocent civilian landscape, though I don’t want to take the theory too far, as Tolkien would have found plenty of inspiration in older literature, not least his own stories of the destruction of towns and cities, like The Fall Of Gondolin. But, it is perhaps a bit prescient, that not all of the Lakemen are broken by Smaug’s attack, and some stay to fight to the last, much as strategic bombing’s stated aim of pulverising an enemy country into submission has long since been discredited as impossible.
Which is not to say that every member of the Lake-town community is going to brave it out to the end. As Smaug’s attack relentless continues, some decide to take their chances in the lake, and the women and children are shepherded into boats. Among their number is the Master, in “his great gilded boat, hoping to row away in the confusion and save himself“, an image that must certainly aid to the Titanic-feel of what is occurring, with the Master fulfilling the role of Bruce Ismay, while braver men stay behind. The outlook is dire: “Weapons were flung down. There was mourning and weeping…Soon all the town would be deserted and burned down to the surface of the lake.” The fickle nature of Lake-town allegiance is emphasised as thoughts turn to the dwarves, an important plot-point for what is to come: “…but a little time ago the old songs of mirth to come had been sung about the dwarves. Now men cursed their names.”
Our last glimpse at the internal thought process of Smaug is an utterly appropriate one, as he exults in his cruelty, and the power he holds over the fleeing townspeople:
“They could all get into boats for all he cared. There he could have fine sport hunting them, or they could stop till they starved. Let them try to get to land and he would be ready. Soon he would set all the shoreland woods ablaze and wither every field and pasture. Just now he was enjoying the sport of town-baiting more than he had enjoyed anything for years.”
Smaug is an irredeemable villain, and it’s important that Tolkien showed that once more, as the end is coming up very shortly.
A flicker of hope remains for Lake-town: “…there was still a company of archers that held their ground among the burning houses. Their captain was Bard, grim-voiced and grim-faced…“. This brief paragraph allows for some charaterisation for Bard beyond the “grim” sobriquet, who is noted as a paranoid believer in fanciful ideas of poisoned fish and floods, but also a man whose courage is undoubted by those close to him. Here, he literally fights to the last arrow while the flames drive everyone else away. But more importantly, for Tolkien anyway, is Bard’s lineage, he being “a descendant of Girion, the Lord of Dale, whose wife and child had escaped down the Running River from the ruin long ago“, much like the ruin that is happening now. Bard is the man to redeem his ancestor and break that cycle, and he is the “son’s son” that Smaug so easily dismissed in his denunciation to Bilbo. In many respects, he’s an early blueprint for Aragorn. Bard’s everything this moment needs: a man of courage, a leader, and carrying that innate royal power inside him. “He bent his bow for the last time.”
Then the more magical side of things takes over, as the old thrush, that spied out the company in “Inside Information”, arrives and speaks to him, carrying news of the Mountain and Smaug’s weak-point. The idea of the great hero receiving such unexpected assistance at a critical moment is not uncommon in stories like this of course, and we can think to Odin with his ravens as an example. Here, it is another thing that marks Bard out, as a true member of “the race of Dale“.
Bard uses his last weapon, his “black arrow” that, in an appropriate unity of those that have suffered most from the predations of the dragon, was forged in Erebor. Having referred to Smaug as “the only King under the mountain we have ever known” earlier, now Bard rejects such a title for the dragon: “If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!”
Smaug, sure in his victory, swoops over Lake-town one more time, “lower than ever“, exposing his weak-point in the sparkling moonlight. Tolkien does not hold back in the description that follows, as the fight to the death between the dragon and Lake-town reaches the climactic moment, and results in the momentous destruction of both:
“The black arrow sped straight from the string, straight for the hollow by the left breast where the foreleg was flung wide. In it smote and vanished, barb, shaft and feather, so fierce was its flight. With a shriek that deafened men, felled trees and split stone, Smaug shot spouting into the air, turned over and crashed down from on high in ruin.
Full on the town he fell. His last throes splintered it to sparks and gledes. The lake roared in. A vast steam leaped up, white in the sudden dark under the moon. There was a hiss, a gushing whirl, and then silence. And that was the end of Smaug and Esgaroth…“.
Smaug’s crash into the lake creates a steam and fog, whose dispersal “in tattered shreds over the marshes before Mirkwood“, calls to mind the end of Sauron’s spirit in “The Field Of Cormallen” or Saruman in “The Scouring Of The Shire“. The dragon has been slain.
“Fire And Water” is a chapter of distinctive halves, with the battle taking up the first, and the aftermath making up the rest. While very different in tone, the second half is no less interesting, if maybe just a little less thrilling. What follows is the somewhat grubby political manoeuvring as we deal with the fall-out of Lake-town’s demise, and then the even grubbier manoeuvring to claim Thror’s horde. Here begins Act Three of the story, and our set-up for the final climactic moments.
The Lakemen, the “three quarters” of them that have survived – not a bad return in the circumstances – lament their loss, but the narrator is already moving on, pointing out that their landward assets – fields and cattle, which weren’t noted before – are still fine, not to mention that the constant looming threat of the dragon has been removed from their lives. “What that meant they had not yet realized.”
But before thoughts of recompense can crop up, its simple, emotional anger. The Lake-town mob, that decided to fete and praise the dwarves over the opinions of the Master, is the new battleground, and it is a battle between the Master, now in a fight for his very position and authority, and Bard. Eaten bread is soon forgotten, and the Master’s control over a time of prosperity – and any logical evaluation of what he could have done in the circumstances of a dragon attack – is not factored in here.
Bard’s unexpected survival is confirmed with a Thorin-esque declaration of deed and title:
“Bard is not lost!” he cried. “He dived from Esgaroth, when the enemy was slain. I am Bard, of the line of Girion; I am the slayer of the dragon!”
His miraculous appearance only serves to magnify the instant legend he has created for himself, and introduces a power struggle dynamic to the resulting dialogue: “King Bard! King Bard!” they shouted; but the Master ground his chattering teeth.” The Master is no fool, and he’s been playing the political game for a good bit longer than Bard. And he’s not giving anything up easily. I’ve always loved the words given to the Master, and they deserve deeper analysis.
His initial gambit is actually misplaced, perhaps driven by his own emotion. He starts with an unhelpful declaration of fact on Bard’s lineage – “Girion was lord of Dale, not king of Esgaroth”, which doesn’t actually help his case – continues with a bit of unsightly pomposity – “In the Lake-town we have always elected masters from among the old and wise” – follows up with a dangerously unwise insult to Bard – “…and have not endured the rule of mere fighting men” – and then sarcastic air quotes – “Let ‘King Bard’ go back to his own kingdom” – before finishing up with a not well-veiled criticism of those who would dare follow the dragonslayer: “And any that wish can go with him, if they prefer the cold stones under the shadow of the Mountain to the green shores of the lake. The wise will stay here and hope to rebuild our town, and enjoy again in
time its peace and riches.”
To no one’s surprise I assume, the mob isn’t buying into what the Master has selling, and in a moment that calls to mind the mindless sheep of Animal Farm, start bleating their own anti-capitalist slogan: “We have had enough of the old men and the money-counters!” And people further off took up the cry: “Up the Bowman, and down with Moneybags,” till the clamour echoed along the shore.”
The Master changes his tone quickly when he sees which way things are going. His second speech begins with flip-flopping praise of Bard – “He has tonight earned an eminent place in the roll of the benefactors of our town; and he is worthy of many imperishable songs“, all the more appropriate as Bard is now standing next to him. But then he goes for the jugular, in the classic political ploy of not seeking to damp down popular rage, bur re-direct it:
“But, why O People?…Why do I get all your blame? For what fault am I to be deposed? Who aroused the dragon from his slumber, I might ask? Who obtained of us rich gifts and ample help, and led us to believe that old songs could come true? Who played on our soft hearts and our pleasant fancies? What sort of gold have they sent down the river to reward us? Dragon-fire and ruin! From whom should we claim the recompense of our damage, and aid for our widows and orphans?”
We might remember that the Master was never gung-ho about Thorin and company, and his words here reflect his true opinion of the mob, with their “soft hearts” and “pleasant fancies“. Showing eerie understanding of the success of such ploys – Tolkien wrote The Hobbit in a time of rising right-wing populism in Europe, so would surely have well-understood the tactic, but it rings true today as well – the author outlines how quickly the mob turns: “…some of those who had before sung the old songs loudest, were now heard as loudly crying that the dwarves had stirred the dragon up against them deliberately!”
Bard isn’t sucked along quite so easily, wisely pointing out that the company were likely the “first in fire” when Smaug awoke. But then he realises what all of these things mean, and the Master’s previous words on Bard’s opportunity to re-establish Girion’s city: .”…the fabled treasure of the Mountain lying without guard or owner…He thought…of Dale rebuilt, and filled with golden bells, if he could but find the men.” The result is a tempered power-play, as Bard makes his clear his duty to the survivors of Lake-town, but also states his intention to claim his royal birth right: “This is no time for angry words, Master, or for considering weighty plans of change. There is work to do. I serve you still — though after a while I may think again of your words and go North with any that will follow me.” In the end, the Master wins a very clear victory, with his own position secured, a rival planning to move away, and Bard taking on much of the toil associated with keeping the survivors going. You get the leaders you deserve, and the easily manipulated Lakemen have theirs.
The plight of the survivors takes over the next few paragraphs, as the dreams of unbounded wealth give way to the practical realities of what is, essentially, a refugee camp at the lakeside: “Many took ill of wet and cold and sorrow that night, and afterwards died, who had escaped uninjured
from the ruin of the town; and in the days that followed there was much sickness and great hunger.” It’s important to set this up properly, as it will help to explain the continuing anger with the dwarves, and the alliance with the Wood-elves.
The news of Smaug’s fall spreads rapidly, thanks largely to the aforementioned gathering of birds: “The air was filled with circling flocks, and their swift-flying messengers flew here and there across the sky. Far over…tidings spread: “Smaug is dead!“. To the halls of the Elvenking, to the depths of Mirkwood, to Beorn’s house, to the Warg-filled pine forests and, noted all-too-briefly, to the villainous goblins, “at council in their caves“, the word comes. Welcome to Act Three proper, and the road to the Battle of Five Armies. A great horde of unguarded treasure catches many minds, and creates many claims.
The gathering of birds is not just for communication though, as the Elvenking’s army coming accompanied by carrion-fowl illustrates. Thranduil’s characterisation in in these moments is a little different to what came before, as he no longer seems as haughty: “That will be the last we shall hear of Thorin Oakenshield, I fear…He would have done better to have remained my guest. It is an ill wind, all the same…that blows no one any good.”
The Woodland Realm marches to claim Thror’s gold of course, but it is also a humanitarian mission:
“But the king, when he received the prayers of Bard, had pity, for he was the lord of a good and kindly people…he hastened now down the river to the Long Lake. He had not boats or rafts enough for his host, and they were forced to go the slower way by foot; but great store of goods he sent ahead by water.”
The Wood-elves bring supplies and craftsmen to build a new town, essentially saving the Lakemen from a winter of intense hardship. Perhaps the reason for this sudden turn in the Elvenking’s personality is to make him more of a contrast to Thorin in a few pages. Where once Thranduil was the arrogant one treating others disrespectfully, now Thorin will be. But, we can see a more realpolitik motivation behind it all: better that the neighbouring communities share the undefended gold, than fight over it. This erstwhile alliance marches on the mountain, as the storm clouds begin to gather.
Tolkien turns aside from this alliance-making to make one final note on the remains of Smaug, whose bones will be a landmark for some time to come, a place of ghosts and fear: “…few dared to cross the cursed spot, and none dared to dive into the shivering water or recover the precious stones that fell from his rotting carcass.”
“Fire And Water” is a hell of a chapter. The battle with Smaug is a thrilling fantasy set-piece, with its visceral imagery, heroic last stands and final fall of the dragon. The aftermath is a wonderfully written political debate, and the final pages help set-up the closing stage of the story really well. That’s to be noted, as you would think a story like The Hobbit would allow for some measure of celebration over the dragon’s death, but no, Tolkien immediately ties in this important event with the new, central theme of greed, and the terrible effect it has on people’s hearts, especially if already inflamed with hurt and loss. On its own merits, it’s a brilliant chapter, and it achieves this brilliance with no sight or sound from Bilbo or the company.
But there is one gaping flaw in the story that needs to be discussed here, and that is Bard. Bard is a vital character. From the start to this point, the defining conflict of the narrative was defeating the dragon that’s guarding the treasure. Bard is the man who does this, and then takes on a leadership role of one of the five crucial factions shaping the remainder of the story. And yet he is introduced mere pages before his defining act, a sudden arrival that makes Tolkien’s writing technique seem messy and unplanned.
Because Bard was not part of the original plan. In initial plans it was actually Bilbo who slayed the dragon, stabbing Smaug in his sleep within the Lonely Mountain, and then floating away on a river of dragon blood. Not exactly heroic, and this would have denied the story the vital punch that the attack on Lake-town provides. So Tolkien, upon consideration, re-wrote it, and rapidly came up with the battle on the lake and Bard the Bowman. And that rapidity shows. Really, there’s no good reason why Bard should not show up in “A Warm Welcome” first, as a lone dissenter to the revelry surrounding the dwarves, later to be proven right. But he doesn’t. Bard’s entry-point to the story is something that has always bothered me, and I feel that it is one of the most significant problems.
Peter Jackson’s film version, in one of the significant changes to the source material that I appreciated, takes Bard, played by Luke Evans, and makes him a much more significant figure, introduced earlier during scenes from “Barrels Out Of Bond” and with a much more expanded conflict with Stephen Fry’s Master. It’s undoubtedly an improvement on the written version, and you couldn’t say that for everything in the film trilogy.
The dragon is dead. The remainder of The Hobbit will be about gold and who gets it, and how much you’re willing to risk getting it.
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