The Hobbit read-along continues over at The Warden’s Walk and so do my rambling thoughts about the book!
Chapter 12 continues developing the philosophies underlying the actions of all the characters. The Dwarves think about treasure, Bilbo thinks about home, and Smaug thinks about himself. Their philosophies and not their physical prowess ultimately decide all their fates.
Tolkien does not portray the Dwarves in a very flattering manner at this point in time, stating outright that “There it is: Dwarves are not heroes but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money.” Though Bilbo has repeatedly proven his worth to the group, rescuing his companions from the spiders and the prisons of Mirkwood, he receives little credit from Thorin, who announces (rather pompously) that the time has come now for the Hobbit to earn his reward. Even so, the Dwarves hope to aid Bilbo as little as possible in his burglaring because they fear too much for their own lives; only Balin dares to venture into the tunnel with the Hobbit. A sense of duty does arise when their companions find themselves in direct danger, and Tolkien informs readers that they would save Bilbo if he got into trouble, but altogether their treatment of the Hobbit seems to rely on how much they think he is doing for them, and how well. They have focused all their thoughts and energy on the treasure so that their moral vision remains limited and they have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships that are not inherently useful to their goals.
Bilbo informs Smaug that the group has come to the Mountain not merely for treasure but also for revenge–but the evidence to support this seems limited. The Dwarves actually neglected to take a living dragon into account when forming their plans, so clearly they have no intent to take back their home. They want their wealth back–it’s as simple as them. Maybe you can argue that stealing treasure from a dragon will anger him and thus counts as revenge, but such action seems to be lacking in symbolic victory. Can you really imagine a tale like this going down into legend–a bunch of Dwarves loitering around a mountainside while they hire an unknown to tote out their former possessions like a common criminal? The story is interesting and maybe some people will find the cleverness and bravery of the Hobbit admirable, but it really doesn’t do anything for the reputation of the Dwarves.
The greed of the Dwarves would have proven their downfall if not for Bilbo. Thinking only of their glorious treasure, they are totally unprepared to face the reality of Smaug. Bilbo can help them precisely because he doesn’t care about the treasure. He cares about the right sorts of things–upholding his end of a bargain so he can return home to his comfortable hobbit-hole. Love of adventure and a desire to prove himself also play a role in his exploits, but at the root of all his thoughts is the idea of a simple life unburdened by old grudges and the desire for excessive wealth.
Bilbo also stands in opposition to Smaug, who lays the foundation for his own downfall through his pride. Even though he recognizes the flattery of Bilbo as lies, he cannot help feeling pleasure in even this fake admiration. Desirous of impressing the Hobbit even further, he boasts of his invincibility, thus revealing the flawed spot above his heart. (Note that Bilbo’s pride in his own cleverness also has unintended bad consequences as it focuses the wrath of Smaug on Lake-town.) Smaug’s greed, anger, and overriding desire for revenge will all further combine to bring him to the edge of ruin; if he could only have overlooked the loss of a single golden cup and stayed with his hoard, the world might have remained content to continue ignoring his existence.
But these are all weighty matters. This chapter is a prime example of a thrilling quest adventure story! I’m not entirely sure why it worked, but Tolkien’s liberal use of the exclamation point really drew me into the action: “The glow of Smaug!” It was like I was there! Not only that, but this chapter is funny. Tolls? Bilbo has travelled all this way to get a fourteenth part of a treasure only to realize he neglected to consider transport and tolls to get it all home? Did anyone bother to plan anything about this adventure? Why does Gandalf keep disappearing? Does he really believe this group is capable of accomplishing anything without him? And why does Smaug, of all the characters, think about tolls? I don’t believe that dragon ever paid a toll in his life.
So, what do you all think? Have I been too harsh on the Dwarves? Was Smaug a law-abiding dragon in his youth? Weigh in and continue the read-along next Tuesday with Taliesintaleweaver of Lights in the Library!