“The Hobbit” Read-Along Chapter 12: “Inside Information”

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!

12 thoughts on ““The Hobbit” Read-Along Chapter 12: “Inside Information”

  1. jubilare says:

    “he 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.” I don’t know if I quite buy that, but I can’t argue with the rest. The Dwarves, as represented here, are rather cowardly and avaricious. Balin is really the only dwarf, in The Hobbit, that I have an emotional connection to.

    “Bilbo also stands in opposition to Smaug, who lays the foundation for his own downfall through his pride.” Ah, yes. I love this detail! Pride is something I hate in myself and constantly struggle with, and as such, I love that it is the dragon’s downfall!

    “Smaug’s greed, anger, and overriding danger for revenge” typo?

    “I don’t believe that dragon ever paid a toll in his life.” Hahhahahah! I now have a mental image of dragon toll-booths.

    J. R. R. Tolkien, himself, is the one who is too hard on the Dwarves in this section and in most of this story. It is a failing (yep, I said it) he mitigates in his later work, and even a little in the last few chapters of The Hobbit. You’ll take no flack from me for being honest about how they’re presented.😉
    I think you are pretty dead-on about Bilbo and Smaug, too.


    • Krysta says:

      I think the Dwarves may have had some sort of intent to get their home back, but it was clearly an ill-formed one. Maybe they hoped that Smaug would just be dead when they got there and they could walk on it. I’m sure that would have satisfied them, too, knowing that their treasure was free for the taking the whole time, but no one in Lake-town ever thought to look. 😉

      I do love the old dragons and their failings. There’s a nice contrast in Beowulf between the dragon as hoarder and the king as ring-giver. More modern interpretations of dragons as friendly pets or convenient transportation devices are interesting, but don’t really resonate with me.

      Yes, I do believe I managed to combine “desire” and “anger” to talk about Smaug’s danger! Sorry about that! (Though it’s true–he is a dangerous dragon! 😉 )

      Oh dear. I just realized they would have to have dragon toll-booths because if the dragons used the regular ones, they would get stuck. Not dignified at all!

      Yes! Gimli, for example, doesn’t really fit any of these Dwarvish descriptions! He’s loyal and brave, manages to overcome a centuries-old prejudice, risks his life for the good of others, and, though he loves wealth, seems to have a healthier love. He appreciates good craftmanship and the beauty of gold–but doesn’t allow material goods to become an obsession.


      • jubilare says:

        True. I think the Dwarves in The Hobbit make little sense, even in the context of their own story. I love the book, but I consider it inconsistent and it has its share of plot-holes.

        Mm… I’m not fond of dragons as pets or convenient transportation, but I’m also not fond of them always being stock-fantasy-villains. I love me a great evil dragon, but I also like to have dragons about who are, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, not safe, but good.

        That’s some excellent typo-talent! Usually I can figure out what someone meant to type, but that time I only knew something wasn’t quite right.

        And don’t forget, fireproof!

        I’m compiling my resources in preparation for expounding on Tolkien’s Dwarves, so I will save much of my insane rantings for that, but Gimli is, I believe, more of a representative than an exception.😉


      • Krysta says:

        I’d never really noticed the inconsistencies and plot holes before, but now that I’m reading the book with a more analytical mindset, I am quite surprised by their prevalence! Still, I can’t help but loving the book anyway!

        I actually enjoy books with friendly dragons, but there’s something about the symbolism of the evil dragons that I find especially intriguing. Maybe it’s something about being confronted with a physical manifestation of evil. Pride and greed are things that ordinary people struggle with it, but when you see those traits take form, they suddenly become real–and, I think, extremely unsettling. No one wants to end up like Eustace!

        I had to take some time to think what I had meant by that typo, so I’m not surprised you couldn’t figure it out. 😉

        Haha! That’s true! You wouldn’t want a grumpy dragon burning down your toll-booth!

        I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the Dwarves!


  2. emilykazakh says:

    Reblogged this on WanderLust and commented:
    Krysta puts forth a lot of good thoughts and ideas. I am most intrigued: Why is Smaug so concerned about tolls? And why hasn’t Bilbo–of all people, er, hobbits–thought of this yet?
    This might be one of the most ill-planned heists ever. Bilbo needs to consult Danny Ocean.


  3. jubilare says:

    Critical reading changes so much! Hopefully, in this case, it does not sour the charm of the story.🙂

    True. I definitely don’t want to suffer dragon-transformation. Pride is one of the things I struggle most with, and so (as is often the case) it is one of the things I hate most when I see prideful characters on page. Smaug is a very prideful creature. The greed is almost more interesting to me, though. Greed that delights in the obsession of having, and only in having!

    Especially not with me in it!

    Here’s hoping I can be coherent. The more I love a thing, the harder it is to express why, and I love the Dwarves. 🙂


  4. David says:

    “Did anyone bother to plan anything about this adventure?” I keep asking myself this question over and over again — some of these dwarves are supposed to be well over a hundred years old, it appears, yet they have the maturity of teenagers who think they’re invincible when planning an adventure but inevitably fail to actually *plan* for the important things! It all seems very odd when we consider them in the context of LOTR and the Silmarillion, although when taking The Hobbit purely as itself, the plot holes seem not so much holes as quirks, possibly as intentional things Tolkien is doing. Just because dwarves are ancient and grim does not automatically give them wisdom and good sense, nor even bravery; they must earn that just like everyone else. And, as Gandalf no doubt surmised would happen, Bilbo becomes courageous much faster than they. It still strikes me as bizarre that Gandalf would set them on this journey without doing more planning himself, especially as regards the dragon, but he was likely trusting much to Iluvatar. Also, perhaps he expected Thorin to be more mature and to have strategised better? Hm.

    Exclamation points in prose are tricky and difficult to pull off, but Tolkien does use them nicely. They read as expressions of his own excitement, rather than as phony attempts to kindle excitement in the reader, and that’s probably the key.


    • Krysta says:

      Gandalf does seem to be relying a lot on what is termed “luck” in this story, but turns out to be something closer to providence in the end. I find that interesting as it suggests that Gandalf really believes there’s a good reason for the Dwarves to wake a sleeping dragon and take back their home. I think some of the extra material has him claim he knew he’d need allies up there by the time of the War of the Ring, but to me that’s some really remarkable foresight, even for Gandalf.

      Gandalf does have a history of sending Hobbits off on adventures, so you certainly can make the case that he had reasonable assurance that Bilbo would manage pull these Dwarves through (and maybe shame them into a little more practicality and bravery in the process?). I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that the Dwarves are not really warriors because they fled the mountain when they were young and presumably have lived a sort of wandering, refugee life since–they simply haven’t grown up in an environment that trained them to do this sort of thing. And no one is helping them. They only managed to find thirteen Dwarves to pull this off. Apparently the rest of the Dwarfish community have no interest in regaining this particular ancestral home–or is simply too scared to face the dragon. Either way, as a result, Thorin lacks the mentorship he clearly needs.

      I love that theory. Tolkien as excited to meet his own dragon as I am!


    • Krysta says:

      Too true! He also inadvertently reveals information about the Dwarves and their journey when he gets caught up in the cleverness of his riddle-making. Fortunately, he realizes this and takes some steps to protect himself and the Dwarves.


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