The Hobbit 12 | Inside Information

by Glenn on October 31, 2019

Through Bilbo’s patience and reasoning, the company gained entrance into the secret side door of the mountain. Thorin gives a long speech about how “our esteemed Mr. Baggins” has performed well on this adventure but “now is the time for him to perform the service for which he was included in our Company.”

The narrator then writes to us directly, “You are familiar with Thorin’s style on important occasions, so I will not give you any more of it … but Bilbo was impatient. By now he was quite familiar with Thorin too, and he knew what he was driving at.” Bilbo’s response is priceless:

“‘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,”[Bilbo] 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.'” Bilbo asks for volunteers who will go with him. Only Balin, the oldest, “who was rather fond of the hobbit” agreed to “come inside at least and perhaps a bit of the way too, ready to call for help if necessary.”

So then the narrator makes things clear if they aren’t already:

“The most that can be said for the dwarves is this: they intended to pay Bilbo really handsomely for his services; they had brought him to do a nasty job for them, and they did not mind the poor little fellow doing it if he would; but they would all have done their best to get him out of trouble, if he got into it, as they did in the case of the trolls at the beginning of their adventures before they had any particular reasons for being grateful to him. There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.”

This is what I think you would have to call a stereotype. And it’s the narrator who has it, which is interesting. The tone of The Hobbit is playful. There’s probably more comedy than I’ve picked up because I’ve been trying to pay attention to the idea of adventure as an underlying theme. But this chapter is funny with Thorin’s great solemnity and absolute lack of courage disguised in rather indirect speech paired with Bilbo’s barely-there respect and clearly-there impatience. Perhaps it’s because this is a potentially scary moment in this story and Tolkien wants to keep the light touch.

Bilbo made his way down the long passageway. We are given some of his internal conversation along the way. The “least Tookish part of him” said,

“Now you are in for it at last, Bilbo Baggins . . . I have absolutely no use for dragon-guarded treasures, and the whole lot could stay here for ever, if only I could wake up and find this beastly tunnel was my own front-hall at home.”

Eventually there was a temperature change in the tunnel and, then, the sounds of a sleeping dragon could be heard. At the end of the tunnel “Bilbo stopped” and “Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did.” But his decision to move forward had already been made. Or as the narrator puts it, “He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.”

The dragon was “vast” and “red-golden” and asleep. It took a moment for Bilbo to take it all in. He had heard tales of dragons, but here was the actual thing. Smaug was “a dire menace even in his sleep.” Bilbo grabbed the heaviest “two-handled cup” he could carry and ran as fast as he could back up the tunnel. Balin greeted him warmly and carried him outside to the rest of the company where the dwarves passed “the cup from hand to hand . . . talking delightedly of the recovery of their treasure.”

Two problems emerged. The first, very quickly. Smaug woke up. The company was outside and had propped the door ajar with a rock. But they could hear Smaug waking up from a dream in which he had been robbed, which is not the first time in this book that a character had been dreaming of something that was actually happening (see Bilbo in the cave in The Misty Mountains). The narrator tells us that

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him. [You think?] Dragons may not have much real use for all their wealth, but they know it to an ounce as a rule.”

The whole mountain rocked with the rage of the dragon. The dwarves had “cowered down in fright” and it was Bilbo who commanded that the company get inside the tunnel. A couple of the dwarves had not made it up to the entrance, yet. Bombur, the biggest dwarf, and Bofur, were still down with the ponies. With ropes, the dwarves hauled them up and everyone got inside the tunnel in the nick of time as Smaug circled the mountain spewing flame. The ponies, in terror, broke their ropes and ran away.

In the morning, the emotions of the company had calmed somewhat. They were in a bit of a bind at this point. They had stirred up a dragon, which was inevitable, and needed to lay low for a while or get killed immediately. The narrator tells us,

“They debated long on what was to be done, but they could think of no way of getting rid of Smaug—which had always been a weak point in their plans, as Bilbo felt inclined to point out. Then as is the nature of folk that are thoroughly perplexed, they began to grumble at the hobbit, blaming him for what had at first so pleased them: for bringing away a cup and stirring up Smaug’s wrath so soon.”

The second problem emerged at this point. They had hired Bilbo as a burglar but hadn’t really thought the whole thing through.

“‘What else do you suppose a burglar is to do?’ asked Bilbo angrily. ‘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 Thor on my back? If there is any grumbling to be done, I think I might have a say. You ought to have brought five hundred burglars not one. 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.”

What exactly were the dwarves thinking they were going to do with this vast treasure. How would you transport it, for one? The dwarves apologized and then asked Bilbo what he thought they should do. Bilbo responded, perhaps dryly, “Getting rid of dragons is not at all in my line, but I will do my best to think about it. Personally I have no hopes at all, and wish I was safe back at home.” When the dwarves press him for a more immediate sort of plan Bilbo reminds the dwarves that he has his ring and that he will creep down and see Smaug again and see what happens. And here is the humor again,

“‘Every worm has his weak spot,’ as my father used to say, though I am sure it was not from personal experience.”

Adventures change us. And they had changed Bilbo. “Already [the dwarves] had come to respect little Bilbo. Now he had become the real leader in their adventure. He had begun to have ideas and plans of his own.” Bilbo made his way back down to see Smaug, who was pretending to be asleep. Fortunately, Bilbo sensed this and, even with the ring, stayed in the shadows. And then Smaug spoke, “Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air. I hear your breath. Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty to spare.” And so began a conversation Bilbo had with Smaug. Bilbo spoke with his best manners and used riddles so that it was not clear who he was or how he had gotten there. And the narrator tells us,

“This of course is the way to talk to dragons, if you don’t want to reveal your proper name (which is wise), and don’t want to infuriate them by a flat refusal (which is also very wise.) No dragon can resist the fascination of riddling talk and of wasting time trying to understand it.”

The conversation with Smaug goes on for quite a while. One of the things that happened is that Smaug—too arrogant—showed Bilbo his armored underbelly. Bilbo noticed that there was an unprotected patch which is when Bilbo decided he wanted to get away. This was good information. He told Smaug, “Well, I really must not detain Your Magnificence any longer.” He suggested that Smaug would need some rest and that burglars did, too. This last thing was a little too provocative. Bilbo had been careful with his speech up to this point and although he was running as fast as he could up the tunnel, it wasn’t nearly fast enough. Smaug stuck his face up to the tunnel and blew fire that singed Bilbo pretty good.

One of the unanswered questions along this journey has been what did Gandalf know about Bilbo? Did he have foreknowledge of how Bilbo would be? What becomes clear in the conversation that Bilbo has with Smaug is that hobbits are an unknown uknown for dragons. Perhaps that was part of Gandalf’s reasoning. It was a kind of protection for Bilbo, at least at first, until the end of the conversation where Bilbo got a little too cocky. Smaug (and by extension I suppose all dragons) have an exaggerated sense of smell. Smaug could smell the dwarves—even just on the saddles of the pack animals—but he didn’t quite know what to do with this smell of Bilbo, which was new to him.

On his way out, we get another of Bilbo’s internal conversations: “‘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.” This is how we learn from experience. Something happens and we create an axiom based on it. Some time later Bilbo got back to the dwarves who tried to doctor up his wounds as well as they could.  They had heard the terrible noise that Smaug had made and wanted to hear Bilbo’s story, but Bilbo was regretting some of the things he had said to the dragon, figuring that Smaug would have been able to figure out some of the riddles. Bilbo worried that he put the people of Lake Town in danger. As Bilbo is wrestling with his thoughts, he saw the old thrush that had signaled the opening for the key in the door and he threw a rock at him. He thought he was evil. The bird “merely fluttered aside and came back.” Thorin told Bilbo not to bother the thrush, that the bird was magical and probably was alive from the time of his father and grandfather.

Bilbo recounted everything and then the thrush flew away. Bilbo had a bad feeling about their being outside. He demanded that the company move in and shut the door. Good thing and just in time because a stealthy Smaug had been trying to find his robbers and was flying around the mountain silently. When Smaug could “find nobody and see nothing” he left in a rage to extract some revenge on the men of the Lake. Of course, the company was locked inside at this point.