The Hobbit 14 | Fire and Water

by Glenn on November 5, 2019

Up to now, this has been Bilbo’s story. We’ve watched him as he was approached by Gandalf to pursue an adventure and saw how he was lured into it through the music of the dwarves whom he was to serve as burglar. We empathized with him as he was pushed out the door in haste by Gandalf and we imagined the discomfort of the rain as they traveled on horse back (or, in the case of Bilbo, on a pony).

Aside: There is an old-fashioned sense of adventure in this book. The absence of modern technology forces us to consider what it might have been like for other adventurers in the past. Think about the family heading out on the Oregon Trail in the 1800’s versus the modern family renting a U-Haul with air-conditioning to make the same journey today.

It was not just an uncomfortable journey but a dangerous one, too, especially when Gandalf wasn’t around. He slips away from time to time. When the company came upon three trolls, Bilbo was captured trying to pick the pocket of one of the trolls. (He didn’t anticipate a magical wallet.) When the dwarves came to help him, they were captured as well. Gandalf, sensing that he was needed, and clearly he was, returned in time to rescue the whole party and the group took some loot from the trolls. They all diverted, then, to the home of Elrond, an elf lord whose “last homely house” is far from homely. They gained needed rest, replenished supplies, and valuable intelligence to help them cross the Misty Mountains.

The main problem crossing the Misty Mountains was going to be avoiding goblins. They might have made it successfully, but the weather got bad again. The company, stuck in a terrible thunder and lightning storm found shelter in a cave. It was a classic dilemma. They all knew caves were potentially evil—you never knew what might be hiding in there—but this one looked safe and the cave seemed better than perishing in the storm. Bilbo had a nightmare where a crack opened up in the cave and Goblins appeared. It was not just a dream. When he cried out, it was enough warning for Gandalf to save himself. The rest of the company were taken hostage and taken deep into the heart of their mountain while their pack animals were eaten. Again, when things could have gone terribly wrong for the company, Gandalf appeared and with some pyrotechnics distracted the goblin host and killed The Great Goblin. The whole party then left on a run. Goblins in pursuit eventually caught up and Bilbo was thrown off the back of the dwarf who was carrying him. He hit his head and was rendered unconscious.  When Bilbo woke up, he was alone and in the dark. Crawling around he found a ring that rendered its wearer invisible. Its now previous owner, Gollum, tried to kill Bilbo, but he escaped by wearing the ring. Bilbo found his way out from underground and amazingly enough found the rest of the company who had escaped ahead of him and were discussing what to do about the fact that he was missing. Not for the last time, an apparent setback actually helped moved the adventure forward. Instead of a long and winding path through the Misty Mountains, the company had traveled under them.

But now they were “out of the frying pan into the frying pan.” They tried to put as much distance between themselves and the goblins as possible but they were discovered by wargs (evil wolves) who chased the company up trees. Gandalf sent down fire on the wargs, but newly arriving goblins used the fire to set fires beneath the trees where the company had taken refuge. What goes around comes around in Middle-Earth, though, and the Lord of the Eagles who had once been healed by Gandalf came to see what the commotion was and with his guards rescued the company from out of the top of the trees. The eagles carried the company a ways down the road at which point the company continued until they came to the home of Beorn, a skin-changer who was both a man and a bear. He provided needed hospitality.

The company next had to go through the Forest of Mirkwood. And they would do it without Gandalf, who had other pressing business. In the forest they had to contend with spiders and then they were captured by wood elves. Bilbo kept himself free, though, by wearing his ring of invisibility. He managed an escape for the dwarves by loading them into empty barrels that were to be sent down the river to the men of Lake Town who would refill them. When the dwarves arrived in Lake Town they were greeted warmly as their leader, Thorin, was a descendant of the King under the Mountain. There was some serious nostalgia for those days as it was a more prosperous time. The dragon, Smaug, had come and rained destruction on  the area. The Lonely Mountain was now inhabited by the dragon where he kept watch over his horde of gold. The town of Dale, which was near the Mountain had been abandoned, and the people moved to Lake Town.

The men of Lake Town gave provisions to Thorin and company who set out for the Lonely Mountain. The company found the secret entrance and because of Bilbo’s patience and the actions of a thrush, figured out a way in. Bilbo managed to take something from Smaug to show the dwarves, but when Smaug woke up he realized something was missing. (Dragons know their gold.) Smaug went crazy and the dwarves who had been hanging outside of the secret entrance got inside at the last moment. When Bilbo made a second appearance to where the dragon was sleeping, this time the dragon was not sleeping. Bilbo had a long conversation with the dragon who had never encountered a hobbit and didn’t know what to make of him. He could only smell him because Bilbo was wearing his ring.

Bilbo in the course of his discussion discovered a a weakness in the armor of the dragon. The conversation ended badly and Bilbo was nearly killed by flames as he ran back up the tunnel. When Bilbo recounted his story, including the information about the dragon, the thrush was listening in and then flew off. Smaug then decided to search for his interlopers in a more stealthy way. Bilbo sensed something was wrong and he encouraged the entire party to get inside the tunnel once again. This time they closed the door, which was good because it meant the dragon couldn’t find them. But it meant they were locked inside. The dragon went off to Lake Town, to hand out some vengeance on the people who had helped the dwarves. The company eventually made their way down the tunnel to explore. Bilbo found the ultimate prize, the Arkenstone, coveted by Thorin. He put it in his pocket thinking it was the thing out of all the treasure he might like. Thorin later gave Bilbo some mithril, a light armor made by elves. Realizing they were pressing their luck by hanging out in the now dragon’s lair, the company made their way to the main entrance and traveled to a former lookout spot.

*   *   *

Up to now we have been following the story through Bilbo’s eyes. When, for example, Bilbo was separated from the rest of the company in the Misty Mountains, we followed what Bilbo was doing and only found out how the company escaped when Bilbo was reunited with them and they told him how they escaped. But now an interesting thing happens in terms of the narrative. We leave Bilbo and the dwarves and follow the dragon to what ends up as his demise.

It’s actually quite a short chapter. 9 pages. If I end up watching the film, I wonder if this will be a major deal.

The people of Lake Town have noticed some fire off in the distance of The Lonely Mountain. There was some debate whether the dwarves had gotten things going again or if it was the dragon, Smaug. It turned out it was the dragon who now attacked and reigned down fire and destruction on the town. The people did their best to put out the flames. In the midst of people fleeing for their lives, “a grim-voice man” named Bard kept archers firing at the dragon. Unfortunately it was to no avail. But as the dragon continued his attack, a bird, the thrush, landed on Bard’s shoulder and said,

“The moon is rising. Look for the hollow of the left breast as he flies and turns above you!”

That was all the intelligence he needed. And Bard’s well-placed arrow was the end of Smaug. People instantly wanted to proclaim Bard king. They were upset at all the destruction and happy for Bard’s courage and success. But the Master of the town protested that Bard was from Dale and that rulers of Lake Town always came from Lake Town. He encouraged Bard to become king back in Dale. The people still clamored for Bard to be king. But then the Master demonstrated some skillful politics by praising Bard and asking why people had turned on him when the blame for arousing the dragon should fall on the dwarves. At first Bard was unhappy at the Master for diverting blame but then Bard thought of all the gold up on the mountain and considered “the fabled treasure of the Mountain lying without guard or owner [assuming that the dwarves had been killed], and he fell suddenly silent.” He let it go for the time-being and got to work helping to care for the wounded. With the destruction of the town and the cold of the season, the people needed help. Bard sent messengers to the King of the Elves of the Wood who had already learned of the end of Smaug from his own messengers. The word also spread to Beorn and the goblins of The Misty Mountains. The King of the Wood Elves sent supplies down the river to help the people of Lake Town and sent an army to assist the men of Lake Town. They helped rebuild the town (away from where the dragon lay in the water) and then they “got ready to march north to the Mountain.”