Welcome back to the chapter-by-chapter reread of The Hobbit. You can find past posts at the reread index, or you can catch up with our previous reread of The Lord of the Rings. As always, the discussion will contain spoilers for everything Tolkien wrote about Middle-earth (that is: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and various posthumous tidbits); if you haven’t read the book before and would like to remain unspoiled, I recommend reading along with Mark Reads first.
This week, we consider Chapter 12, “Inside Information,” in which there are more riddles in the dark and which causes me to discuss controversial subjects, so please read my disclaimer before commenting.
Bilbo requires little persuasion from the dwarves to enter the door, though only Balin will accompany him even partway. Bilbo overcomes his fears and comes to the end of the tunnel, where he finds Smaug asleep. He steals a cup and flees, to the dwarves’ joy. Smaug wakes, sees that the cup is missing, and flies out of the Front Gate in a rage. The dwarves and Bilbo just make it inside the tunnel before Smaug breathes fire at the door. Smaug hunts their ponies, but does not find the dwarves and Bilbo, and goes back to his lair. The dwarves are stymied about what to do next, as they can neither leave nor dispose of Smaug. Bilbo agrees to go back inside and gather intelligence.
This time Smaug is only faking sleep. He questions Bilbo about his identity, which Bilbo answers with riddles. But Smaug already knows that Bilbo travels with dwarves (“Don’t tell me that I can eat a dwarf-ridden pony and not know it!”) and implies that the dwarves mean to cheat Bilbo of his share of the treasure. Bilbo, though shaken, gets Smaug to display his belly, and sees a large bare patch in the armor of encrusted gems. He leaves with a wisecrack and is nearly caught.
Bilbo tells the dwarves (and the thrush from the last chapter) about the conversation and Smaug’s vulnerable spot. Bilbo feels horribly uneasy and convinces the dwarves to move into the tunnel, and then interrupts Thorin’s musings on the Arkenstone to beg them to close the tunnel door. They do, just before Smaug smashes the outside, having snuck up hoping to find Bilbo and the dwarves. After destroying the alcove, he leaves to take revenge on Lake-town as well.
So in this chapter we have to talk about the dwarves and about Smaug. Let’s do the dwarves first, because of chronological order and because that way we can get the more controversial stuff out of the way first.
Before we start, a disclaimer. When I discuss the existence of elements in Tolkien’s writing that arguably reflect prejudices, I am not saying that Tolkien was consciously prejudiced, that Tolkien was a bad person, or that anyone who likes Tolkien’s works is necessarily a bad person. (Yes, I know about Tolkien’s letters about Nazis—it is in fact impossible to discuss race and Tolkien without eight million people telling you about those. See below.)
What I am saying is that works of literature are informed by social attitudes of the time in which they are written, and may reflect prejudiced attitudes that authors (like all people) may have absorbed without consciously recognizing that they have done so. And, further, it is valuable and necessary to discuss whether works of literature—even ones written decades ago, even ones we really like—contain problematic elements, because if those elements are never held up to the light, we-the-readers will be unable to recognize similar elements that may have an effect on our decision making or on the decision making of others.
Tl;dr: fiction is part of culture; culture shapes the way we think; it’s important to recognize the negative ways that culture shapes the way we think so that we don’t do or say hurtful things without realizing it.
Right, actual discussion. I’ve discussed, at various points in this reread, how while the names of the dwarves are straight out of Norse legend, none of the dwarves’ personality traits seem to be drawn from the same well. They are ill-prepared, they complain a lot, they need Bilbo to prod them into doing things and expect him to do all the work, they make long self-important speeches.
And then we have this passage from the start of this chapter:
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.
Talk about your damning with faint praise. The best our omniscient narrator can say is that some dwarves “are decent enough…if you don’t expect too much”?
And it’s true in this book, they aren’t heroes. At least they haven’t been so far, and I think it’s possible that the most unequivocally heroic thing any of them does in The Hobbit is die off-screen (Fili and Kili, defending Thorin to the death because he’s family; I’m going to need to revisit Thorin’s death in the full context leading up to it, because I don’t remember it well enough).
Having set that up, it’s time to talk about antisemitism. I found, where I no longer recall, a long thoughtful article by Rebecca Brackmann called “Dwarves are not heroes”: antisemitism and the Dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing, which can be read in full at the Free Library (though it appears to be missing its italics). I strongly encourage you all to read it, especially if your initial reaction to the title is negative, because, as I said I think it is a thoughtful and nuanced look at the topic that deserves engagement on the merits. (And yes, it quotes those letters of Tolkien’s.)
Much of the evidence the article cites is from outside The Hobbit, and so for these purposes I am going to set them aside because I want to talk about what we have in the text. (Again, I encourage you to read what the article says about Tolkien’s contemporaneous writings.) Within the confines of The Hobbit, the article points to the dwarves’ bearded appearance; the way they constantly complain and do not grow past that, unlike Bilbo; and their primary motivation being a desire for wealth, which seems to be a characteristic of their species rather than an individual quirk (citing a passage in chapter 15 that says that Bilbo “did not reckon with the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded, nor with dwarvish hearts”; there’s also this chapter, where Bilbo first sees the treasure: “His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves; and he gazed motionless…at the gold beyond price and count.”). The article links these to contemporaneous negative stereotypes about Jews.
Again, as I’ve said, I’m not interested in discussing whether Tolkien was a good person or his consciousness of what he was doing. I am perfectly willing to posit that he was a good person and that he had the best of intentions. But what interests me is how the dwarves being stock characters explains the problems I’ve had with their characters: the puzzling unpreparedness and the way that they seem to lack initiative or common sense. (As I said last time, I spent most of the chapter being boggled at Bilbo being the only one who remembered the moon-letters.) If the focus of The Hobbit is Bilbo’s journey, then it is understandable that, with less interest or room for the secondary characters, that some default or stock traits would present themselves to an author and be incorporated into the story without a rigorous examination of whether those stock traits are problematic, either as to what attitudes they might reflect, or as to whether they actually make sense in this fictional context.
Of course, just because it’s understandable doesn’t mean it’s good writing, and even without any problematic resonances of the dwarves, their inconsistent and peculiar behavior in the story is distracting and therefore suboptimal. (In comments to the last post, Rush-That-Speaks argues that the dwarves are literally on a suicide mission and “[i]t is very difficult to make people behave practically when they have resolved to die nobly and pointlessly.” My reaction then was, and on reflection still is, that I would like this to be so but I cannot convince myself of it based on the text.) But as the article points out, one of the significant ways that The Lord of the Rings is different than The Hobbit is the treatment of the dwarves. I hadn’t noticed it before, because so many species are treated differently, but it’s very true: no longer are dwarves “not heroes.” Gimli is a valiant warrior and is explicitly not motivated by wealth (see his reaction to the Glittering Caves), in a way that suggests he is representative of the entire species. And I think LotR is better for it.
Right, then. Anyone still with me, twelve hundred words later? Let’s talk about Smaug.
I was kind of ridiculously pleased with myself when I realized that this was another instance of riddles in the dark. I am sure this is not an original insight in the least, but I’d never realized it before, and it’s always fun on these rereads to recognize something new to me. But in an odd way I’m not sure Smaug profited from the comparison in my head, because he’s less complex than Gollum and has less resonance across the entire series. It’s a great conversation, don’t get me wrong—poor Bilbo!—but it didn’t give me chills the way “Riddles in the Dark” did, and I think I wouldn’t have minded if I didn’t have that comparison specifically in my head.
The nature of this story as a cautionary tale against greed really comes to the forefront in this chapter. Smaug does “not have much real use for all [his] wealth,” but still “know[s] it to an ounce,” and when he realizes the cup is gone,
His rage passes description—the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.
I admit that I would really like to insert some commas into that sentence, but hey, that’s just me. In any event: such a pointed indictment of entitlement and greed! And Smaug is also the kind of being who thinks of everything in mercenary terms, assuming everyone’s willing to cheat each other to get ahead, as shown by the method he uses when he attempts to sow doubt in Bilbo’s mind. (Of course, he also has a point about the difficulties of transporting treasure, which the dwarves do admit.)
An unfortunate consequence of this characterization, however, is that I’m not sure I buy that Smaug doesn’t realize that he has a bare spot on his belly. If he knows the disposition of all of his treasure so well, shouldn’t he know the location of those bits of it that ended up stuck to him?
I’m also not sure what I think about his voice having magical properties. It doesn’t quite seem necessary in his conversation with Bilbo; the content of his words looks sufficient to me to upset and disturb Bilbo, which is all that’s needed for the plot. But the mesmerizing, snake-like quality of his conversation is awfully creepy, and that’s a good thing.
Finally with regard to Smaug, I’d somehow not registered that he literally glows, even in his sleep, because of his internal fires. I don’t quite think that I’m supposed to imagine him having laser sight, though, even if Bilbo “caught a sudden thin and piercing ray of red from under the drooping lid of Smaug’s left eye” when Smaug was pretending to be asleep to lure him in. (Laser sight would be awesome, though perhaps somewhat anachronistic?)
Three small notes:
- We are explicitly told that Bilbo “had become the real leader in their adventure,” after he steals the cup from Smaug.
- The thrush. Thorin says, “The thrushes are good and friendly—this is a very old bird indeed, and is maybe the last left of the ancient breed that used to live about here, tame to the hands of my father and grandfather. They were a long-lived and magical race, and this might even be one of those that were alive then, a couple of hundreds of years or more ago. The Men of Dale used to have the trick of understanding their language, and used them for messengers to fly to the Men of the Lake and elsewhere.”
- Thorin tells Bilbo, “you shall choose your own fourteenth,” which is an offer I think he would only have made to reassure Bilbo and after Bilbo had proven himself. Obviously this will have ramifications later.
And now, the end of chapter tallies. This week we add something to Balin’s entry on the dwarf characteristics list:
- Thorin: long-winded and self-important (Chapter 1). Good with a bow and perceiving the possible need for it (Chapter 8). Capable of stubbornness when he perceives his treasure being threatened (Chapter 8).
- Dori and Nori “shared the hobbit’s views about regular meals, plenty and often.” (Chapter 2)
- Dori is “a decent fellow” (Chapter 4, 6) and the strongest (Chapter 8).
- Oin and Gloin are “specially good at” making fire. (Chapter 2)
- Balin “was always their look-out man.” (Chapter 2), and shows a particular concern for Bilbo’s physical and emotional well-being (Chapter 12).
- Fili and Kili “had very sharp eyes” and are “the youngest of the dwarves by some fifty years” (Chapter 4), though of the two, Fili is apparently the youngest and has the sharpest eyes (Chapter 8).
- Bombur is “fat.” (Chapter 4, 6)
Does Bilbo think wistfully of his home in this chapter? Yes, twice in fact (10/11).
Next week we start in on the fractured timelines of the end of this book. See you then.
Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog. She also runs Con or Bust, which helps fans of color attend SFF cons and is conducting an online fundraising auction in February 2013.