There and Back Again… Again: The Hobbit Reread

The Hobbit Reread: Chapter 14, “Fire and Water”

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 14, “Fire and Water,” in which we leave Bilbo and the dwarves for major happenings elsewhere.

 

What Happens

The narrative jumps back two days to the people of Lake-town, who see a golden light from the Mountain and rejoice, thinking that the legends have come true—all except Bard, who correctly has the town prepare for Smaug. The dragon is thus briefly foiled (and enraged) when he finds the bridges cut, but manages to set fire to the town despite the many arrows the townspeople fire at him. Bard, nearly the last person defending the town, is astonished to find the old thrush from the doorway telling him about Smaug’s unarmored spot. He shoots Smaug there, killing him. Smaug’s fall destroys the town entirely.

On the shore, the townspeople try to acclaim Bard as their King; the Master points out that Bard is descended from the lord of Dale, not the town, and he and anyone else can go back there now—and, also, what about those dwarves who stirred up the dragon in the first place, aren’t they the ones you should really be angry at? Which is a fine distraction and allows the Master to keep receiving the physical comforts of being in charge while Bard does all the actual work.

Meanwhile, birds have spread news of Smaug’s fall far and wide. In response, the Elvenking rides out. Though he detours to aid the people of Lake-town, he, many Elf warriors, and the men of arms of Lake-town soon head for the Mountain.

 

Comments

When I first read this chapter for this project, I put down my ereader and thought, “I ought to like this better than I do, and I don’t know why.” So I read it again. And then again, to make notes. And then I went away for a few days and came back and read it again.

Here’s what I’ve decided. There’s nothing wrong with this chapter, but it doesn’t make me happy. And that’s because it—very effectively!—takes a cool big heroic set-piece, the death of Smaug, and immediately shows the start of the sordid aftermath. There’s no time for “Ding-dong, the dragon’s dead,” no joy or celebration, just blame and politicking and unashamed greed.

In other words, the chapter applies psychological reality to characters’ reactions and requires me to confront my narrative expectations, and I can respect that intellectually even if I don’t love it emotionally.

Anyway. Before we get into all that: can anyone tell me why Smaug is thwarted to find the bridges cut? Specifically:

Amid shrieks and wailing and the shouts of men he came over them, swept towards the bridges and was foiled! The bridge was gone, and his enemies were on an island in deep water—too deep and dark and cool for his liking. If he plunged into it, a vapour and a steam would arise enough to cover all the land with a mist for days; but the lake was mightier than he, it would quench him before he could pass through.

Yes, true, water is bad for fire-breathers, but Smaug my dear, you can fly. What do you care if the ground-based approach to your enemies is gone? Surely it’s better to attack from above, where you can only be reached by projectile weapons?

Seriously, I find this completely baffling. What am I missing?

As for the death of Smaug: Terry Pratchett may have had his characters observe, when they were trying to hit a dragon’s vulnerable spot in Guards! Guards!, that “last desperate million-to-one chances always work,” [*] but Tolkien sets up this last desperate chance pretty carefully. Smaug is “blind and mad with” his rage at being opposed by the fighters of Lake-town, so that when he starts diving into the town, “reckless in his rage,” he took “no heed to turn his scaly sides towards his foes.” Bard, of course, has a magical bird to tell him exactly where to aim. The moon rises just in time to show Bard the right place. He has a special arrow, a family heirloom, that may have been originally made by the dwarves under the Mountain. Heck, with all that, it was practically a sure thing, so it’s amazing that it worked at all.

[*] I know what many Pratchett fans are thinking now, but the specific idea that “Million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten” does not, in fact, appear in Guards! Guards!, at least if my ebook’s search function can be trusted. Many other Discworld books, but not this one.

Personally, I’m just glad Bard’s special black arrow didn’t talk back to him like Turin’s sword, because that was creepy.

Regarding the characters involved in the Lake-town section:

Does Bard feel like a trial run for Strider to anyone else? Dour, considered a bit out there by those around him, but exceedingly competent and proved right in the pinch? I don’t believe he gets the time to be more interesting than that, so for now he’s another thing about this chapter I respect rather than like.

The Master continues to be characterized as plausibly and perfectly loathsome. And to some extent the chapter suggests that he’s what the townspeople deserve, because they are so susceptible to his blatant manipulations:

As you see, the Master had not got his position for nothing. The result of his words was that for the moment the people quite forgot their idea of a new king, and turned their angry thoughts towards Thorin and his company. Wild and bitter words were shouted from many sides; and some of those who had before sung the old songs loudest, were now heard as loudly crying that the dwarves had stirred the dragon up against them deliberately!

Finally, there’s Smaug, who turns out to be not only a cautionary tale against greed but also against not having any fun. He’s only around for Bard to kill because “[j]ust now he was enjoying the sport of town-baiting more than he had enjoyed anything for years.” Smaug, if only you’d taken up poetry or something, you wouldn’t have needed to get your kicks terrorizing Lake-town, and you’d have taken care of business and been gone before the moon rose and the thrush found Bard.

As for the setting up of future events: finders-keepers is probably an accurate depiction of people’s attitude toward treasure in these kinds of societies? My mindset is such that I can’t help but be critical of the Elvenking for setting out to take what he can get—what possible claim does he have? Bard I consider to have some justification because I imagine Smaug plundered Dale too, but the only motivation that the Elvenking can be acting on is “hey, it’s there,” which is something I understand but don’t sympathize with.

I tried to track down how obvious it should be to everyone that there are still dwarves out there with ancestral ties to those driven out by Smaug, and I was surprised by what I found. Thorin says there were very few survivors; he doesn’t give numbers, so it may actually be the case that all the survivors are on this quest, or at least that the people who dealt with them could think that. Thorin calls Dain in the Iron Hills his cousin (in Appendix A to The Lord of the Rings they are second cousins); later in this book, the Elvenking says that he’s heard of Dain “a long time ago” and doesn’t see his relevance to the current issue. So, it might actually be reasonable for everyone to think that there was no living dwarf who was heir to the former Kings under the Mountain. I’m never going to be gut-level happy with first-come first-served as a principle for the disposition of property that had been stolen from known legal owners, but within the context of the characters’ values systems, the possible absence of obvious dwarf claimants casts a better light on the Elves’ behavior.

No end-of-chapter tallies because no dwarves or Bilbo. See you next time when we return to them.


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.

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