Feb 14 2013 1:00pm

The Hobbit Reread: Chapter 12, “Inside Information”

The Hobbit reread on 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.


What Happens

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.

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Doctor Thanatos
1. Doctor Thanatos

A few thoughts.

The easy part: I love this section if only for "Smaug, Oh chiefest and greatest of calamities!" And Smaug buys it! He is apparently 2 tacos short of a fiesta plate and easily flattered. Reminds me of the flunkies of Glory in Buffy Season 5.

Regarding antisemitism. This is a subject near to my heart for ethnically obvious reasons. But I never saw the description of Dwarves as implying antisemitism and in fact it never occurred to me until I read your post.

If the Dwarves were described as hook-nosed, swarthy, or using the blood of Elvish children to bake their cram knock-off, I might buy it. But it's a leap from "Dwarves tend to be greedy."If you look at ethnic stereotypes there are other groups who have been stereotyped as greedy or tight with money; you could argue that JRRT was slandering the Scots, whom he might be expected to have more exposure to than Jews given his upbringing.

Or you could say that he's thinking of the Dwarves as merchant-class, in which case it's not racist, it's classist.

Either way, I just read it as description and characterization and no more than that.
Thomas Thatcher
2. StrongDreams
Now you're making me think about the Rankin & Bass version, and it seems to be that both the dwarves and the elves of Mirkwood are drawn and voiced with the influence of Jewish stereotypes. Or am I jumping at shadows?
Kate Nepveu
3. katenepveu
Edit: okay, I don't know what I did wrong with the link the first time, but it seems to be working now. If anyone is having problems, do let me know.

Doctor Thanatos--the link is much stronger when you take other writings into account; the article quotes Tolkien in an interview saying that the dwarves' language (which of course isn't in this book) is "obviously constructed to be Semitic", and the origin story in _The Silmarillion_ has them as first-woken but nevertheless not Iluvatar's Children.

So the evidence solely in _The Hobbit_ is pretty thin, and that's why I talked less about the source of the dwarves being stock characters and the effect that it had, whatever the reason for it.

StrongDreams, I've actually never seen that version! Though I may have heard parts of it if it was the source of a read-along book I had as a kid.
4. soupytwist
Dr Thanatos - Jews are a pretty archetypal "merchant-class", though. I mean, I never felt growing up that Tolkien meant anything bad about me or mine as far as anti-Semitism went either, and I still don't, but it's a pretty pervasive stereotype, and not a nice one.

I have always found Smaug's voice creepiness way more effective than Saruman's in terms of creeping me out, and this post reminded me I have no idea why!
Eli Bishop
5. EliBishop
@1 You seem to be not just doubting that Tolkien used antisemitic stereotypes, but doubting that he intended any Jewish references at all. I don't think there's any question about the latter; he said flat out that he intended at least two such references, one being the description of their language and the other being their status as wandering exiles.

I'd also be wary of this kind of argument: " could argue that JRRT was slandering the Scots, whom he might be expected to have more exposure to than Jews given his upbringing." Since when has close personal familiarity with a group been a necessary factor where prejudice is concerned? The kinds of stereotypes we're talking about here are received ideas, legends, the kinds of things that "everyone knows" and that are easier to believe if you don't have much first-hand knowledge.
Doctor Thanatos
6. Foxed
I have been under the impression that Tolkien didn't give the racism much thought. According to Christopher son of J.R.R. (a divisive figure in the legacy, to be sure), Tokien was upset about the racism of the always-evil goblins, but saw no way to fix it and give Sauron mooks to kill. And reading the Lost Tales leads me to believe that it's more the dragon-gold than the dwarves at fault for their greed.

Given that, I believe the same about the dwarves. He may have seen the merchant-class (or Jewish/Scottish) stereotypes, but have felt helpless to fix them. In that case, I'd view Gimli as a clear case of fixing or redeeming the racism of the Dwarves (though, as a warrior instead of a merchant, there is still the class issue).
Tim Lewis
7. RaPToRFunK
How is it classism if Thorin is king (or heir to the throne)? Would the same be true for Aragorn?
Doctor Thanatos
8. Joel Prophet
I agree with Doctor Thanatos, it never occored to me that the Dwarfs were a sterio type. This being an issue I'm very sensitive about it seems odd that I would have missed it. If anything I thought the lazy Dwarfs were an insult to the Irish. (A more typical British prejudice at the time then antisemetism).
JRRT's view generally seems to be opposed to industialzation and greed of anykind. Greed is his writtings always seems the greater sin. So it is always going to be the big character flaw in his characters. Greed of money or power is not a failing of any one race, class, or nationality.
I do agree with KN that we should talk about these things, but it is counter-productive to cast stones at dead writters.
Kristoff Bergenholm
9. Magentawolf
In the animated version, I seem to remember that Smaug did have glowing eyes during this section, so they at least took it literally. (More dim spotlights then lasers, though.)
Doctor Thanatos
10. Gardner Dozois
I always felt that the gnomes in the Harry Potter books and movies were a much more obvious anti-semetic reference, particularly as they are bankers, obsessed with money, have big noses, and are not warriors at all; in fact, they seem to have fewer redeming traits than almost any other race in the Potterverse, usually coming off as greedy and trecherous. The dwarves in THE HOBBIT come off much better by comparison.

The analogy with the dwarves had struck me before, and it's hard to deny that it could be submerged anti-semitism on Tolkien's part--although, to be fair, the dwarves are NOT entirely depicted in a negative light. They treat Bilbo decently, for the most part, and are willing to risk their lives for him, and they're brave enough to undertake an extremely dangerous mission that could well cost them their lives. They mess up the house at the Unexpected Party in the first chapter and tease Bilbo about how they're going to break all his plates--but then they clean up after themselves. In later years, Bilbo greets the surviving dwarves warmly, with affection. They are "decent enough people," and if that's damning with faint praise, still, the praise element does exist.

It strikes me as entirely possible that the dwarves in LOTR become much more martial and formidable and less greedy as a conscious decision on Tolkien's part to tone down the possible anti-semetic interpretation of the dwarves that might have snuck subconsciously into THE HOBBIT, especially as by then he had seen at least the beginning of the horrible results of Hitler's anti-semetism and persecution of the Jews. That he was appaled by that, we know from other sources.

Although their mission to reclaim their lost homeland may be a nearly impossible one, based on the slim hope that something will come up on the day, I don't believe that they're on a deliberate suicide mission. That doesn't seem to jibe with their personalities as they come through in the book. Thorin may be willing to risk all or die trying to reclaim his homeland--but he believes, or at least desperately hopes, that there IS a chance of success.

The thing that struck me rereading this chapter is how much the company fleeing into the tunnel in the mountain with Smaug smashing the Mountain behind them, blocking the way back out, is similar to the Fellowship being chased into the Mines of Moria by the Watcher in the Pool, who smashed the mountain behind them and blocked the way back out. This was obviously a trope that spoke to Tolkien.
David Levinson
11. DemetriosX
On the nature of the dwarves, I think it should be noted that most if not all of these characteristics are already present in Nordic myth. The greed and deviousness are quite prominent in those instances where dwarves play a role. Just as an example, consider Alberich and Regin from the Nibelungenlied. Or their brother Fafnir whose greed ultimately transforms him into a dragon.

It is certainly possible that common cultural attitudes about Jews flavored Tolkien's depiction, but his original source material already contained a lot of it.
Doctor Thanatos
12. pilgrimsoul
I think the description of the Dwarves is more about class and the ills of industrial society more than anything else. I gather JRRT despised the cash nexus and the hard headed (and hearted) values of a wholly commercial relationships. But I can understand someone thinking his description seeps over into ethnic charicture--even if it was unconcious.
Doctor Thanatos
14. Dr. Thanatos
Please don't get me wrong. I am not talking about what JRRT wrote elsewhere; I'm talking about the text I've been reading since 1966 and not picking up on this subtext.

Vis-a-vis the discussions above:

1) Elves and Dunedain are also in exile; this does not contribute to any reasonable reading of the Dwarves being Jewish. The money thing would be the kicker, but we see the same thing with the Master of Lake-town. But he got the Dragon-sickness, and no one is calling Smaug Jewish (and we don't claim him).

2) The business of the dwarven language being Semitic; I'm not a linguist so I can't comment. I will note that JRRT as a linguist and philologist would know that Hebrew was NEVER kept as a secret language not taught to others; it was a subject taught at British universities for hundreds of years.

3) "First born but not Iluvatar's children?" I've seen that in recent bizarre antisemitic rants that call us "shape-changing lizards from outer space" but my studies of anti-Jewish screeds from before the Nazi era have not turned this up.

4) My thoughts on reading JRRT as a whole and thinking about the catholic worldview that he grew up with has always pictured the Elves as the Jews (in exile and punished, eventually returning to their long home) and the Men as Christians (being given a different gift, leafing the world and having a different role in the End, and most importantly producing the Man who restored the kingdom and the brought peace---the heir to the famous kings---literally the classical Messiah---that being Aragorn). That always made more sense to me than the Dwarves being based on the Jews.

5) I agree that the Goblins in Potter were a much more typical nasty Jewish stereotype: untrustworthy swarthy hooked-nosed moneycounters who'd sell their own mothers if there was profit in it. Which BTW also overlaps a nasty stereotype of the Scot, hence my reference above.

6) Raptor: King of the Merchants is still a merchant. Aragorn was king of the heroes...

7) Regardless of all of that, these are books I love. Thinking about this is intriguing and thought-provoking. Nevertheless JRRT didn't portray the Dwarves as evil, plotting to take over the world, or infiltrating the Gondorian entertainment industry. And I'm fine with that. Doesn't affect my opinion of the books or the author.
Doctor Thanatos
15. JohnnyMac
It looks like our gracious hostess is opening up the Jumbo Extra Large Can of Worms (with Added Controversy!) with this post.

Before I add my two cents worth, I would like to point out that in this chapter JRRT is clearly swiping a major plot point from "Beowulf". This is from the third part of the saga where a thief steals a golden cup from the hoard of a sleeping dragon. The dragon awakens, goes into a rage when he finds the cup missing and crawls forth to devastate the countryside. I think it is clear that Tolkien was, in the long established bardic tradition, taking something from an earlier work and adapting it to his own story.

Of course, in "Beowulf" the response to the threat of the dragon is different in that Beowulf, who is now king of the Geats, quite old but still a hero, stands forth to protect his people. He kills the dragon but is himself mortally wounded in doing so. So his story comes to a tragic but heroic end.
Doctor Thanatos
16. JohnnyMac
Now, to return to the controversy du jour, I would begin by saying that I think that DemetriosX, @11 above, is entirely correct in pointing out that to the extent that Tolkien protrays dwarves as greedy and devious he is completely in line with how dwarves are depicted in the Norse legends.

I also think that katenepveu's comment (#1, Chapter 11) about "...dwarves being not very Norse legend-ish. No storming of the Front Gate for them, nosiree." was off target. I really cannot think of an example in Norse legend of dwarves shown as heroic warriors (or even fighters). They forge marvelous weapons, they do not wield them. If anyone can cite any counter examples, I would love to see them.

Of course, we do see dwarves as heroic warriors in coming chapters of "The Hobbit" and in LOTR and the Silmarillion in a clear departure from Norse tradition. And who is responsible for this concept of warrior dwarves as capable as being heroic as men or elves? Why, one Professor Tolkien of course!

I think this puts the question of Tolkien dabbling in anti-Semitic stereotypes in a useful context.
James Kopsian
17. FesterBestertester
I think people have gotten WAY too sensitive about these things. Going out of your way to look for percieved insults in older books without taking them into context. Dwarves are short and have beards and like gold, Tolkien didn't make that up. It's a childrens story and the dwarves are strictly comedy figures. Sometimes a banana is just a banana. One could argue that looking at innocent dwarves in a childrens book and thinking they represent Jews is in ITSELF anti-semetic.

What I don't think people realize is that much of OUR contemporary attitudes in literature will be looked at in horror by future generations. (Those weird, narrow-minded, early 21st century people!)

I often get the impression reading the various comments here at Tor that people think we've got it all figured out now. We're all enlightened unlike those ignorant antique people. Whatever future generations find disgusting about us is most likely something we're not even aware of.

Well. I don't want to end this sounding all sour so......Happy Valentines Day!
Ron Griggs
18. RonGriggs
As a linguist, JRRT was interested in language construction, including Semitic languages like Hebrew, Arabic, and dead ones like Akkadian. The the idea that Khuzdul, the language of the dwarves, has a construction similar to Hebrew because dwarves are a stereotype of Jews ignores his primarily linguistic interests. We should also avoid equating dwarves with Akkadians, Canaanites, or Amorites.

It should be noted that Adunaic, the ancient language of the first Men in Middle Earth, was also Semitic in construction and "flavor."
Iain Cupples
19. NumberNone
Just to take the conversation in a slightly different direction:

I think the 'Dwarves are not heroes' passage can be taken too seriously. It's clearly in the voice of the narrator, telling us something that is relevant to the here-and-now situation where these dwarves are presently not being heroic. It's the voice of the narrator saying 'don't judge these guys too harshly for their present attitude. They're decent enough people really'. It's not the fixed definition of what Tolkien actually thought about dwarves: it's a reminder that this isn't a heroic epic where everyone is automatically and uncomplicatedly noble.

And after all, it's contradicted shortly after by the dwarves actually stepping up to the plate when the moment calls. Not all of them lose their life, but all of them risk it: they all fight heroically and nobly when the moment demands.

In general, the passage isn't any more significant than similar ones earlier talking about Hobbits or Elves, which are not supposed to be comprehensive assessments either.
Kate Nepveu
20. katenepveu
Hi everyone:

1) I am on the road today and will try to respond to people tonight or tomorrow;

2) I really do recommend the linked article, it addresses many things people are discussing in useful ways.
Doctor Thanatos
21. pilgrimsoul
Probably JRRT himself would wonder why we weren't talking about how freaked out and vindictive old Smaug is when a teensy piece of his massive hoard goes missing. Or how clever Bilbo is in their dialog--until he gets just a little too cute.
Doctor Thanatos
22. JohnnyMac
katenepveu @20, thank you for the reminder to read the article by Rebecca Brackmann you linked to in your original post. I just did so and found it to be a very interesting and valuable piece of work. I do have some few points on which I would differ with her and I hope to bring those out over this weekend when I hope to have time enough for careful writing.

I strongly second your recommendation to read Brackmann's essay.
Doctor Thanatos
23. Robert672
Whence comes this idea of dwarves being a merchant folk? Merchants are those who take goods from one place or person and sell them in or to another to make a profit, whereas the dwarves are primarily craftsmen who sell or trade their products and skills for the things they can't or don't bother to make for themselves. Unless people were just using 'merchant' to mean 'anyone involved in economic activities', which seems to render the term rather useless.
Doctor Thanatos
24. a1ay
If you look at ethnic stereotypes there are other groups who have been
stereotyped as greedy or tight with money; you could argue that JRRT was slandering the Scots, whom he might be expected to have more exposure to than Jews given his upbringing.

And this is something that Peter Jackson certainly agrees with - Gimli, and several of the Dwarves in The Hobbit, have strong Scottish accents, and, unlike Pippin Took, that's not because they are played by actors with natural Scottish accents. That's because Peter Jackson, for whatever reason, thought that Elves and Men and Hobbits all speak BBC English, but Dwarves (or at least some Dwarves) are Glaswegian.

(When of course, as we all know, Hobbits - being short, hairy creatures who eat and drink too much, never seem to do much work, and periodically get stabbed - are the real Glaswegians of Middle Earth.)
Doctor Thanatos
25. Rush-That-Speaks
My own personal thought on the 'dwarves are not heroes' line has always been that The Hobbit is very specifically not about heroism. It takes place in a world which has all the trappings of traditional epic, and then goes about undermining those trappings. The powerful wizard... goes off somewhere and causes them to do the worst bit of travel alone. The skin-changer... is a kind man and a good one and doesn't try to eat anybody even a little bit. (I noted in the linked article-- which is generally a very good and interesting one-- that Beorn was cited as part of the heroic tradition, and, well, no. Shapechangers of this sort in epic are Bad News and that Beorn isn't is the point of him, but he's not a hero either because he is not interested in doing heroic things, but only in maintaining and preserving what is his.) The elves... are inscrutable as all hell and then come down on the side of actively obstructive. Bilbo... starts as very inexperienced, carries out most of an arc which appears to be leading towards traditional heroism, and then does what needs to be done, serves real justice in fact, by stealing from and betraying his allies. The point is that true justice in this instance involves theft and betrayal.

And Bard, who is the most traditionally heroic figure, the dragonslayer, is intentionally introduced very late and characterized very lightly. And has very little to do with Bilbo's character arc at all, and Bilbo's character arc is the heart of the book.

Tolkien has to specify that the dwarves are not heroes because in something that looks like an epic, the reader will look for a hero, and we are very much not meant to get one, because what is going on is not an epic in the classical sense so much as a coming-of-age story and a story about how justice can be more important than the heroic code.

In LotR, it is a classical epic, and the Fellowship are our heroes, period.

In The Hobbit, we're meant to read it as though it were an epic, to latch on to Bilbo as the closest thing to a hero there is, and then be kicked in the gut by it when he does some very, very unheroic things and is absolutely right to do them. And I believe this to be intentional, because if there is one thing Tolkien knew a lot about it is the form of the epic.

This is not to say that the way the dwarves are characterized in The Hobbit is not based at all on anti-Semitic stereotypes; it well may be, given their Semitic language and so on. But there are in-story reasons for their characterization to be not as heroes, and it's unfortunate that he reached for the stereotyping to accomplish this goal; it's not that they're being shut out of a wider heroic-actions-vindicated-by-narrative set of people because they have the stereotyped traits.

The thing is, in a classical epic or saga, Thorin would still have denied gold to the Laketowners, and would have been considered morally right under that framework to do so, up to a point. The Laketowners have a bit of a claim maybe because they assisted in the bloodfeud with Smaug, but in general one ends other people's bloodfeuds because one wants the feud over, not because one gets paid anything for it. Heroically speaking, that gold is the dwarves' because it was their ancestors' and they took the mountain back, period. If we the reader were seeing the dwarves in terms of conventional epic heroism, it would be less obvious that this way of looking at morality is in fact not moral, because the audience is meant to identify with the epic hero.

When I first read The Hobbit, I was so steeped in the morality of epic from previous reading of other things that Bilbo stealing from his allies was very hard for me to forgive; it took me years to like Bilbo again even though he had obviously done what had to be done. And I don't think it's a coincidence that I forgave Bilbo at about the same time I realized that Thorin had been a total asshole to the Lakemen. Which I had to realize. Because from those reading protocols it wasn't obvious.
Doctor Thanatos
26. a1ay
Bilbo... starts as very inexperienced, carries out most of an arc which
appears to be leading towards traditional heroism, and then does what needs to be done, serves real justice in fact, by stealing from and
betraying his allies.

And then defends his actions by getting into a nitpicking argument about contract law!
Very good comment.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
27. Lisamarie
It's taken me awhile to catch up, but I just want to add that
1)Dr. Thanatos's comments are hilarious
2)I reread this book when my son was born (about two years ago) and I definitely remember being struck by how 'un-heroic' a lot of it was...for whatever reason I hadn't quite picked up on that when I read it as a teen, or at least hadn't thought about it too deeply.
3)Thank you for the nuanced description of how anti-semitism could have been a factor in the dwarves. I also noticed that, but also was willing to posit that it could be my OWN projections. I do think that it is very possible Tolkien had soaked up some prejudices that would inform his writing, but I do believe he would have fought against that (I know that I find myself having gut reactions at time that I am not proud of in certain situations, that make me look at something closer and not just take it at face value), and also that the dwarves characteristics could come from other sources (as well as a storytelling need) too.
Arthur Harrow
28. Dr_Thanatos

You are too kind!

Aside: the catholic doctrine of successionism (if I have the term right) describes the concept that the Christians have become the new Chosen People---and this dovetails nicely with the concept of Elves=Jews and Men=Christians.

Again, I stress this is my interpretation, and we all know what JRRT thought about people looking for hidden meaning in his work...
Doctor Thanatos
29. Gardner Dozois
IF there is anti-semetism in the description of the dwarves (not entirely certain, since, as has been pointed out, they are by no means depicted entirely negatively: they really are pretty decent people on the whole, generally treat Bilbo well and are willing, if somewhat reluctantly, to risk their lives for him, and even take to arms and fight heroically at the end), it's possible that Tolkien got it at second-hand. As someone pointed out above, the greed and deviousness when its awakened by greed, the Tolkien dwarves worst traits, are already present in the depiction of dwarves in the Norse myths, the main source Tolkien drew upon for his tale. Perhaps anti-semetism, widespread in Europe and often extreme, infected the characterization of the dwarves in the original myths, which Tolkien then drew upon.

We should also consider the "dragon sickness," the evil enchantment that leaked into the gold from having the dragon long brood upon it, and which affects not only the dwarves but also some of the Men of Laketown.
Doctor Thanatos
30. (still) Steve Morrison
Wow, I expected a discussion about dragons this week, but instead this one is all about dwarves! Well, here’s something from The History of The Hobbit which looks relevant.The plot notes for “A Thief in the Night” have the Elvenking asking Gandalf why Thorin hadn’t simply told him that he was the heir of the Kings Under the Mountain, and Gandalf replying, “because dwarves understood better than all others the power of the greed of gold and fear therefore more certainly to extend it” (although not all of the words are clear in the manuscript). In the early drafts, the dwarves did not seem terribly greedy or subject to the “dragon-sickness” of senseless desire for treasure; it was only in what Rateliff calls the “third phase” of writing that the dwarves (instead of the elves and humans) became the most treasure-obsessed people. Still, though, the first draft did have a version of the “dwarves are not heroes” passage.
Doctor Thanatos
31. JohnnyMac
Well, having read Brackmann's essay several times, I will say that I find it interesting but in the end unconvincing. Lacking time and space, I will confine my response here to a few key points.

First, I agree that anti-Semitism in Britainn at this period was wide spread and deeply rooted. Orwell's essay "Anti-Semitism in Britain" (first published in April 1945) is a good introduction to the subject.

However, to go from acknowledging wide spread British anti-Semitism when Tolkien was writing The Hobbit to claiming that Tolkien was (consciously or unconsciously) using anti-Semitic tropes to characterize the Dwarves seems to me to be overreaching.

Brackmann quotes Tolkien "I do think of the 'Dwarves' as like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations...". Thorin and his folk are exiles; the survivors of their home being invaded and their people slaughtered, events that they remember and lament in song. Gee, I think we could think of a few parallels in Jewish history for this but as evidence for 'anti'-Semitism it seems dubious.

She cites his description of Khuzdal, the Dwarves' language, as being modeled on the Semitic languages. We know Tolkien modeled his Elvish languages on Welsh and Finnish. Do we therefore conclude that he was dabbling in anti-Celtic and Suomoic stereotypes?

Damn, I am again running out of time. I will try to continue this later.
Kate Nepveu
32. katenepveu
Hi everyone,

Sorry to be so absent. Life, you know.

Gardner Dozois @ #10, I hadn't recognized that parallel to the Watcher, thank you.

DemetriosX @ #11 (and on scrolldown, Gardner Dozois @ #29), sure, but the additions to Norse legend particular to his overall creation (not specific to _The Hobbit_) are unfortunate _as additions_ in this light.

pilgrimsoul @ #12, no question that the explicit and overt message of _The Hobbit_ is about greed. Again, I'm not talking about conscious intentions, I'm talking about resonances that were likely unintentional but that may have informed the structure and emphasis of the works.

Dr. Thanatos @ #14, re: your 3), no, I mean, came first (religiously/in creation) but are not the Chosen Ones.

and down @ #28, the article uses the term "supersession," but that was what I was thinking of, the idea that they're separate and supplanted. You make good points about the Elves in this system, though, and I think now there's no clear single parallel. (Also your reading might be a nice kind of revision to the usual way it's, err, used, with kind of a "oh poor them.")

JohnnyMac @ #15, I apologize for neglecting to mention Beowulf!

and @ #16, the comparison to Norse legend was made in reference the first chapter, when they were all boisterious and rough-hewn and whatnot in poor Edwardian Bilbo's home. Certainly I may have been extrapolating that too far--my knowledge of Norse legend doesn't have much dwarves in it, and I apologize. Though I stand by my comments that the way they talk is certainly much more like Bilbo than Beorn, say.

FesterBestertester @ #17, I don't go out of my way, this is how I read things, but thanks for the good wishes.

NumberNone @ #19, your is a more charitable reading of that passage, and not one I agree with when the whole thing is looked at in-context, but it's certainly true that when forced to it, the dwarves will put themselves into potential danger.

pilgrimsoul @ #20, fortunately for me I don't believe authors get to direct discussions of their books => , but I did mention it! What else would you like to say about it?

a1ay @ #24, urgh, I did not know that about the accents. Thanks.

Rush-That-Speaks @ #25, there are in-story reasons for their characterization to be not as heroes, and it's unfortunate that he reached for the stereotyping to accomplish this goal -- that is all very interesting and much food for thought, thank you. As I've already said, I am _not_ steeped in these things and so this is not an angle that I would have considered.

Lisamarie @ #27, yes, exactly, I have lots of thoughts I'm not proud of either, but at least if I know they're there I can try to keep them from influencing me.

(still) Steve Morrison @ #30, that is indeed relevant, thank you! Gosh, the story would have looked very different if that had carried through, wouldn't it?

JohnnyMac @ #31, woah, there. There are two parts to the argument, and you're conflating them. One is that Tolkien said he had Jews in mind when he was writing about Dwarves. The bits you cite are evidence supporting that. The _second_ part of the argument is that, in the portrayal of Dwarves can be found similarities to anti-Semetic stereotypes. Obviously you are free to disagree with that, but you can't take evidence from part A and say "this doesn't support part B!", because of course it doesn't, it's not meant to. To put it another way: I'm fine with the idea that writers can take elements of existing world cultures and use them to inspire secondary world creations. Doing so by itself is not necessarily problematic. It's all in the execution. Does that make what I'm getting at clearer?
Andrew Foss
33. alfoss1540
I am late to this discussion, but noted:

1) Bilbo remembered not having pocket handkerchieves (a mistake that the Movie brought him personal effects before leaving) as he decended. Kate add this to memories of home

2) How truly spineless the dwarves acted as Bilbo decended to the lair of Smaug.


3) How much I love the character Smaug.

I am so glad that I heard the Hobbit first at age about 10, and would never have connected the semitism issues with the characters. They were beautifully defined cartoon characters in one of the most magical stories I had ever heard (read to us by my 4th grade teacher - I didn't read it myself for another year). Of all the books I read through 8th grade, The Hobbit and The Diary of Ann Frank (bored the shit out of me at the time), are the only ones I remember. Until this critical discussion (and the LOTR reread), I had never considered the crossover.

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