This report will be ahead of the report for last December, which I will post in due course. But here is the first report for 2020:
Seven of us met to pick up our reading of The Hobbit at Chapter 11 ‘On the Doorstep’, and I for one felt it was lovely to get back to our reading and discussions after the distractions of Christmas.
Laura opened the meeting with her comment that Chapter 11 is initially rather mundane with its descriptions of the river journey from Laketown.
Ian observed that the company was passing through and towards luminal space.
Laura remarked that it is a bleak opening with its echoes of the World War 1 blasted trees.
Tim observed that the devastated trees of the Desolation of Smaug (like those of Mordor) are also reminiscent of the fire-blasted trees in Australia at this present time. Tim went on to note the contrast this bleakness and the welcome the company were given in Laketown, and remarked that this contrast if bleakness after hospitality is a motif in The Lord of the Rings as well.
Angela noted that the description of the Gate echoed again in The Lord of the Rings where darkness flows out of the Paths of the Dead; and in both stories crows are perceived as hostile.
Tim commented that it represents the fundamental fear of going into darkness.
Laura said that she felt the impression of Dale had been enhanced after the film. I agreed with this.
Laura then noted that Balin is the one dwarf who befriends Bilbo and Angela remarked that he has more respect for Bilbo than the other dwarves have.
In response to the question: ‘where does Smaug come from? we discussed dragons and the ancient belief that some at least were transformed mortal men.
Time directed our attention to the Map and the information that dragons came from the Withered Heath. He also noted that Smaug was the last of the great dragons.
Angela noted that there had been hot and cold dragons, some flying and non-flying, like Glaurung the crawling ‘worm’. Laura reminded us of the ‘cold drakes’ of The Silmarillion.
Eileen observed that Smaug is obsessed with the jewels, and compared this to Gollum’s obsession with the Ring.
Ian pointed out that Smaug doesn’t continue to collect jewels, he’s not like a magpie, but as a dragon he takes possession or treasure already accumulated. Ian pondered whether there was a ‘critical mass’ that determined the value of a hoard to a dragon. Ian continued his consideration of Smaug’s treasure by proposing that what attracts the dragon may be the dwarves’ misappropriation of some of it as the spoils of warriors or by dishonest dealing, as well as accumulating by mining.
Angela noted that there is cursed treasure in The Silmarillion, and Ian added that gold is effectively ‘cursed’ in the film ‘Goldfinger’, and in ‘Pirates of the Carribean’, where the sails of the galleon replicate the look of wings.
Chris proposed that the Ring has no influence on the dragon because it has no cultural or aesthetic interest, as it does not differentiate between the gold cup and the Arkenstone.
Laura observed that Bilbo’s riddles work perfectly well with Gollum because they share the same cultural knowledge but they don’t work with Smaug because they are not part of his ‘culture’.
Ian commented that Smaug lying on the hoard encrusts him, if he hadn’t been lying in the way he was his underside wouldn’t have got so encrusted. Ian used the analogy of a pangolin – armoured on top and with a soft underside, but Smaug’s soft underside gets armoured by the jewels, all except for one spot.
I referred to some background reading that had led me to wonder if Tolkien was not only borrowing the cup and dragon episode from Beowulf, but whether he was also borrowing Christian symbolism as Bilbo reluctantly but courageously descends into a hellish environment to confront a dragon. Was this, I wondered, alluding to Christ harrowing hell and confronting ‘the great red Dragon who is Satan’ (Book of Revelation). I also queried an echo between the cup and the grail.
Laura picked this tentative query and noted that as Christ is not tempted by Satan in the desert, so Bilbo is not seduced under the ‘spell’ of Smaug’s dangerous speech; and that Bilbo’s errors fears and courage echo Christ’s fear which defines his humanity.
Eileen elaborated this remarking on the motif of the reluctant hero represented in Christ’s declaration ‘not my will. Likewise, Bilbo has to push himself to act, and in both cases the process is humanising.
Laura commented that there is an illustration of Satan which takes the shape of both man and dragon.
Ian noted that Bilbo goes down twice. The first time he brings back the cup, echoing Beowulf and maybe the grail. The second descent leads to the confrontation with Smaug, and maybe echoes the Harrowing of Hell. [I should have added that Tolkien may have known the confrontation between Christ and Satan at the Harrowing from his knowledge of medieval biblical plays such as The Towneley cycle.]
Laura remarked that Smaug is true to his own nature, and Eileen commented that it is a clever dragon.
Laura observed the extent to which the tunnel creates tension.
I commented that there seems to be layers of interpretation in this episode, from myth, legend, and Christianity, perhaps all represented already in the Beowulf dragon episode.
Ian noted that in The Hobbit none of it is played for laughs but includes elements of higher moral tone without moralising or rhetoric.
Tim observed that the story maintains its sense of adventure and drama.
Laura added that it includes a poetic register in the use of vocabulary such as ‘enchantment’.
Ian ended our discussions with his observation that humans make myths from information we can’t process otherwise, while animals simply react.
Having over-run our time we agreed that next time we would finish ‘Inside Information’ and go on to ‘Not at Home’.