Last meeting in January


For our second meeting of the year, 6 of us gathered to finish the chapter ‘Inside Information’ before moving on to ‘Not at Home’.

Laura opened our discussions with her observation that the title of the chapter ‘Inside Information’ is reminiscent of dealings on the Stock Exchange. This introduction to a commercial aspect in the chapter was picked up later.

I wondered whether Bilbo’s riddling speech with Smaug was a sign of his ‘ofermod’, his hubris or arrogance, and whether this can be seen in terms, not simply in terms of ‘ofermod’ as Tolkien defined it, with reference to OE poem The Battle of Maldon, as a bad thing, but in the later understanding that while it seems disastrous in its short-term effect, it has beneficial long-term consequences. My point was that in the short term Bilbo’s unwise riddling led to great danger and the destruction of Lake-town, but in the long term it led to the destruction of Smaug itself, to the refounding of Dale, to a new hierarchy in Laketown and to many other changes.

Eileen proposed that from this perspective Bilbo is an agent of evolution.

Laura reminded us that Bilbo is to some extent under Smaug’s dragon enchantment while Thorin and the others are unwilling to face it.

Eileen noted that Bilbo, being a hobbit, doesn’t smell familiar to Smaug, and Laura added that Gandalf chose Bilbo particularly for this, to confuse Smaug.

I remarked that Bilbo knows already how to speak to a dragon, and Laura replied that at one level this shows Tolkien’s respect for fairy stories. At another level Bilbo is remembering the lore contained in his father’s sayings, which he keeps repeating.

Angela commented on the description of Bard and the whispering thrush, remarking that the Rangers in The Lord of the Rings had the ability to understand some birds. Laura remarked on the use of birds to pass on information in both stories.

I returned the discussion to the commercial aspect Laura had introduced, when I picked up Smaug’s trouble-making but insightful query about how Bilbo would get his share of the treasure home, taking into account practical matters such as ‘cartage’ and ‘tolls’. I wondered why there is such an emphasis on commerce and business in this chapter, quite apart from Murray Smith’s observations on the prominence of business contracts in the story.

Eileen observed that Smaug knows about the operation of other societies in order to survive.

On the matter of tolls, Laura remarked that when tolls were and are used their presence is/was often visible in the landscape.

Laura suggested that the business details may indicate Tolkien was concerned about his salary.

I wondered if Tolkien was interrogating fairy tales for their lack of practical details.

Chris noted that the men of Laketown engaged in commerce with the Elves.

Angela and Laura both thought it was treated with humour when Bilbo apologises to Thranduil for helping himself to food and drink.

Chris then observed that Bilbo is drawn to the Arkenstone as its enchantment draws him, but is the Ring also an influence here? Chris remarked that Bilbo knows keeping the Arkenstone is wrong so is the Ring overriding his better nature, or is it leading towards something larger?

Laura queried whether Bilbo’s ‘fourteenth share’ was always already part of The Plan.

Eileen remarked that Bilbo has to cajole the dwarves to do what he wants, but he takes on more control.

Laura commented on the last sentence of this chapter, especially ‘He rose in fire’, and noted the tension of other things happening just in time.

Chris observed that the dwarves don’t seem very brave, especially Thorin, whose supposed to be a leader.

Laura remarked that most, if not all, the dwarves would have seen the arrival of the dragon.

Chris thought Bilbo was more sensible, while Laura proposed that the dwarves remember the worth of the artefacts they find, which is beyond their mere value.

We all discussed the fact that the Arkenstone has been considered by John Rateliffe to be one of the lost silmarils.

Chris noted that the Arkenstone, like the Ring, has some degree of independent agency.

In the context of Smaug hoarding the treasure and the dwarves’ response to the Arkenstone and other artefacts, I remarked on the extent to which the chapter deals with matters such as exchange value and cultural value.

Eileen commented that to her Smaug’s hoarding echoed the Nazi attitude to acquiring Jewish wealth – a statement of the power to take and keep regardless of cultural and even commercial value.

Chris extended this to British colonial expansion which involved the taking of whole countries and their wealth.

Laura noted the humorous reference to harps and the fact that the dragon had little interest in magical harps. She further remarked that Bilbo expresses a poignant kind of value when he expresses a desire for a drink from one of Beorn’s wooden bowls.

Eileen remarks that Bilbo’s diet is not what it had been back in Bag End when his pantries were full of food and drink.

Laura added that the Lakemen’s cram is not tasty.

As the Year of the Rat was being celebrated outside, complete with dragons, our meeting came to an end and we agreed that next time we would discuss ‘Fire and Water’ and ‘The gathering of the Clouds’.

January 2020

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:

11.1. 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’.