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’.