Seven of us raced the onset of Storm Ciara to get to the Library and back and enjoy our usual discussions. We were picking up the portion of ‘Fire and Water’ that we didn’t finish last time, before moving on to ‘The Gathering of the Clouds’ – very appropriate!
Laura began our afternoon by setting the destruction in some historical context by reminding us of a programme hosted by Alice Roberts in which she visited the site of a Bronze Age village in East Anglia where fire had destroyed a group of thatched round houses raised on stilts. The inhabitants had fled and never returned. Laura also reminded us that Denis Bridoux, a long-standing Tolkien Society member had presented a paper on the early stilt village in Switzerland, with special reference to Laketown’s construction. He made the point that this one would have been known to Tolkien.
Tim remarked that the Laketown Smaug destroys was not the first such construction.
Laura wondered why, when Smaug can fly, there was so much emphasis on the destruction of the bridges connecting Laketown with the shore?
Tim thought they would be more effective if Smaug was on foot.
Ian proposed that from Smaug’s perspective destroying the bridges would enable Smaug to corral the people and pick them off, even if they were in boats. From the Master of Laketown’s point of view corralling the people meant they had to stay and defend the town, but the people use the boats to flee.
Chris noted that the loss of the bridge is more threatening to Smaug as he fears the cold water and has less to land on.
Eileen remarked that Smaug is also laden with jewels and so is heavier.
I asked why when we know Tolkien is drawing much of his inspiration for Smaug from the mythic dragon in Beowulf and that in the Volsunga saga, we are so intent on rationalising this episode?
Laura replied that Smaug is not like Glaurung or the mechanical dragons because he thinks about things. Eileen thought this made him a more ‘sympathetic’ dragon. Laura added that we know Smaug has a vulnerability, which is mythic. Tim argued that Smaug is not a 2-dimensional monster but has a backstory, and Tolkien gets the reader involved with him, and not just with Bilbo and the dwarves.
Laura remarked that Tolkien opens ‘Fire and Water’ with direct address to the reader: ‘Now if you wish, like the dwarves, to hear news of Smaug …’
Chris commented that Smaug is no worse than the dwarves in his lust for gold, and he is not shown to be a predatory dragon.
Angela remarked that gold is deep in the psyche of the dwarves, and she cited Galadriel’s prophecy to Gimli which acknowledges and redefines his cultural and personal relationship to gold.
Laura observed that Smaug destroyed Dale and ransacked the buildings, not just the treasury, like Glaurung. Laura also noted that after Smaug has been killed the characters go back to the question of money, and to politics as the Master diverts attention from himself.
Tim noted that after Bard is hailed as a hero he speaks up for Dale.
Eileen proposed that once immersed in the Lake, both Smaug and his jewels are effectively dead.
I wondered if the Master and Bard are intended to represent opposed views – commerce versus heroism, of whether they are two aspects of the same thing. Angela observed that Bard is a thematic forerunner of Aragorn in many aspects.
Tim thought there was a reference to ‘a land fit for heroes’ in the plight of the Laketown people and the matter of compensation.
Laura remarked that Tolkien would have seen French refugees on the roads fleeing from the Somme.
Tim then commented that Bilbo is not a mythological hero, but trying to get through the trials and to help the dwarves, and that Tolkien is playing with mythology, e.g. in details of the plight of the Laketown people.
Eileen noted that he resents bits of the adventure but learns to depend on himself and to take the lead.
Tim remarked that Thorin is going through a personal journey.
Eileen commented that at one point Balin addresses Bilbo as ‘Baggins’, and Tim noted that most characters have patronymics, only Bilbo has a real surname.
Chris remarked on a different topic that ‘caper’ is an odd word to use about dwarves, even if they are celebrating.
Tim noted that ‘caper’ used to be used as a synonym for ‘crime’.
Chris then observed that Roac the raven has a lot of vocabulary and understanding, and that the Wood Elves divert from their trek to the Mountain in order to help the Laketown people.
I suggested that when Bilbo hears the harps and songs of the elves beyond the fortified entrance to the Mountain he feels excluded.
Tim remarked that as far as Bilbo’s concerned the job’s done and he wants to be out and in good company, not with gloomy dwarves.
Laura noted that the word ‘grim’ is often associated with the dwarves, and with Bard, and the dwarf song suits Thorin, but does not recognise Bilbo’s part in their success. Tim added that that’s why w have the book!
Eileen observed that since setting out both Bilbo and Thorin have changed, and that Tolkien may have been teaching children about responsibility and doing what has to be done, which makes you a better, or a different, person.
Tim thought that Thorin is no longer quite rational but becoming quite dragon-like, while the dwarves song is rewriting history as it happens by failing to acknowledge Bilbo’s crucial role.
Eileen thought Bilbo was becoming like Gollum, shunned and not acknowledged. Tim added that both Bilbo and Gollum are ‘not normal’ in the estimation of other races.
On that bombshell we had to end our meeting. We shall continue with the next 2 chapters ‘A Thief in the Night’ and ‘The Clouds Burst’. That will leave just 2 more to finish the book.