First Meeting in February


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.

Update from December 2019

Thanks to Tim for sending through these notes he took from the meeting before Christmas which I couldn’t attend.

Present: Laura, Eileen, Chris, Angela, Ian, Tim.
Chapters: “A Warm Welcome” and “On the Doorstep”.

After gathering for a pre-meeting pre-Yule coffee and snacks at the Artisan Café, where we were joined by Lynn, we reconvened at the Seminar Room at about 1.30pm, without Lynn (who was unable to come to the meeting this week). We had been hoping to see Julie too, but sadly illness prevented her from coming.
Tim opened the discussion of Chapter X “A Warm Welcome”, noting that there was a lighter, sedate tone at the start of the chapter after the drama of the escape from the Elven-king.
Eileen liked the name “Lonely Mountain”.
Laura commented on Tolkien’s children storytelling mode: “Bilbo had come far and through many adventures to see it, and now he did not like the look of it in the least.”
Angela noted the description of the Men-Elves’ relationship: bickering, talking about the weather, etc.
Laura observed that the Wood-Elves seemed dangerous and less wise, more involved in commercial/business interchange. Trade, Eileen added.
There was a mention of earthquakes, Chris said, attributed to the dragon – could these have been instead due to Sauron, or Gandalf?
Laura suggested that Dale had been destroyed due to fracking. Perhaps the earthquake was caused by Smaug moving about catlike in his sleep.
Tim commented that, whilst on the barrel, Bilbo has been gathering information from the Raft-elves’ conversation, learning about the local situation – continuing his burglar/spy role.
Eileen said that Bilbo resents the position he’s been put in, always sorting out the messes. His whole heart isn’t in it.
Laura thought that Bilbo handles things more carefully. Making decisions, taking a lot of physical action, such as helping the dwarves out of their barrels.
Laura highlighted the reference to The Wain – the Plough – which comes from an Old Norse word vagn (via the Old English wæg(e)n and Old Frisian wein)
Eileen added that “wain” in Northern Irish dialect means a child.
Tim said that Lake Town reminded him of Iron Age settlements built in the middle of lakes, and wondered if Tolkien would have been aware of these. In The History of The Hobbit Part One, John D. Rateliff describes how Lake Town is modelled closely on Neolithic lake-dwellings discovered on the shore of Lake Zurich in Switzerland (2008 paperback edition, p.448).
Angela said that at Madeira Airport, half of the runway is on stilts.
Chris noted that Thorin announcing himself and his company to the people of Lake Town is similar to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli when meeting Éomer. Thorin “does a Gandalf” on the raft-elves by putting them in their place. Mention is made of trade and tolls.
Laura noted that the dwarves left elves at a time of feast and arrive at Lake Town at a time of feast.
With reference to Chris’ comment, Tim wondered if anyone was worried about the Elvish Backstop.
Eileen referred to how quickly the people believe Thorin. Chris added that there was a legend prophecy. Eileen noted that they were singing about legends of old. Angela said that the song was like the Aragorn prophecy. Laura noted that Thorin has a lot of presence.
Chris commented that people were looking forward to the good times, gold flowing down the river, etc.
Tim said that the reference to Elven scouts added to the layers of narrative.
Laura observed that the reader has to be un-cynical – it is a children’s book. There is a touch of Tolkien the storyteller when he writes: “as we will see in the end”.
Ian highlighted the Elven-king’s thought process toward the end of the chapter: “… he was a wise elf and wiser than the men of the town…” Tolkien is employing a rhetorical trope that may be compared with the first chapter, regarding Bilbo’s possible loss of his neighbours’ respect.
The Master was not sorry to let the dwarves go, Laura noted, since their presence has caused a long, unproductive holiday.
Eileen asked why Bilbo did not use Ring in this chapter. Chris responded that he had no need to. Laura noted that no one queries what this hobbit is. Tim said that Bilbo had no need to use the Ring because he is literally overlooked in a town of Men.
Eileen said that Bilbo was the only one that was unhappy, because he knew what was happening. Tim thought that the company leaving Lake Town was reminiscent of the Fellowship leaving Lothlórien in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Eileen thought Bilbo was a pseudo-Gandalf. Laura said he was Gandalf’s representative. Eileen added that he was an unwilling hero, which is inspiring.
Eileen broached the start of Chapter XI, referring to the imagery of names.
At this point we had to draw the last meeting of 2019 to a close.

Our next meeting will be on Saturday 11th January 2020: we will continue with Chapter XI “On the Doorstep” (which we had only just started) and Chapter XII “Inside information”.
Note: All errors and omissions are my own. I’ve endeavoured to make this as accurate a record as possible of the meeting, but if anyone spots any Almighty Clangers (or Large Soup Dragons) please do not hesitate to let Lynn or myself know. Thanks, Tim.