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** Inside Information ** Part III – Interview with a Dragon


Sep 26 2012, 4:03am

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** Inside Information ** Part III – Interview with a Dragon Can't Post

So now, the dwarves and Bilbo were in a really tough spot. Their ponies had been eaten and Bofur and Bombur had been rescued from the valley in the nick of time (although had Smaug eaten Bombur the dragon might have had such a bad case of indigestion that the dwarves could’ve escaped). Insecure but safe for the moment inside the passageway, the dwarves and Bilbo cowered in the darkness until Smaug tired of the chase and returned to his lair.

As often happens when things go bad, everyone begins to look for a scapegoat, and during debate the dwarves began to blame Bilbo for stealing the cup. But Bilbo snidely reminds the dwarves that he was “not engaged to kill dragons, that is warrior’s work.” Bilbo then offers several cutting lines reflecting on the greatness of the dwarves’ ancestors and the vastness of Thror’s magnificent treasure (and by inference, the lesser attributes and penury of Thorin’s band). The dwarves beg Bilbo’s pardon, and defer to the hobbit for advice (Bilbo now becoming the leader of the group).

Trusting his “luck” (and luck is a word used quite often in the past few chapters) and his ring, Bilbo once again volunteers to go down to the dragon’s lair. Naturally, the dwarves think this is an excellent plan, and defer to his death rather than theirs.

1. Bilbo has a lot of incidental luck and many fortunate turns of a friendly card, and the words “luck”, “lucky” and “luckily” appear dozens of time throughout the book. Do you feel that these happenstance fortunate events overshadow the real growth of Bilbo, as his character becomes more self-reliant, inventive, courageous and crafty? It wasn’t luck that beat the spiders, nor aided the dwarves in their escape in barrels from the ElvenKing’s manse.

“Well thief! I smell you and I feel your air. I hear you breath. Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!”

And so begins one of the most memorable dialogues in the book, the battle of wits between Smaug and Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo plays to Smaug’s vanity, flattering “Smaug the Tremendous” and “Smaug the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities,” but the dragon is buying none of it: “You have nice manners for a thief and a liar,” he replies (one of my favorite lines).

But Bilbo becomes too cute for his own good. In a litany of clever pseudonyms Bilbo leads Smaug on a bewildering chase through a set of riddles: under hill and over hill, he that walks unseen, clue-finder, web-cutter, the stinging fly, the lucky number, Luckwearer, Barrel-rider, etc.

2. What’s your favorite of Bilbo’s riddling names? Mine is, “I come from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me”.

Smaug plays along or perhaps, as Tolkien infers, dragons actually enjoy deciphering riddles. In any case, Bilbo has revealed far too much to Smaug, and his luck (or his wit) has run out in this instance.

Douglas Anderson in The Annotated Hobbit refers to T.A. Shippey’s comment “that Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug has a model in the poem ‘Fáfnismál’” (The Lay of Fáfnir, or literally “Fáfnir's sayings”), a part of the Elder Edda, in which the hero Sigurth converses with the dragon Fáfnir after Sigurth has mortally wounded the dragon. Like Tolkien’s Hobbitish retelling, Sigurth does not reveal his true name to Fáfnir. Here is an English translation:

…But when Fáfnir crawled over the trench, then Sigurth thrust his sword into his body to the heart. Fáfnir writhed and struck out with his head and tail. Sigurth leaped from the trench, and each looked at the other. Fáfnir said:

1. "Youth, oh, youth! | of whom then, youth, art thou born?
Say whose son thou art,
Who in Fáfnir's blood | thy bright blade reddened,
And struck thy sword to my heart."

Sigurth concealed his name because it was believed in olden times that the word of a dying man might have great power if he cursed his foe by his name. He said:

2. "The Noble Hart | my name, and I go
A motherless man abroad;
Father I had not, | as others have,
And lonely ever I live."

3. What other famous Tolkien tale borrows from the Fáfnismál, and in what manner?

Shippey also mentions that like Fáfnir, Smaug sews dissension among the treasure seekers. Smaug seizes upon the parts of Bilbo’s riddles that he can unravel and warns Bilbo against associating with greedy dwarves. Smaug also discerns that Bilbo being “Mr. Lucky Number” means there are fourteen members of his party, and from Bilbo’s “Barrel-rider” hint he has rightly guessed that Bilbo and the dwarves had the aid of the men of Laketown (or Esgaroth more properly, which D.A. Anderson notes is Elvish for “Reed-lake”, so named for the reed banks on its western shore).

Tolkien mentions Smaug’s “overwhelming personality” and its effect on the inexperienced, like Bilbo. A “nasty suspicion” grows in Bilbo’s mind as the dragon’s biting words poison the hobbit against the dwarves and his concern grows for his “fair share” of the loot. But Bilbo recovers enough to outwit Smaug himself. Once again, Bilbo plays to his vanity and perceived invincibility, and Smaug gloats:

“My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings like a hurricane, and my breath death.”

4. How does a dragon know about hurricanes? He’s hundreds of miles from the Sea of Belegaer. When was the last time Smaug would have seen a hurricane at sea?

But Bilbo’s flattery allows him to discover Smaug’s weak spot: although the dragon’s belly is encrusted with gems, there is “a large patch in the hollow of his left breast as bare as a snail out of its shell!” With this information, Bilbo wisely decides to run back up the tunnel; unfortunately, he leaves with a parting shot that infuriates Smaug, and he nearly gets fried with dragonfire as he escapes up the passage.

5. Bilbo makes the statement “Never laugh at a live dragon, Bilbo you old fool”, a saying that eventually, we are told, became proverbial. What do you think the closest real-world proverb would be to Bilbo’s saying?

Please visit my blog...The Dark Elf File...a slighty skewed journal of music and literary comment, fan-fiction and interminable essays.

Subject User Time
** Inside Information ** Part III – Interview with a Dragon Morthoron Send a private message to Morthoron Sep 26 2012, 4:03am
    One thing I find interesting Hamfast Gamgee Send a private message to Hamfast Gamgee Sep 26 2012, 11:00pm
        Bard did. sador Send a private message to sador Sep 27 2012, 2:17pm
    "...for you are crunchy and good with ketchup." dernwyn Send a private message to dernwyn Oct 1 2012, 2:08am
        burying my friends alive and drowning them titanium_hobbit Send a private message to titanium_hobbit Oct 1 2012, 2:47am
    Hurricanes FarFromHome Send a private message to FarFromHome Oct 1 2012, 11:53am
    Late answers sador Send a private message to sador Oct 9 2012, 7:53am
    Careful speaking to strangers (and dragons) CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Oct 11 2012, 12:21am


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