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**Fire and Water** II: The Death of Smaug

Modtheow
Lorien


Oct 11 2012, 4:15pm

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**Fire and Water** II: The Death of Smaug Can't Post

Today, I’m focusing my comments mainly on the second section of the chapter, which goes up to “the end of Smaug and Esgaroth, but not of Bard.” Tomorrow my last post will be on the aftermath of the battle and the politics of Esgaroth.

Smaug’s attack is having devastating effects on the town. While the previous section described the townspeople’s collective efforts to defend themselves against Smaug, they aren’t able to stop him, and the battle is going badly for them:

“Already men were jumping into the water on every side. Women and children were being huddled into laden boats in the market-pool. Weapons were flung down. There was mourning and weeping...”

Smaug’s attack strategy

Smaug has great success flying over the town and burning it up. We know he needs to avoid water. His “hope” is that, once the whole town is fried and the people are stranded in boats, he’ll set fire to the land so that they can’t come ashore and then he’ll hunt them down on the lake or let them starve. Why, then, does he first plan to attack by crossing a bridge? I’m looking back to the first section of the chapter: “Amid shrieks and wailing and the shouts of men he came over them, swept towards the bridges and was foiled!” It’s Bard’s idea to cut the bridges. Does Smaug think that he’d be safer or more successful attacking by land? Does he realize that by flying over the town’s defenders he was leaving himself open to a fatal wound? Is it easier to defend the town against an airborne fire-menace rather than a walking monster? Tolkien creates land-bound dragons elsewhere, such as Glaurung in Turin’s story; is Smaug’s plan to attack by bridge a leftover idea about dragons from other tales?

Any thoughts on how Smaug compares with Tolkien’s other dragons, such as Glaurung and Chrysophylax?

Bard emerges

First, all we know about is a “grim voice” that suggests that the lights in the distance belong to Smaug, and the man speaking is mocked for always thinking of gloomy thoughts. This “grim-voiced fellow” runs to the Master warning of the coming of the dragon. A few paragraphs later, he acquires a name. We’re told that no one would have dared fight against Smaug “if it had not been for the grim-voiced man (Bard was his name), who ran to and fro cheering on the archers and urging the Master to order them to fight to the last arrow.” In the second section of the chapter, this Bard comes more fully into view. He is the captain of a company of archers making a last stand in the town. Bard is “grim-voiced” and “grim-faced” but a man with “worth” and “courage.” He also acquires a family line: he is a descendent of Girion, Lord of Dale.

Why is he so grim in all of his descriptions so far? Because he’s not Lord of Dale? Because he has to live under the rule of Moneybags the Master? Because most of the townspeople seem like fools?

What do you think of this rather sudden emergence of a hero in this chapter?

John Rateliff points out in The History of the Hobbit that in Tolkien’s earlier plot notes he had planned to have Bilbo killing Smaug in his lair. He then changed his mind and gave the job to this newly created character Bard. How would it have changed our perception of Bilbo and of the whole story if Tolkien had stuck to his earlier plan to have Bilbo kill the dragon? (or, look at the question from the opposite angle: how does having Bard kill the dragon change the tone and focus of the story?). Now that we have a dragon-killing warrior hero, where does that leave Bilbo as the hero of this story?

In his earlier plans, Tolkien was also going to kill Bard along with Smaug, but then changed his mind: “And that was the end of Smaug and Esgaroth, but not of Bard.” And so, the descendents of Girion now have a further role to play in the story.

The thrush - Bard - black arrow sequence

It’s starting to look like Bard’s courage will not be enough to win the battle: “The flames were near him. His companions were leaving him. He bent his bow for the last time.” And then suddenly the old thrush lands on his shoulder and starts talking to him, and Bard is amazed that he can understand the bird, “for he was of the race of Dale.”

There has been some discussion of the thrush in previous threads in the last few months,here, here, and here. For now, I’ll remind everyone that in the “Inside Information” chapter Thorin tells Bilbo that the thrush “is maybe the last left of the ancient breed that used to live about here....a long-lived and magical race” and that the “Men of Dale used to have the trick of understanding their language.”

So the killing of Smaug is made possible through an old thrush with connections to the ancient Men of Dale; through Bard who can understand the thrush’s essential information because he is a descendent of Girion of Dale; and the black arrow he uses, which has never failed him before, and which comes from Bard’s father and “he from of old.” In fact, Bard says to the arrow, “If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!”

In other words, everyone/ everything involved in the killing of Smaug has a connection to an older age with a true king under the Mountain and the Men of Dale.

Is this thrush-Bard-black arrow sequence, then, a way for the old order to reassert itself? to gain vengeance? In a 1938 lecture on dragons, Tolkien said “Dragons can only be defeated by brave men – usually alone.” (Scull and Hammond, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, page 220). Should Bard alone get credit for being the dragon-slayer? Is there some magical / mystical power at work that brings all of the right elements together at this one crucial moment? Should Bilbo get any credit for the dragon-slaying, since he is the one who started off the chain of information when the thrush listened to his account of the dragon’s weak spot?

Of course, any comments on the killing of Smaug, Bard’s yew bow, the black arrow, the talking bird, or whatever else you want to discuss are welcome.

This is the cover of the first book by Tolkien I ever read, and I’m pasting it here in honour of today’s post on the death of Smaug, which always reminds me of this picture.


Fàfnir
Rohan


Oct 11 2012, 4:34pm

Post #2 of 6 (534 views)
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Could a possible explanation of the power of the black arrow... [In reply to] Can't Post

be that it has forged out of the same meteor than Anguirel and Anglachel, and possibly forged by Eol ? It would explain its ability to kill a dragon in one shot, just like Aglachel, renamed Gurthanc in the hand of Turin, killed Glaurung in one strike ?

Of course it's not written anywhere, but it would be a good explanation IMO


sador
Half-elven


Oct 14 2012, 5:04pm

Post #3 of 6 (499 views)
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More Late Answers [In reply to] Can't Post

Does Smaug think that he’d be safer or more successful attacking by land?
Perhaps. It's definitely a better way of catching more enemies to eat.

Does he realize that by flying over the town’s defenders he was leaving himself open to a fatal wound?
Possibly, but I think not. Anyway, flight is both more tiring and less efficient.

Is it easier to defend the town against an airborne fire-menace rather than a walking monster?
Not so much as it is easier to dig in and wait for a chance.

Tolkien creates land-bound dragons elsewhere, such as Glaurung in Turin’s story; is Smaug’s plan to attack by bridge a leftover idea about dragons from other tales?
No; it is a leftover from the battlefields of Verdun and the Somme, in which you could pound your enemy for days, but when time came for actually conquering the land, you had to get up and run - and there would be enough enemy survivors to get you if you were unaware.

If this was just a punitive trip, Smaug might not have needed the bridge; but it appears he wants to raze this town to the ground, and eat as many of its people as possible.

Any thoughts on how Smaug compares with Tolkien’s other dragons, such as Glaurung and Chrysophylax?

Nicer than Glaurung, and far more formidable than Chrysophylax (which is still strong enough to rout and eat a younger dragon which took up his residence).

Why is he so grim in all of his descriptions so far? Because he’s not Lord of Dale?
That's a nice idea, but being an exile is more like it.

Because he has to live under the rule of Moneybags the Master?
Does this make you grim?
I suggest that living under the shadow of the only King Under the Mountain he knows is more than enough.

Because most of the townspeople seem like fools?
That didn't make Sam Gamgee grim. And he had no aspirations to nobility.

What do you think of this rather sudden emergence of a hero in this chapter?

How would it have changed our perception of Bilbo and of the whole story if Tolkien had stuck to his earlier plan to have Bilbo kill the dragon?
The story would be different, and for me, these are the most important chapters.
Had Bilbo killed Smaug it would have been a different story altogether. Perhaps there would be no great demand for a sequel, and consequently Jackson would still be making cheap thrillers, TORn would have not been created, and I would be wasting my time elsewhere on the 'Net.

Now that we have a dragon-killing warrior hero, where does that leave Bilbo as the hero of this story?
He will reclaim the title in two more chapters.

And just note that at the Battle of Five Armies, when Thorin emerges from under the Mountain, most of Bard's followers leave their captain and rush to Thorin - they do know a real King, and a real hero.


Quote
In his earlier plans, Tolkien was also going to kill Bard along with Smaug, but then changed his mind: “And that was the end of Smaug and Esgaroth, but not of Bard.”

That would have been quite stunning!

Is this thrush-Bard-black arrow sequence, then, a way for the old order to reassert itself? to gain vengeance?
In a way. But once again, note the reference to the true king.

Should Bard alone get credit for being the dragon-slayer?
Well, he shot that arrow, so yes.

Is there some magical / mystical power at work that brings all of the right elements together at this one crucial moment?
There always is.

Should Bilbo get any credit for the dragon-slaying, since he is the one who started off the chain of information when the thrush listened to his account of the dragon’s weak spot?
He claims it, and Bard at least gives him it (in The Return Journey).

"Bard is known as someone who forebodes gloomy things like floods and poisoned fish. Floods I can see, but poisoned fish? How and why would Bard forebode poisoned fish? Or is this just a slander against Bard?"
- Curious



The weekly discussion of The Hobbit is back. Join us in the Reading Room for Fire and Water!


Modtheow
Lorien


Oct 14 2012, 6:04pm

Post #4 of 6 (499 views)
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My poor sense of M-e geography [In reply to] Can't Post

means that I can't really respond to your idea. I can see why this black arrow would be associated with Eol, the Dark Elf, who worked closely with dwarves and was a master smith. But Bard suggests that the black arrow came "from the forges of the true king under the Mountain." Did Eol live anywhere near there? Clearly, I'm out of my depth here, and will now slink away hoping that someone else can clear this up while I vow to study Tolkien's maps more carefully in the future.


justbennett
The Shire

Oct 15 2012, 9:37pm

Post #5 of 6 (508 views)
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"Grim" isn't the same as "bummed" [In reply to] Can't Post

Although a common usage of "grim" is roughly the same as "sad" or "doubtfully pessimistic" (e.g. Why so grim?), I feel Tolkien always used it to mean fierce, stalwart, and menacing. It makes me think of vikings and war lust and all that. I can't think of a commonly used word that matches this usage. We are in a relatively peaceful society and the nature of war has changed so much that I don't know if we have many opportunities to be grim. It shows up as a positive sign of character in the face of violence. It is generally a pretty masculine word, yet I think I remember it being used in descriptions of Eowyn in her last battle.

Bard is grim because he knows how to handle himself in times of danger.

I think Tolkien kept the image of Bilbo killing Smaug alive in LOTR. He transposed it to Sam killing Shelob. Arguably, this was just as unlikely, but perhaps a bit more believable. Of course, there is also a hobbit/human combo that takes out the Head Wraith on the fields of Pelenor. It's a stretch.


dernwyn
Forum Admin / Moderator


Oct 17 2012, 2:11am

Post #6 of 6 (706 views)
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By the way, here's a Hero... [In reply to] Can't Post

What do you think of this rather sudden emergence of a hero in this chapter?

Too sudden. I would have liked a bit of introduction to a "grim" character back when the dwarves and Bilbo were being hosted by the townspeople. Even just a line or two, mentioning a character who has the feeling that no good will come of this. Then when he appears in this chapter, we can be thinking "Him again - now what's he got to do with all this?".

But the way he appears here, it feels too close to being a deus ex machina.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"I desired dragons with a profound desire"





 
 

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