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


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.

Subject User Time
**Fire and Water** II: The Death of Smaug Modtheow Send a private message to Modtheow Oct 11 2012, 4:15pm
    Could a possible explanation of the power of the black arrow... Fàfnir Send a private message to Fàfnir Oct 11 2012, 4:34pm
        My poor sense of M-e geography Modtheow Send a private message to Modtheow Oct 14 2012, 6:04pm
    More Late Answers sador Send a private message to sador Oct 14 2012, 5:04pm
    "Grim" isn't the same as "bummed" justbennett Send a private message to justbennett Oct 15 2012, 9:37pm
    By the way, here's a Hero... dernwyn Send a private message to dernwyn Oct 17 2012, 2:11am


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