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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
***Fire and Water*** I: Smaug Attacks

Modtheow
Lorien


Oct 9 2012, 8:14pm

Post #1 of 13 (726 views)
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***Fire and Water*** I: Smaug Attacks Can't Post

I’m commenting in this post on the beginning of the chapter to the section break at “...and still no arrow hindered Smaug or hurt him more than a fly from the marshes.” As always, please feel free to comment on other points or to raise questions about things I don’t mention.

This short chapter begins:

“Now if you wish, like the dwarves, to hear news of Smaug, you must go back again to the evening when he smashed the door and flew off in rage, two days before.”

What do you think of the narrator’s backtracking like this to fill in the events of the story while the dwarves and Bilbo were plundering the hoard in the last chapter? Do you think that this information could have been presented differently? Is this the patronising adult voice talking to children? Could Tolkien have intercut the scenes in this chapter with the scenes from the previous one? What would he gain and what would he lose by doing so?

According to John Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit, Tolkien originally planned to have what became this “Fire and Water” chapter placed before the “Not at Home” chapter. Good decision to switch them around and have “Fire and Water” following “Not at Home”? What does Tolkien gain, what does he lose by putting them in this order?

Descriptions of Smaug

One of the things I value so much about Reading Room discussions is that they force you to look really closely at the way Tolkien writes. What struck me this time around in this chapter are the vivid descriptions of the coming of Smaug, told through the description of lights seen from afar. Imagine these scenes:

The men of Esgaroth are looking out over the lake to the Lonely Mountain in the distance, whose peak is visible from afar. It’s a dark night, but suddenly the mountaintop “flickered back to view; a brief glow touched it and faded.”

One of the men comments, “The lights again! Last night the watchmen saw them start and fade from midnight until dawn. Something is happening up there.”

“Then suddenly a great light appeared in the low place in the hills and the northern end of the lake turned golden.


“Before long, so great was his speed, they could see him [Smaug] as a spark of fire rushing towards them and growing ever huger and more bright....”

“No fireworks you ever imagined equalled the sights that night.”

“He circled for a while high in the air above them lighting all the lake; the trees by the shores shone like copper and like blood with leaping shadows of dense black at their feet.”


Why describe Smaug from this point of view and in this way? Do you know if anyone has ever painted this scene?

Battle action

People spring into action in these first few pages. Out of these first paragraphs describing the battle with Smaug, I could point to quite a few sentences that I think work really well, but I’ll just comment on one:

“Every vessel in the town was filled with water, every warrior was armed, every arrow and dart was ready, and the bridge to the land was thrown down and destroyed, before the roar of Smaug’s terrible approach grew loud, and the lake rippled red as fire beneath the awful beating of his wings.”

Here’s what I like about it: the repetition of “every...every...every” insists that this was an all-out effort. No one is singled out by name; it’s a general mobilization. The alliteration (the repetition of initial sounds in a word) in phrases like “down and destroyed” or “roar...rippled red” or “loud...lake” or “beneath...beating” make the sentence sound very forceful and emphatic. Oh, and here’s another light reference: “the lake rippled red as fire” – very vivid description.

What about your favorite sentences in this section? What do you like (or not) about the way the battle is described?

I’ll just point out that the grim-voiced man who turns out to be named Bard springs into action here, but I’d like to comment on this character in the next post tomorrow.

A Bilbo-free chapter

Is this the first chapter in the book that does not involve Bilbo? Is this significant in any way?

And once again, I’m so sorry for not being around to participate in previous weeks’ discussions. I’ll try to do better in the weeks ahead!



CuriousG
Valinor


Oct 10 2012, 10:52pm

Post #2 of 13 (333 views)
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Smaug happens [In reply to] Can't Post

I'm sorry I haven't been able to keep up with the last few chapters. As Sam would say, "I've missed a lot, seemingly."

Nice approach to this chapter, Modtheow.

1. Backtracking. It works for me because each chapter is fairly short. I'm sure the cinematic version will splice scenes from different locales together to give a simultaneous feel for everything. That works better when you get the whole story in 2-3 hours in a theater, I think. In book form, I think it builds some welcome suspense that you must stay in a chapter and follow its story before you go back to what the other characters are doing. The thoughts do arise at the back of your mind: "What are Bilbo and the dwarves doing? Will they somehow come and join the battle at Esgaroth? Can they see it from afar? What was up with that suspicious raven?"

In Lord of the Rings, it's such an immense plot, Tolkien does have to backtrack at times, and some of those times are less satisfying than others. I never quite warm up to reading about The Paths of the Dead after the fact, though I relish Gandalf's story as White Rider about his battle with the Balrog. So, sometimes it works better than others. Works fine for me in The Hobbit. If the alternative is splicing the chapters together, then I'm glad that didn't happen. Do you know of another way he could have approached delivering the story and its timeline? (And yes, I think it's a patronising adult tone to children, but I accept that as part of The Hobbit.)

2. The order Tolkien settled on: I think it's satisfying this way because as a reader, I'm ready for Smaug to quit lying around on gold and go do something dragon-like, like breathe fire and attack things and cause wanton destruction. I've waited for that since Hobbiton--I'm ready.

3. Excellent insight into all the light imagery and language Tolkien uses related to Smaug--I never picked up on how much there is. Isn't it a little ironic that light, which is almost always a good thing in Tolkien's realm, is bad when we get to Smaug, and a harbinger of bad things?

The passages you cite are reminiscent of the fall of Gondolin, which remains vivid in my mind. The Elves standing on the city walls in the morning darkness to welcome the sun's light in the east, only to see light coming from the north instead, and that's the light of invading dragons on this holy day of theirs. Here again there is dragon light coming from the north to spread destruction.

I love Tolkien's description here: "the trees by the shores shone like copper and like blood with leaping shadows of dense black at their feet.”

4. Battle: I hope I'm not ruining your post by making linkages to Silmarillion and LOTR, but the use of "every...every" reminds me of Helm's Deep, where at one point "every shaft was shot" and there's another every, I think "every blade was notched." (Sorry, I'm on a train 100s of miles from home and can't look it up.) There was the same feel at Helm's Deep that you evoke here, one of desperate, complete mobilization. This isn't a battle between English and French knights where sure, there will be some deaths, but survivors will walk away at the end, and the victor gets a new piece of land from the loser. This is a fight to the death for one side or the other, which is far more terrible.

Also, I like alliteration, though it's contemporary to criticize it. Tolkien rations it out well enough for me that I don't think it's overused, and it adds a lyrical quality to his writing.

5. A Hobbit-less Hobbit chapter: Curious (not me) has remarked before that this part of the book differs vastly in style and structure from the earlier part of the book, including Bard suddenly appearing here like he popped out of a vending machine for heroes. The Hero (the classic one) appears while the other hero (Bilbo, the little guy, the reluctant, unlikely hero) is out of sight. Is this a problem in Tolkien's own mind? Was it hard for him to put both types of heroes in the same story segment? We might have a good debate about that. I think Bilbo later on becomes a great moral hero by (naively) giving away the Arkenstone in hopes of peace, and our Classic Hero, Bard, sticks stubbornly to his claim on the dragon hoard without taking a cue from Bilbo that peace at any price is better than bloodshed. So that's a long way of saying that when Bilbo's heroism shines later, Bard's heroism is diminished. Maybe Tolkien was thinking that when he wrote this chapter and wanted to make sure the Classic Hero got all the attention and glory without any distractions from a Baggins burglar with a big heart.


Modtheow
Lorien


Oct 11 2012, 4:45pm

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Fall of Gondolin [In reply to] Can't Post

Thanks for drawing attention to the similarities in description of the coming of dragons in "The Fall of Gondolin." In both cases, as you say, the people are in a hopeful and cheerful mood, they see lights in the distance and wonder what they are, and then as the lights come closer and become clearer, their wonder turns to dread and fear. I think this way of describing the coming attack works well because we see it from the point of view of the people involved, not from the point of view of the attacking dragon. The description puts us in the position of those people trying to figure out what's coming at them, so moments later we can feel their panic more keenly, especially since there is such a strong contrast, so quickly, between feelings of hope and fear.


justbennett
The Shire

Oct 12 2012, 10:18pm

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My Thoughts [In reply to] Can't Post

I do like the way the story was placed. On first reading I was going insane wondering where Smaug was and why he never showed up to vaporize Bilbo and the dwarvsies. So, as was mentioned, I was antsy for some good ole dragon evilness.

I had never thought about the juxtaposition of heroes. Bard is a wake up call that there are capable people in the world that don't just survive by magic or by luck. At one point after reading LOTR I wondered if Bard was actually an alias of Aragorn. Ultimately, I think Tolkien just reused and expanded the character. (Call me crazy, but I see a lot of similarities in Beorn and Treebeard as well.)

One thing about the descriptions of Smaug- I don't know quite how to explain it, but there is a feeling like the story teller expects the listener to have a working knowledge of dragons. Nowhere does he say, "Now a dragon is a giant, flying, firebreathing monster that is a little bit like a lizard." Of course, most readers have an archetypal dragon in mind. Tolkein's description don't really try to mess with that. It encourages the reader to just think of the baddest dragon possible, cover it in jewels, and there you are. It really made me feel a lot more included in the story, part of the inside crowd, so to speak.

I didn't really like that Bard didn't hear about the weak spot until he had his last arrow. I'd prefer that there had been many attempts made at the spot before it all came down to the. last. lucky. arrow.


dernwyn
Forum Admin / Moderator


Oct 13 2012, 12:23am

Post #5 of 13 (328 views)
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The sequence is excellent. [In reply to] Can't Post

The previous chapter has the undercurrent of tension: where is that blasted dragon? Is he going to return in the midst of the dwarves' delight at the treasure? It would have made Bilbo's hike into the room less effective, had we known that the dragon was already dead.

What a perfect "view" we have, as Smaug follows the river down to the lake! Like a spark from the "fireworks" on the Mountain, coming closer...and closer...and by the time he arrives, we're in as much of an organized panic as the townspeople. I did a search for depictions of this scene on Rolozo Tolkien, and found that artists love to portray the dragon destroying the town, but no one shows him approaching it!

I find "the lake rippled red as fire" fascinating: once again, that combination of fire and water, reminiscent of the steam and black smoke coming from the entrance to the Mountain.

And what a change from the original version of the story, where Tolkien had Biblo be the dragon-slayer; now the humble hobbit is nowhere in sight!


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

"I desired dragons with a profound desire"






Escapist
Gondor


Oct 13 2012, 12:52am

Post #6 of 13 (314 views)
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quite a scene [In reply to] Can't Post

What do you think of the narrator’s backtracking like this to fill in the events of the story while the dwarves and Bilbo were plundering the hoard in the last chapter? Do you think that this information could have been presented differently? Is this the patronising adult voice talking to children? Could Tolkien have intercut the scenes in this chapter with the scenes from the previous one? What would he gain and what would he lose by doing so?
To me, this gives the impression that somone wrote this part during the down time while everyone else was lost in the treasure horde.

According to John Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit, Tolkien originally planned to have what became this “Fire and Water” chapter placed before the “Not at Home” chapter.
Good decision to switch them around and have “Fire and Water” following “Not at Home”? What does Tolkien gain, what does he lose by putting them in this order?
There is added suspense and uncertainty – and also more time for the dwarves to prepare, reminisce, and organize.

Why describe Smaug from this point of view and in this way? Do you know if anyone has ever painted this scene?
It sounds like a fantastic thing to see. This adds to a feeling that this part of the story wasn’t written by Bilbo.

What about your favorite sentences in this section? What do you like (or not) about the way the battle is described?
Although there are soooo many arrows that miss, there is one that hits the target.


A Bilbo-free chapter

Is this the first chapter in the book that does not involve Bilbo? Is this significant in any way?
The whole story feels different around this point. The patterns of narrator speech, limited perspective, and almost everything else shifts. Did representatives among the elves, men, and dwarves each contribute heavily to this chapter in concert with Bilbo writing his memoirs?

Well of course not … but that is what it makes me think.


sador
Half-elven


Oct 14 2012, 3:11pm

Post #7 of 13 (289 views)
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What do you think of the narrator’s backtracking like this to fill in the events of the story while the dwarves and Bilbo were plundering the hoard in the last chapter?
It's good. It make the previous chapter full of suspense, rather than being a story of petty ransacking, and keeps the image of Bilbo as the clear-headed member of the company who is loyally keeping his part of the bargain and more of it.
Otherwise, we would know that he is running no real danger, and that with cast his acquiring of the Arkenstone in a quite different light.

Do you think that this information could have been presented differently?
It sure could.

Is this the patronising adult voice talking to children?
No. It's the capable author, sharing with the readers the character's feelings of not really knowing what is going on. Shippey comment extensively on how this works in The Lord of the Rings - in which it is done on a much vaster scale.

Could Tolkien have intercut the scenes in this chapter with the scenes from the previous one?
Yes.

What would he gain and what would he lose by doing so?
No gain, substantial loss.


Good decision to switch them around and have “Fire and Water” following “Not at Home”?
I don't remember, but were the two chapters in their present form before the switching?

What does Tolkien gain, what does he lose by putting them in this order?
See above.


Why describe Smaug from this point of view and in this way?
Tolkien wants us to sympathise with the Lake-Men, and with Bard, in the coming chapters.

Do you know if anyone has ever painted this scene?
I do not.


What about your favorite sentences in this section?
I don't think there is a single one. In the combination which is effective.

What do you like (or not) about the way the battle is described?
It is so modern.

Is this the first chapter in the book that does not involve Bilbo?
Of course! There was only one previous scene without him, at the end of Flies and Spiders.

Is this significant in any way?
Of course! For instance, it marks the widening of the book's scope, and the change in its theme and focus.
Last time I've led Not at Home, I tried to read that chapter from two different prespectives - Bilbo's, and Thorin's. This chapter offers us several more.




"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, 4:34pm

Post #8 of 13 (289 views)
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The last lucky arrow [In reply to] Can't Post

You would think that in the shower of arrows coming at Smaug from all the archers that some of them might have been close to his weak spot. And I suppose Bard could have found out about the unguarded spot and tried to hit it several times -- the narrator could create mounting tension by having Bard try once, try again, and then maybe get to his last arrow -- but I'm quite satisfied with the one shot that he gets. For me, the moment is so tense and so special because it relies on the thrush, the arrow, and Bard's skill coming together all at once.


Modtheow
Lorien


Oct 14 2012, 4:46pm

Post #9 of 13 (280 views)
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Bilbo as dragon-slayer [In reply to] Can't Post

I agree -- what a change from the original plan for the story! According to John Rateliff, Tolkien's earlier notes have Bilbo killing the dragon and then floating away on the dragon's blood sitting in a golden bowl! I can't imagine how this could be anything but fun and silly and child-like -- completely different from the heroic mood and, I think, the more realistic consequences in the lands around the Lonely Mountain that we see in the final version.


Modtheow
Lorien


Oct 14 2012, 4:57pm

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Bilbo as author [In reply to] Can't Post

In the fictional world of LotR, I have no problems accepting that Bilbo wrote his memoirs about this adventure and that the story we're reading is supposed to have been that book. But beyond that, it never works for me to think about Bilbo (or Frodo) as the actual authors / narrators of The Hobbit and LotR. Just the fact that Bilbo would refer to himself in the third person in his memoir is a bit odd. Although, I think that Salman Rushdie's just-published memoir, Joseph Anton, does the same thing, so maybe it isn't as great an obstacle as I've thought.


Escapist
Gondor


Oct 14 2012, 5:05pm

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I think of Bilbo and Frodo as the writers of an original manuscript [In reply to] Can't Post

likely written in elvish but almost certainly translated by JRRT and edited with the help of a great team of experts at both stages.


Modtheow
Lorien


Oct 14 2012, 5:14pm

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and a late question [In reply to] Can't Post

You say that you like how modern the battle description is, and I'd be interested in hearing what elements specifically strike you as modern. For me, it's the immediate need for shelter after the battle and the hunger and sickness that ensue that make me think of so many contemporary war scenes. Or maybe it's because we see everyone in the town involved, even if it's only to fill vessels full of water to fling at fires rather than just seeing elite warriors on a battlefield fighting it out. Do you see other elements as being modern?

Also, you asked about the switched chapters in the final version. According to John Rateliff, Tolkien revised the chapters quite a bit in order to rearrange them.


sador
Half-elven


Oct 15 2012, 9:39pm

Post #13 of 13 (511 views)
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All of those you've said [In reply to] Can't Post

And perhaps also Bard's ethos of fighting until the last arrow.

This is also a battle of strategy: Smaug aims at the bridge, and is foiled because the Lake-men anticipated his plan; so he reverts to a second one, that of scattering the Men to the shores of the Lake and taking them piecemeal - which might have succeeded if not for Bard's prseverance, his hands and eyes, and the thrush.
Compare this to the tactics of the Nirnaeth, in which each side tried to provoke the other to expose itself by premature attack - and you'll see the difference. The only thing whih comes close is the sack of Nargothrond, and the trap Turin laid for Glaurung at the crossings of Teiglin.

"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!

 
 

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