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***The Hobbit read-through -The Gathering of the Clouds: 4 of 5: Thorin won't negotiate


Aug 30, 12:45pm

Post #1 of 8 (657 views)
***The Hobbit read-through -The Gathering of the Clouds: 4 of 5: Thorin won't negotiate Can't Post

This time I want to reply the chapter from Thorin’s point of view, to understand why he does not agree to Bard’s ‘fair words and true, if proudly and grimly spoken’.

In earlier posts this week I said that I conclude that the wording Roac uses at the start of the chapter sets Thorin up to resist Bard’s demands – he’s already suspicious before the army arrives, and their behaviour only re-inforces his concerns.

I think that Thorin’s need to hold on to the treasure is not simply miserliness or a weird dwarvish obsession with gold. If it is partly ‘dragon- sickness’ in whole or part, I infer that it attacks him as contemplation of the lovely things ‘which were wound old memories of the labours and the sorrows of his race’ stir up a determination that ‘The dwarves no more shall suffer wrong’. In any case, as is probably already clear from the previous discussion of Bard’s negotiating tactics, I think it would be entirely possible to explain the events of this chapter without citing stereotypes about dwarves, or postulating dragon-sickness. I don’t claim that these factors had no effect at all, but I do think we can do better than attributing everything to greedy or stubborn dragon-sick dwarves and simply moving on (please do debate this if you disagree with any of it!).

As before, I’ve done ‘a thorough analysis’, which might mean it’s too much to read for some folks. So I’ll present here a summary and a few questions, then add the longer-form analysis as a reply to this post for folks who have the time and interest to read it.

Some questions (please see the longer analysis for much more!):

There is lingering presence of Smaug (‘the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded’ and later Bilbo’s comment that the Mountain ‘still stinks of dragon’) To what extent (if any) do you this influencing what happens in this chapter? I think this is what I see called dragon-sickness (though I don’t think the term has appeared in the book yet):

Tell me about ‘dragon sickness’!
Do you see it as mostly figurative (like ‘seven-year itch’), or literally as a curse or magical malady that explains a significant part of Thorin’s behaviour (and possibly that of other characters)?

Feel free to distinguish what ‘dragon-sickness’ is if you only refer to The Hobbit, and whether there’s a different perspective if the rest of Tolkien’s works are included.

Tolkien also mentions ‘the power that gold has … with dwarvish hearts’. Replace ‘dwarvish’ with an adjective for a real-life nation or ethnic group (e.g. ‘the power that gold has …with English hearts’) and you get a pretty unpleasant statement of prejudice. You can’t tell whether an English person is avaricious until you get to know them, and that would be the same for any other group, because real people are characters, not stereotypes. Does this kind of statement about dwarves thing make you feel uneasy? Or are individuals of a Middle-earth race so similar to each other (e,g, because 'races' represent different personality types, or started out as the genius locii of different kinds of environment) that such generalisations become true and reliable statements?

Where else in Tolkien’s writing are events driven by whether someone can or cannot give up a treasure for some wider good? How do you think those cases compare or contrast with the situation in our chapter?

Some specific points that Thorin raises:
Thorin rebuts Bard’s claim that he should compensate Esgaroth for the dragon damage by saying he is not responsible for Smaug’s deeds – is this reasonable?

Thorin asks ‘what share of their inheritance you would have paid to our kindred, had you found the hoard unguarded and us slain.’ This goes unanswered – why would Bard have done in those circumstances, and why is it relevant? What does this show us about Thorin’s state of mind?
Is Thorin right to object to the presence of the elves in these negotiations?

Now that we’ve looked at the negotiation from both sides, what is your overall conclusion? For example, give us your top three reasons why it wasn’t possible to reach agreement, or say what arrangement you would have suggested if asked to arbitrate. Or why not tell us both those things!

Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm


Aug 30, 12:51pm

Post #2 of 8 (633 views)
***The Hobbit read-through -Thorin won't negotiate (detail) [In reply to] Can't Post

Some of these points have been at least touched upon in the discussion so far. But I think we’re far from having talked it all out, and so I’ve decided to leave this text unaltered, so as to cover as many relevant points as possible.

Roac sets things up (repeats text from post 1 of 5)
I think we need to start by assessing the news and advice Thorin is given by Roac (we did discuss this a bit in the first of my posts this week, but I’ll put my text here again for convenience):

Already a host of the elves is on the way, and carrion birds are with them hoping for battle and slaughter. By the lake men murmur that their sorrows are due to the dwarves; for they are homeless and many have died, and Smaug has destroyed their town. They too think to find amends from your treasure, whether you are alive or dead. …
… We would see peace once more among dwarves and men and elves after the long desolation; but it may cost you dear in gold.

On the one hand this reads like a fairly balanced situation report, and advice that comes to proposing a win/win settlement –it would be kingly and statesmanlike for Thorin to give generously to his neighbours from the vast treasures he’s unexpectedly obtained, and then live in peace with them.

On the other hand, look at the violence in the language:
… a host of the elves …
…carrion birds … hoping for battle and slaughter…
… sorrows … due to the dwarves…
… homeless…
… find amends from your treasure, whether you are alive or dead…

Thorin’s answer is:

none of our gold shall thieves take or the violent carry off while we are alive.

My impression is that Roac overdoes the threat that the allied army poses, and Thorin immediately agrees they are a military threat.


'That’s a provokingly large army', and there’s an exchange of songs

The next we see of the allies is a large army, not a much less threatening negotiating party. The army parades about provocatively and the elven music damages the dwarven morale. We’ve earlier discussed whether the elves are doing this intentionally, or whether it just looks like that to Thorin The music that the dwarves make in reply contains themes celebrating their strength, the return of The Good Old Days, a call to the diaspora, and these significant lines:

The heart is bold that looks on gold;
The dwarves no more shall suffer wrong

Does this suggest that it isn’t simply that Thorin &Co. have become misers, unable to part with cash – that instead, ownership of the hoard is safety from and recompense for all the abuse they’ve suffered?
How about this verse, which tops and tails the song:

Under the Mountain dark and tall
The King has come unto his hall!
His foe is dead, the Worm of Dread,
And ever so his foes shall fall.

All of it is true, but it sounds almost as if Thorin killed Smaug, and so elides an inconvenient fact - that ‘the Worm of Dread’ fell at the hand of the guy who is outside the hall. Is Bard seen as a mere agent of the dwarven fates?

What else in the song is insightful?

The first embassy

Next comes the embassy, under its banners of Esgaroth and the Elvenking. As we saw last time, Bard perhaps unwisely uses the word ‘like a robber’ to describe Thorin. Then he calls for
1) recognition of himself as dragon slayer and deliverer of the treasure
2) Return of the treasures that Smaug stole from Dale, which he claims as heir to Dale’s throne
3) Compensation for the destruction of Esgaroth
…and perhaps the fluttering green banner implies to Thorin if not to Bilbo that there is an unspoken (4) – something for the Elvenking, along the lines of the ransom Thorin might have made had he not escaped, or being thrown back into jail.

Before we get Thorin’s replies, we get an insight into his mind and into Bilbo’s which I think is important:

Now these were fair words and true, if proudly and grimly spoken; and Bilbo thought that Thorin would at once admit what justice was in them. He did not, of course, expect that any one would remember that it was he who discovered all by himself the dragon’s weak spot; and that was just as well, for no one ever did. But also he did not reckon with the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded, nor with dwarvish hearts. Long hours in the past days Thorin had spent in the treasury, and the lust of it was heavy on him. Though he had hunted chiefly for the Arkenstone, yet he had an eye for many another wonderful thing that was lying there, about which were wound old memories of the labours and the sorrows of his race.

I think I notice:

Bilbo is somewhat aggrieved that his discovery of Smaug’s weak spot goes unremarked, and he’s beginning to see Thorin as unjust – are we getting here the first insights that will explain Bilbo’s behaviour next chapter?

Is it, come to think of it, rather a pity that Thorin doesn’t remember Bilbo’s discovery of Smaug’s weak spot right now, while everyone is taking stock of contributions and rewards? Bard has advanced a claim as dragon-slayer, and Thorin could answer that Bard and his followers would be merely dragon-sauteed and not outside the gate of Erebor at all, had it not been for Bilbo’s discovery. If Bard is due some recognition (of course he is) then why not Bilbo?

Next we get a pointer to the lingering baleful influence of Smaug – ‘the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded’ – is that it? Would anyone go mad if they owned this treasure and Thorin, like any other owner, is doomed?

Or… ‘the power that gold has … with dwarvish hearts’. Is that it – are dwarves all really quite like small, flightless and flame-less dragons?

Or… is the hoard not enticing to Thorin because of curses or cash value but for its cultural value and reminder of the long, bittersweet history of the dwarves (‘many another wonderful thing that was lying there, about which were wound old memories of the labours and the sorrows of his race’)?
And… is it a superficial to see Tolkien’s dwarves as having a weird obsession with gold as their defining feature? The Silmarillion, of course, has as a plot engine the jewels that Feanor will not give up and which he pursues come what may. I wonder whether we should be thinking about a wider Tolkien theme here – that ‘subcreators’ of all races can become too attached to their creations?

With these things put freshly into our minds, we next hear Thorin answer Bard.

Answering Bard’s third point (about the need to compensate Esgaroth for dragon damage) Thorin says: ‘You put your worst cause last and in chief place’ – is this a nifty rhetorical trick for overlooking arguments (1) and (2)? As far as I can see these points go unanswered.

Thorin’s answers point by denying any responsibility for Smaug’s misdeeds – since Smaug stole the treasure (from ‘my people’ Thorin says, ignoring the claim that some of it is loot from Dale) it was never Smaug’s, and so it can’t be demanded as compensation for damage Smaug has done.
Does Thorin’s argument have any validity?

Thorin is willing to repay the cost of the supplies he was given, but in his own time – is that a reasonable offer based on principle, or is he setting down a low opening bid for haggling later?

What does Thorin know about or assume about the extent of the damage at Esgroth? Bard does not describe the hardship, ‘much sickness and great hunger’ that Esgaroth now faces. But Thorin can see that the allies can field a powerful army and propose to keep it supplied in the Desolation of Smaug – might he reasonably be sceptical about how bad things really are?

Thorin then objects that he will not negotiate with an army on his doorstep. Do you see him as insulted here, or feeling that negotiations are futile when Bard will resort to force anyway? Or, is this a pretext not to negotiate at all?

Next, Thorin asks a question of his own, which also gets batted away rhetorically without proper answer:

It is in my mind to ask what share of their inheritance you would have paid to our kindred, had you found the hoard unguarded and us slain.”
“A just question,” replied Bard. “But you are not dead, and we are not robbers. …

I read this as Thorin saying that Bard would have taken all the treasure as ‘ownerless’, whereas (by Bard’s own logic) he ought to be ready to receive petitions from Dain or other dwarves for return of stolen property and compensation for damages – do I have that right?

Is this an attempt to negotiate, or is Thorin just implying that Bard is a hypocrite?

What do you think Bard would have done had his army found Erebor undefended?

If Smaug’s treasure must be thought of as the property of its former owners, (as both Bard and Thorin claim when it suits them)why didn’t Thorin &Co. apply that principle to the loot they took from the trolls?

Finally, Thorin objects to the very presence of the Elvenking – again is he insulted, afraid of treachery and tricks, or merely finding a pretext not to negotiate?

When the embassy returns it issues demands. Thorin shoots at it – a major faux pas to attack emissaries, I think. Why does he do this?

With Dain on the way, would it not be in Thorin’s interests to use more negotiations to stall for time? For all he knows the allies are now insulted enough to try and storm the place, which will cost them many lives but might be the death of Thorin and his followers too. And anyway, Thorin must eventually negotiate, even if he does so with Dain’s army to back up his claims, so why be offensive?

We’ve now looked at the negotiations from the point of view of each party, so please ask any questions or make any points that we have missed. I have some final questions:

Proposals for the division of Smaug’s hoard have been about at least three things – the restoration of stolen property; the payment of compensation and damages, and the idea that the unguarded treasure is ‘ownerless’ (‘‘possession is nine points of the law’’). Was there ever any reasonable hope of sorting out such a complicated nest of claims?

What role (if any) did mistakes, tactlessness and cultural misunderstandings play in the breakdown of the negotiations?

How should we readers view the rights and wrongs of this negotiation? Should we apply our modern sense of laws and fairness? Or should we expect that the characters to behave like heroes in old sagas? (If you answer ‘like heroes in old sagas’ please let me know what this would look like – I’m sure Tolkien would have known, but I don’t!)

CuriousG’s question ‘why doesn't Gandalf himself appear at the Front Gate and try to reason with Thorin???’ What do you think would have happened had Gandalf done that?

Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm


Aug 31, 12:11pm

Post #3 of 8 (621 views)
The allied military threat; Bilbo’s role [In reply to] Can't Post

I guess I agree with all that Roac says, and the allies are a military threat intent upon seizing the gold at Erebor. That is seen by their shift in strategy from initially assuming they can claim it all (being unguarded) to putting demands on it and ultimately besieging Thorin & Co. So I wouldn’t call Roac alarmist but rather accurate. (It’s almost as if he was reading Tolkien’s mind about what was to follow.)

Bilbo’s role: it seems that Bilbo’s crucial role in discovering Smaug’s Achilles’ heel is treated with a bit of humor, as if he’s the easy-to-overlook nice guy while two armed camps exchange threats and beat their chests. But I think Tolkien underlines the essential unfairness of both sides in picking which facts they’ll acknowledge and which they’ll sweep under the rug.

It’s really quite a big deal that the dwarves sing a self-congratulatory song about the dragon being dead as if it doesn’t matter who killed him, or implying deceitfully that they were somehow responsibile, maybe because fate or a higher power is on their side, smiting their foes.


Aug 31, 12:39pm

Post #4 of 8 (620 views)
The debatable potency of “dragon-sickness” [In reply to] Can't Post

From observing others’ comments, it seems other readers attribute a lot more power to dragon-sickness than I do. For me, it doesn’t stand up all that well as a behavior modifier since it doesn’t influence Bilbo that much (maybe it makes him steal the Arkenstone and keep it secret, but it does nothing to prevent him giving it away to virtual strangers.)

Nor do the other dwarves seem quite as treasure-obsessed as Thorin. And post-BOFA, Bard has no discernible struggle in giving away his share of the loot, and more significantly, neither does Dain.

So Thorin’s state of mind seems to spring rather from someone long-dispossessed who regains their rightful home and treasure (against great odds), instilling in him a fierce desire to not lose them a 2nd time paired with with the release of the bottled-up indignities he suffered as a working-class dwarf having to haggle with men over his labor for small compensation, all in the context of him being some low-class dwarf, like the pizza delivery boy: you’re glad he made the delivery, but you wouldn’t want to be a lowly pizza boy yourself, and you don’t want him sticking around to chat with you as an equal.

Tolkien says there’s a dragon-sickness, so there is, but I don’t think it’s as powerful as the One Ring’s or the Silmarils’ corrupting influences.


Aug 31, 12:47pm

Post #5 of 8 (620 views)
The rights & wrongs of the parley [In reply to] Can't Post

“How should we readers view the rights and wrongs of this negotiation? Should we apply our modern sense of laws and fairness? Or should we expect that the characters to behave like heroes in old sagas?“

When I get really analytical, like we are here, I tend to shift into my 2018 mode of thinking and apply contemporary mores to the situation. Mea culpa. If I try and think how folktales and sagas would resolve the situation, it seems that they fall into one extreme or another: some hero would display their virtue of generosity and renounce all their claims to the loot, or at the other extreme there would be less talking and more fighting. So Tolkien has done a good job of providing a more nuanced situation and distancing himself from the templates of the past.

But still, though there is “wrong on both sides” and though Tolkien may have deliberately tried to bias us against Thorin, I still think Thorin is overly proud and stubborn, and obstinate pride cometh before a fall. Bard made his mistakes, but you have to allow people to make mistakes, and Thorin doensn’t.


Aug 31, 2:38pm

Post #6 of 8 (611 views)
Negotiations ancient and modern [In reply to] Can't Post

One of the things I was thinking about is that Bard and Thorin negotiate by shouting (I mean literal shouting across the lake before Erebor gate, even when the content isn't shouty). It's all public, and at a time when leader had to think of his status in front of his war-band, lest they decide to prefer someone else. Along with the scene 'stinking of dragon', I'd expect a fair old cloud of testosterone.

By Tolkien's time, such negotiations would probably be handled behind closed doors by people trained in not being offensive unless they both meant it and had thought through the consequences. Moreover, the actual leaders and their egos would be kept out of it until there was something all set to agree, helping to prevent things becoming unfortunately personal. And if tempers frayed or the language got salty, nobody else would know and it would all be described as a 'full and frank exchange of views' at the press conference.

I just thought: nowadays it would include Twitter spats in less time than it takes to have a quiet cup of coveffe; there'd grandstanding in interviews on Axe And Friends, leaks to the Wharf Street Journal, and crises caused by fearsome editorials in the Daily Chainmail. There's be relentless polling, trial balloons and dog-whistling; endlessly needing to think how it's looking for the TV crews, and timing things to get one's own spin out at the right point of the 24-hour news cycle. By now there'd be several subreddits devoted to the theory that Smaug's crash-landing demolition of Esgaroth was an inside job - I mean, 'if the dragon was really there, why is nobody trying to salvage the jools?' Lakebook would be full of memes supporting either side but many of these would turn out to be created by fake accounts made by Burt, Tom and William (or Dmitri, Boris and Vladimir, as they are in real life). It would all be being satirised on The Lake Show. I don't know what would be appearing in the elvish broadsheet, The Fae News, but probably somebody would be saying it was all partisan rubbish (despite not being able to read tengwar).

So in a sense, I'm not sure whether my original question works - we're probably back to the old style of things. Certainly I've been arguing that it's too hard to reach understanding with Thorin in part because he's got to consider how it looks to all the bystanders, which is surely a problem that modern politicians face. (And I agree that the alternative explanation - Bard being disastrously oblivious to the unsaid - works too).

Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm

uncle Iorlas

Sep 1, 3:42am

Post #7 of 8 (577 views)
nice meaty discussion in general by the by [In reply to] Can't Post

A lot of what I would say is being said better by a lot of people. All I'm going to add is a couple paragraphs about it that I wrote elsewhere years ago:

There is one unexpected moral tangle near the end: it doesn't seem that Bilbo really does right, in his gambit to break the detente at Thorin's door. It's hard for that to sit comfortably with the reader, when Bilbo has been straightforwardly sympathetic, in his motives if not his choices, all along. It is a strange thing he does, and it's difficult to say what he thinks will result.

But does anyone do right? Clearly Thorin is being pigheaded and inconsiderate. But it is also fair to say that his initial responses--quit showing up in arms and large numbers, and we can talk--are standard and legitimate items of negotiation. What, on the other hand, is the elf-king doing here? What claim does he have on a faraway hoard, despite his doing some generous disaster relief along the way? That was incidental; all it took was the news of an unguarded hoard for him to march off with a host to loot it. And what of Bard? His claims are better, to be sure. But if his guess had been right and Thorin's company lay dead in the mountain, would it have crossed his mind to send word to Dain or anyone else of Thorin's people, the plainly identifiable true heirs to the most of the hoard? If he had, no one would blame him for levying a heavy tax in return for his great deed--but we saw no sign that he was even thinking of them, and it is too easy to imagine him turning around to defend the mountain tartly against a legion of arriving dwarves in much the same way Thorin did against him. Is anyone in the right here? Gandalf is our usual arbiter of morality and good sense, and he seems to feel that Bilbo has done just right--and that Bard and the elf-king are basically in the right--but despite his reassurance, Bilbo seems lastingly uneasy about what he did, and in this case I think he is rather a better judge of things than Gandalf.


Sep 1, 3:13pm

Post #8 of 8 (564 views)
Dragon sickness [In reply to] Can't Post

I was reading Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics last night, and it gave me an idea. Tolkien says that Beowulf's monsters are not so much 'evil' in a general sense, as much as they are the opposite to everything a hero of the Old North should be.

So, I wondered, could we think of dragon-sickness as being a failure to live up to the ideals of being a hero, and behaving like a dragon instead?

I'm not going to claim that this is all it means, not least since '‘the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded’ strongly suggests that the dragon has done something to the gold, which makes it dangerous now...

But...oh wait: could ‘the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded’ mean not:

"the power that gold has once a dragon has long brooded upon it"


"the power that gold has - a power about which dragons have long brooded."

Probably not, but I just thought of that while typing & thought I'd offer it for discussion.

Where's that old read-through discussion?
A wonderful list of links to previous chapters in the 2014-2016 LOTR read-through (and to previous read-throughs) is curated by our very own 'squire' here http://users.bestweb.net/...-SixthDiscussion.htm


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