The Master of Laketown is a fascinating and somewhat repulsive figure. He is, to put it bluntly, a politician to the core. He is also a wily merchant, grasping and eager for both material and social riches. His every action is derived from these desires, using everyone and every event to further his own personal power and wealth.
He is a cynic, inclined to believe the tale of the wood elves of the “wandering vagabond dwarves” over the claims of the company’s bedraggled leader, whatever his supposed patronage (TH 228). He believes what he sees. He believes in the coin he can count, and clink, and bite to feel the metal. Even so, he is a merchant, ever looking out for the next business venture, “giving his mind to trade and tolls, to cargoes and gold, to which habit he [owes] his position” (TH 229). Therefore, seeing the prevailing mood of the crowd, he accepts the dwarves and Bilbo at their word.
They are given pride of place at the feasts of town, prime accommodation, new clothing and care for their hurts. A festival atmosphere takes hold, and songs of old fill the air, proclaiming the return of the King Under the Mountain. Ever the opportunist, the Master preys on the dwarves sense of gratitude (which has been shown to be fairly questionable in previous chapters/posts) devising songs of “the sudden death of the dragon and of cargoes of rich presents coming down the river to Lake-town” (TH 231).
As time goes by and expenses build, the Master is overjoyed to outfit the Company and send them on their way. He either cuts his losses, sending them to their doom or places them in his debt anticipating lavish rewards.
Through it all, there is shown a great deal of pageantry and scheming which bears resemblance to another ruler of a floating city: the Doge of Venice. The political disposition of Esgaroth is remarkably similar: “[the town has] always elected masters from among the old and wise” largely for their economic valor rather than valor in arms. The position is given to the elite, and presumably also selected by the elite.
Like the later Doge’s, the position of Master is little more than a figurehead. He has wealth, and what power and influence that affords, but is surrounded by councilors and presides more at feasts than actual decisions. This is emphatically shown later in his complete lack of control upon the coming of Smaug.
Even so, reading this chapter, there is a great undertone of grandeur and corruption to the Master which makes him and his position very intriguing. There is a sense of ceremony as well as calculated charm about each of his actions. Reading of the final farewell at the “wide circle of quiet water surround by the tall piles on which were built the greater houses, and by long quays with many steps and ladders going down to the surface of the lake,” one can only be struck by the pageantry of it all with the Master and his councilors, the townsmen singing from the quays, and the flashing oars. The scene immediately brings to mind the Dogal ceremony wedding Venice to the Sea.
It is known that Tolkien was greatly impressed by his visit to Italy, and much of Gondor may have drawn its inspiration from it. But it seems likely that that which was high and great in Italian culture, architecture and society made its way into the fabric of Gondor, which much that was dark and corrupt but also alluring in its grandeur may have found its home in Esgaroth.