Reading The Hobbit: A Warm Welcome or the ‘Doge’ of Esgaroth

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.


Reading The Hobbit: Barrels out of Bond or Parenting Dwarves

As most of you probably know, I am an architect by profession. We are currently in the architect’s busy season, preparing documents for construction in the summer. Well this year has been particularly busy, and I’ve been working flat out for the last couple months. It’s a great sign that the industry is growing again. While I love what I do, I wish I had more time to explore the Perilous Realm and report my adventures. It has been a challenge to fit in work on WP, in terms of time, energy and inspiration; and so for anyone who cares about such things, I apologize for the delay.

However, the delay has been put to good use. I have to admit, that for the longest time, this particular chapter (and the next) has thrown me for a loop. The events are momentous and certainly demonstrate the immense growth of Mr. Baggins, but have failed to inspire a truly interesting application. Instead, I’ve taken to rereading and listening to this chapter multiple times, spending significant time thinking about it and basically coming up with nothing.

Now, at this point, my mind turned more to wondering why this was the case; an endeavor which ultimately lead to the topic of this post.

The problem I had was one of perspective (which I have been warned about in comments and by Tolkien in his writings and my own philosophy on his works). The Hobbit is, and will always be, at its core a children’s novel. It is enlightening and fascinating to investigate applications looking at it from the standpoint of Tolkien’s full corpus of work, but this also risks destroying the magic of the work as it is.

There is some validity to cross-legendarium applicability, but one must never forget the singular character of this work among all others. It is a children’s story, dropped within the larger realm of Arda’s history, and further it is a narrated story. This final distinction is paramount. The Hobbit grew out of the stories told by Tolkien to his own children. It is from this simple relationship between child and parent, story-teller and listener, that the structure of the tale is derived. It also holds the keys to how the tale may be approached by the more mature reader.

There is a great deal of hidden humor in these two chapters. They are filled with the sort of gently chiding humor anyone dealing with young children is sure to recognize (or anyone who has been a child themselves!). It may be seen as a sort of inside joke for future parents reading The Hobbit to their children.

By this, of course, I am referring to the guardianship of the dwarves by Bilbo.

Bilbo takes upon himself the role of parent or guardian, shouldering responsibility for the dwarves’ future. He could have run off, and found his own way. Though initially he rejects this notion because he is lost, he discovers in his wanderings in the Elven King’s halls the way out, and could have taken it for himself. But he does not.

Bilbo is left completely to his own devices, as was the case with Gollum and the confrontation with the spiders. He cannot rely on the dwarves for help, or even wait on Gandalf’s return: “if anything was to be done, it would have to be done by Mr. Baggins, alone and unaided” (TH 203).

He finds all of the dwarves, including Thorin. He discovers the hatch to the river culvert and devises a desperate plan. Luck is with him, and when the opportunity is ripe, he takes it without hesitation. He takes on the role of leader, of guide, of parent.

The dwarves “all [trust] Bilbo;” or at least that is stated by the narrator (TH 204). However, reading the meta-narrative, it is a selfish trust, a desire for a miraculous and painless out. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that good (whether it be faith, work or friendships etc) never comes easily. All good things have to be strived for.

In their insistence on a repeat miracle by Mr. Baggins, the dwarves exhibit a level of naiveté and selfishness that is very childlike.

Balin stops to ask Bilbo what is going on upon his release, perfectly mirroring the “Are we there yet?” “Why’s” or “How’s” of a child. There is no concern for the danger or the task at hand. He and the others must follow Bilbo and trust in his guardianship.

Once told the plan, the grumbling and complaints break loose. It takes Bilbo’s appeals to reason to calm and convince them, inviting them back to their cells to think of a better plan (TH 209). They grudgingly move forward with Bilbo’s idea, though not without many more protestations; particularly upon being stuffed in the barrels.

Bilbo rushes around, plugging holes, tamping lids and checking air holes, completely focused on the safety and comfort of his charges. Typical of any guardian, he forgets himself, and though free of a barrel, must suffer the cold and wet of the river journey.

Upon reaching LakeTown, Bilbo releases the dwarves, and what sort of thanks does he get? Next to none. The dwarves are freed, no longer in prison, free to move on with their quest, and solely through the efforts of the Hobbit. They grumble and complain, and many refuse a helping hand save Thorin, Fili and Kili. Their official thanks, voiced by Thorin, is couched in a “thanks, but” manner (TH 226).

It is only when they are fed, and clothed and warm that the dwarves show any appreciation for their liberator. Then they shower praise on him.

Both “Barrels out of Bond” and “Warm Welcome” express many of the frustrations and contradictions of caring for children and even being a child oneself. Reading them, I am struck by the learning potential implicit in these pages, both for the reader/parent and the listener/child. Here we are shown the virtue of patience, selflessness and care of the Hobbit, dealing with often ungracious charges. We are also given a parable on gratitude and one of the somber truths of the world that not all things come easily.

I see in these chapters both satire and instruction. It is meant to produce wistful recognition, as well as inspire some soul searching on our part. How patient are we? How gracious? Do we see the goodness in what others have done for us? Do we appreciate the blessings in life, even if they are few or hidden?

These are core questions anyone must confront during their life. In The Hobbit, and particularly these two chapters, we are invited to search our hearts to find the answer.

PS WooHoo happy 100th post to WP!…though real festivities will have to wait for the eleventy-first!