Reading The Hobbit: Inside Information or Chatting with Evil

Much like many of the creatures which inhabit Middle Earth, dragons are somewhat of an enigma. Their origins are unclear, as is their size and shape. Yet one thing is fairly clear about Tolkien’s dragons: their cunning.

As previously discussed, in “Dragon Glamour and the Corruption of the Natural Law” with regards to Glaurung, the power of the dragons of Middle Earth is derived primarily from their glamour. Yes, in both the case of Glaurung and Smaug there is their great strength and poisoned or fiery breath, but what makes them more than a beast, more than a mere tool, and truly evil is their “great cunning and wisdom” (TBoLT II 86).

While Frodo’s statement that “the Shadow…can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own” is primarily a reference to the nature of orcs and other creations of the Enemy, by extension it may be applied to the verbal utterances of the dragons (LotR 893). There is a striking link between the conversations of Smaug and Glaurung: both distort Truth. The power of the dragon is based on their ability to present falsehoods as Truth. What makes resisting that power near impossible is the fact that in creating deception and inducing calamity they use truth for their ends.

This is what makes Glaurung’s declarations to Túrin and Niënor so potent; he always speaks truthfully, though often in half-truths through crafty omissions and a knack for the proper delivery. Smaug, as a descendant and presumably weaker scion, retains this skill.

Believing, after the first trek to Smaug’s lair that he has no more to fear, Bilbo journeys into the darkness once more. This time Smaug awaits him.

Like so often before, the subsequent scenario mirrors Bilbo’s previous adventures in style and substance. Like the Trolls, Bilbo is attempting to sneak upon an enemy with the primary purpose of gathering information and is caught. Like “Riddles in the Dark,” he is confronted by a wily creature hungry for his destruction, who he must both outwit and outrun. And like the spiders, he will fight relying on his wit rather than the sword. It is through this repetition that the truly remarkable arc of Bilbo’s character is displayed.

Bilbo fights Smaug in the only way he can, through riddles and flattery. The reader is told this “is the way to talk to dragons;” and Bilbo does admirably until he becomes a bit too proud of his riddling and reveals too much (TH 259). Smaug soon moves on to describe the nature of Dwarves, planting the seeds of doubt in the Hobbit’s mind: what reward would the dwarves give him? How would it return to the Shire?

Each point is calculated and true. They are facts which the Hobbit never considered (though he previously mentioned the impossibility of carting the treasure out himself) and it is later seen that the dwarves never considered this eventuality either. Smaug speaks Truths, but they are Truths couched in sinister deception, and Bilbo is nearly caught. “Smaug [has] a rather overwhelming personality” and the deception hits so close to the mark that Bilbo almost succumbs, coming to verge of revealing himself (TH 260-1). For these are doubts Bilbo certainly has dealt with before, what with the constant ingratitude and selfish dependence of the dwarves. He has seen over and over again how inconvenience, greed and discomfort turn them. Their gratitude is a situational thing, only given grudgingly or when events go well. Given this, who is Bilbo to believe?

With an effort, Bilbo rejects the half-truths, and holds fast to friendship and loyalty, and reveals their mission: Revenge (TH 261). Being full of pride and confident in his own strengths, Smaug scoffs at the idea, and soon succumbs to Bilbo’s flattery, revealing his fatal flaw.

This episode repeats a common thread in Tolkien’s mythology: how the power of Evil is defined by an absence of Good and how the decent into Evil and its ultimate destruction is often through the sin of Pride.

There is an interesting link between this conversation with Evil and one presented in CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy. On the planet Perelandra, in a series of events mirroring the fall of Eden, Weston tempts the Lady through twisted Truth. In a horrifying and seemingly unstoppable series of events, the Lady is corrupted step by step. Though published in 1944, long after the debut of The Hobbit, the same disturbing facility of Evil to use Truth for its own ends is present in both works.

The conception again returns to the nature of evil. This is a question both authors address in their writings. In most cases, Tolkien’s portrayal follows the theories of Boethius, though it is never clear-cut. Often elements of Manichaeism are mixed in.

However, with regards to Evil’s skilled manipulation of Truth, the common element lies in the faith of both men. The Devil is given many names, one of which is “Father of Lies.” In Scripture, he is a great Tempter, often spinning lies to instill doubt. He is described as a serpent, even a dragon. He is known as the devourer, the deceiver and the slanderer.

This does not mean Smaug, or Tolkien’s dragons are devils, rather as Satan is the epitome of Evil in Christian thought his attributes are woven into the nature of the Shadow in both Tolkien’s and Lewis’ secondary worlds. In The Hobbit, Evil is further diluted to conform to the tale’s childlike nature. There is wit and even wry humor in Bilbo and Smaug’s exchange. Yet buried beneath is the same sinister darkness.

Reading The Hobbit: Inside Information or Are you Afraid of the Dark?

One of humanity’s most primal fears is the darkness. Not just the darkness of lack of light, but the darkness of not knowing. Being afraid of the dark is an incredibly common trait for children growing up. To a certain degree this fear remains, even through adulthood. By this point, it has morphed into a fear shared throughout the whole human race: the fear of the unknown.

In history, there have been many great quotations regarding the nature of fear and the nature of courage, the most famous of which being FDR’s proclamation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” At the start of this chapter of The Hobbit,  Tolkien shares his own insights on fear.

At the end of the previous chapter, the secret door is opened and the way is clear. Thorin pontificates at length, as usual, regarding the duties of the hobbit, ie. he may now earn his keep and begin burglering. Bilbo protests, and rightfully so, that he has already earned some share in the treasure, but being a wholly different hobbit than he once was, agrees to go on (TH 246-7). He enters the dark tunnel with only Balin for company, and that short-lived.

Alone in the darkness, creeping along the dark echoey tunnel, Bilbo is confronted first by a “red light steadily getting redder and redder” (TH 248-9). Then a radiating heat and mist. Finally he hears, resonating through the stone, the “bubbling…[and]… gurgling…of some vast animal snoring” below (TH 239). He is frozen.

This is a pivotal moment in Bilbo’s carreer. Here Tolkien describes the battle within:

“It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.”  Tolkien, The Hobbit p. 249

Unlike the confrontations with the Trolls, Gollum or the Spiders, in this instance Bilbo is given the opportunity to stop, to hesitate, while also being aware of the present danger. In almost all other instances, he is confronted by danger immediately with no time for thought or doubt. Here, magnified by the stone and the tunnel, Bilbo is granted foreshadowing of the horror which awaits him.

He hesitates.

Though he is certainly fearful later in the presence of Smaug, in the tunnel Bilbo is struck by the terror of the idea of Smaug. The mind fabricates horrors out of the unknown, hence the fears which arise from shadows in the dark or unexpected sudden motion. Humanity has a constant desire of awareness and foreknowledge which can never be fully met, creating an uncertainty which can often lead to unease and fear.

This battle is a battle with the dragon of Bilbo’s mind, of his own making, and wholly separate from the battle of wits to come. Fear stems from a mix of uncertainty and a feeling of inadequacy. Fears are built up into insurmountable mountains, great ravening dragons, for which humanity’s feeble talents are unprepared. Or at least this is what the mind would have us believe.

As has been shown repeatedly in Bilbo’s adventures, the danger which is real and present does spur fear, but also spurs action. It is the fear which is unreal and unapproachable, the fear which is fabricated on the unknown foundation that defeats action.

This singular moment is the high point of Bilbo’s journeys. At this moment, he confronts his fears of the unknown and casts them aside.

After a long internal struggle, but a short pause, Bilbo goes on.

Reading The Hobbit: On the Doorstep or Hope vs. Faith

The chapter ‘On the Doorstep,’ like ‘Barrels out of Bond,’ may be seen as a parable of sorts. Whereas the latter referred to the virtues of trust, gratitude and guardianship, the current chapter subtly describes the difference between Hope and Faith.

After the festivities and general carousing at Esgaroth, the Company is left on the bank of the Running River, well within the Desolation of Smaug. Tolkien crafts a sepulchral atmostphere, which quite fittingly brings a dark gothic cemetary to mind. The land is dead, “bleak and barren…broken and blackened” (TH 235). The lands around the Mountain are full of a brooding silence, broken only by the rushing water and the croak of “a black and ominous crow;” all keeping watch over the “grey ruins” of the once great city of Dale (TH 236). The hopes of the Company are dampened.

They come to the western slopes, and at the enthusiastic urging of the Hobbit begin to search for the secret door. There is life on this side of the Mountain, and though the silence persists, the life of hope is renewed. It takes many long days to find their goal, but eventually it is found and greeted with great joy and an urgent desire of the door’s immediate opening.

They fail. And with this failure, as the days creep inexorably towards winter, so fails hope.

Hope is an interesting concept. It is defined by a desire of an object or turn of events to which the possitive outcome appears certain. However, hope is often situational, grounded in temporal concerns, and therefore dashed by them.

Hope may not surrvive without Faith.

The Company waits on the doorstep, testing the door, going at it with brawn, tools and spells of opening (TH 240-1). Nothing works. The dwarves quickly become restless, and turn to grumbling, finding no easy solution before them. So as before, they soon look to Bilbo for the miraculous completion of the task, contemplating sending him in through the main gate!

Bilbo too is discouraged. He is “lonesome,” and often broods of his hobbit hole far to the east (TH 241-2). He does little more than sit and think, though not of the task at hand; or if so mostly with fear of what the dwarves may ask of him. The day following the dwarves’ grasping plan, Bilbo remains at the doorstep, filled with “a queer feeling that he was waiting for something” (TH 243). It is nearing sunset, the new moon rises and the thrush knocks. Bilbo, the only one of the Company who appears to have studied Thorin’s map since Rivendel, immediately makes the connection and calls for the dwarves.

They come, but at first nothing happens, and the sun appears hidden and all hope lost. Yet Bilbo holds steady, waiting, and “when their hope was lowest a red ray of the sun escaped like a finger,” strikes the rock-face and reveals the keyhole.

Bilbo has Faith.

Faith is different from Hope in that it is a trust or belief in something outside of oneself. It often functions like hope, in that it is often a Trust in a future outcome for the Good. Unlike Hope, however, Faith is not situational. It is drawn from without, and sustained from without. Though it requires acceptance and effort on the part of the faithful, the goodness of Faith (whether it be fate or luck or God) continues regardless.

It can be argued everywhich way where Bilbo’s faith stems from: intuition from memory, luck or even the Valar. On Durin’s Day, Bilbo knows intuitively that it is a day of import, something is about to change. He does not know what, but he stands resolute to bear witness.

Faith is much more certain than Hope. Though it resides in the realm of Mystery and what appears uncertain, Faith is always there, ready to sustain Hope. Faith and Hope are intrinsically tied. One may have Hope without Faith, but one who has Faith also has Hope.