Diagnosing Black Breath

Of all dangers and maladies in Middle Earth the Black Breath is perhaps the most mysterious. Tolkien does not describe the condition extensively in The Lord of the Rings, but what little he provides is highly specific. The workings, symptoms, and healing of this sickness are largely left up to the reader’s interpretation of key clues, the vast majority of which are found in “The Houses of Healing.”

This chapter closely chronicles the cases of Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry, revealing different aspects of the Black Breath in each. Outside this chapter, the only other clear examples are Frodo and Sam, and perhaps Theoden. With regards to treatment and cure, more detail may be drawn from “The Steward and the King,” the end of Book One (Frodo’s initial bout), “The Field of Cormallen” (Frodo & Sam), “Homeward Bound” (Frodo’s phantom pain), and “The Grey Havens” (Frodo’s continuing illnesses). Most of these scenes, however, deal with the highly unique case of Frodo, which is justifiably the most virulent case, incurable by normal means. Therefore, in order to study the curse in its more typical form, this post will be limited to the three cases of this chapter.

Little is told of Merry and Éowyn’s hurts, beyond the physical, immediately following their confrontation with the Witch King. Rather, their supernatural wounds are slowly revealed as they are brought to the Houses of Healing. In this journey, Merry’s ordeal demonstrates the early stages of the Black Breath and its apparent symptoms. His exhaustion may be easily explained away as a byproduct of the battle and the physical trauma he’s experienced, but other cases refute this simplistic view. There are many other cases of the ‘Black Shadow,’ as it comes to be known in the city, whose progression is marked by a slow descent “into an ever deeper dream…[passing] to silence and a deadly cold” followed by death (LotR 842). To Merry, the climb to the Houses is a “hateful dream” in which the light slowly fades, leaving him “walking in darkness…leading to a tomb” (LotR 840). Whether it be the fall into unconsciousness due to shock, exhaustion, and pain or the sleep of the Black Breath is unclear, but for the last thought. This macabre fantasy is mentioned by Merry twice: first with reference to the encroaching darkness and finally when he asks Pippin if he is “going to bury” him (LotR 841). These thoughts horrify Pippin, leading him to enlist Bergil’s help in what is now understood to be a dire situation.

This episode demonstrates the dual nature of the Black Breath. It attacks its victims physically and psychologically, pulling them into the darkness of either realm.

Another detail, seen earlier with Frodo, is the deadening of limbs caused by contact with the Nazghul. Merry’s right arm no longer functions; it is lifeless, and cold. Éowyn’s sword-arm is similarly afflicted. Upon examining his patient, Aragorn notes that this “is the chief evil” (LotR 848). It is implied that this symptom is more dangerous than any other and is the chief cause for the continued decline of each of the patients.

The Lady of Rohan and the hobbit often speak in their troubled sleep, seemingly indicating some level of delirium or fever dream, though no fever is noted for either. Notably, Faramir burns with fever, but unlike the other two, does not speak. Each fall into silence, and a “grey shadow [creeps] over their faces,” much like Frodo’s earlier near fall into the wraith realm (LotR 842). Again, the easy or skeptical response is to deem these symptoms as the typical results of trauma: of one falling into unconsciousness or coma. This conclusion is perfectly justified given the level of injury each character has suffered, but ignores what is revealed by the treatment of Aragorn.

Upon studying Faramir, Aragorn notes the wound inflicted by the Southron dart is healing. So too, observing Éowyn, he finds her “arm that was broken has been tended with due skill” (LotR 848). Aragorn is here to treat something else altogether.

Aragorn treats each of his patients following the same pattern: calling to them by name, bathing their hurts in hot water steeped with athelas, and having each breathe deeply of its vapors. In each case, the treatment has an immediate effect.

Faramir wakes suddenly, acknowledging Aragorn as his lord and king (LotR 848). Though he is weak from long illness, the danger is largely past. Éowyn wakes only after Éomer calls her, but immediately questions her cure, desiring the “saddle of some fallen Rider” to fill and “deeds to do” but denying hope or life (LotR 850). Her case is particularly dangerous. Merry is treated in the same manner, and immediately awakes asking for food and the time. In typical hobbit fashion, he speaks lightly and jests with Aragorn and Pippin. He, in large part, is fully healed but for the physical wounds that need time. When advising the Warden, Aragorn predicts the hobbit will be up and about, though needing help, as early as the following day (LotR 852). Whether by virtue of his limited contact with the Witch King or his unique physiognomy or cheerful demeanor, Merry’s is the easiest case.

With Faramir and Éowyn, however, it is necessary to study both Aragorn’s advice to the Warden and the discussions at their bedsides.

Faramir has been suffering under a tremendously high fever for at least two days. It is questionable when he contracted the Black Breath. He has lived under the shadow of Mordor in Ithilien as a Ranger, fought in both Osgiliath and the causeway forts and the long retreat across the Pelennor. He has also had to contend with his father’s moods and demonstrative lack of affection. All of these factors are listed by Aragorn as contributors to the virulence of the Black Breath (LotR 846). This indicates, that much like the Ring, the Black Breath functions in some part by increasing negative emotions, desires, and fears in those infected. It is also implied that long exposure to the Nazghul or similar corrupting forces leads to a long incubation and deeper fall into the abyss.

This is proven in the case of Éowyn, where Wormtongue’s twisted truth is shown to be but another form of the Black Breath. She has suffered at the side of Theoden, watching hopelessly has he falls into ruin, while she can do nothing, stuck in “the body of a maid” but with the “spirit and courage” to match her brother’s (LotR 848). She has lived a life of duty, denying her own desires, while seeing her efforts fail and the kingdom rot before her. Wormtongue’s bile is as much for her, as it is for Theoden. Yet Theoden is healed by Gandalf, and Éowyn left in shadow. The darkness is already there when she fights the Witch King. She leaves Rohan “without hope…[searching for] death,” believing that her only worth may be found by spending herself utterly (LotR 785). Because of this Aragorn greatly doubts his ability to heal her.

Éowyn’s physical wounds may be healed in the House of Healing, and her mind recalled by Aragorn, but if she wakes to despair, “then she will die” (LotR 849). The wound runs much deeper, and has only to be exploited by the Nazghul. Further, Aragorn warns the Warden not to tell Faramir immediately of his father’s madness and death. Both these factors, as well as the apparent ease with which Merry recovers, indicate another necessary component in the healing process: having the will to live. Granted this is critical in any recovery, but seems doubly so in this case as the malady attacks each psychologically.

Looking at these three cases, the Black Breath appears to trap its victims within their heads. They are left with the darkest aspects of their existence, drained of hope and will. There may be physical attributes caused by actual contact with the Nazghul, however the numbness of these cases is merely a reflection of the interior creeping numbness, rather than the chief danger. Also, certain people, as with most diseases, are predisposed, leading to particularly lethal cases. Ultimately, it is a disease that is only curable in those who hope, and love, and will to live.

P.S. Curiously, if Theoden’s cure is studied, it follows the same pattern as those described above. He is called by name by Gandalf out of the close darkness of his halls. Then he is instructed to “breathe the free air” (LotR 504). Much like the three cases above, Theoden awakes enervated, noting that “it is not so dark here” and his dreams have been dark (LotR 504). Though, at this time, Theoden has not had any contact with the Nazghul, many of the hallmarks of the disease (explored above) are clearly evident. The primary difference in his cure is the lack of Athelas and the healing hands of the king.


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Second Impressions

Yesterday, I attempted to see The Desolation of Smaug a second time, only to be greeted by a sold-out theater. Instead, I watched the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey yesterday and went to see DoS again earlier today. As you may have observed in my review of that edition of AUJ, it all turned out for the best.

Seeing The Desolation of Smaug again, particularly after seeing AUJ again, I can state without qualms that it is the better movie. As a film alone, it is awesome. In particular, I noticed this time around the truly superlative acting and visuals. There is so much beauty expressed in this film; in the dark, creepiness of Mirkwood, the graceful Woodland realm, even the relative squalor of Lake Town.

I also noted many of the subtleties I overlooked in my first viewing, which are superbly done. I took great pleasure in the understated nods to the text, where lines of dialogue were lifted verbatim or even narrator exposition turned to dialogue.

One thing this second viewing has accomplished is to allow me to view the film a bit more objectively, rather than succumbing to emotion (immediately). Knowing what to expect, what I liked, what bugged me, made me a bit more contemplative and focused during these particular scenes; which in some cases has changed my views on them completely.

During Bilbo’s initial rescue attempt from the spiders, he removes his Ring and continues to hear and understand their speech. Whether this is an inconsistency overlooked or an indication of the Ring’s growing power over him is debatable. The latter possibility is intriguing, especially given the thralldom expressed by the next scene.

I continue to abhor the next scene, where Bilbo loses the Ring momentarily and brutally kills a crustacean-like creature. It still feels out of place, like a card played too soon. On the other hand, Bilbo more than makes up for this with his reaction; upon realizing what he has done, for a simple ring, he is horrified, sickened to the point of vomiting even. This is what one might expect of Bilbo, and it is magnificently portrayed by Martin Freeman.

I was again awed by the Woodland realm, which is a wonder of playful natural and slightly gothic architecture. It is stunningly beautiful, though I still think it befits the grandeur of Nargothrond, or even Menegroth, rather than the latter-day realm of Thranduil.

Thorin’s audience with Thranduil makes a lot more sense after seeing the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey. The ransom of white gems, returning what is his, makes sense, and would obviously strike a nerve with both parties. Again, why did they cut that from the AUJ prologue, especially when it was only a few seconds long? It adds such a keen level of nuance to this scene. Also of note here, is Lee Pace’s portrayal of Thranduil, which is elegant, with an undertone of regality and barely hidden scorn; he is quite aristocratic, which suits his character well.

Given our recent discussion at the Grey Havens Group, regarding gender swapping in children’s novels, Tauriel struck a new chord in this viewing. The captain of the guard is a small and undeveloped role in the novel, which expands naturally into the role Tauriel fills. It is interesting and fitting, giving her the stature and authority to function as a foil for the isolationism of Thranduil and a model for Legolas of empathy.

My view of the barrel escape softened somewhat the second time around. Though it takes Thorin’s urging to get the dwarves into the barrels, it is his trust in Bilbo that causes him to give the order in the first place. Bilbo does look to Thorin, after their initial protests, which grants further credence to this view. Bilbo and Thorin should have a close friendship, though it is often hard to see (both in the book and in the film, though more so in the film), which works to make the final acts of their friendship incredibly powerful.

After a second viewing, I have a much more favorable view of Bard. His role as the bargeman, retrieving the empty barrels of the wood elves fits him, giving a plausible way to expand his character and get the dwarves to Esgaroth at the same time. He seems secretive and crafty, but given his demotion to town scapegoat, it works.

The ‘Thrice Welcome’ scene was still a moment akin to nails on chalkboard. Bard’s role in it seemed natural, as did the Master’s, but Thorin’s is an abomination. Every word from Thorin’s mouth in this scene completely ignores all we know of dwarves or of him. Unless this is meant to be a deception, which I very much doubt, there is no explanation for Thorin giving such a speech. Given the nature of the film, something of the sort was necessary, but this is implausibly excessive. Mention of the return of the King Under the Mountain and the lake flowing with gold has been made by this point. I would think it should be fairly easy to return to the fear of the Mob instigating the Master’s action, rather than the promise of gold. It would also have been simple enough to show the scheming of the Master, planning either rich reward should the dwarves succeed or simply ridding himself of a nuisance honorably before a restless populace. Maybe something like this will be in the extended edition; one can only hope.

The dwarves knowledge of athelas also continues to gall me. If Tauriel must heal Kili, she could have shared this knowledge. Though it is still somewhat improbable, she would be much more likely to know of its existence than the dwarves. On the other hand, there is also the secondary problem that athelas is found where the Numenorean’s once dwelt, as it was cultivated and maintained by them, so it would be unlikely any would be found in this area of the world.

At the Ford of Bruinen, before falling unconscious, Frodo sees “a shining figure of white light” (LR 209). That figure is Glorfindel, revealed as “one of the mighty of the Firstborn…an Elf-lord of the house of princes” (LR 217). In The Silmarillion, the elves who have seen the light of the Trees are called the Calaquendi, the Elves of the Light, “for the light of Aman was not dimmed in their eyes, and they were strong and swift, and deadly in anger” (Sil. 106). Of Melian it is said, “the light of Aman was in her face;” and from the union of Melian and Thingol comes the “fairest of all the Children of Ilúvatar” (Sil. 55-6). The light of Aman is visible for those fallen into the wraith-world, as Frodo does. It makes sense that Arwen would appear in this manner when healing Frodo, as she is descended from Thingol and Melian and the Noldor. For Tauriel, as one of the Avari (neither she or her ancestors beheld the light of the Trees), to appear this way, however, makes no sense at all.

As for the ‘On the Doorstep’ scene, I still contend it could have been done better, though I did notice they initially do look for a keyhole before banging away. Knowing the date of Durin’s day streamlines that element of the plot, and this time around did not bother me overmuch. I think the scene could have been improved instantly by simply eliminating Thorin’s restatement of the rune letters’ clue both before and after their failed attempts. The dwarves would leave disheartened, and then Bilbo would be left alone to remember the clue and search for its meaning.

Bilbo’s purpose in the quest, namely to retrieve the Arkenstone seemed more natural this time around; largely, I think, due to watching AUJ again. It also lends credence to the idea that the dwarves would come to the mountain with no plans for dealing with Smaug. If the quest is to retrieve the Arkenstone, gain the allegiance of all the dwarves and then retake the mountain, everything falls into place. Incidentally, this also begs the question why the fool-hardy ‘let’s kill Smaug with gold’ plan needed to happen at all.

At this point, as there has been no better place before, I’d like to state that I love the way Balin has been portrayed in these films.

Bilbo enters the treasuries of Erebor, and it is somewhat gloomier than I recall. One of the benefits of the vast, cavernous nature of the Erebor of the films is that the light could be streaming in from some point above, as it appears to be, and is reflected and magnified by the gold. Though I still don’t like the overall conception of Erebor; this does redeem it somewhat and circumvent the question of how to see in the darkness without a glowing dragon, which probably would have looked ridiculous.

When Smaug initially wakes and displays himself, he actually does have a golden waistcoat. It is not as impressive or apparent as in the book. It also makes sense, given the now hard underbellies of dragons, that he would shed this coating of gold and jewels as he moves.

The dwarves’ plan is just as imbecilic as ever, and difficult to watch, though still visually stunning (particularly the visual of the gilded Smaug). I did notice an ingenious way they could have logically attacked Smaug, and possibly inflict real damage. After the forges are lit, and Smaug breaks through into the chamber, Bilbo opens the sluice gates, pouring what is likely ice-cold lake water on Smaug, before calming and powering the water wheels. At this moment, Smaug’s inner fire is visibly dimmed, steam in apparent and he is obviously (at least temporarily) impaired. This should have been the primary attack of the dwarves. In the book, Smaug fears the waters of the lake, “which [are] mightier than he, [they] would quench him before he could pass through” (TH 287). Minimally, therefore it could be argued that Smaug’s ability to breath fire should be significantly impaired by such a dousing. It may not be as visually arresting as depicted, but it could have been, with the added bonus of being clever and perfectly plausible. Why would anyone fight fire with fire after all?

Gandalf’s scenes in Dol Guldor took on new meaning in the second viewing. I still disliked much of it, but saw how it fit into the movies and easily sets things up for the final installment. If the armies of orcs, wargs and goblins originate from Sauron and Dol Guldor, Gandalf needs to be captured. The armies need to have time to reach Erebor for the Battle of Five Armies. Gandalf, conceivably, could have stopped them. Also, this gives further impetus for the White Council to attack Dol Guldor and drive Sauron out, while also freeing Gandalf. This all fits rather neatly together to build up the plot for the third film.

This time, the battle between Sauron and Gandalf bothered me even more, due to one line. Sauron says something to the effect that ‘no light can conquer the darkness,’ a statement which blithely contradicts everything I (at least think) I know about Tolkien.

On a side note, the design of Smaug’s eyes is very intriguing. They highly resemble the Eye of Sauron. There is much food for thought and debate in that visual link. I wonder if it was intentional?


The Hobbit: TDoS…Initial Impressions: Extended Edition, Part II

One thing you may have noticed in the first part of this extended review is the repeated mention of abridgment. Much has been cut from the tale up to this point (Barrels out of Bond), with very limited additions or tampering. This is the turning point. To some degree I think the streamlined character of the first act may have had something to do with the original two film split. The second half, by comparison felt sort of bloated. It seemed a bit freer with time spent and liberties taken. The first part was concise and to the point. The second, while still polished and exciting, began to veer into the realm of fan fiction, as I mentioned in my first review.

Why do I say this?

While the changes which spring forth from every conceivable plot point to come have at least some minimal genesis from Tolkien’s work, they show all the hallmarks of the creative mind looking for the next possible progression. Most of the change was a matter of inflation of implied material or the mythologizing of a previously mundane or only superstitious object/plot point. These are the sort of outgrowths which stem from speculative debate, using what ifs to flesh out the tale. Thankfully, the majority of these tweaks are rather thoughtful and rife with applicability. Of course there are a few I did not enjoy, but these tended to be where the twist was taken too far into fabricated territory.

***Beware, Here be Spoilers***

I left off with the dwarves just entering the barrels. Interestingly, the barrels are left open. This allows us to see the dwarves as they escape, and produce further escapades, and so for the film is a smart move. It only works, though, because Bilbo is the one to open the trap door, not the elves in the cellar. His moment of elation is there, as well as his humorous moment of realization that he has not secured his own escape as well. This scene is yet another masterful stroke of comic relief, which incidentally does not rely on demeaning anyone; it is pure physical comedy of the best sort.

The Company is pursued in the river by both elves and orcs. The gate is added as an element somewhat removed from the trapdoor. Though the gate does exist in the book, it is yet another moment of contrived obstruction and tension, with the primary intention of bringing about Kili’s wounding. This feeds into the whole love-triangle business, which I could have done without. Tauriel’s concern for Kili, particularly after discovering the arrow that shot him is poisoned, is what causes her to leave and Legolas to follow.

The battle along the river is extremely protracted, full of ever more outlandish battle sequences. Bombur’s (if I recall correctly) moment is particularly of note, creating a scene of great hilarity (though also utterly silly), which makes me smile even now. The need for this confrontation is created by the established hunter-hunted story-line, which originated in Azog’s quest for revenge. It gives further credence to the need for open barrels, but ultimately rips away a hugely important part of Bilbo’s story arc.

Bilbo has already been degraded by minimizing his part in saving the dwarves from the spiders. He is already seemingly corrupted by the Ring. He is further demeaned by the need for Thorin’s command, not the dwarves’ trust and esteem for Bilbo, to get them into the barrels. Here he is also deprived of his role as caretaker for the dwarves, surviving on his own, and surreptitiously freeing them at Laketown. The dwarves’ gratitude, though always grudging, has been excised. Bilbo as guardian, Bilbo as leader of the Company, Bilbo as ‘parent’ is never seen.

Backing up a bit, Thranduil and Legolas question a single orc captured for interrogation. Thranduil promises the orc freedom in return for answers. The orc’s response is a rather heavy-handed revelation of Sauron’s return and renewed might. Immediately following, Thranduil murders his hostage. I know orcs appear to be complete evil (I’d argue more so in Jackson’s films that Tolkien), but this utter brutality is more than I would expect of even Thanduil, who later would show such mercy towards Gollum.

Eventually, the company comes ashore. As there is no longer any aspect of the raft-men shown (though it remains in the Smaug discourse), here is yet another obstacle to be overcome through innovation. Enter Bard the bowman, or as he appears here: Bard the smuggler. He agrees to take the dwarves into Esgaroth, desperate for the money they offer. Though it is all very much a fabrication, which eliminates the ‘Warm Welcome,’ it does a lot of world building with very little. The people of Lake-Town are very much under the thumb of the Master in the film. It is a very dirty, bedraggled and medieval place. The pain, suffering and want are introduced by Bard’s hunger to provide for his children.

The dealings between Bard and the dwarves are also emblematic of the deep seated lack of trust that pervades The Hobbit films, this one in particular. First, there is little desire on Bard’s part to help through altruism or concern for the wounded Kili. What little honor is left him is his devotion to his family. Then there is the dwarves’ irrational fear of being sunk or betrayed. There is also the Master and Alfrid’s constant mistrust of Bard. Anything wrong, any sign of malcontent is blamed on Bard; somehow instigated by his ‘malice.’ It is probably a product of jealousy, as the Master’s power is rather tenuous, based more on appeasement of the people than devotion.

Even with the marring of Girion, Bard has the heart of the people. His kindness and concern are exemplified by a singular moment: arguing for the preservation of the fish to feed the townspeople and then giving them away. And even this is tainted by the need to keep the dwarves a secret. All of this boils down to a pervading trend of diminishing the honorable and heroic trends of the protagonists, making all small and mean to varying degrees.

Returning to the matter of Girion and the coming of Smaug, we are treated to another contrived element. The Black Arrow has become the Black Arrows, used in a dwarven windlass specifically as a weapon designed to pierce a dragon’s hide. In an utter departure from all Tolkien’s work, gone are the soft underbellies of dragons. Smaug the Magnificent is no longer so magnificent, deprived of his gold and jewel encrusted waistcoat.  Girion is now a figure held in scorn for having failed to kill Smaug, rather than an honored king, reminiscent of better times. Even the ancestors cannot escape this pervading degradation of character!

The dwarves are finally discovered when they decide to steal the weapons they want, after disgracefully scorning the weapons Bard has been able to offer. The accusations of the Elven-king are made true. They are quickly caught, and the scene segues into a rather corrupted version of the ‘Warm Welcome.’ Bard, by this point, has discovered who Thorin is, and works strenuously to prevent their going to the Mountain. The tide begins to shift against the dwarves, as fear takes hold, when Thorin begins declaring some of the most uncharacteristic phrases ever to pass his lips: he offers great reward of gold to the town in return for their help! What in the film makes this at all plausible? Even in the book, where the dragon-sickness is not so prevalent, such an open ended statement would never pass his lips. Remember the long, exquisite contract given to Bilbo? Every contingency was covered. An open ended promise of remuneration contradicts everything we know about him. In the best of situations, Tolkien tells us “dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money…they are decent enough people…if you don’t expect too much” (TH 247). This is expecting too much.

Aid is given, and the company is soon sped on its way, with the noted exception of Kili, Oin, Fili, and Bofur, who are left behind. That any dwarf would stay behind when faced with the opportunity to regain both their home and treasure is incomprehensible. Kili, minimally, may be understood due to his highly debilitated state, but the others are a bit of a stretch.

At this juncture, in Lake Town, things head in a completely implausible direction. Kili takes a turn for the worse, and somehow the dwarves know of athelas. This was face-palm number one; where I quite audibly exclaimed, “Really?!” in the theater. Athelas is a plant brought by the Numenoreans, and used by them. By the time of LotR, its qualities were forgotten except by old-wives tales and the Dunedain. To claim the dwarves would even have a clue of its existence is hugely improbable, and demonstrates a shameless replication of the LotR films with no regard for authenticity any longer.

And the face-palm fest continues.

Tauriel arrives just as the orcs begin their attack. She and Legolas rid Bard’s house of orcs, and she remains to heal Kili, whereupon she becomes Arwen’s clone. Here we are treated to the same chanting and suffusion of light which marked Arwen and Elrond’s healing of Frodo. It is an inelegant homage to the first film trilogy; and to a terribly contrived moment to begin with. To my mind, this episode wins the prize as the most abhorrent of innovations to enter the film, though it has stiff competition as we near the end.

The Company approaches the Mountain, in search of the hidden door. They find rather obvious hidden stair, which though not immediately recognizable as such, is found with little trouble. Instead, the struggle is left for the doorstep. Here, it is Thorin’s turn to look the idiot. He very clearly restates the moon letter’s clue, while holding up the key, before setting the dwarves on the door. They hammer away, they tap, they push to no avail. They’ve had the solution grandly stated to them. What intelligent being starts banging on a door, when they have a key, and should instead be looking for the keyhole? Apparently Peter Jackson enjoys making everyone a fool.

It was another supremely frustrating face-palm moment; another invented obstacle. There is absolutely no need for this. The first problem lies in the fact that the precise date of Durin’s Day is actually known. The second lies in the statement of the solution prior to the failed attempts. In the book, it is a matter of lapsed memory, which is only revealed when hope is lost and Bilbo is left alone to hear the thrush knock. As it stands, the film eliminates the workings of Providence or Luck in these events, a loss which pervades, but is most keenly felt here.

Bilbo remains on the doorstep as all the dwarves’ leave. He, at least, heard and actually understood the restated clue, and waits for the last light on Durin’s Day. The last light in the film turns out to be moonlight. It is an interesting choice, mirroring the light of the moon needed to reveal the runes in the first place. Even so, it still has the feel of that last ‘tension builder’ which really serves no more purpose than proof of cleverness.

Bilbo calls for the dwarves, and frantically searches for the key, only to almost kick it over the cliff edge; yet another instance of superfluous problems. Thorin, of course, catches it just in time, and opens the door.

Thorin sends Bilbo down the tunnel not just to rob Smaug and get the treasure for them, but to get the Arkenstone for him. This singular stone has become the focus of the entire mission. It isn’t really about revenge or reclaiming the Mountain. It is about claiming the Arkenstone in order to unite the Dwarves, and then reclaim the Mountain. It adds in a whole layer of complexity which is rather unnecessary.

One scene I sorely missed, though it would have been difficult to translate into film, was Bilbo’s internal battle in the tunnel, prior to making the final descent. The fear of that moment is absent, and the heroic nature of Bilbo’s journey is ignored. In some ways this is further proof that The Hobbit is not really about the hobbit any more.

Bilbo enters the cavernous vault of Erebor, and my first thought was, “Where’s all this light coming from?” Again, as in Goblintown and Gollum’s cave, the all-encompassing Dark is banished; this time for some mysterious light which doesn’t have any discernible source. Darkness plays such a powerful role in Tolkien’s books, in some cases feeling like a character itself. I realize darkness cannot truly be filmed, some light is necessary. How simple it would have been to let the light emanate from Smaug, as it does when he’s about to blow fire? Or to let to light shine from his eyes as described? At least some level of gloominess should have been preserved; and some plausible source of light.

Smaug’s reveal was truly glorious. He is massive and very impressive. My only problems are the aforementioned thick hide and the fact that he is not really a dragon, but more of a wyvern. The design was debated, and apparently assumptions correct, when some noticed changes to the prologue in AUJ’s extended edition. Smaug does not have four legs. Instead he uses his claw tipped wings to help him walk. Granted the way he moves and is rendered feels natural, and quite sinister. I’m on the fence with this change.

‘Inside Information’ is the main event. It was amazing. Benedict Cumberbatch does a great job capturing the sinister craftiness of the great wyrm. The scene is captivating, and would be perfect but for two elements. Firstly, Bilbo removes the ring and reveals himself. I understand the Ring-world motif doesn’t lend itself to the big reveal of the movie, but couldn’t he at least have remained hidden? It seemed rather absurd that Smaug would not just eat him or roast him on the spot.

My second issue lies in Smaug’s apparently exhaustive knowledge of things he really should know nothing about. He knows exactly which dwarves have come, specifically Thorin Oakenshield. This appellation Thorin earns after the fall of Erebor at the battle of Azanulzibar, and it seems unlikely this would ever reach Smaug. He also knows of Thorin’s desire of the Arkenstone.

Smaug does not impress me as the sort to concern himself with the culture, superstitions and history of others. His primary interest is pure materialistic greed. Treasuring the Arkenstone above all else would be plausible, but having such an understanding of its importance is not. It begs the tongue-in-cheek question: who’s feeding Smaug his lines? The last and most bizarre revelation is Smaug’s sense of the Ring. The film has established this is the Ring of LotR not the ring of The Hobbit. Therefore to some degree it makes sense that Smaug would sense its power, but it still felt profoundly out of place.

‘Inside Information’ ends with Smaug determined to roast Bilbo and the dwarves suddenly running in. Here’s where we descend into crazy-town. The final scenes in Erebor are among the most preposterous, confusing and daft to ever grace the silver screen.

The dwarves run, and manage to sneak to what was once a guard chamber and secondary exit point. It is blocked. So far events are still sane, but not for long. Thorin devises a plan to light the forges. How fire or heat might be construed as a plausible weapon against a creature that is essentially a forge incarnate, I’ll never know. The company initiates a mad-cap chase scene, wherein Thorin even ends up on Smaug’s nose: will the nonsense never cease?

In a groaner of a conversation, when confronted by cold furnaces and the impossibility of lighting them, they determine Smaug’s flames are just what they need. At least the plan at this point becomes marginally clearer; they are going to melt some gold: a plan as clear as mud!

Thorin leads Smaug to the Gallery of Kings.

Here I must stop and congratulate the artistic department, for here, finally, I saw something akin to what Erebor should be. The Gallery of Kings, while still cavernous, beautifully rendered the feel of the great palaces carved in the Mountain. The Mountain is not some hollow cavern, rather, it is a series of chambers and tunnels. To my mind this is the first authentic view of Erebor we have been given. Though the events which bookend Bilbo and Smaug’s brief encounter in the space are atrocious, this singular moment was stunning. I am glad the tom-foolery led them there.

And now we reach the crowning moment of absurdity, where Thorin’s plan is finally revealed entire. A mold has been filled with molten gold. They release the mold, thereby engulfing Smaug. The sheer stupidity of this scheme is mind-blowing. If there were a wall to knock my head against in the theater, I would have been. This plan demonstrates Thorin and Company’s apparently complete lack of common sense. Smaug is a fire-breathing dragon. His is huge. Fire won’t harm him. Heat definitely won’t. He sleeps under mounds of treasure, so gold won’t bury or restrain him. What on earth do they hope to achieve?!

The whole thing is so imbecilic; I can’t even find words to express it.

You may have noticed by now that Gandalf’s story-line has been absent through all of this. His plot is completely outside of the main events, and is only forcibly interwoven (not that this is necessarily a bad thing). He leaves the company on the eaves of Mirkwood to investigate the tombs at the High Fells. These tombs are all empty and apparently belong to the Ringwraiths. What I feared in AUJ turns out to be true. Oddly, after a year knowing this was likely, it did not bother me overmuch.

Gandalf and Radagast go on to Dul Guldor, where Gandalf enters alone seeking the Necromancer. In an obvious reference to Isengard, he battles the Necromancer, discovering his true nature. I thought it interesting how before becoming the Eye we all know and love, Sauron appears as what looked like a fiery Annatar. The battle on a whole largely felt gratuitous and self-serving, with little purpose beyond the demeaning of Gandalf. Also, it is interesting how Gandalf is now constantly displaying power against the enemy, when that was never the purpose of the Istari.

And here concludes my initial reactions to seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug for the first time. I am curious in the weeks ahead if future viewings will change any of these perceptions or simply reinforce them.