The Hobbit (Tolkien)

The Hobbit (Tolkien)

I think the thing that must seem most curious about this adventure to slay a dragon and reclaim a homeland and its treasure, is how the hell could adding a burglar to this motley crew be adding the decisive factor? What's the trick? For there must be one, since the dragon has only gotten larger and more deadly as the years have gone by. Peter Jackson changes things so that a burglar is needed because someone small and stealthy needs to enter Smaug’s lair to perhaps snatch one especially bright, brilliant—ostensibly readily noticeable even given its being shrouded by a hoard of lesser delights—jewel, the Arkenstone. With that stone, Thorin will earn control over seven kingdoms of dwarves, and with their might the dragon would finally look to be overmatched. In the book, it develops into a situation where regarding the fighting and killing the dragon, they decide that a full frontal attack of just themselves is their best bet, even as they agree that even the best armor hasn't a chance against Smaug the Dreadful.

I like to think that the one who recruited the hobbit Bilbo, the one who insisted on him—the wizard Gandalf, of course—had an inkling that their only chance now was not to pit themselves against Smaug's might but against his “overwhelming personality.” If to take on a dragon you need a “dragon,” tremendous physical might—several armies, or a singular great hero of renown—and you haven't got access to any, then maybe it's best to match personas—put a Watson next to his Holmes, and see what a surprise of unexpected compatibility might jostle your way. And where do you find any such these days, people with considerable layers of self, of personality, and yet also—humility? Amongst those always at work or always at war? No, this wears; doesn't develop. In great, named kings? Maybe not even—for Elrond is “noble,” “strong,” “wise,” and “kind,” which makes him seem a great figurehead but not someone you can safely invite over without taking over. Certainly not Thorin, for, “for being important” means this is all he’s leant to doing, as “if he had been allowed, he would have probably gone on like this until he was out of breath, without telling any one there anything that was not known already.” Maybe not, interestingly, even Gandalf—for you notice how strikingly he can seem to lose himself into becoming a phenomena—pure vengeance—as if good-humored and interesting Beorn leached into becoming a raging bear. Notably, not just his blinding a cave of goblins and his wrenching off of the king goblin’s head but more so where “[t]he sudden splendour flashed from his wand like lightning, as he got ready to spring down from on high right among the spears of the goblins. That would have been the end of him, though he would probably have killed many of them as he as he came hurdling down like a thunderbolt.” You actually find them in places so far removed from the rest of the world, they can, like Bilbo, exist undisturbed for fifty years in one place, ruminating in their books, compounding their daily reading and daily encounters into themselves, and existing in total comfort. 

He may not appear to have a great tale yet to tell but with Bilbo’s delight in guests, he’s already great at conversation—great at managing all the emanations of the human so to properly register, compliment and encourage rather than toil, try and discourage those he’s talking with. In my preferred reading of Gandalf, the most important thing he did for Bilbo’s self-development wasn’t so much his prompting his going out on an adventure as it was attenuating his already developed social skills with a dose of the unaccounted for, the dissonant. (What happens when you have to accommodate something bulbous and strange within the strides of your conversation, Mr Bilbo? Does the master’s sheen wear that readily off?) That is, his making a hash out of Bilbo’s initial greeting, his initial efforts to manage him by way of “good mornings,” and, as well, his subsequently besieging him with a sequence of dwarves in through the door. Confronted with a dragon, he’ll be dealing with someone who loves conversation, riddles, and comfortably lounging amidst clutter for years upon years as much as he does. But as much as he might find himself surprised at how this pinnacle hero’s moment develops in a surprisingly accustomed setting, it’s still not going to be like sitting down Wednesday for tea with the Brandybucks. He’s going to need to attenuate his talent to the outside world, and of course gain some experience demonstrating courage amidst terror and doubt and the unfamiliar, before he could possibly be ready. 

The dwarves will serve as carapace, sufficient armor to get him through the wild. It’d be pointless to explain to them how Bilbo is actually a Smaug—“he’s actually a what? a dragon? … and that's why he's useful? … Smoking a bit too much Halfling weed there, are thee Gandalf?”—so Gandalf explains him in terms they’ll get. Thus: “I tried to find [a hero]; but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighbourhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found. Swords in these parts are mostly blunt, and axes are used for trees, and shields as cradles or dish-covers; and dragons are comfortably far-off (and therefore legendary). That is why I settled on burglary—especially when I remembered the existence of a Side-door.” With that the dwarves would look at small Bilbo, of a stealthy hobbit race, and it would look to appear good common sense on behalf of the wizard. And so off on the trails, to business, before any of them consider just how one even highly stealthy burglar could possibly help them reclaim a kingdom’s worth of gold.

In my reading, Gandalf deliberately misleads Bilbo as well, convinces him that his journey is to become more a Took, someone great for not knowing fifty years of comfort but a lengthy string of adventure. And he’ll become that, reclaim his heritage, when he too can possess things beyond what hobbits could be expected to accommodate themselves to, and as well of course when he’s personally dispatched fearsome beasts. This, after all, is the enticement you offer anyone who’s delighted himself on stories but who’s been “armchairing” their whole lives. You besiege him as if all the faeries in the world he’s rejoiced in reading and hearing about would reject him if now finally after passing him by his whole life, opportunity unmistakably did dangle forth before him. You do this, even if the truth is—as it looks to be as soon as he steps outside, where they go “far into the Lone-lands where there were no people left, no inns, and the roads grew steadily worse”—that venturing outside the supplying hearth can put you in sparser settings with more barren people that can as much as invigorate as deplete you. Because, unfortunately, persuading him of the more interesting truth that for him to be all that he can be still means keeping rather more of his Baggins’ than it does his reclaiming his Took,’ is only something he might understand after the journey was over.

Needing to believe he'll only be useful a long ways off, it's appropriate that compared to the horse-riding Bull-roarer Took he's been primed to hope to liken himself to, he starts off on “a very small pony,” and that he isn't actually useful in a way that commands respect for quite some time. The first useful thing he does—which, of course, is actually very useful—demonstrates no ability on his part. It's pure luck that he finds a dropped key that provides access to a highly provisioning troll hoard, and there isn’t much to say for his just mentioning it either. The second is a backhanded accomplishment: that is, it's because he is too nervous to sleep well that he awakens to goblins sneaking up on them in the dark, thereby enabling Gandalf’s not being caught. And, since his real talent is not in sneaking around but in agreeable conversation—however slippery and deceptive and slyly able he might prove therein—it’s appropriate that the first time he makes an impression upon the dwarves is when he’s inflated out of success of using the skill he’s actually proficient at. 

This is after his encounter with Gollum, of course, when he appears miraculously before them just after being discounted as lost to them for good. But before getting to this, it’s interesting to ask yourself how much more Bilbo distinguishes himself to us when he has his chance to prove commendable in combat than he does when he does so in conversation. Does being a warrior dispatching a frightening number of fiends really demonstrate his worth as much as his matching wits with singular, significant, named denizens of the wild? I bet it does only to those so wary of being overwhelmed by affect their preference will always be for that that involves the least emotional resonance and the least daunting figures—boys never shedding themselves of the safety of manageable toys. In Mirkwood forest, he kills a lot of giant spiders—a lot. He’s brave, clever, and brutally able with a sword, as well as sublimely accurate with a sling (an accuracy, we note, the film steals from him to emphasize the wood-elves). And it sure means a lot to him—“[s]omehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great deal to Bilbo. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder.” But, well, of course it does, because he’d been convinced that maybe not being able to do what Bull-roarer had done meant he’d been cowed from exercising the most rewarding part of being alive. But it’s possible that however much it meant for him to go on the offence physically with hand and sword, it may have been just his successfully going on the offence which thrilled—a talent, an orientation, maybe not sufficiently exercised in all his duties as a good host easing conflicts while supplying cakes and tea. But without that talent too, being someone who knows how to ameliorate the offensive or the slip-up and thereby keep a conversation going, he might never have manipulated Gollum into accepting that their interaction might be bound by rules out of a gentleman's club—involving respect for fair play—rather than out of the gutters. A clever stratagem that however much it wasn't decisive in his besting Gollum, did stretch out his encounter with him, giving him extended practice as a conversationalist in a dangerous situation.

Gandalf couldn't have known Bilbo would meet Gollum, but he knew there was a good chance that before his encountering Smaug he'd find himself alone with foes maybe with enough to them that part of the engagement would involve dialogue and the bandying of wits. Being a burglar and a scout to the company guaranteed as much, for he'd be the first to encounter enemies, many times—and Gandalf would know Bilbo would default to his true familiarity and expertise every time an alien situation gave signal that it might look appropriate to it. Indeed, he's out in the lead with the company's first encounter in the wild—their tangling with the mountain trolls, Bert, Tom and William. He's not especially good here; unlike the film, he isn't the one who strings out the conversation so that “dawn claims them all” but only Gandalf, sole, who does so. However, he wretches himself out of simply being caught out and bewildered—the burrahobbit bit—to in fact converse, interact with them, trying a stratagem built out of what he's seen of them that might have developed their encounter in an unexpected and fortuitous way if they saw sense in it—specifically, his offering to be their cook.

He doesn't initiate the riddle game with Gollum. But he reads that Gollum's ability to restrain himself into being polite—after his having attended to Bilbo's sword—means that he might be dealing with someone who may not be "fierce and hungry,” nor necessarily a friend to the goblins, so he certainly goes along with the proposition. He blends courtesy in with slyness, giving Gollum the chance to go first and thereby possibly stymie Bilbo before he's had any chance to ask his own riddle, presumably out of generosity or decorum—the person who proposes goes first—but really because he “hadn't had time to think of a riddle.” He's skillful to emphasize elements of their game which make it less a terrible struggle where indeed one of them learns he has his life on the line, than just amiable good sport between gamesmen where nothing so corrupt could really, actually, no matter how things develop, expect to be involved. He teases Gollum when he “whispered and spluttered” in frustration that “[t]he answer's not a kettle boiling over, as you seem to think from the noise you're making,” which leads to Gollum actually pleading with him. He also restrains him through reminding him of the allowance (of time) that had just been given him, “[h]alf a moment,” “I gave you a good long chance just now.” There's not just a lot of back and forthing but plenty of mental dexterity involved. And as mentioned, though it's not key in helping him survive, it still amounts to a lot—given his life was on the line, and that he had to manage his way past numerous moments of doubt and possible missteps to push the thing on to a quitting finish in his favor—in favorably prepping him for Smaug.

The riddle game is about withholding information, keeping secrets, releasing them only when earned. Since it wasn't earned, Bilbo never tells Gollum what he had in his pockets. Bilbo doesn't at first tell the dwarves, nor Gandalf, about the magical ring, either—“not just now,” he ruminates. Gandalf espies that Bilbo may not have revealed everything about how he escaped the goblins, but doesn't press him on it—force the disgorge. I prefer to think he does this because he realizes one of the things that makes Bilbo different is that he isn't one who can be tipped into divulging before he's had a chance to really process what he's learned or acquired that he knows holds value, even as even he himself perhaps at times might be. There may not be much significance to the fact that just after Bilbo chooses to withhold information we hear of the wizard's eager willingness to disclose—“[t]he wizard, to tell the truth, never minded explaining his cleverness more than once”—but then again, there might be … and he might have been aware of it—that time in the wild had placed some dangerous fey vanity in him as well. At any rate, I like to think that Gandalf realized that personality, “weight,” doesn't come if you don't process the world to some extent on your own, refusing to share if it means you hadn't given your experiences a chance to ripen and develop inside of you first. Bilbo had read a library of books, and you're kidding yourself if you think that after every tale he didn't sit back and think about and argue with and otherwise personally sift through and temper and infiltrate what he'd been patiently engaging with, before discussing what he had just read with a neighbor. If that had been the case, he wouldn't have read in an armchair within a beloved reclusive study but outside amidst the commons, where every second sentence could be recited for others'  benefit if he felt the urge. He would need to have depth to interest the grand, learned Smaug. And mystery—secrets: a taste of the biding, the withheld. And he would need to be one with sufficient respect for and practice in withholding that even when pressed by a hypnotic charmer like Smaug, he could keep at baiting an aroused curiosity so that something might be “innocently” learned that he’d rather not disclosed.

Gandalf isn't there for Bilbo when he faces Smaug—something he might have known could prove the case, despite his promise, for it not actually being his adventure—but before he goes off he shows Bilbo a fair simulacrum of what his encounter with him might involve, as if to say, “this is pretty much what you're going to have to pull off; I hope you're now finally ready for it.” Gandalf enters the abode of the great, powerful Beorn—a being with a dangerous temper but also a healthy respect for good gamesmanship, as well as a considerable appetite for skilled storytelling and intrigue—and finesses him perfectly. And Mr Baggins, in a way you never hear him in regards to the abundance of sword-fighting or arrow-launching on his journeys, remarks on the skill, as if a fellow adept admiring another versed in the trade: “Mr Baggins saw how clever Gandalf had been. The interruptions had really made Beorn more interested in the story, and the story had kept him from sending the dwarves off at once like suspicious beggars.”

With Gandalf gone, Bilbo emerges as the leader, and when he takes on Smaug all of Gandalf's hopes for the unpretentious, likeable little man of study, of conversations over tea, of easy manners, good humor, and of a surprising bounty of the unaccounted for, are realized. Smaug, who'd only been pretend-sleeping, tries to draw him out, but Bilbo refuses—graciously: with flattery. With this response, with denial cagily sweetened into a gift, Smaug realizes he's hardly dealing with some ass with an awaiting battle-axe that as soon as baited into revealing himself should be dispatched and eaten, but someone smart enough to make it as if by doing so “a host” would be shortchanged the dalliance with an intriguing “guest.” He'd be shortchanged someone genuinely interesting—someone worth stringing together some time with. To let his thief know this, that for awhile he'll be accorded, also, the role as a guest, and to discount any alarm his guest might have by the fact that he'd been after all just caught out by a dragon, he overtly inserts responses that signal he's situated himself within a guest-host framework. So he offers the like of “lovely titles, but lucky numbers don't always come off,” and “[t]hat's better. But don't let your imagination run away from you,” which communicate that he's listening carefully and respectfully and intelligently, and that he's bidding the guest to continue and further test his ability to perform to perfection.

Smaug wants him to continue not just to enable himself some entertainment but to find out more about his intrusion in his more mundane reality as just a common thief, of course. But with his keeping it superficially at this level, of him—that is Smaug—conversing with still-name-withheld Bilbo, rather than of a hoard-loving dragon in the presence of a thief of unknown race, unbeknownst he's keeping things where the odds even up … and Bilbo knows not just how to pacify but by this time well how to strike for the killing blow. And when he does so here it's with Smaug caught out in the pretend role of guest and host mutually entertaining and impressing one another. Bilbo had revealed all that enticed about him—his being a mysterious barrel-rider, and so on—and Smaug, perhaps in ironic response, reveals all that bedazzles about his own self—his claws, and teeth—but unfortunately for him also his “impenetrable” armor, which it turns out has got a piece of it missing, right at the heart, uncared for because he doesn’t give a wit about mending. The movie shows this as just dumb luck on the part of Bilbo, but the book has it that he was working his way to just such a reveal, to get further confirmation of something he thought he noticed the first time before him. And proving the loser in this domain, Smaug's sundered of it in “might” as well—maybe still not a small company of dwarves with their swords and axes, but certainly a single skillfully shot arrow, can now end him. A humiliating fate for something so great which nevertheless holds true.

So as I've said, I like to slightly alter the Gandalf in the book to imagine him as thinking up a plausible way to take down a formidable dragon who’d been lord of the mountain long enough. I'm not sure I'm doing any alteration of him, though, to think that what he had also hoped for was to accustom the world, maybe even significantly, to what a long-term denizen of a comfortable hole might offer it—that is, for a larger, even perhaps ultimately more realm-saving purpose, as well. Part of what makes Bilbo special is that no matter how much people talk to him about roles, the sad fate of who he is and of whom he really ought to become, he never really lets go of who he just intrinsically is from the start—which is someone fundamentally decent whose love of his own well-provisioned life means he can extend fair consideration into yours as well. Bilbo isn't just good to people because he sees something for himself in it, or just out of fair play—because you'd just given him something first, and he’s not going to deny you that—but because he can put himself in other people's position and emphasize with them. This has him do things which might look small, irrelevant to the quest, pointless, but in fact if they were well known outside the Shire the wild would lose much of what is truly wicked about it and there'd be less terrible evil around to need questing against. I'm thinking of his noticing Gollum's being “alone, miserable, lost,” and deciding therefore it not only inappropriate to simply countenance him as “foul” but to think it just to “stab” him—something terribly-suffered is obviously entwined with his being rendered into this state. He decides to return an elf-guard's keys so the guard wouldn't be blamed for their escape, because he’d appreciated his having been fair to them and could identity with his situation. And of course, through his sundering them of the precious Arkenstone, he “betrays” his friends by giving his “enemies” a hold on them—and thereby, doing nothing less than maybe preventing a war. The arrival of the goblin army means they wouldn't have warred against each other anyway, but the significance is in the larger realm outside the Shire being more accustomed to this kind of selfless and sophisticated way of reading a situation and acting. It's in their noticing what he did here, not so much how clever (not that it wasn’t a bit, or at least highly intuitive) but how good he had been here—letting himself potentially for life be seen as a traitor to his friends to have a chance to spare them their lives, as well as others.’ Not a one of them would have thought of that. 

Before he dies, Thorin acknowledges he learned something new from Bilbo, something significant enough for it to be fairly carved large into mountains to offer some helpful countenancing to all the giant carved ancient personages customarily tributed there: “There is more of good in you than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Maybe with signs like this blazoned everywhere those worn from the wild might fight their way to Bilbo's comfortable hole in the ground … much more respectfully this time, thereby bringing another legitimate but this time more pleasing adventure, straight to his door. 

He’d still not so much offer them the anti-Smaug but someone who does him better. Because unlike rendering Smaug, Bilbo mends.


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