But I’m getting ahead of myself. So exciting to finally get here!
When you start referring to a few weeks or months ago as “the old days,” you know you’ve made progress. The Bilbo that enters the caverns beneath the mountain is a very different Bilbo than the one who left Bag End, and the narrator spends some time pointing this out at the beginning. The hobbit we met at the beginning, arguing with Gandalf about “Good morning!” would never have made it this far without all of the development between there and here. He’s fully committed to his Tookish side, and yet still values all of his Baggins comforts above all the gold in the world, for the right reasons. Now he’s the leader of the group, and he’s still alone when he faces Smaug for the first time. These dwarves are beyond useless.
“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”
This is one of my favorite lines of Tolkien understatement ever printed. It makes me laugh every single time I read it.
The description of Smaug is beyond magnificent, quite frankly, and that is as it should be. For all of the great stories of dragons that predate Tolkien, it is here that the modern concept takes form in our imaginations. The entire fantasy genre and its many Tolkien knock-offs all point back to this moment as the great dragon is revealed. Dungeons & Dragons created many variations on the theme across its many worlds, and there are countless more besides as the dragon is the very symbol of the genre. Every last one of those modern incarnations trace back to here, as surely as every vampire story owes homage to Dracula and Carmilla. Everything in the fantasy genre is either a direct reflection of, or conscious attempt to avoid or counter, the footprint of Smaug and everything else Tolkien would set into motion in the great dragon’s wake from here on.
The old adage from the playwright Chekhov says that if you fire a gun in act three, you must see it in act one. Bilbo’s riddling with Smaug calls back to his riddling with Gollum. After all, if he can beat Gollum, then maybe he has a chance against the dragon, whom Tolkien states is one of an entire race of such beings who enjoy riddle games to the point where they will stop the world to play. The names Bilbo uses to describe himself are clever callbacks to the earlier adventures.
One thing Corey Olsen points out is one of these names, “Cluefinder.” When Bilbo was fighting the spiders in Mirkwood, Olsen made me aware of an earlier draft where Tolkien had Bilbo following the spider thread back to the lair a la the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. That was removed, but the term “clue” hails from that old story and may yet be the one remaining reference to that earlier draft. This, my friends, is why it’s so helpful to have a Tolkien scholar to help you to keep up with the Professor. There’s no way I’d have put that together myself.
Smaug is able to decipher many of the names based on what he smells, the one sense Bilbo didn’t take into account. Moving silently and having a magic ring to cloak you visibly won’t hide you completely from a dragon’s nose. Even so, Bilbo is clearly in rare form here, oozing Tookish levels of confidence. His audacity has limits, however, when he is chased by dragonfire. Hey, Smaug did warn him he’d be lucky to escape alive. And luck continues to be our hobbit’s closest ally. And as it turns out, that luck comes to us in him even more in the form of stories from the least Tookish of hobbits in Bilbo’s life growing up. From Bungo Baggins, Bilbo learned early on that a dragon’s underbelly is the weakest spot. Bilbo’s verbal jousting gives us a truly majestic description of Smaug’s scales embedded with gems and gold, but it gives our hero a look at the spot that’s missing a scale. To fire a gun in act three, you need to show it in act one, and pride goeth before a fall. Even first-time readers know this will somehow be Smaug’s undoing. It’s just a question of how it happens, and who gets to make the killing shot. After all, our dwarves are still incompetent and getting worse all the time.
A dragon’s pride is a contagious mental sickness. Bilbo remarks going in that he has no use for the treasures within, and yet the sight of it immediately changes his mind. The enchantment is great enough to enthrall him in spite of a dragon being right there to otherwise scare the living daylights out of him. He steals the cup while under the influence. The other thing dragon sickness does is induce suspicion and distrust, which is something Smaug actively exploits, having a firm grasp of dwarven mindsets. Bilbo was reminded by the dwarves that, even though he’s been their leader where it counted, he’s still hired help. The divide between them grows, forced along by Smaug planting the question of whether or not Bilbo got a fair price for the cup he stole.
Bilbo tries to counter this dragon sickness, stating that gold alone didn’t bring them here (thus confirming Smaug’s scent of dwarves), but rather… it was an afterthought. His uncertainty is rooted firmly, however, and that will have ramifications later on. Dragon sickness is very hard to shake, and the dwarves will be highly vulnerable as well. Bilbo instead tells Smaug that it was revenge that brought them here. Smaug laughs this off, and we see the dwarves haven’t really thought this through either. And yet, Tolkien gives us hope that maybe — just maybe — the dwarves might rise to meet their destinies on some level. Balin demonstrates true consideration for Bilbo here and there. Thorin has a moment of true leadership when Smaug rears his ugly head. They are exhibiting positive attributes, but they still have to overcome dragon sickness. If it can affect Bilbo, how can they hope to defeat it in the face of that treasure… and the Arkenstone.
Bilbo, however, is putting the pieces together. Smaug’s vulnerability is likened to a snail out of its shell. The thrush that led them to the fulfill the moon letter prophecy by knocking snails out of their shells is there to overhear Bilbo explaining this vulnerable spot to the dwarves. It’s foreshadowing, the beak penetrating the crack in the shell as the arrow will penetrate the hole in the Smaug’s armored hide. Thrushes in days of old were used as messengers, in a time of peace between men and dwarves, and that thrush will take on that old role in the attempt to bring peace once more. That thrush is the embodiment of the wings of destiny, for longtime readers know that this is the thrush who will pass on Bilbo’s intel to Bard the Bowman.
For now, the King Under the Mountain has returned, and Smaug’s surprise attack has buried him and his supporters alive in their ancient home. But again, Bilbo’s riddles call this out, for he is the one who has buried his friends by leading them down there and will bring them back to life by leading them out.
Tolkien is an old school medievalist. Riddles are a great part of medieval literature and mysticism, and it is well known from those times that you cannot have life without death. To bring his friends “back to life,” a cost must be paid. So Smaug is the one who buried them, so the dragon shall be made to account for it. But how much death must happen before a dragon can die? And how much death must occur in the wake of such an event? The desolation of Smaug that Tolkien refers to isn’t just what the dragon inflicts himself in brute force, but it also reflects the dragon sickness that will result in so much suffering.
So much for this being a simple adventure for kids. As I gain this kind of understanding… well, this is why Tolkien is the acknowledged master.