Fire and water. Smaug and Lake-town. It’s the acknowledged climax of the book that’s so simple and so effective that it resonates throughout the whole of the fantasy genre. The devastation that Smaug causes is so incredible that it seems none could defeat him. And yet, we have already been told how the dragon can be defeated, and the title of this chapter suggests an elemental conflict that will lead to a foregone conclusion. Fire is the ultimate purifier, the indiscriminate destroyer, but water quenches fire, and from it life grows. More than this, we are shown that Smaug fears the water. This is why his plan is to burn the town and drive the people to the shore, where he can obliterate them at his leisure on dry land.
The people of Lake-town, however, are rather stupid, holding on to this nonsensical belief that the glow of the fires of Smaug somehow correlates to the forging of gold by the King Under the Mountain. Reason is not exactly their strong suit, trading that for prophecy, and believing the prophecies had gone wrong when the dragon makes his attack run. Hope is reduced to ash. The townspeople now curse the dwarves as they face reality.
We also learn during the fight that Bard the Bowman is descended from legend, the heir to the original leaders of Dale, thus becoming the voice of legend. Nothing stirs authority and imagination in a story of British myth quite like the voice of legend. Gandalf already spoke of the luck of widow’s sons, and Bard now rises as a shining example of proto-Arthurian heroism, paralleling Thorin’s own rise to claim his heirship. Arthurian symbolism runs throughout Tolkien, though never without purpose, which will be used to its greatest purpose through Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings.
Where such themes are involved, tiny events chain together into great sweeps of destiny. Because Bilbo and the dwarves were there to hear the knocking of the thrush, they were granted entrance into Smaug’s lair. Because the thrush overheard Bilbo tell of Smaug’s weakness, the thrush now shares in this information. Because Bard is a descended figure of legend, he is able to understand the thrush. And because he stands in courage and wields the sacred weapon that can do the deed, he is destined to be successful.
So it is that Bard defends his home against the dragon, and with that message from the thrush that will fell the mighty beast once and for all, he pulls the last of his arrows. This is the oft-used, ever-reliable, and always retrieved black arrow, and it finds its mark, plunging deeply and completely into the dragon.
Smaug is vanquished. Lake-town is saved, but it is also destroyed by the beast’s fall at the same time.
The Master of Lake-town is accused by the people of leaving the town to its fate while some stood to defend it. The Master counters this by saying the dwarves stirred up the dragon against them deliberately, exploiting the fears and beliefs of the people.
With that singular, legendary effort of eliminating Smaug, Bard emerges from the darkness a hero for the people of Lake-town, a leader who will represent the race of men in the coming Battle of the Five Armies. His begins as the voice of gloom and warning, and while he has submitted to the authority of the Master, it is Bard who emerges as the voice of courage to the soldiers and the reason for the people afterward. Being a dragonslayer with a lineage has its advantages.
Bard seeks a practical middle path between the authority of the Master and will of the people. He does not turn away from the kingship that they offer, but he will not try to recreate the old kingdom overnight. He is aware of the hardships of the people, and allure and promise of the gold of the mountain that can rebuild their greatness cannot dampen the grief that clouds everything. Fully three quarters of the population of Lake-town has fallen with their village. The road ahead is grim, and the present is a state of suffering. Hunger and sickness follow the battle in the days to come, and more die as a result. A desperate people following a would-be king of legend potentially makes for a steadfast opponent in the battle to come.
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I know that there are a number of people who have joined my blog in the past weeks and months, and there are some who have fallen by the wayside simply because life happens, so I offer a heads up in case anyone is interested…
For those not in the know, these weekly chapter blogs are my primary contribution to a group read going at the discussion group Silmarillion Blues. Anyone’s free to join in the fun on your own terms and/or follow along with the group at our rate of one chapter per week. I would argue that if you weren’t there with us in the beginning,LOTR is the best jumping-on point you’re likely to get.
As Smaug has well and truly snuffed it in this chapter, we’re nearing the end of The Hobbit with a mere 5 chapters / weeks remaining. This means that we’ll begin discussion of this book’s final chapter on January 3, which happens to be Professor Tolkien’s birthday. That is also the day we’ll begin reading the opening chapter forThe Lord of the Rings, to begin discussion the following Sunday. The 3rd is also the day Tolkien fans across the globe participate in the annual toast to his honor. Very fitting how that all comes together, I think.