We had to get through eleven chapters and almost two-hundred pages, but we finally get to meet the dragon, Smaug. It’s totally worth the wait. There is a lot to this chapter, pompous dwarves, brave hobbits, treasure, tunnels and a bird, but really it all comes down to the dragon.
The chapter opens with the company gathered outside the back door. Thorin gives a little speech,
Now is the time for our esteemed Mr Baggins, who has proved himself a good companion on our long road, and a hobbit full of courage and resource far exceeding his size, and if I may say so possessed of good luck far exceeding the usual allowance – now is the time for him to perform the service for which he was included in our company.
The gist of Thorin’s speech is that, as usual, everyone is counting on Bilbo. I like that the characters recognize their own luck. I also like the fact that the dwarves really hadn’t planned ahead all that well. It’s like they never believed they would make it this far. Bilbo points it out to them a little later, it’s absurd to think a burglar can steal all of the treasure that Smaug stole from the dwarves. Someone will have to get rid of the dragon, and, for once, Bilbo is not the right person for that job.
But, like I said, they apparently didn’t think about that because they sent Bilbo down the tunnel from the back door to have a look around. Balin was the only dwarf willing to accompany Bilbo, and he only went part of the way. Bilbo was on his own to find the dragon and assess the situation. He was a bit annoyed with the dwarves, but he accepted the responsibility.
Once again, I like the way Tolkien takes his time. When Bilbo gets to the main hall, Smaug is asleep on his giant hoard of treasure. It might seem anti-climactic to have all this build up to the dragon and then have the dragon be asleep, but instead it ratchets up the tension. Bilbo is dumbfounded. He had heard stories about dragons, but Smaug is beyond anything he had imagined.
Not knowing what else to do, Bilbo decides to take a piece of the treasure to show the dwarves. He takes a large, two-handled cup and flees back up the passage. The dwarves are thrilled with Bilbo’s success. One cup and they seem to think that everything else will be easy. But their joy is short lived. Once Smaug realizes that something is missing, everything changes.
Tolkien does set it up that dragons not only hoard treasure, but they know every last piece of treasure in their hoard. Smaug is no exception. As soon as he awakens, he senses an unusual odor and notices the missing cup. He is enraged and leaves his golden bed to find and kill the thief. Lucky for the dwarves, Bilbo realizes how exposed everyone is by the back door and they all cower inside the passage.
While the troupe is hiding inside the passage, Smaug wreaks havoc on and around the mountain. He finds and eats the ponies, breathes fire which kills most of the vegetation and bashes the mountain with his tail causing rock slides. His rampage last all night before he goes back to his bed of gold.
Finally, we get to the crux of the chapter. The dwarves are completely baffled as to what to do next. They can’t go back to Lake Town, they would be too exposed on the journey. They can’t kill the dragon themselves, they don’t have the weapons for it. And they can’t sit there indefinitely, they would run out of food and water. So, Bilbo volunteers to go back down the tunnel to see what he can discover.
This time, when Bilbo gets to the main hall, Smaug is awake and waiting for him. They have a conversation, each trying to learn about the other. Bilbo is wearing the ring, so Smaug cannot see him, but Smaug can smell him, and Bilbo is an unfamiliar smell. The verbal sparring is excellent. I especially like the fact that Bilbo won’t give Smaug his real name. Bilbo is,
He that walks unseen. . . the clue finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. . .chosen for the lucky number. . .he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. . .the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. . .Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and. . .Barrel-rider.
I like this for its cleverness. And I like the recap of all the adventures up til now. But what I really like, although it isn’t said explicitly, is that Bilbo knows that giving away your name is giving away power. Bilbo doesn’t have many advantages in this contest and he’s smart enough to take advantage of Smaug’s ignorance. Bilbo also uses Smaug’s vanity to get a good look at him and discovers an unprotected patch on Smaug’s chest.
Smaug has guessed that Bilbo is with dwarves. He could taste them when he ate the ponies. But, he assumed that they were in league with the Lake Men. This turns out to be crucial.
When Bilbo leaves Smaug to rejoin the dwarves, he is worried. He tells them what happened, but feels he revealed too much to Smaug. And he’s also afraid that Smaug has figured out where their secret entrance is. And he’s a little disturbed by a large Thrush that is listening to their whole conversation. It turns out he should be grateful to the Thrush, but that comes a little later.
I do have to point out that Tolkien, once again, shows that he doesn’t care about spoilers. As Bilbo left Smaug, Smaug spouted a burst of fire and Tolkien tells us, “It was a long time before the hair on the back of his head and his heels grew properly again.” Just in case we have forgotten, Bilbo is going to be just fine at the end of the story.
The chapter ends with Bilbo convincing the dwarves to hide in the tunnel. And it’s a good thing. Just after they hide, Smaug destroys the door. Then, he goes to do something about those Lake Men. The company is alive, but trapped. And they have no idea what to do next.