So, we’ve seen the trailer for The Hobbit film but we don’t know what the dragon is going to look like yet. However, those of us with a copy of the book are going to meet him in Chapter 12.
There is much serious stuff to consider in this chapter on the nature of courage and our response to evil, but I am helplessly drawn to reminiscing about a running joke in the first school play in which I had a part. The play in question was The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew by Robert Bolt. The title may not grab you as an important work although it was written for the Royal Shakespeare Company as a Christmastime play. The author also wrote the acclaimed A Man for All Seasons, and scripts for well known films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, which were directed by David Lean. (I’m dropping a few names here to try and justify this intro rather than talk up my part, which was as one of the peasants—but I did work my way up to the role of Common Man in A Man for All Seasons, two years later.)
The reason I feel that The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew has any relevance to The Hobbit is that, as a kind of spoof children’s play, it sends up the traditional role of the dragon in a fairy tale. When the dragon was mentioned, the script directed ALL on stage to exclaim “The Dragon!” in mock horror. To the uninitiated into Tolkien’s mythology, Dragons may be a source of fun, but once you have entered the secondary reality of Middle-earth, they are devoutly to be feared and the embodiment of evil. No big friendly monsters here. A Tolkien dragon is the genuine article. Those who advisably start their journey into Tolkien’s myths by reading The Hobbit will be wondering how the central character of Smaug the Dragon will be treated as we approach his lair. Will he be just big and scary, breathing fire to make all the other characters run away and with nothing much to say for himself?
Well, let’s follow the plot and find out. At the end of the last chapter our heroes had got themselves to the right place at the right time to open the magic side door in The Lonely Mountain with the special key. Now the way is open for Thorin and Company to reach the object of their quest, the treasure stolen from the dwarves by the dragon. Much good fortune has brought them to this point. What comes next requires real personal courage on the part of our comfort-loving hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.
Burglary, as you may recall, was the chosen strategy to recover the treasure, and you may think that this normally involves breaking and entering. However, under the terms and conditions laid down by Thorin, the dangerous bit of going into the dragon’s sleeping quarters is the sole responsibility of the esteemed Mr Baggins. So we have some nice dialogue on the first page allowing Tolkien to give us more of Thorin’s pompous verbosity. (I hope that this side of the head dwarf’s character is not lost in the action packed film.) Thorin’s speech raises the subject of Bilbo’s share of the loot, which will shortly become quite an issue. And Tolkien takes the opportunity to slip in some words which appear important to him. That’s OK with me. He can reference a Middle English poem which he translated if I can mention the school play where I played a peasant. When Bilbo tells his companions that he will fulfil his part of the bargain, he reminds them that he has already carried out two very dangerous tasks by saying “third time pays for all”. This is straight from Tolkien’s modern English version of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, and also appears in The Lord of The Rings, I believe. Tolkien was not averse to working a phrase or an idea into his writings just because he liked the sound of it, and that may mean the sound in the original Old English. However, in this instance, the phrase emphasises how Bilbo’s courage has grown through his experiences on this adventure. Nevertheless, his nerve is about to be more severely tested than before.
It is not surprising then that Bilbo asks for volunteers to go with him, but only Balin offers to go half way and act as look out. And so Bilbo goes down the dark tunnel to face his fears and possible doom in the maw of the dragon. Eventually he is on his own, and even wearing the ring he is wracked with doubt. He didn’t just go on because he had turned into a superhero. He was struggling to go on as most human beings would and stopped when he could hear the dragon’s breathing. At this point Tolkien tells us his decision to go on was the bravest thing he ever did, that he fought the real battle with fear in the tunnel alone. I imagine we are seeing more of Tolkien’s war time experiences surfacing here. Surely, every soldier in the trenches of the First World War, where Tolkien served, must have struggled with the idea of just running away from almost certain death. Those who stayed the course, like Bilbo, must have done so largely to maintain their self worth, because they gave their word, and out of a sense of loyalty to their companions. Although, in Bilbo’s case, he now finds himself alone on a suicide mission, a situation which leaves him open to the temptation to doubt his comrades, as we shall see.