After much high drama in the last chapter when Bilbo met and managed to upset the dragon, Smaug, this short chapter provides some welcome relief as Tolkien gets his heroes out of another trap and moves them on to their next predicament. It’s tempting at times to think that Tolkien might have been writing with TV serialisation in mind, but maybe it was just his love of adventure stories which gave us such nail-biting chapter breaks. As an engineer, raised on report writing, I can’t help giving you an executive summary up front and point out that in Chapter Thirteen, we will see a very important plot development and the working through of a major theme as Tolkien takes us a stage nearer the terrifying climax of the story.
As we start the chapter, we find Thorin and company in a tight spot of which authors John Buchan and Rider Haggard would have been proud. Our heroes are trapped in darkness, in the tunnel leading to Smaug’s lair. The entrance is blocked and the only way out is down. What will await them when they reach the spot where Bilbo was nearly burned alive by the dragon’s breath? The suspense builds again but this time is relieved by comedy as Bilbo misjudges the end of the tunnel and falls headlong into the hall. There is still a possibility that Smaug is lurking somewhere in the vast cavern, but another of Bilbo’s catch-me-if-you-can taunts fails to bring any response. So it seems that the dragon is not at home. Now Bilbo is bold enough to call on his companions hiding in the tunnel to bring him some light. He might have been expecting the Dwarves to join him, but they still do not feel safe, and Thorin gets all contractual again about it being Bilbo’s job to be the investigator – which means that the Hobbit has to do more exploring on his own.
This demarcation of duties is indeed a theme which has run through the story thus far, but it is not the one I was referring to earlier. Rather, I was thinking of those words from the Dwarves’ song in Chapter One about the “pale enchanted gold” and how they conjured up, even in Bilbo, a love of beautiful things – not just gold. And sending Bilbo to investigate alone is an effective plot device for Tolkien, allowing the enchanted gold to cast its spell on Bilbo when he cannot be seen by his companions.
As an aside here, whatever you think may have been the origin of dragon myths, they must have been a useful aid to security in years gone by. We know from archaeology that Viking and Anglo-Saxon kings were buried with treasure and presumably their heirs and successors would have been anxious to deter grave robbers. The huge mounds of earth which were raised over such graves were one form of protection but prohibitions and curses must have also played a part. And what better way to reinforce such superstitions than to spread the rumour of a dangerous demonic creature sleeping on the hoard of treasure waiting to devour any thief willing to try his luck and take vengeance on his kinsfolk.
In his poem, “The Hoard”, from The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Tolkien takes a long view on what happens to hoarded treasure. He writes of precious objects made for Elves before the coming of men, of a dragon killing a dwarf to acquire his wealth, and who in turn was slain by a warrior-man with a bright sword. Another stanza describes the gems and gold of an old king kept in a secret treasury, whose lands are taken by an invading army. This same treasure we are led to believe now lies forgotten under a mound where sheep graze. We might just take the moral of the poem to be “you can’t take it with you when you die,” but as riches have always been a dominant desire of men, elves, and dwarves, Tolkien is also giving us a celebration, or sampler, of how the fate of treasure features in traditional Fairy Stories.
Having noted what may have inspired tales of hoards of treasure guarded by dragons in the past, it is all the more impressive to see how Tolkien takes these elements and works them into a more complex and engrossing story. We are drawn in and soon are not concerned whether dragons existed or not, but how much this one knows of our hero’s intentions, and what he will do next with his destructive powers.