“The key! The key!” cried Bilbo. ” Where is Thorin.”
Thorin hurried up.
“The key!” shouted Bilbo. “The key that went with the map.! Try it now while there is still time!”
Then Thorin stepped up and drew the key on its chain from round his neck. He put it in the hole it fitted and turn! Snap! The gleam went out, the sun sank, the moon was gone, and evening sprang into the sky. (190)
After an entire action-packed & beautifully portrayed narrative, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbitslows down in the brief chapters entitled “A Warm Welcome” and “On the Doorstep.” The company of Bilbo and the dwarves arrive at Laketown and are given provisions to finish the last leg of their journey to the Lonely Mountain to face Smaug the Dragon which they achieve in the latter chapter. Two themes are prominent here.
First is a lamenting nostalgia. Laketown is all that remains of the three great cities of Dale, Erebor, and Laketown. The fall of Dale is given and we already know about the the home of the dwarves. They have been on a quest to reclaim their home from the Defiler for sometime now.
There is a lot of nostalgia here. The dwarves are walking on land which they treasure, yet what they see is wilderness. This is their promised land, yet only darkness and dread surrounded them.
It was a weary journey, and a quiet and stealthy one. There was no laughter or song or sound of harps, and the pride and hopes which had stirred in their hearts at the singing of old songs by the lake died away to a plodding gloom. They knew that they were drawing near to the end of their journey, and that it might be a very horrible end. The land about them grew bleak and barren, though once, as Thorin told them, it had been green and fair. There was a little grass, and before long there was neither bush or tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of one’s long vanished. They were come to the Desolation of the Dragon, and they were coming at the waning of the year. (182-183)
Although the narrative has not taken us there, the image of a Dragon guarding a hoard of gold is enough for us to infer that the theme of greed with be introduced. Stories like The Hobbit, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Beowulf all utilize dragons and all address greed. Thus traveling through what used to be “green and fair” and now “bleak and barren” is an apt description of what becomes of greed and lust. Left unchecked it will destroy everything in its path and leave behind a wilderness – like a dragon hoarding its gold. The dwarves and Laketown are living that literally, while many of us are living that figuratively.
The second theme is a narrative device and that is delay. I suspect by now many readers are yelling at Tolkien, “Get on with it man! Show us the Dragon.” No doubt the draw of the story is the Dragon and thus far it has lacked a clear villain. There have been “bad guys” (from trolls to goblin) but no central villain. The cursed Dragon is the reason for the quest and now we are nearing the end of the story and he still has not been seen or heard. We don’t even know if he is still there.
The narrative slows to a crawl and that is on purpose. Tolkien is writing more like an ancient storyteller than a modern one. I noticed in the movie version that the latter chapter is rather quick. In it, the dwarves climb the mountain, arrive at the secret door, have a moment of brief despair, and finally Bilbo solves the riddle on the map. It is less drawn out in the book.
This reminded me of The Odysee where Odesius returns home to reclaim his throne. When he finally arrives to his home country, the narrative slows to a painstaking crawl. It is almost unbearable.
The reason for this slowed pace is to build tension. The Greek writers knew we want to see Odesius fight for his throne, but we will have to wait a little longer first. Tolkien knows we want to see the Dragon but we are going to have to wait.
This is good storytelling and is why The Hobbit is a first class. This is my third time reading it and this moment kills me every time. My son, who is on this journey with me for the first time, is at his wits end.