The dragon will always get through — III

Let's turn now to Tolkien's The Hobbit and Smaug's attack on Lake-town (Esgaroth).1 In my PhD thesis I identified six characteristics of the ideal theory of the knock-out blow from the air: it would be a surprise attack, on a large scale, which would strike at the interdependent structures and civilian morale of its targets, and would wreak massive destruction with great speed. In the 1920s and 1930s, fictional and non-fictional predictions of victory through airpower would usually feature four or five out of these six. As I'll now show, The Hobbit has four: surprise, morale, speed, destruction. Of course, Lake-town isn't a modern, industrial society, nor is Smaug a technologically advanced enemy nation, so the fit isn't going to be perfect. It doesn't need to be, though.

There being so many editions of The Hobbit, it seems a bit pointless to cite page numbers here, but all my quotes come from chapter XIV, 'Fire and Water'.2

Smaug's attack is sudden. Lake-Town has only a few minutes' warning after the Lonely Mountain lights up in flames:

Then warning trumpets were suddenly sounded, and echoed along the rocky shores [...] So it was that the dragon did not find them quite unprepared.

Smaug's attack shatters morale:

Already men were jumping into the water on every side. Women and children were being huddled into laden boats in the market-pool. Weapons were flung down. There was mourning and weeping [...] The Master himself was turning to his great gilded boat, hoping to row away in the confusion and save himself. Soon all the town would be deserted and burned down to the surface of the lake.

Smaug's attack is fast:

Before long, so great was his speed, they could see him as a spark of fire rushing towards them and growing ever huger and more bright [...] Still they had a little time. Every vessel in the town was filled with water, every warrior was armed, every arrow and dart was ready, and the bridge to the land was thrown down and destroyed, before the roar of Smaug's terrible approach grew loud, and the lake rippled red as fire beneath the awful beating of his wings.

Smaug's attack is destructive. It destroys Lake-town completely and kills a quarter of its inhabitants:

Fire leaped from thatched roofs and wooden beam-ends as he hurtled down and past and round again, though all had been drenched with water before he came. Once more water was flung by a hundred hands wherever a spark appeared. Back swirled the dragon. A sweep of his tail and the roof of the Great House crumbed and smashed down. Flames unquenchable sprang high into the night. Another swoop and another, and another house and then another sprang afire and fell; and still no arrow hindered Smaug or hurt him more than a fly from the marshes.

Not only do these broadly constitute a knock-out blow from the air, we can, if we're bold, point to more specific elements which are suggestive of contemporary reactions to or concerns about the bomber threat. The warning trumpets are like air-raid sirens. The panic as men drop their weapons and join the women and children fleeing onto the lake is like the terrified exodus which was predicted to precede and/or follow air raids. The filling of water vessels for use against fire was a standard part of air-raid precautions. Destroying whole towns and killing a quarter of their people is not far off what was feared would happen in the next war.

To the above, we may also add that Smaug will always get through, just as the bomber would:

Roaring he swept back over the town. A hail of dark arrows leaped up and snapped and rattled on his scales and jewel, and their shafts fell back kindled by his breath burning and hissing into the lake.

Smaug is only stopped because Bard, a captain of archers, learns at the last moment of a weak spot in the dragon's armour of jewels. He learns this by another type of Tolkienesque airpower (though admittedly not one which most airpower historians would recognise): a bird (specifically, a thrush) flies from the Lonely Mountain with this information. Note that as signals officer in his frontline service, Tolkien was responsible for his unit's carrier pigeon communications, so this seems like a link with his wartime experiences. But I say 'seems' because there's no direct evidence for it.

And that's the problem: there's no direct evidence that any of the similarities or parallels I've written about here are more than coincidences. Tolkien seems to have written little about the writing of The Hobbit, perhaps because it was done as a kind of side-project to his own elaborations of the mythology of Middle Earth. Later, when he was writing The Lord of the Rings, he corresponded extensively with his adult son Christopher about his progress, sending him drafts and so on. So there we have a lot to go on. But as far as I can see there's little like this for The Hobbit. (The various drafts for The Hobbit have been published, so that would be one place to look.) Nor have I found any evidence that Tolkien took much interest in discussions of the character of the next war, though I could easily have missed it if it exists. And it seems that while The Hobbit was published in 1937, the year of Guernica and about the height of bomber anxiety, it was substantially complete around 1932 or so, which is fairly early for a knock-out blow novel.

Conversely, it's easy to see, and to prove, that Tolkien was hugely influenced by northern European mythologies from Finland to Anglo-Saxon England. This was his bread and butter, after all. He himself often noted that the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf was a critical inspiration for his writing. In 1936, he gave an important lecture entitled 'Beowulf: the monsters and the critics'; the following year The Hobbit was published. It would strain credulity to suggest that the third and final monster defeated by Beowulf, an unnamed dragon, was not in Tolkien's mind when he created Smaug: it even leaves its lair for the same reason as Smaug, enraged because one of its treasures is stolen. And, also like Smaug, the dragon in Beowulf goes on an aerial killing spree (this is from a modern translation):

The despoiler was soon
spitting out flames
and burning down buildings,
bringing men death
and enormous dread;
it had no intention
of leaving anything
alive in that country.

Given this, it's reasonable to ask whether looking for contemporary influences from the fear of the bomber is worthwhile at all. I think it is, but it has to be done carefully. Just because mythology was Tolkien's dominant influence doesn't mean that there can be no others. Smaug is not the bomber, but Smaug is not Beowulf's dragon either: there are other dragons in there too.

This is why I keep coming back to Tolkien's own experience in war. I discussed in the previous post how his earliest attempt at writing the mythology of Middle Earth was written during the war (and was certainly influenced by it), while back in England recovering from trench fever. During his convalescence in 1916 he stayed in and around Hull, near the North Sea. Hull was raided by Zeppelins a dozen or so times; Tolkien witnessed one of these raids from afar and experienced another while staying in the town. I don't know if he ever wrote about what he saw, but another eyewitness did, Basil Liddell Hart (who was also sent there to convalesce after serving at the front). Liddell Hart was very much struck by the sight of civilians trekking out of Hull. In 1925, in Paris, or the Future of War, he wrote:

Who that saw it will ever forget the nightly sight of the population of a great industrial and shipping town, such as Hull, streaming out into the fields on the first sound of the alarm signals? Women, children, babies in arms, spending night after night huddled in sodden fields, shivering under a bitter wintry sky –- the exposure must have caused far more harm than the few bombs dropped from two or three Zeppelins.3

This experience was one of the keys to Liddell Hart's belief in the power of the bomber in the 1920s and early 1930s; it and similar incidents were responsible for the idea that civilians would evacuate cities in panic when air raids took place. But it's hard not to think also of the people of Lake-town fleeing into the night onto the lake when Smaug attacked. So did the Hull raids also influence Tolkien when writing The Hobbit? I think it must have done.

In the next and last post, I'll look at what we can learn about Tolkien's attitudes to total war from his later writing.

  1. Cf. Janet Brennan Croft, War and the Works of J. R. R. Tolkien (Westport and London: Praeger, 2004), 112-3, for another analysis of military themes in this part of The Hobbit, suggesting that Bard's organisation of the defences is more suggestive of a modern infantry officer than a dark ages hero. 

  2. The actual copy I'm using is a 1984 edition I read as a boy, a hardcover with beautiful illustrations by Michael Hague

  3. B. H. Liddell Hart, Paris, or the Future of War (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1925), 45-6. 

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8 thoughts on “The dragon will always get through — III

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  2. Fascinating, though perhaps you're not approaching this from quite the right angle. Speculating about conscious authorial intent seems to me too much of a parlour game, because (as you admit above) there's no evidence one way or the other. But isn't it equally interesting to consider audience response? Why was it that the Hobbit captured the imagination of its readership? Lots of reasons, I suppose: but I think it's reasonable to wonder if the image of Smaug destroying Lake Town struck a particular chord within an audience that was all too well aware of the real-life possibilities of the knock-out blow. I wonder, for instance, if there are other fantastical stories from the same period that employ a similar trope?

  3. Another thing is that Lake-town, like Britain, is surrounded by water which is supposed to keep it safe from attack, but air power changes that.

  4. Post author


    Looking at The Hobbit's reception by critics and readers is something I probably would have done if my proposal had been accepted and I'd had to make something of it (something more than blog posts, that is). I did do a quick check for reviews in the British press and found only a couple, neither of which gave me anything to work with, as I recall. I worry that it would take a vast amount of largely fruitless research to generate a chapter's worth of material on reception-as-knock-out-blow-story: it was after all a children's story, and the Lake-town episode was just a few pages of it, so it seems unlikely to find much deep analysis of it written at the time.

    And without compelling and explicit evidence this line of research could be just as much of a parlour game as divining authorial intent. When I read The Hobbit in the mid-80s, did I read my fears of nuclear warfare into Smaug's incineration of Lake-town? I don't recall making the link, but it would be possible to make that argument.

    But I take your point: how The Hobbit was read is important too.


    Good point! I hadn't thought of that. Adding 'England is no longer an island' to the list of parallels...

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