For my first article on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I want to talk about the weapons. Although it’s a common theme across all of the Middle-earth movies, it seems clear that possessing weapons directly expresses a character’s power to exact their will on those around them. Simply put, having a well-crafted sword, axe, or bow allows you to effect change on the world in a way that bare hands do not.
It seems rather obvious that weapons should be a natural source of power. When you are armed, you are dangerous. When you are not, you are usually defenseless. Yet The Desolation of Smaug states and repeats this theme several times employing the characters’ weapons or lack thereof as a reflection of their current situation.
When we first meet the Dwarves in An Unexpected Journey, they are each armed with a particular and unique set of weapons. Their choice of weapon also signifies something important about their individual personalities.
It’s no accident that Kili, the Dwarf who shares a certain affinity for Elves, also happens to be an excellent archer. We see him occasionally fight using his sword, but usually he chooses the bow.
Think of Ori, one of the youngest Dwarves on the quest, who is constantly being fussed over by his protective older brother Dori. What does he wield? A slingshot, the most innocent and child-like weapon in the whole company.
Bombur, the overweight cook, is armed with a large ladle. Balin, despite his age, brandishes a devastating mace that is both sword and axe. And Thorin Oakenshield, though now bereft of his oak shield, carries a superb Elven blade known for slaying a thousand orcs. Curiously the handle of Orcrist is made from the tooth of a dragon.
Weapons mean something. The fact that each Dwarf begins their journey well-armed and skilled at fighting signals that they have great ability and willpower to accomplish their quest’s goal. They are not helpless Shirelings or defenseless merchants. They are effectual doers capable of imprinting their will upon Middle-earth and bringing about the change they seek.
And as we know from Tolkien’s writings, the success of the Quest for Erebor is a crucial component later on in the War of the Ring. When Sauron unleashes his forces upon the nations of Gondor and Rohan in the South, it is the reestablishment of this Dwarven kingdom and the city of Dale that holds evil at bay in the North.
Throughout The Desolation of Smaug, weapons are a symbol for each character’s status. The possession of a sword or a bow shows which characters can accomplish their goals and impose their will and which ones cannot.
Case 1: The Naming of Sting
Although I failed to notice it in the first film, Bilbo’s sword actually remains unnamed until the company enter Mirkwood. A year prior in the Shire, Thorin asks Bilbo what his weapon of choice is, axe or sword. Unable to answer, the neurotic hobbit jests about his skill at conkers. To the Dwarves, an individual who cannot fight is powerless and weak. It is in great battles that the fortunes of the world are decided and initially Bilbo is a non-participant.
That changes when Gandalf hands Bilbo his famous sword that glows blue when orcs are near. Initially reluctant at carrying such an instrument of violence around, in time Bilbo learns to wield his sword against orcs, wargs, and goblins. He crucially also learns when not to use it, sparing the life of Gollum.
Through the power of this sword he saves the life of Thorin from Azog and finally becomes a real player alongside the rest of the company. But it is not until his sword is named that Bilbo really comes into his own.
Attacked by huge spiders and wrapped in their webs, Bilbo draws his sword to free himself and slay these creatures. Cloaking himself in the ring’s invisibility, he repeatedly stabs a spider which cries out, “Sting, it stings!” Remarking at what a good name that is, Bilbo names his sword subtly reminding us that this sword is now truly his. He can wield it. He can use it to overthrow the menace of evil. It is not a one-time tool but a reliable means to furthering this quest.
Unlike the Dwarven weapons, this sword will remain with Bilbo up until the moment he ultimately bequeaths it to his nephew Frodo. Now that Bilbo has established himself as a potent force, Sting will not be removed from his side.
Case 2: The Wood-elves Encounter
Unfortunately the Dwarves face an opposite situation, finding themselves parted from their weapons. As the company is surrounded by the Mirkwood spiders, the Wood-elves arrive with disastrous consequences.
Moments after meeting the company, the Elves begin disarming the Dwarves and diminishing their agency. Tauriel slaughters the spiders attacking Kili but when he asks her for a weapon for himself, she denies him.
Legolas is especially suspicious and unkind to the company. Almost immediately he accuses Thorin of being a thief and a liar. In a grievous act, Legolas takes Thorin’s iconic blade Orcrist and claims it for himself. For the rest of the film, he carries it and uses it in battle as his own.
The Elves proceed confiscate all of the company’s weapons. Under Thranduil’s direction, they are to be placed in prison indeterminately. Fili is relieved of his many many knives seemingly wedged into every nook of his outfit. One by one, these defensive weapons are stripped from him. These were a sign of his skill and prowess and now they are gone.
How tragic it is that the Dwarves each lose their special armaments. It seems that they will never get these weapons back, although we will have to wait for the third movie to know for sure.
Overall, this is a humiliating encounter, one that leaves the company vulnerable and weak. As the main symbol and expression of their strength, weapons are key to their very survival, not to mention the outcome of their quest.
Case 3: Barrel Ride
During the daring barrel escape, the Dwarves are without weapons. As the Elven guards on the bridge raise their swords against the escapees, Bolg’s orcs ambush them out of nowhere. Suddenly the Dwarves and Elves are no longer fighting each other but united against these new foes.
Both Legolas and Tauriel reappear, armed again with knives and bow. Their many weapons indicate that they are indeed in control. Hardly an orc can touch them. During the skirmish the Dwarves manage to grab a few weapons fighting off the enemy. These they pass around, reminding us of their weakened status.
Several times the Dwarves get the upper hand. Bombur goes on the offensive in his barrel, turning into a whirlwind of death. The Dwarves hack through a log, plunging many orcs into the river. Thorin heaves an axe through the air just in time to save Legolas. These are all signs that the Dwarves are reestablishing their power against any force that would try to stop them.
However the orcs are equipped with effective weapons of their own. A Morgul shaft pierces Kili’s leg. Though he is bandaged up, an evil poison has already begin to spread through the wound that will eventually kill him. These are powerful weapons that the enemy wields.
Throughout this extended sequence, we witness Elves, Dwarves, and orcs each fighting for dominance, agency, and the right to effect their will on one another.
Case 4: The Weapons of Lake-town
Meeting Bard on the riverbank the Dwarves realize immediately his skill with a bow, a sign of his strength and leadership. The company offers him a small fortune not only to transport them across the lake but also crucially to supply them with weapons. With an orc pack behind them, the vulnerable Dwarves find themselves forced to trust this stranger against their better judgment.
Unfortunately the weapons Bard has to offer are not up to their standards. As it turns out the Master of Lake-town keeps all the real weapons under lock and key, an indicator of his iron rule over the city. Subservient to this despotic Master, the people of Lake-town can neither defend themselves from oppression nor enact their own will.
The company breaks into the armory and retrieves weapons for themselves once more. Although they are caught, this attempt reveals their latent abilities as free agents able to take matters in their hands. After convincing the Master to aid their quest, they are once again fully armed, their strength restored.
Despite Bard’s apparent lack of true weapons, he does have one little secret: a famed black arrow. Inherited from his ancestor Girion, this single shaft is the only weapon among men known to be able to kill a dragon. Even though the Master governs the town, it is Bard alone who possesses such a potent weapon.
In this story, one arrow makes all the difference.