The Nature of Greed in The Desolation of Smaug

smaug

Today I want to examine what I believe to be the main unifying theme of The Hobbit films. Although this central idea was touched upon in An Unexpected Journey, it really wasn’t until The Desolation of Smaug that this theme crossed over into the foreground.  The Hobbit is first and foremost about the nature and duality of greed.

As wonderful as The Lord of the Rings is, the central conflict of that series is the battle between good and evil. Sauron is a dominating oppressive force whom the heroes must resist in the face of impossible odds. Although it is a powerful story in its own right, this theme is also difficult to relate to on some level. Evil in our world tends not reveal itself with legions of orcs and corruptible rings. No, here the good guys and the bad guys use the same words and often look indistinguishable from one another.

So while I appreciate Sauron and what he represents, I greatly looked forward to seeing The Hobbit on the big screen anticipating a somewhat smaller story with a much more relatable evil. And in the second film I was not disappointed to see an increasing emphasis put not just on the evil of dark lords but also on the surprising evil within ordinary folk. In The Hobbit, Thorin’s Company has goals less virtuous and pure than those of the fellowship of nine companions. Whereas Frodo and his friends were tasked with defeating Sauron and saving Middle-Earth from tyranny and slaughter, the motivations of the dwarves are much more selfish.

If Thorin’s quest succeeds, Erebor will become a restored kingdom for all the Dwarf exiles and wealth will flow from the mountain once again. Yet the Dwarves are clearly just as interested in profit as they are in the fate of their displaced kin. Thorin and Company are not fighting a widespread global evil but a personal regional evil, Smaug. They are self-interested, they just want their home back along with all the gold that comes with it.

While this has often been mentioned as a critique of The Hobbit films, I see this as a strength. After all, perhaps what our culture needs is not another message about black-and-white morality but rather a reminder on the pervasive influence of greed, materialism, and isolationism.

However in context of the story, things are of course more complex. Thorin also has a moral duty established by lineage, prophesy, and the support of Gandalf and Galadriel to revive the kingdom of Erebor to its former glory. Yet Oakenshield also has an ever increasing desire for gold. The more he craves, the more he loses touch with reality. Thorin carries the same strain of madness that aroused the dragon, brought his grandfather’s kingdom to ruin, and drove his father insane.

This consuming greed is perfectly represented in the Arkenstone, an impossibly brilliant jewel that radiates light and beauty. This is the true purpose of Thorin’s quest, revealed to Bilbo only at the doorway to the mountain. Thorin would risk the life of his burglar just to lay hold of this deeply seductive gem once more. Possessing this stone determines whether Thorin is to be a wandering disgraced outcast or the rightful ruler of his race. Understandably he desires this gem above all else.

Yet this desire is not pure. He may want to be crowned King Under the Mountain and re-light the great forges of his ancestors, yet he will likely also be torn apart by greed. His grandfather Thror sat on mounds of treasure, ripping off the elves, basking in the light of the Arkenstone, and constructing a huge golden statue of himself. This perverse image of addictive soul-destroying wealth is the exact same fate awaiting Thorin Oakenshield if he defeats Smaug. As the dragon insinuates, the Arkenstone is able to destroy Thorin all on its own.

Throughout the film, we see there are two twin forces at work. These are the agents of greed and agents of the common good. Characters work together and against each other in interesting ways, pursuing their own agendas sometimes at the expense and other times at the benefit of others. Greed, although clearly not a force of good, sometimes yields altogether unexpected results. Let’s examine character motivations one by one and see the surprising manner in which this all plays out.

Agent of Greed: The Dwarves

As we have already mentioned, Thorin and Company are essentially there to get the gold. Their people have already established a nomadic and semi-prosperous existence in the Blue Mountains. In fact, Dain and the other Dwarf families refuse to even assist the Company on their journey. After all, the gold of Erebor belongs first and foremost to the heir of Durin. As proof, Thorin’s promised reward for his companions’ help is nothing less than an equal share of the gold, 1/14th of it to be exact.

Although they are not evil beings like the orcs, goblins, trolls, and wargs, ostensibly the dwarves are not entirely benevolent either. They love their iron-forged weapons, great underground mines, and glimmering gold. The wider fate of Middle-earth is only tangential to the dwarves compared to their love of precious rocks.

We see in Bard’s boat that Gloin is reluctant to invest more coin into the quest, having been bled dry by this venture. Why? Because this is primarily a business trip. Gloin (and by implication the other dwarves) are expecting to get rich helping Thorin reclaim Erebor and would not be risking their lives otherwise. For all Thorin’s talk of courage and loyalty in Bag-End, we can be assured that if there were no riches lying under Smaug’s belly they would leave the beast in eternal slumber. Though not particularly unethical, it’s hard not to think of their quest as in large part a money-making scheme.

Agents of the Common Good: Gandalf and Bilbo

In the Bree prologue we see the fortuitous encounter that set this quest in motion. Gandalf chooses to aid Thorin Oakenshield because he fears the terrible effect of a dragon if he were to come under the influence of Sauron. The Free People of the North were crippled by the loss of Erebor and Dale and are thus vulnerable from another eventual attack from the enemy. Only by restoring balance in the North can the whole of Middle-earth be safeguarded.

Bilbo, though unaware of these geopolitical aspirations, also cares about the common good. Familiar with the comforts of home, he accompanies the dwarves because he cares to see their dwellings returned to them. (He also revels in the chance to experience a Tookish adventure.) However I believe Bilbo’s true motivations are revealed once he enters the mountain. Quite courageously Bilbo accepts the task to burgle the Arkenstone from Smaug, willingly accepting the likely danger in store. Upon finding the Arkenstone and learning that it will bring Thorin harm, Bilbo conceals the gem from Thorin not wanting him succumb to greater madness. With great difficulty the hobbit chooses to place a higher goal above the quest itself. He have yet to see what other intentions the hobbit has behind this decision, but greed does not seem to at play here.

Agent of the Common Good: Beorn

The great Beorn is one who lives in harmony with nature, a living bridge between the natural world and the races of sentient beings. He does not care for wealth nor those who threaten the lives of plants and beasts alike. Despising orcs for their cruelty, he has no fondness for dwarves either. He thinks they are hopelessly greedy. Understanding that the dwarves’ quest, driven by greed as it is, will help counter the more dangerous forces of evil, the skin-changer decides to assist them.

Though not interested in their gold, Beorn is however interested in the preservation of the world from the spreading darkness from Mirkwood and Dol Guldur. He recognizes the orcs roaming across his land as a serious threat to the world at large and so he provides lodging and ponies to these dwarves to help turn the tide. He contributes to the common good by supporting the Company’s greed-centered goals, knowing that it will ultimately curb the evil of the land. We can only look ahead to see what will draw him back for the third film.

Agent of Greed: Thranduil

The strong-willed isolationist king of the wood-elves is another example of the corrosive influence of greed in this world. Robbed of precious jewels by Thorin’s grandfather, Thranduil has since refused to aid the dwarves instead blaming their misfortunes on their own stingy behavior. Even as Thorin singlemindedly seeks the Arkenstone, Thranduil sets his heart on the jewels. He would rather imprison the Company wrongfully against their will than be deprived of the wealth that belongs to him.

It is this same self-interest that leads the unscrupulous king to close his doors to the larger world outside in dire need. Although spiders and orcs creep viciously across the borders of the Woodland Realm, the great Thranduil who has faced dragons and slayed orcs in great battles of old will now turn a blind eye to the growing peril. An enemy has returned to drown the world in darkness and yet the wood-elves will do nothing but feast under the stars and lock their gates tight. He is corrupt and we have yet to see if there is any redemption in store for this lesser ruler.

Agent of the Common Good: Tauriel

Hardened by battle and long serving her king, Tauriel finds her loyalty tested when the Company passes through her forest. She forms an attachment to the dwarf Kili in particular whose spirit she finds unexpectedly sweet. Tauriel decides that the lives of these dwarves, though different than her own people, are worth protecting from the treachery of orcs and disobeys Thranduil to pursue them.

To this elf-warrior, the common good outweighs the narrow interests of her people. If evil triumphs over one race, it will soon spread to engulf others. The fate of a few dwarfs is indeed intimately tied to the rest of the larger pattern. Hiding in their deep halls away from the problem will not keep Sauron from one day shrouding their own beloved starlight in gloomy darkness.

Tauriel also effects an influence on Legolas. Torn between his father and his fondly liked captain of the guard, the prince ends up choosing to follow in Tauriel’s path to aid a dubious quest that carries a larger significance he can’t yet fully recognize.

Agent of the Common Good: Bard

Bard is both a friend and enemy of the dwarves. Like Thorin, he has a secret identity as the descendant of disenfranchised royalty. Although initially he aids the Company, when he uncovers their true intentions he works against them in an attempt to prevent them from unleashing the dragon’s fury.

Weirdly Bard is right. If Thorin enters the mountain, it will put all of Lake-town at risk and will endanger many innocents. He has a motherless family to look after all. We can’t doubt his motives or disagree with his intentions. But although Bard is seeking the common good, there is something beyond Thorin’s greed at stake. Oakenshield is the rightful heir. The dragon is a real evil that threatens more than just the future of Lake-town.

Although Bard is technically correct in his assessment, the greed around him pushes the quest forward and though the consequences will be grave, it will also accomplish the elimination of darker forces at play. Again, we will have to wait for the third movie to see how Bard’s part in this story is fully resolved.

Agent of Greed: The Master of Lake-town

The primary antagonist of Bard, the Master seems to be greed and self-interest personified. Overweight, diseased, and pompous, he uses his authority to extract wealth from the people rather than seek their benefit. Unlike Bard who cares about feeding the people and giving them a voice, the Master chooses to silence those who would interrupt his scheming machinations.

It is a great irony then that it is the Master who lends his full support to Thorin’s quest while Bard is the sole voice of opposition. Erebor reborn means wealth for Lake-town and most of all for its despotic Master. Thus he provides weapons, armor, supplies, boats, and fanfare for the Company sending them right on their way. Curious how such greedy intent moves the story forward to ultimately result in a terrible confluence of fire, war, and ultimately (we hope) peaceful prosperity.

Agent of Greed: Smaug

He is the epitome of selfish wanton greed. After all, what use does a dragon have for gold? He cannot spend it. He simply uses it to bathe himself in deep slumber. He does not enjoy his riches, only depriving others of it. Like much of the greed in real life, it is excessive and cruel, the ownership of wealth by people who neither need it nor know what to do with it.

Smaug is a scathing indictment of misappropriated wealth. He will guard it as long as he lives but never knowing why. Too much money in one place attracts at type of dragons, clouds the mind, and numbs the heart. Just as Thror could not part with a single box of jewels to give Thranduil, neither will Smaug part with a single cup from his hoard. Sounds disgusting? It is because it is.

If there is one thematic problem with Smaug it is that he is almsot too grotesque. I’m afraid one could easily gaze upon Smaug’s treasure in a theater and then return home feeling smug for not sleeping on a bed of gold coins. However just because Smaug is the most prominent manifestation of greed should not let us forget that the true victims here are the dwarves, men, and elves who will ultimately die as a result of this madness. Smaug is the chief evil in this story, yet it is Thorin who will suffer most because of his treachery.

Wealth can blind us to those around us, preventing us from sympathizing with their needs. It closes the eyes of dwarves and elves causing them to look inward instead of outward. It distracts them from the bigger issues at play and the more significant issues happening in the world. You don’t need to be rich to experience these things, you only need to live in a world that contains riches to be seduced by its power.

The Hobbit is a story of how material possessions can corrupt otherwise good people. That impulse can be destructive but sometimes it works toward an unforeseen good. Wealth can be cruelly addictive but sometimes it accidentally slays a dragon. That is the reality in which this story engages. And it is one that I find deeply fascinating and frighteningly true.

Greed is real. I am greedy for things I neither need nor know what to do with. And whether I have much or little, it is something that constantly threatens to drive me apart from others and turn my gaze inward. And I expect if you’ve read this far it is perhaps true for you too.

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