As always, dear readers, welcome.
“On the table in the light of a big lamp with a red shade he spread a piece of parchment rather like a map. ‘This was made by Thror, your grandfather, Thorin,’ he said in answer to the dwarves’ excited questions. ‘It is a plan of the Mountain.’ “ (The Hobbit, Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”)
We are teaching The Hobbit again and here is Gandalf, spreading out Thror’s map (by Alan Lee).
And here’s that map.
What caught our immediate attention this time was that central label: “The Desolation of Smaug”.
The narrator describes this:
“The land about them grew bleak and barren, though once, as Thorin told them, it had been green and fair. There was little grass, and before long there was neither bush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished.” (Chapter 11, “On the Doorstep”)
That last detail, about the stumps, reminded us of another place, one with which Tolkien, in 1916, would have been very familiar—No Man’s Land in that area between the Germans and the Allies during the Great War in the West and
pounded to dust by the heavy artillery of both sides.
It wasn’t just the landscape which was pounded: entire villages disappeared under bombardment and bigger towns suffered severe damage, foreshadowing the destruction of Dale:
“they could see in the wide valley shadowed by the Mountain’s arms the grey ruins of ancient houses, towers, and walls.”
Perhaps the most famous ruin was that of the Cloth Hall in Ypres, in southern Belgium.
Here it is in a pre-war image.
Ypres had been at the center of the northern European wool and cloth trade,
which had made its makers and dealers so rich that they had this enormous place built for themselves,
finished in 1304.
But then, in August, 1914, came the German invasion of Belgium.
The Allies—the British and French—were driven back, but, in time, part of their network of defensive trenches was on the northeast side of Ypres.
Unfortunately for the Allies, the Germans held heights above the town and their guns could easily batter their positions and the town of Ypres beyond. Doubly unfortunate was the fact that the Cloth Hall and the cathedral behind were prominent features on the landscape and therefore excellent targets—which they soon became—and, in a series of photos, the gradual nearly-complete destruction of the Cloth Hall is clearly visible.
It wasn’t just Belgium which suffered, however. Beginning in January, 1915, the Germans began an air campaign against Britain. First, airships were employed,
but, as aircraft technology improved, bombers were added to the attacks,
which continued until May, 1918. The raids only killed or wounded about 2,000, and did minimal physical damage,
but the psychological damage was enormous. In the past, as long as the Royal Navy was active, no one had ever successfully threatened England, not even Napoleon.
Airpower changed all that and we wonder about how JRRT’s experience of that—from reading newspaper accounts—
combined with his first-hand experience of No Man’s Land,
influenced the way he imagined the land Smaug had invaded and destroyed.
When the Second War came, Tolkien became an Air Raid Warden in Oxford.
German air attacks on England were much more elaborate and intense than in the First War,
causing great loss of life and enormous damage—huge fires could engulf whole sections of cities, as they did in London.
Bombers never attacked Oxford, but the newspapers
and newsreels of the day
would have shown him what the rest of the country was experiencing, and we can easily imagine that Smaug’s
attack on Lake-town
would have somehow mirrored the awful destruction England was enduring,
just as the use of antiaircraft fire
which brought down German aircraft
would suggest the fateful arrow which brings down Smaug.
Tolkien himself resisted all attempts to turn his work into allegories which portrayed the political and military events of his time in veiled terms, but it wouldn’t be hard to see that such earth-shaking events as the First and Second World Wars and his own experiences in them and of them, could certainly influence the way he saw and presented events in his own Middle-earth.
Thanks, as always, for reading and
But we couldn’t leave you with that ruin of a cloth hall. Over many years, the people of Ypres worked to rebuild and here’s that famous building today.