'The Hobbit' Discussion: That Arkenstone business - where do you stand?
So I've just finished re-reading The Hobbit, which was great. As always. It's a proper adventure story and a good read. But as I neared the end I remembered that there's a moment I always dread. The ending has a whole lot of issues if you ask me (which may have something to do with Tolkien's writer's block - apparently he went back to type up chapters 1-15 to give himself time to think about the ending, and finished the rest a bit later?) and those last few chapters have a very different and darker feel, compared with the rest of the book. I don't mind that. What I do mind, is that whole deal with the Arkenstone.
For anyone who needs refreshing, at this point in the book, Thorin and company have barricaded themselves in the Lonely Mountain, the dragon is dead, killed by Bard the Bowman and Laketown has suffered some serious damage. Bard and the men of the lake, flanked by the Elven King and accompanying horde, come to bargain with Thorin. They want some of the treasure hoarded in the mountain (and originally the property of Thorin's ancestors) to help re-build their town and as recompense for the fact that a) it was the dwarves' fault the dragon was disturbed in the first place and b) it was a Laketown man who actually killed the dragon, which enabled the dwarves to get their treasure back. Thorin refuses to treat until Bard sends the elves away (the king did imprison the dwarves for no real reason, and has no claim to the treasure like the lake men) and is altogether stubborn and unreasonable.
Is Thorin in the wrong here? Yes. No-one is denying it. But for me, what Bilbo does next crosses a line. Thorin has been searching for a great jewel, the Arkenstone, which belonged to his (dead) father, Thrain, and Thorin craves it more than anything. Previously, Bilbo has taken and hidden it for no good reason, and at pivotal moment, he decides to sneak off at night to give the stone to Bard and the elves as a bargaining chip. When I first had this read to me as a child, I didn't understand what Bilbo was trying to achieve here or why he was suddenly betraying his friends. And you know what? I still don't understand. The plan kind of works, in the sense that it forces Thorin to give up a portion of the gold, but it also causes an inevitable rift and Thorin banishes Bilbo from the mountain. (They make up later, when Thorin is on his deathbed.) Bard and the Elven King seem to think Bilbo's is a wise and self-sacrificing act, and so does Gandalf when he shows up. But I don't think I would in their place. To me it seems weaselly and misguided at best, and a massive betrayal at worst. Am I the only person who thinks this way? (Other than my family, who I know feel the same about this.) Maybe some people are fine with it? To make sense of this in my head, I've tried to make up a balanced argument. Which side are you on?
Option 1: Good thinking, you excellent Hobbit!
Thorin was being totally unreasonable. He started this quest with no plan. He wasn't a good leader, leaving first Gandalf and then Bilbo to make all the decisions and get them out of trouble. Bard is a descendant of Girion, Lord of Dale, and in among the hoard will be plenty of treasure that originally belonged to the townspeople. He killed the dragon, he wants to use the gold to rebuild Dale and Laketown, not for personal gain. He's fair, and doesn't come up on the bounce shouting the odds but acts pretty reasonably. All he asks for is a twelfth share of the immeasurable wealth. The Laketown people also helped out the Dwarves on their journey, fed and clothed them, etc. It's true that the Elves have no real claim on the treasure, but they did step in and help out the Laketown people with (apparently) no expectations of repayment after Smaug trashed everything. And since they came to Bard's aid when the Dwarves did not, it wouldn't exactly be polite to send them packing. Bilbo also doesn't try to be sneaky after the fact, he admits straight away that he gave the Arkenstone to the enemy when Thorin asks how they have it. He saw an opportunity to make peace and he went for it. It was a clever idea at least. If you're thinking about 'the greater good' and general fairness and reasonableness, then objectively, he did the right thing.
Option 2: Oh Bilbo honey, no!
Objectively, maybe what he did was a clever move. But could anyone - even Bilbo - say it sat well with them? When Thorin dies Bilbo even admits to himself that he 'made a mess of that Arkenstone business.' When he first takes the stone to Bard, and tells him about the arrival of Dain (another betrayal, by the way) Bard asks "are you here to betray your friends or to threaten us?" Whatever Bilbo thinks of Thorin's actions, he's a member of Thorin's company. They're his friends, his travelling companions, and I happen to think he owes them their loyalty, as he would expect them to be loyal to him (even if they do grumble and blame him a lot). He's already gotten the dwarves out of a few sticky situations, but because of that they trust him and rely on him. He breaks that trust. When he persuades Bombur to let him take over the watch, he's banking on that trust. He's also reached a stage where he has no qualms in telling the dwarves what he thinks about things. He doesn't tell Thorin how he feels to his face, does he? That probably wouldn't do any good, but shouldn't he have tried before he resorted to sneaking off in the night? If he was so desperate to get home to his Hobbit hole, couldn't he just have offered his share to the Lakemen right off? He, after all, was the one who put the idea in the dragon's head, that the lakemen had been helping the dwarves. He was the one who got Smaug really riled up against them, in the first place (although of course, it was the dwarves who sent him down the tunnel). And you know what? When Bilbo originally took that stone he didn't take it to bargain with, did he? He took it because it was shiny, although he knew Thorin, at this point, would offer him anything but the Arkenstone. He took it without a higher motive, so really his betrayal came earlier, before he even had plans for bringing peace about. And seriously, those elves? They get away with murder because they're like this higher species of being apparently, and are sooo good and wise and clever, and Bilbo, for one, has a soft spot for them. But come on. The King of the wood elves is not anything special. He's got an agenda, people. He wants those shiny gems, but they don't belong to him, and he's done nothing to earn them (like Bard with the Dragon) and he doesn't need them (like the Lake men in their ruined town.) Plus he imprisoned the dwarves with no just cause. Oh, he fed them well enough. How kind of him! But he's hardly earned their gratitude and generosity. Bard could try getting them to back off a bit. Maybe Thorin would consider doing business then?
Option 3: Fool of a (half) Took!
Maybe though, just maybe, we can look at this incident as a bit of simple naivety. Bilbo's thinking is quite straightforward. In fairness, he was promised a fourteenth share of the treasure. Technically, no-one said he couldn't chose exactly what treasure he wanted. Technically no-one had specifically stated that the Arkenstone was out of bounds. What could be simpler than giving his share to the Lakemen, for them to bring about a peaceful treaty more quickly and easily? No-one need never know that Bilbo was even involved! Except he should have known it would never happen like that. Bilbo has looked at this 'logically' - the Lakemen are in the right, Thorin is in the wrong. If I give the stone to the Lakemen we may avoid a battle and lives will be saved. Thorin isn't a bad guy, even if he finds out, he's not going to try and throw me down the side of the mountain, is he? He's my friend! Well, Bilbo jsut didn't know enough about dwarves, did he? Although you'd think he might have a bit more insight into Thorin, who he had been travelling with for a number of months.
So there we are, a longer discussion than I'd planned. Do you have an opinion on the Arkenstone issue? Do you cringe at Bilbo's betrayal, or applaud his good sense? Let me know!