Lesson #5: The Power of Gold

September 30th, 2012

Perhaps the most pervasive problem which Tolkien sets within the moral landscape of The Hobbit is the excessive desire for wealth. A problem at the root of much, if not all, of the evil in Middle-earth, it affects men, elves, dwarves, hobbits, and goblins. It does not just affect Smaug—he serves as its embodiment. In chapter three as Elrond examines the dwarves’ map, we are told that he does not altogether approve of the dwarves’ love of gold. And neither does Tolkien.

In the unexpected party at Bad-End in chapter one, Thorin declares that the dwarves have never forgotten the treasure they had to leave behind. Stroking the gold chain around his neck, Thorin comments that even though they have a “good bit” beyond what was lost, they still intend to get back every piece that Smaug has stolen. A page earlier, the dwarf explained how dragons “guard their plunder as long as they live” and “never enjoy a brass ring of it.” These words will eventually come to describe Thorin’s own brief time as the possessor of Smaug’s hoard.

After the meal is finished and Bilbo’s dishes put away, Thorin calls for some music. The dwarves sing of their resolve to obtain the jeweled swords, silver necklaces, crowns, goblets, and golden harps, which Smaug now guards. As they sing, Bilbo feels the dwarves’ materialism—their love of “beautiful things made by hands”—awaken in him as well. This is not a good form of love, but a selfish love that is described as “fierce” and “jealous.”

Smaug, of course, is the epitome of greed—and each of the characters tempted by treasure risks becoming a smaller version of the dragon. After learning that Bilbo has taken just one cup from the vast hoard, the dragon goes into a frenzy. Smaug’s fire belches forth, the hall is filled with smoke, and the mountain shakes. The narrator comments that Smaug’s fury over the cup is the kind of rage that is only seen “when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.”

Promised one-fourteenth share of the treasure, Bilbo falls under its spell on his initial visit to the dragon’s lair. When the hobbit sees the Arkenstone, a bewitchment overwhelms him. Drawn by its enchantment, Bilbo’s arm seems to have a will of its own as it suddenly reaches out for the gem. The jewel is so big, the hobbit’s fingers will not fully close around it. Then we are told that Bilbo “lifted it, shut his eyes, and put it in his deepest pocket.” Although Bilbo later decides to give up the Arkenstone in an effort to avoid bloodshed, this is not his intention here. At this point in the story, he simply wants the glorious gem for himself. In taking it becomes not the honest burglar he later calls himself but a real one.

“They did say I could pick and choose my own share,” he thinks to himself. Despite the hobbit’s attempt to justify his action, the narrator makes it clear that Bilbo knows his greed has got the better of him, stating: “All the same he had an uncomfortable feeling that the picking and choosing had not really been meant to include this marvelous gem, and that trouble would yet come of it.”

Immediately upon assuming possession of the dragon’s hoard, Thorin becomes consumed by the desire to hold on to every bit of it—by force if need be. The desolation of Smaug threatens to become the desolation of Thorin. Partly convinced by Thorin’s example of what greed can do and partly persuaded by his own conscience and good sense, Bilbo decides to give up the Arkenstone in the hope this will bring peace. Even so, as he hands the priceless gem over to Bard, it is not without a glance of deep desire, a dark craving which makes the hobbit shudder. Bilbo also gives up his claim to one-fourteenth share of Smaug’s hoard, mostly through a renunciation of excessive wealth but also partly due to his witnessing the epidemic of greed and violence that Smaug’s treasure has brought on.

If the excessive desire to lay up treasure on Middle-earth is one of Tolkien’s central issues of The Hobbit, greed is also a central issue running throughout the New Testament where over and over we find warnings against materialism. We are told that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6.10). Jesus tells his followers they can not serve God and money (Matthew 6.24), and that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven (Matthew 19.24). We are told to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6.33), because our hearts will be where our treasure is (Matthew 6.21).

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