Saturday, March 21, 2009

My top 10 fantasy fiction battles: Battle of Five Armies

6. The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
Battle of Five Armies

“Dread has come upon you all! Alas! it has come more swiftly than I guessed. The Goblins are upon you! Bolg of the North is coming, O Dain! whose father you slew in Moria. Behold! The bats are above his army like a sea of locusts. They ride upon wolves and Wargs are in their train!”

—Gandalf, from
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

The Battle of Five Armies from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is perhaps the first large-scale fantasy battle scene that I can recall reading, and to this day it remains one of my favorites, firmly rooted in my top 10 fantasy battles of all time. Guillermo del Toro had better do it justice in the planned 2011 release of the film, else he risks invoking my not-insubstantial wrath. It would take a truly artless director to screw up the Battle of Five Armies, given how much great material Tolkien has supplied.

At first reading I sympathized with Thorin’s stubborn defiance when the Elvenking and Bard come to claim a share of Smaug’s treasure. It’s highly doubtful that Tolkien intended this reaction, as we’re supposed to recognize the selfishness of the dwarves and chastise Thorin for his greed. I do, but I suffered along with the dwarves on their dangerous journey from Bag End to the Lonely Mountain, and I couldn’t help but feel the same stubborn, suicidal pride that consumes Thorin in my own breast. Don’t give it to them, Thorin. Tell Bard and the elf and their armies to take a walk. Heck, part of me still feels this way.

I cheered when Dain’s people came down from the mountains to Thorin’s rescue, the great, grim hosts wielding two-handed mattocks and armored head to toe in coats of cunningly-wrought dwarf mail. They may be outnumbered, I thought, but I wouldn’t want to tangle with this crew.

The two sides are about to meet—dwarves vs. elves and men—when Gandalf steps between the advancing armies, his timing as impeccable as ever. Gandalf issues a warning that the goblin hordes are upon them. The goblins are accompanied by an enormous bat-cloud; a foreshadowing of the unnatural darkness that accompanies the hosts of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings (though personally I think bats are cooler than darkness). Counseled by Gandalf, the allies draw up a quick battle plan: They will funnel the goblins into a narrow space between two great spurs of stone running down from the mountain where the goblins cannot bring their greater numbers to bear—provided that they aren’t in sufficient numbers to overrun the mountain itself, Tolkien ominously warns us.

The allies don’t have to wait long. The enemy vanguard appears, goblins mounted on wolf back. It’s a great image, as is the first glimpse of the army. “Their banners were countless, black and red, and they came on like a tide in fury and disorder,” writes Tolkien.

The Battle of Five Armies is not as detailed as most of the others in my list of top 10, but it’s as skillfully written as any, and more emotionally powerful than most. Bilbo plays no part, though I enjoy Tolkien’s remark that it was the “most dreadful of all Bilbo’s experiences, and the one which at the time he hated most—which is to say it was the one he was most proud of, and most fond of recalling long afterwards.” Given Bilbo’s run-in with the spiders, trolls, and Smaug, it's a good indication of the ferocity of the encounter.

The battle is both terrible and beautiful. Tolkien recounts that the elves were the first to charge, their hatred for the goblins, “cold and bitter. Their spears and swords shone in the gloom with a gleam of chill flame, so deadly was the wrath of the hands that held them.” The goblins reel from the elves’ fury and the onslaught of the dwarves and men. Their lines begin to waver until a sizeable contingent manages to gain the high ground, streaming down on the defenders to attack from above. “Victory now vanished from hope,” Tolkien writes.

Next occurs my favorite sequence in the book, Thorin and co’s unexpected sally from Lonely Mountain. The goblins have regrouped in the valley and with them the bodyguard of Bolg, “goblins of huge size with scimitars of steel.” All hope seems lost, until Thorin, forgotten by this reader in the excitement of the battle, emerges from the mountain, a crowned king resplendent in war-gear of old, a vision to make tears spring to your eyes:

Suddenly there was a great shout, and from the Gate came a trumpet call. They had forgotten Thorin! Part of the wall, moved by levers, fell outward with a crash into the pool. Out leapt the King under the Mountain, and his companions followed him. Hood and cloak were gone; they were in shining armour, and red light leapt from their eyes. In the gloom the great dwarf gleamed like gold in a dying fire.

Thorin cuts a swath through the enemy, wielding his axe with mighty strokes as arrows and hurled stones ring harmlessly off his mithril coat. He scatters goblins and wargs alike, and the battle seems turned once more in favor of the allies—but the bodyguard of Bolg is as a sea-wall, and he cannot pierce their ranks. Thorin’s attack is overextended and the goblins counterattack, hemming the dwarves in. Bodies lay strewn on the field, including “many a fair elf that should have lived yet long ages merrily in the wood.”

Many have criticized Tolkien over the years for his overuse of the eagles as deus ex machina, either as close air support (as here in The Hobbit) or medevac helicopters (i.e., Sam and Hobbit plucked from the side of Mount Doom). But I’ve never had a problem with the eagles. They don’t negate Thorin’s bravery. And it is not they who turn the tide of battle, but Beorn, who arrives in bear form, an unstoppable, terrifying foe like the berserkers from northern myth. “The roar of his voice was like drums and guns; and he tossed wolves and goblins from his path like straws and feathers,” Tolkien writes.

Beorn plucks Thorin gently from the field, this great bear of a man who once treated the dwarves with suspicion. After he bears the mortally wounded dwarf from the fray, Beorn returns to smash the bodyguard of Bolg and pull down and crush the great goblin himself, effectively ending the battle.

Thorin’s death-scene tugs at the heartstrings. He lives long enough to wish Bilbo a pagan farewell as he departs for “the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed.” Very Ragnarok-esque. He also expresses regret for his selfishness and gold-lust:

“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!”

The battle has played out like a great tragedy and The Hobbit, which began so much like a children’s book, has become something quite different by the end. Sounding very much like a battle-weary combat veteran, Bilbo looks upon the corpse-choked, desolate battlefield and reflects on his own longest day:

“Victory after all, I suppose!” he said, feeling his aching head. “Well, it seems a very gloomy business.”

Note: The amazing photo at the top comes from the blog of artist
Justin Gerard. It's easily the best rendition of the battle I've ever seen.


trollsmyth said...

Thanks for the link to Justin Gerard. That's excellent stuff.

And thanks for continuing this series. :)

- The Other Brian

Atom Kid said...

Battle of Five Armies was always a favorite of mine, I also felt more sympathetic towards the dwarves. I can see maybe giving money to the men of Esgaroth, because Smaug mistook Bilbo for one of the men and burned Lake Town because of it. But I don't think the Elves deserved anything but the dwarves disdain.

This is one that I look forward to playing as a miniatures battle game.

Brian Murphy said...

Trollsmyth: No problem, I was overdue to continue the series. And that Gerard guy is pretty amazing. If I didn't already own three copies of The Hobbit, I'd buy a Gerard-illustrated version.

Atom Kid: The elvenking was really rubbed me the wrong way as well (Smaug did annihilate Laketown, and Bard slew him, so the lake men were certainly entitled to their cut of the horde). Thorin had actually promised to pay Bard some money: "The price of the goods and the assistance that we received of the Lake-men we will fairly pay--in due time."

The elves' share seems much more tenuous, especially given their rude treatment of Thorin, who, were it not for Bilbo's intervention, may have rotted away for years in the Elvenking's dungeons.

Welleran said...

Agree with thoughts on greedy Elves! However, much of Smaug's hoard came from Dale so it did belong to the humans.

A great overview of the battle!

Vincetastic said...

This is a really great top ten list, really detailed explanation of one of the greatest battles. I love the hobbit and look forward to a movie version, that isn't a cartoon. Keep up the good writing. You can post this to our site and then link back to your site. We are looking for top ten lists and our users can track back to your site. The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.