Name: Dale (as in the English word meaning “valley”)
Description: A merchant city nestled in a valley between the Lonely Mountain’s (Erebor) southeast and southwest ridges, settling on the shores of the River Running. Shortly after the T.A. 2590 revival of the Kingdom under the Mountain, Northmen emigrate to the valley and build Dale. Through a prosperous relationship with the Dwarves of Erebor, Dale becomes a prosperous city known for its toys and bells. In T.A. 2770, the dragon Smaug destroys Dale while sacking Erebor. Dale’s Lord Girion fails to slay Smaug and dies with many of his people. The charred lands around Dale and Erebor’s ruins cease to sire fauna, and become known as the Desolation of Smaug.
Dale’s survivors establish Lake-town and remain there until the latter’s destruction by Smaug in T.A. 2941. In the inferno, Girion’s descendant Bard kills Smaug and becomes the leader of his people, later called Bardings, as they participate in the ensuing Battle of the Five Armies, a conflict fought partially in Dale. After the Lake-men win the battle, with their allies the Mirkwood-elves and Erebor-dwarves, Bard leads an effort to restore Dale. in T.A. 2944, Dale is rebuilt and Bard becomes its King. Its prosperity returns, alongside a rebuilt Lake-town in conjunction with the repopulated Erebor.
In T.A. 3019 during the War of the Ring, Easterlings attack the city in the Battle of Dale. After driving the Bardings into Erebor, and slaying their King Brand, Bard’s grandson, the Easterlings occupy Dale for just over a week until the fall of Barad-dûr. The Easterlings flee Dale when they receive news of Sauron’s fall, and Brand’s son Bard II becomes King of Dale. When Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor, Dale sends ambassadors, and the city becomes a protectorate of Gondor.
Locations in Peter Jackson’s films: Speargrass Fields and Rock and Pillar Range, Maniototo, Otago, South Island
Maps of Wilderland go no further northeast than the Iron Hills and Rhûn, so let’s retrace our trajectory. Returning south, the confluence from the Sea of Rhûn breaks into the River Carnen, which culminates at the Iron Hills, and the River Running, which flows to Esgaroth (Lake-town) and Erebor. Having Thrór’s map in The Hobbit indicates that Erebor is west of the Iron Hills; as that map is the most intimate cartographic view of northern Rhovanion, we’ll use that as a source (Karen Wynn Fonstad positions Erebor and Iron Hills in a similar direction). Erebor’s six ridges span miles across; Karen Wynn Fonstad estimates parts of them span 9 miles from end to end. As a result the valleys between ridges are vast, and allow for settlements of their own.
The River Running flows into the Long Lake just south of Erebor, where Lake-town rests. A more straightforward geographic survey would look at Lake-town next, but this is not our approach. We’re going to save Lake-town for later while we have a look at Dale, a city which is Lake-town’s ancestor, its progeny, and then its ally. The city of Dale sits between two of Erebor’s southern ridges. The geographic vicinity of the city of men and the dwarf-realm in Erebor shapes their political relationship: the men and dwarves who live here are close allies in economics and warfare, although Dale’s role in the relationship is a diminutive one. It’s quite likely that since the salience of dwarven perspectives on Dale broadly overshadows men’s accounts of the city, this is partly why The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings grant Dale a fairly minor role. Thorin Oakenshield provides an account of Dale at the beginning of The Hobbit, as he tells Bilbo Baggins about Erebor’s glory years, mentioning that men from the River Running, attracted by Erebor’s riches, “built the merry town of Dale there in those days.” As Thorin tells it, Erebor was the most envied realm in northern Rhovanion, while Dale complemented its wealth, as “the toy-market of Dale was the wonder of the North.” This perspective is not simply dwarvish, however. Smaug’s destruction of Dale is callous, an entire city slaughtered thoughtlessly as he makes his way to Erebor, which is his true target. Erebor has a mystique which attracts cosmic forces like Smaug to its treasures. Dale is a mere hamlet Smaug tramples and razes on his way to the Mountain.
Yet for all that Erebor is the more salient and more powerful landmark, there’s no sense that the Kingdom under the Mountain exploits Dale. The two cities prosper in tandem, and fall together. When they gain strong leaders, they prosper together, collaborating for a better future. Dale and Erebor are consistently allies, showing that in Middle-earth one needs cooperative neighbors to prosper. Prosperity in Middle-earth is both a moral and economic metric: when the leadership of Erebor or Númenor or Isengard becomes haughty and avaricious, those domains collapse. When a noble descendant steps forward to rule and rectify their ancestors’ faults, the kingdom experiences a renewal in morale. In part this can be seen as Tolkien being influenced by medieval and pre-medieval historical accounts which treat people’s welfare as a reflection of a monarch’s policies. It’s also quite Catholic in design. When a person is humble and accepts God’s grace, they benefit their environment, which is transformed by people accepting God’s guidance to make their world better. It’s this mode of religious thought that provides Tolkien’s mythology with its quintessential magic: Middle-earth is fundamentally Catholic, and governed by grace, an external gift from God which enables one to sanctify themselves and transform the world around them, above all things.
Falls and restorations of grace are part and parcel of Tolkien’s books. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings center on the aftermath of periods of decline led by ancestral failures, while the protagonists broadly try to right their forebears’ wrongs. Dale and Lake-town have something of this relationship; Dale falls, and Lake-town later redeems it. Dale doesn’t appear to fall victim to greed the same way Erebor does, but it broadly follows the same model: at the height of its prosperity, it is struck down as its leader fails to save it. Girion’s failure to kill Smaug leads to his own demise, alongside Dale and (later) Lake-town, and thus creates the later situation where his descendant Bard is put in a place to kill the dragon. As Bard successfully shoots Smaug out of the sky, he completes his antecedent’s task. The prevailing mode of moral operation here is that people sin, which by definition means separating one’s self from God. It’s by defeating evil in one’s self and the world that the faithful invite God back into their lives. Bard is thus a holy man.
This view can be extrapolated to look at Dale as a whole. It would be un-Catholic to suggest that suffering is an inherent product of evil; Dale comes across as a largely respectable city, and its fall has more to do with the vices of its neighbors than any sins on its part. Girion is tested by Smaug’s assault, and he simply fails to rise to the occasion, as decent people often do. The Men of Dale suffer, and move to Lake-town. These people are tested, and eventually they pass with banners aloft. While Dale develops a productive relationship with Erebor, its people gain a reputation of joy and its domain increases. When Glóin the dwarf reports to Rivendell, he says to Frodo
“Nowhere are men so friendly to us as the Men of Dale. They are good folk, the Bardings. The grandson of Bard the Bowman rules them, Brand son of Bain son of Bard. He is a strong king, and his realm now reaches far south and east of Esgaroth.”
The Fellowship of the Ring, “Many Meetings”
Quite far from Thorin’s account of Dale in The Hobbit, where Smaug “[came] by night to Dale, and [carried] away people, especially maidens, to eat, until Dale was ruined, and all the people dead or gone” (The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party”). Bard’s victory over Smaug makes him loved by his people, who say “Dale is now freed by his valour, and nothing hinders his return [there]” (The Hobbit, “Fire and Water”). Like a number of Tolkien’s more heroic human protagonists, Bard’s conscience is untroubled by his ancestry (in the book at least, he doesn’t appear until his slaying of Smaug; while in The Desolation of Smaug he’s been part of the story for a while before his ancestry is revealed), with his character conflict mostly arising from his struggle to revive Dale. Bard brings about Dale’s redemption with his moral integrity and grace, and guides it with patience, dignity, and wisdom. Even his firing of Girion’s last black arrow is a concession to history and Dale’s memory, as he tells it
“Black arrow! I have saved you to the last. You have never failed me and always I have recovered you. I had you from my father and he from of old. If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!”The Hobbit, “Fire and Water”
“Thy will be done,” but whispered to history and a large iron projectile that restores a ruined city. Bard understands that Smaug’s death won’t be simply his achievement; in Tolkien’s literature, God’s hand (or rather Ilúvatar’s) is in everything. While Dale’s earlier fall may not have been due to vice on its part, its resurgence is rooted in Bard’s humility as he kills Smaug. That humility is built on an understanding that men don’t govern history, and that it’s up to men to defer their role in the world to a higher power. With this act, the future Dale is a humbler city, based in virtue, solidarity, and things greater than ego and individuality.
Dale in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is merely a Dale-shaped whole demarcated by characters’ accounts of the city rather than a focal point in itself. As a result, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, which is largely an exercise in expanding The Hobbit through The Lord of the Rings and its appendices, has to create Dale from scratch. In the first film, An Unexpected Journey, Dale briefly appears as a golden market city that dies in flames when Smaug sacks it, and then as a ruin on a hill in some shots of The Desolation of Smaug, before becoming a critical location in The Battle of the Five Armies.
Tolkien gives the reader scant information on the Battle of Five Armies in The Hobbit, but the book does mention that the Lake-men defend Dale from orcs and wargs; “ere long the vanguard swirled round the spur’s end and came rushing into Dale” (The Hobbit, “The Clouds Burst”). In Jackson’s The Battle of the Five Armies Dale is made the location of most scenes involving the Mirkwood Elves and the Lake-people, a ruined refuge where Bard brings his people to shelter, and where several portions of the battle itself take place. Positioning Dale in ruins as a refuge is one of the film’s savvier choices (indeed, for all its flaws, The Battle of the Five Armies had more storyboarding and preparation than Jackson’s chaotic The Desolation of Smaug, which shows in the final product). The film shows the Lake-people rebuilding their lives and thus their past, and touches on a long-standing Catholic theme of Tolkien’s that once-good things, even when desecrated, never become wholly evil.
As per usual with Jackson’s Middle-earth films, the onscreen realization must be credited to Weta Workshop. Prolific Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe, also the films’ conceptual designers, grant Dale a contemplative post-apocalypticism. Lee and Howe deploy a potpourri of aesthetic influences in their design of the city, from winding Italian streets to mountain monasteries in Tibet and India, invoking the holy contemplation necessitated by Dale’s silence. Weta Workshop adds further visual influences from Stalingrad, Chernobyl, and (fittingly) Pompeii, while Dale’s people appear largely medieval Russian in costume (close enough to Tolkien’s comparison of the Lake-people to Scandinavians). In a scene deleted from The Desolation of Smaug (and I mean properly deleted: even the Extended Edition cuts it), Bilbo, Thorin, and company, sanctioned and aided by the people of Lake-town, wander through Dale, exploring its ruins and gazing in horror at the burned corpses, including one cradling a child; human-shaped ashes with no facial features or flesh or clothing to identify them. Having visited Pompeii myself and seen similarly unmarked corpses there, the resemblance is spotless.
Shot at the Rock and Pillar Range, a group of hills in Otago’s Maniototo Plain (also where many of Rohan’s scenes in The Lord of the Rings were filmed), Dale in Jackson’s films gains another level of historical morbidity. Once home to Māori iwi including the Waitaha and Kāti Māmoe, Otago was colonized by Europeans in the late 18th century, who inevitably went the butchering way of all settler colonists. Dale may be fictional, but the people on whose lands it sits are not. It takes acts of grace to restore an environment. Like Dale and Lake-town, Otago needs a reclamation to bring down the imperialist dragon that’s setting it aflame.