Erebor’s isolation makes it a magical symbol. It hunches over Northern Wilderland like a god of its terrain. Its six spurs reach across its territory like a maimed skulltopus, reaching in every direction, clutching the ground underneath it. Its southern spurs hold Dale like a trinket while Mirkwood watches from an apprehensive distance. Erebor’s power is individualism. What causes more catastrophe in Middle-earth than standing alone?
Tolkien’s identity politics are intrinsically geographic. Tolkien assigns territories to individual peoples: the Shire is for Hobbits, Lothlórien is Elvish, Gondor belongs to Númenórean Men. Threatened homelands invariably drive Tolkien’s plots, which often involve the survival efforts of their inhabitants. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings’s casts are ensembles from numerous peoples and lands who collaborate against a common enemy. Both novels’ denouements involve the improvement of peoples’ and territories’ social and political relationships before everyone goes home to their own peoples. A few characters gain special status among other peoples, like Gimli, the only Dwarf to sail to the Undying Lands, but as ‘exceptions’ they’re nonetheless strictly racially categorized. Otherwise, the Dwarves, who Tolkien considered Middle-earth’s Jews, live outside of the Elves’ resting place.
A quintessential racial home, The Kingdom Under the Mountain is the Dwarves’ greatest city, except for possibly Moria, whose sacking is one of their most catastrophic tragedies. A coil of “halls, and lanes, and tunnels, alleys, cellars, mansions and passages” (The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party”), the kingdom is seen both through Thorin’s nostalgic recaps and as a ruin, a juxtaposition that underlines its effects. But even then, most of it is unseen. The Hobbit’s third act depicts events in only a few halls and cellars. It’s an underground city with some visible edges, not unlike how some of Pompeii’s ruins are still buried. Erebor’s culture is a secret. Its kingdom is every conspiracy theorist’s wet dream: disorientingly grand, ambivalent, intrinisically racial halls of power and commerce.
Past the Front Gate’s “old carven” arch, “a stone-paved road” runs alongside a small channel, which initiates the River Running (The Hobbit, “Not at Home”). At the opposite end, a number of doorways lead to Thrór’s great chamber, which Thorin calls “the hall of feasting and of council”. Its proximity to the Front Gate indicates its stature: visitors will see it before anything else, even if they venture downstairs. It’s where the Dwarves decide and observe significant events. Its designation as Thrór’s chamber points to ancestral pride; the Dwarves commemorate Thorin’s grandfather with this hall.
Thrór is one of Erebor’s pivotal kings, shepherding Erebor’s resurgence after a Dwarvish sojourn from the mountain, driving his people’s return to their kingdom after warring with dragons, and then seeing his kingdom destroyed by a dragon. Over 300 years before Thrór’s birth, his ancestor Thorin I leaves Erebor to mine the “rich and little explored” Grey Mountains, “where most of Durin’s folk were now gathering” (The Return of the King, Appendix A: “Durin’s Folk”). The move northward proves disastrous when the Northern Waste’s dragons plunder and kill the Dwarves. After nearly four centuries, a “great cold-drake” kills King Dáin I, prompting Dáin’s son Thrór to return to Erebor. Leading his people back to Erebor and bringing the sacrosanct Arkenstone with him, Thrór’s rule heralds a prosperous era for his people.
A myriad of dragons repel the Dwarves from the Grey Mountains. It takes only one dragon to drive them out of Erebor. In The Hobbit, Thorin arrives at the ruins of his grandfather’s opulent halls:
They passed through the ruined chamber. Tables were rotting there; chairs and benches were lying there overturned, charred and decaying. Skulls and bones were upon the floor among flagons and bowls and broken drinking-horns and dust.
The Hobbit, “Not At Home”
Thror’s chamber has a radically different appearance and role in WingNut Films’ The Hobbit trilogy. The films portray The Kingdom under the Mountain in marble and gold, with royal platforms looming over gem-and-gold strewn mines carved from earth. It emphasizes expansive space rather than the book’s claustrophobic gloom, presumably to accommodate action sequences. Thrór’s chamber is massive, though it lacks the book’s skeletons, or any apparent function beyond staging The Desolation of Smaug’s climactic fight between Smaug and the dwarves. The dwarves forge a gold idol for the chamber in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Smaug, as it melts on him but fails to harm him, and prompts his sacking of Lake-town.
The sequence lacks logical coherence or character, a fact perhaps explained by the fact The Hobbit’s crew was still working on the scene’s special effects when the film was due for delivery to its distributors, resulting in “[sound] mixers working on complete pre-vis”, according to sound designer Dave Whitehead. It sets up Thorin’s recovery from dragon-sickness in The Battle of the Five Armies, as the unfairly good Richard Armitage hallucinates himself drowning in the chamber’s now-golden floors.
Erebor reiterates Middle-earth’s rule of conditional triumphs. The Dwarves’ wealth is rendered paradoxical by its racial politics: Smaug sits on his riches while excoriating people who’d like to share them, as does Thorin. Far from framing Erebor’s prosperity as a vice, Tolkien sees Thrór doing well for himself because he collaborates with his neighbors. Smaug’s arrival is a tragedy, not a comeuppance.
And yet this tragedy points to some of the Dwarves’ deep-rooted conceptual problems. They’re largely sympathetic characters who spend much of their history wandering and being dispossessed. They’re also cantankerous, secretive, myopically obsessed with wealth, and inclined to hoard their possessions. The subject of Tolkien’s books is wandering abroad to save a homestead: the Dwarves are an entire race who wander without a consistent domicile, so they contest the book’s stated values. Tolkien’s deference to homeland loyalty pervades even his sympathies. At various points, he compared Dwarves to Jews:
I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private language…
In an interview, Tolkien reiterated this idea, peppered with more antisemitic tropes:
The Dwarves of course, quite obviously, wouldn’t you say they remind you of the Jews? All their words are Semitic, obviously constructed to be Semitic. There is a tremendous love of the artifact and of course the immense, um, warlike capacity of the Jews to which we tend to forget now and then.
Similar suspicions percolate into dwarves’ characterization in Tolkien’s books. Take this passage from The Hobbit:
Dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.
The Hobbit, ‘Inside Information’
As for their “love of the artifact”:
The mere fleeting glimpses which they had caught as they went along had rekindled all the fire of their dwarvish hearts; and when the heart of a dwarf, even the most respectable, is wakened by gold and by jewels, he grows suddenly bold, and he may become fierce.
The Hobbit, ‘Not at Home’
The Dwarves, in their racialized tendency to inherent greed, invoke centuries of antisemitic tropes. Tolkien, an Edwardian medievalist, replicated the prevailing antisemitic attitudes of his era. This isn’t to say that he held personal animosity towards Jews; the man pulled a planned German translation in opposition to the Nazis. But bigotry isn’t simply wearing a Swastika or killing immigrants or mugging trans people, although it inevitably leads to such violence. Bigotry is values, culturally inherited and culturally propagated. A person doesn’t have to hate someone to hurt them.
In the essay “Dwarves Are Not Heroes”, scholar Rebecca Brackmann unpacks how tacit and explicit antisemitic ideas shape Tolkien’s Dwarves. Pointing out that “antisemitism is… a set of beliefs, not just an action”, Brackmann observes the Dwarves’ “physiognomy’s identification with Jewishness.” Invoking depictions of Jews in medieval art, the Dwarves are termed the “bearded Dwarves,” a phrase which Brackmann says has “the ring of an epithet, which would indicate that their beards are racially characteristic.” Their cantankerous nature echoes the pusillanimity of fictional Jews like Shylock or Fagin. Aknowledging that Tolkien wrestles with these depictions in The Lord of the Rings (to middling results), Brackmann concludes that The Hobbit’s Dwarves are antisemitic creations.
The Silmarillion, which Tolkien was assembling the first cohesive drafts for when The Hobbit was published, seems to verify this. Middle-earth’s racial essentialism has medieval roots: some races are created with greater honor than others. Elves and Men are the Children of Ilúvatar, the one true God in Tolkien’s mythology. Dwarves are illicitly created by Aulë the Vala (the singular form of Valar, Arda’s holy guardians), literally making them a lesser race in the hierarchy of creation. As Christianity has often posited itself as Judaism’s replacement, Ilúvatar tells Aulë “but I will not suffer this: that these [the Dwarves] should come before the Firstborn of my design.” This religious distance is echoed by the Dwarves’ theistic beliefs; in early drafts of the legendarium, they’re unaware of the Valar.
Erebor’s literal underground existence invokes the Dwarves’ place in the natural order. Many Elves and Men have elevated homes, in forests and cities. Dwarves live underground. Erebor’s darkness, particularly its “long stairs” and “wide echoing ways” aesthetically resemble the paranoia of a xenophobe encountering a culture they refuse to understand (The Hobbit, ‘Not at Home’). While Erebor is “befouled and blasted with the comings and goings of the monster [Smaug], Thorin knew every passage and turn” (‘Not at Home’).
Thorin’s campaign through Erebor is a derivé, inverting intuitive trajectories, which could start at the mountain’s southern mouth and move northwest to leave by the secret door. Unable to walk past a dragon, Thorin and company take a long route around Dale and Erebor’s western spurs. In redefining territorial rules, Smaug makes the dwarves navigate the laws of their environment.
Smaug is an inverting presence: a trickster, an apocalyptic agent, and a fugitive from history. Evoking the biblical discursive ha-Satan and the Völsunga saga’s bewitched dragon Fáfnir, Smaug is avarice and solipsism itself. Like the Witch-king of Angmar, Smaug prates “no blade can pierce me”, a claim Bard discredits with a black arrow (The Hobbit, “Inside Information”). A bastion of individualism, Smaug sustains his isolation through tyranny, which he boasts of to Bilbo:
“Revenge!” he snorted, and the light of his eyes lit the hall from floor to ceiling like scarlet lightning. “Revenge! The King under the Mountain is dead and where are his kin that dare seek revenge? Girion Lord of Dale is dead, and I have eaten his people like a wolf among sheep, and where are his sons’ sons that dare approach me? I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old and their like is not in the world today. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong, strong, Thief in the Shadows!” he gloated. “My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”
The Hobbit, “Inside Information”
Smaug may have gold, but death is his currency. He relishes the power gold confers to him, yet as Thorin says in a description evocative of Ebenezer Scrooge, “never enjoy[s] a brass ring of it” (The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party”). A monster of abstracted greed, Smaug presents individualism outside of capitalism: avarice without economy.
Economy shapes Smaug’s existence. Dwarves mine his home in the Grey Mountains, leading to a dwarf-dragon war until the dwarves return to the Lonely Mountain. Nearly two centuries later, Smaug, now alone, wins the war. He has no people; Middle-earth’s dragons have mostly disappeared. Smaug’s individualism is a product of the dwarves’ individualism. The dragon has nothing left except capitalism’s spoils to sit upon. By living outside of economy, Smaug is both a fugitive from and Middle-earth’s answer to capitalism.
Tolkien’s contribution to the derivé is a synthesis of psychogeography with Victorian adventurism. The Hobbit’s trajectory in Erebor contradicts established routes in order to better explicate the mountain, making Bilbo an unwitting and nearly 20 years too early psychogeographer. Contrary to psychogeography’s radical politics, Bilbo’s desire for “adventure” is indebted to the traditions of Victorian adventure fiction, where an enlightened English protagonist learns the values of a foreign people and proceeds to correct them. Tolkien approaches the tradition with nuance — The Hobbit views dwarves with sympathy — yet the imperialist DNA of the book’s genre is undeniable.
When Bilbo discovers the Great Hall of Thrain (named for Thrain I, the founding King under the Mountain), he is staggered by its “countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light” (The Hobbit, ‘Inside Information’). Erebor’s core myth is a store of inaccessible wealth that harms whoever holds it, like Indiana Jones’ ‘exotic’ macguffins. Gold is fundamentally toxic to Middle-earth.
The Arkenstone, Erebor’s bespoke heart, dictates history. Thrór’s return to Erebor is elevated by the Arkenstone’s accompanying power. When Bilbo purloins the Arkenstone and hands it to Thranduil and Bard, he’s usurping the dwarves’ power and giving it away. While on a characterization level it’s one of the most profound and moving parts of the book — Bilbo meets his assignment as a burglar by betraying his friend in order to save him — he assumes a colonialist role.
For all that’s stacked against them, the Hobbit films are not as dire as they could have been. The films have many powerful moments, and even their failures have more depth than, for example, any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s incompetent outings. An Unexpected Journey, the Hobbit chapter least derailed by reshoots, uses its liberation from having to tell 50% of the story to be a sweet, clever, and criminally underrated character piece. The Desolation of Smaug, sadly, is a dour, undramatic, and shapeless mess whose deep-rooted flaws corrupt The Battle of the Five Armies, whose appreciably better pacing isn’t quite able to make it good.
Besides An Unexpected Journey, the trilogy is rudderless, feeling like an endless list of studio demands translated to film (which it was). And yet the animosity they received feels largely uncalled for. Before the trilogy was even released, it seemed like a preordained lamb for critical slaughter. It was always going to be compared to The Lord of the Rings, and many judgments of it stop there. Troublingly, the comparisons are often rooted in nostalgia, criticizing The Hobbit for things The Lord of the Rings did just as often. With the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of the labor issues surrounding The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings’ DVD appendices, while still brilliant documentary filmmaking, seem sinister as they tell us how much the cast and crew love work that repeatedly sees them working long hours and nursing severe injuries. The Hobbit may be the movie that changed New Zealand’s labor laws for the worse, but there’s no way Weta Workshop’s toxic workplace environment is simply a creation of The Hobbit.
There are many layers of fuckup to the story. Warner Bros. and MGM’s endless delays of The Hobbit’s production led to Guillermo del Toro quitting his directorial gig, and Peter Jackson unexpectedly (and perhaps unenthusiastically) taking over his post while the film hurriedly began principal photography with hardly any pre-production. Other issues followed: a mid-production decision to shoot three films instead of two, animal abuse, Ian McKellen having a nervous breakdown on set, and Evangeline Lilly having a contractual promise reneged upon.
Labor and greed form the Hobbit films’ story and creation. The trilogy lectures its audiences on the dangers of unbridled greed, yet in the lead-up to its production, the studios and producers responsible for The Hobbit worked with the New Zealand Government to change that country’s labor laws to facilitate their own profits.
The battle was bloody. On September 24, 2010, the International Federation of Actors (FIA), a global actors union federation, issued a Do Not Work order on The Hobbit for its refusal to hire union workers. Studio and producer response was expectedly furious: Warner Bros. had previously refused to meet with FIA or Media, Entertainment, and Arts Alliance (MEAA), FIA’s Australian partner in the deal who housed New Zealand Actors Equity (NZAE). According to documents released in February 2013, three days after FIA issued the order, Warner Bros. and MGM gave Jackson permission to shoot The Hobbit in New Zealand, amidst emailed whispers that production might move to England or Eastern Europe. By October 18th, the ban was lifted, following meetings between Warner Bros. and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), in conjunction with FIA.
Yet on October 20, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh issued a public statement condemning MEAA and NZAE for forcing The Hobbit offshore. Buying the exaggerated notion that The Lord of the Rings was the heart of New Zealand’s economy, between 2,000 and 3,000 people protested the strike in Wellington on October 25, while Warner Bros. was taciturn about the deal they made a week before. Meanwhile, on October 19, Warner Bros. executives arrived in New Zealand to start negotiations with the New Zealand Government on their contracts.
On October 29, they struck a deal: Warner Bros. would get New Zealand’s standard film production subsidy of 15%, as well as revised grant guidelines to “participation payments” for all US$150m+ film productions (The Hobbit had a $500m budget), that Warners would “promote New Zealand to the global marketplace”, and the Government would pay Warners US$10m (NZ$13.58m) in marketing costs. The same day, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Employment Relations Amendment Bill, which distinguished between paid contractors and employees, disqualifying the former from employee benefits. The mythical dragon of an offshore film production had been slain.
Why did Peter Jackson betray the New Zealand film industry he was so loyal to? Perhaps his previous legal battle with New Line disinclined him to fight the studio system any longer, or his reluctance to direct another epic trilogy bogged him down, or he’s simply a capitalist who just became a billionaire. When he says “all I want to do is make films” while decrying the strike, it’s easy to imagine a Ring-possessed Frodo shouting “all I want to do is make films, Sam!” at his gardener.
It all comes back to the profit motive: the Hobbit trilogy was compromised by corporate greed. Yet before that, The Hobbit was one of the bestselling novels of all time, chronicling ethnic resentment and greed. No one player, even Warner Bros. or MGM, can account for Erebor’s power. The mountain’s haunting extends far beyond its narrative role: Erebor is capital. Few places more impactful exist in Middle-earth. On our Earth, Erebor is more powerful still.