Names: Lake-town, Esgaroth (“Sindarized” word; untranslated)
Description: A quay market town on the Long Lake, south of Erebor, built on the ruins of an earlier settlement, possibly Esgaroth. It is founded by descendants of Dale, who use the lakeside spot to make a modest living trading with Dorwinion and the Woodland Realm. The town is governed by an elected Master. After the Lake-men assist Thorin Oakenshield in his quest to Erebor, Smaug destroys Lake-town and is killed by Bard, a local bowman and descendant of Dale’s former lord Girion. Bard leads the Lake-men in a hard-won alliance with the Dwarves of Erebor and Wood-elves of Mirkwood, after which he rebuilds Dale and Lake-town as King of Dale. By the time Elrond convenes his own personal Yalta Conference to deal with Sauron, Lake-town is just a slice of Dale’s thriving kingdom.
Shooting location in Wingnut Films’ adaptations: Stone Street Studios, Miramar, Wellington
In its lone ‘onstage’ appearance in The Hobbit, Lake-town perches on the Long Lake, built on “rotting piles of a greater town [which] could still be seen along the shores when the waters sank in a drought” (The Hobbit, “A Warm Welcome”). Some of its younger denizens, who’ve never experienced Dale’s prosperity or seen Erebor in its heyday, “openly doubted the existence of any dragon in the mountain”. Under an ineffective and avaricious Master, Lake-town profits off the Lake’s trade while lacking the wealth or power of its neighbors, Erebor and Mirkwood. When Smaug destroys Lake-town, he plunges its people into true poverty and dispossession. His killer, Bard, saves the Lake-people by reviving their ancestral power.
Prior to its sacking, Lake-town is reasonably lucrative; it “still throve on the trade that came up the great river from the South and was carted past the falls to their town” (‘A Warm Welcome’). It plays liaison for Dorwinion, the wine-makers’ land, and Mirkwood’s Woodland Realm, its customer; Dorwinion floats its wine in barrels up the Running River to Lake-town, whose people transport the barrels up the stream, deliver them to Mirkwood, and then retrieve them when the Wood-elves send them downstream. Tolkien does not indicate whether the Lake-men drink any Dorwinion wine themselves.
In Smaug’s time, Lake-town has neighbors but lacks allies. Whereas Dale’s prosperity was inextricable from its friendship with the Erebor dwarves, Lake-town’s trade is buffeted by “the bickering of the Lake-men and the Wood-elves about the upkeep of the Forest River and the care of the banks” (‘A Warm Welcome’). The Master’s initial skepticism of Thorin and company partially stems from that fact that “the Elvenking [Thranduil] was very powerful in those parts and the Master wished for no enmity with him” (‘A Warm Welcome’). Lake-town rests precariously on the lake of Wilderland class society; it’s not at war with anyone, but its deference to external power cuts against Tolkien’s utopian monarchism.
Lake-town also has an internal class society, illustrated by its socially stratified architecture (a rare piece of social realism from Tolkien). The town’s marketplace, a “wide circle of quiet water”, is “surrounded by the tall piles on which were built the greater houses”, with “one great hall” in its nexus (‘A Warm Welcome’). With a real basis in neolithic Swiss lake-dwellings (the movie blends this with hints of Venetian canals, Russian wooden architectures, and Norwegian stave churches), Lake-town bends the rules of physics somewhat (could a giant hall sit on a lake?) to political function, using Lake-town’s stratified class society to comment on electoral governance.
Tolkien’s legendarium has few elected officials, one of them a hero — Samwise Gamgee is elected mayor of the Shire seven times after the quest to Mordor — while others are more like the Master of Lake-town (The Hobbit doesn’t say who elects the Master). John D. Rateliff ties the Master’s title to Middle English burgomasters and heads of Oxford colleges (maybe Tolkien wanted to strangle some smug academic).
A corrupt government official, the Master exemplifies Tolkien’s antipathy to democracy, fleeing Lake-town when Smaug arrives with no thought for his people. “Being of the kind that easily catches” the “dragon sickness,” the Master is ultimately killed by his own greed when Bard gives him some of Erebor’s gold, as he “fled with it, and died of starvation in the Waste, deserted by his companions” (The Hobbit, ‘The Last Stage’). In a way, Bard does Lake-town a favor here; the Master is replaced by a new Master “of wiser kind” who makes “the rivers run with gold” (‘The Last Stage’). Tolkien curiously avoids tarring elected officials with a single brush, but Lake-town languishes because it is cut off from its ancestral power.
Screenwriter and producer Philippa Boyens correctly identifies one of The Hobbit’s themes as “the notion of leadership and bad leadership.” Boyens and company have odd ideas of exploring that, as the Hobbit trilogy’s portrayal of the Master exchanges Tolkien’s metaphysics of power for Stephen Fry eating goats’ testicles. In a late career return to pseudo-intellectual form (similar to his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes’ brother Mycroft in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), Fry plays the Master as a pseudo-Blackadder caricature of power who spouts cutting bits of satirical dialogue to his advisor Alfrid (one of the Hobbit trilogy’s more cursed creations) like “they’re commoners, Alfrid, they’ve always been ugly” and “all this talk of change must be suppressed.”
In Fry’s defense, he is not the only participant sucking balls here. It would be nice if he weren’t touring with beef steak-addicted cryptofascist Jordan Peterson preaching the destructive effects of cancel culture, but screenwriters Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Peter Jackson are primarily responsible for The Hobbit’s weaksauce political satire (we can let the absent Guillermo del Toro off the hook). The political commentary amounts to “tee-hee, aren’t politicians unscrupulous bastards?”, robbing Lake-town of the book’s subtle economic and political commentary.
The commentary is also strikingly homophobic, indicating an intimate relationship between the Master and Alfrid which is played for laughs, from the Master chewing on ram’s balls to a promotional photo of Alfrid kneeling in front of the Master’s groin, looking at the camera and rubbing his lips suggestively. Fry, who is gay, doesn’t seem to have commented on this dynamic.
Most strikingly, The Hobbit pillories corrupt politicians after New Zealand’s National government handed Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema a labor law under notoriously corrupt circumstances (the so-called ‘Hobbit Law’). Yet in The Hobbit’s Appendices, Jackson has the audacity to compare the Master to real-world government officials. “Unfortunately in our world, when you say ‘the consummate politician’, you never think of a noble person. You actually think of someone kind of manipulative and sleazy and lying and looking after themselves.” Telling words from a now-billionaire who begged a sovereign government to change its labor laws to benefit his movies.
Lake-town near-exactly marks the moment the Hobbit trilogy declines in quality. After An Unexpected Journey works nearly perfectly, and some interesting (if flawed) sequences in Mirkwood and Dol Guldur, Lake-town is where The Desolation of Smaug becomes padded, contrived, and messy. “This middle chapter has to add to the complications [of the trilogy],” said Jackson. “We had to introduce new characters, new conflict, and Lake-town was an ideal opportunity to do that.”
As we’ve shown before, The Hobbit had an obscenely rampant production. Lake-town’s set was rebuilt five times. There were numerous reshoots; scenes in Lake-town were shot in August and September 2011, during the second block of principal photography, then more filming was done between February and April 2012, and more scenes were done as pickup shoots in mid-2013. With the films’ additions of Tauriel’s love triangle, the Master/Alfrid subplot, and Bard’s role, upgraded from the book, Lake-town’s structural role is lumpy, including an out-of-place action sequence in The Desolation of Smaug’s pseudo-climax, and The Battle of the Five Armies’s opening destruction of the town. Perhaps the films’ tormented production schedule couldn’t handle a place as subtly strange as Esgaroth.
In the book, Lake-town’s appearance is surprisingly brief. Its presence before its fall is quieter. Bard doesn’t even doesn’t appear until the 14th of The Hobbit’s 19th chapters, where he’s introduced as “a grim-voiced fellow” whose first words herald Lake-town’s dragon apocalypse:
Suddenly [Erebor] flickered back to view; a brief glow touched it and faded.
“Look!” said one. “The lights again! Last night the watchmen saw them start and fade from midnight until dawn. Something is happening up there.”
“Perhaps the King under the Mountain is forging gold,” said another. “It is long since he went North. It is time the songs began to prove themselves again.”
“Which king?” said another with a grim voice. “As like as not it is the marauding fire of the Dragon, the only king under the Mountain we have ever known.”The Hobbit, ‘Fire and Water’
The fellow with the grim voice betrays more disaffection with the powers that be than any other character in The Hobbit. The man is pure Lake-town: a simple contrivance to perform a function that ultimately redefines the book it appears in. Initially intending to kill off Bard, Tolkien wrote the character to solve the other characters’ logistical inability to kill Smaug, but ultimately kept him for the story’s climax, allowing Bard to mediate for Lake-town and redeem its people.
In this process, Bard becomes Lake-town’s voice and a tie to its past. He rejects the Lake-men calling him “King Bard” after he kills Smaug, a title he rejects because “Girion was lord of Dale, not king of Esgaroth”’: ‘let ‘King Bard’ go back to his own kingdom— Dale is now freed by his valour.” (The Hobbit, ‘Fire and Water’). Bard’s character arc elapses over just one sequence; he’s earned his kingdom, now it’s time for him to rebuild it and establish his stature by declaring himself to Thorin and Thranduil.
In the films, Luke Evans’ morose Bard is an Aragorn stand-in, a fact highlighted by his Viggo Mortensen-esque visage of long dark hair, stubble, and a ranger’s somber vigilance. The film expands his role significantly, wisely introducing him much earlier (he picks up the Company on Mirkwood’s border) and makes him Lake-town’s laughing stock for Girion’s failure. The film savvily highlights the character’s place in Tolkien’s tradition of characters making amends for their ancestors’ failures, and yet his similarity to Aragorn (repeatedly emphasized in the Appendices) does him a disservice.
Yet Tolkien and Jackson both apparently miss the full ramifications of Bard’s defining act. Yes, he kills Smaug, and this sets him on the path to leadership that makes him King of Dale: the plot is pretty clear-cut in both book and movie. Yet both texts ignore the crucial fact that Smaug appears to be the last dragon. Smaug, a survivor of the Grey Mountains, flees from the North and sacks Erebor on his own. Every other dragon attack story in Tolkien involves a phalanx of dragons. Why would Smaug fly to Wilderland alone if he was still a pack animal?
Smaug considers every death fair game, a notch in his belt of wealth and slaughter. Bilbo’s break-in to Erebor prompts him to suspect “some nasty scheme of those tub-trading Lake-men, or I’m a lizard” (The Hobbit, ‘Fire and Water’). His destruction of Lake-town, a place constructed to be fireproof, is unparalleled in Tolkien: “fire leaped from thatched roofs and wooden beam-ends as he hurtled down and past and round again, though all had been drenched with water before he came” (‘Fire and Water’). Smaug sadistically destroys bridges and corners the Lake-men, wholly intending to genocide them. He is a literal apocalypse to the Lake-men.
Bard has no recourse but to kill Smaug. His black arrow is the shibboleth that saves the surviving Lake-men, and (in the long term) probably the dwarves. But his defining act of heroism is locked into the consequences of history: when Bard kills Smaug, he kills the last dragon. In a single act, he saves his people and wipes out a species. Through a courageous act of self-determination, Bard renders himself and Smaug mere cogs in the machine of history.
Lake-town’s sacrifice empowers its people; their apocalypse is transactional. The market-town goes on the market; Smaug destroys it, and by killing him, Bard purchases his people’s freedom. Dragon and bowman alike are hemmed in by history: when capital and racial sectarianism define people’s futures, history itself has been bought and sold for a pittance of one crown.