grand blog tarkin: there and back again: middle earth’s insurgency and the organization of violence

This post, on Thorin Oakenshield’s counter-Smaug insurgency, was originally published at Grand Blog Tarkin, a poliscifi blog.

“Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!,” bellows the Dragon, as the nimble-footed Hobbit scampers from his gold-bedecked lair. So begins Bilbo’s brief encounter with Smaug, the scourge of Dwarvish civilization. According to Tolkien’s legendarium, Dragons have maintained a mixed relationship with Sauron’s dark powers, reflecting a diversity of motives for inter-civilizational violence. Smaug’s seizure of Thror’s Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, stems from opportunistic banditry, as distinct from his successors’ annihilationism. Smaug’s intentions, however, have little impact on the scale of his invasion, which terrorized Erebor’s Dwarvish inhabitants, as well as the Men of Esgaroth, the valley’s township. For one-hundred and fifty years, Smaug slept, and napped, and dozed, and every-so-often, preened himself on his kleptomania.

As compelling as Peter Jackson’s computer-generated dragoneering may be, Tolkien’s death of Smaug is, by all readings, a marginal event. Bilbo’s intelligence-gathering effort, mentioned above, is operationally successful, revealing the Dragon’s physical vulnerabilities. Smaug seeks vengeance against the Men of Dale, whom the Dragon casts as disruptive Quislings. In an unusual occurrence in Middle Earth warfare, Smaug’s assault is a limited engagement, as Bard the Bowman pierced the Dragon’s underbelly. Of course, Bard’s defense of Dale permits limited relief; soon after Smaug’s death, an Orc horde swarms Erebor, prompting the Battle of Five Armies. If Smaug’s death bore local relevance, the impact of the Battle of Five Armies was cataclysmic. According to Tolkien’s narration, the Elves, Men, and Dwarves vanquished more than three-quarters of the North’s Orc population, a decisive victory. The counter-Orc coalition’s warfighting logic transforms a century of Middle Earth’s geopolitics, as Jon Jeckell’s survey of the War of the Ring details.

Tolkien’s sprawling, grand-strategic analysis of the Battle of Five Armies overshadows a micro-perspective towards discreet violence. Tolkien’s Hobbit, the Five Armies’ chronicle, is quick to highlight the post-Five Armies unity of Elves, Men, and Dwarves, forged against the Orcs’ assault. The counter-Orc coalition equitably distributes Erebor’s spoils, recaptured from the Dragon’s lair. The successful conclusion of the Battle of the Five Armies reaffirms the existence of a “free peoples of Middle Earth,” an infrequent conglomeration of Elves, Men, and Dwarves. If we backtrack, however, corrosive, if justified resource squabbles comprise the aftermath of Smaug’s demise, a marked contrast to the triumphant, trans-civilization harmony of the post-Five Armies scene. Throughout the Quest of Erebor, Thorin’s Dwarvish company lays claim to both their mining kingdom and its riches. The Dwarves’ hereditary authority bears little relevance to the Men of Dale, who request a compensatory share of Erebor’s gold, due to the Dragon’s rampant, wanton destruction of Esgaroth. When Thorin rejects Bard’s claim, the Lake-men lay siege to Erebor, requesting assistance from Thranduil’s Wood-Elves. While Tolkien introduces the subsequent scuffle as a prelude to the Battle of Five Armies, the siege of Erebor is likely more revealing of the counter-Smaug insurgency’s internal politics.

Tolkien describes the fragmentation of the counter-Smaug insurgency as a moral failure: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world,” laments Thorin, following the Battle of Five Armies. In this way, Tolkien occupies a stark posture towards the civil conflict literature: greed, rather than grievance, drives Middle Earth’s violence. As Michael Ross conveys, the early civil conflict literature’s greed/grievance dichotomy is dated, both in its underemphasis on the particularism of resource types, as well as how violent organizations manipulate illicit economies. While gold’s influence is apparently significant, the counter-Smaug insurgency’s organizational structure may prove more significant, in keeping with recent scholarship on the “organization of rebellion.”

The Dwarvish company–Thorin Oakenshield, Gloin, Oin, Ori, Nori, Dori, Dwalin, Balin, Kili, Fili, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur–is a familial organization, crafted in accordance with a broad edition of Thorin’s family tree. From a non-fantastical perspective, we can draw parallels to a criminal mafia, which often relies on hereditary networks to distribute resources, facilitate violence, and shape strategic decision-making. Thorin’s Dwarves create a formative nucleus of the counter-Smaug insurgency, which in its initial form maintains dual objectives: Smaug’s eradication, and the seizure of Erebor’s riches. As Bilbo burglars Smaug’s lair, the Dwarves form a temporary, informal coalition with Bard’s Lake-men, who possess the manpower with which to vanquish Smaug. The insurgency organization, however, lacks an “overlapping social base,” which Paul Staniland describes as a prerequisite for cohesive politics–the partnership relies on rent-seeking opportunism, rather than a communal logic. As the organization’s decentralization mounts, the incoherence of the insurgency’s political organization gives way to its second objective, prompting infighting and internal fragmentation.

In keeping with Tolkien’s moralistic standpoint, Bilbo’s crafty extraction of the Arkenstone, the crown-jewel of Erebor’s cache, allows Middle Earth’s free peoples to reach a negotiated settlement. Consistent with BlogTarkin’s recent tack towards alt-history, further poliscifi researchers may find it useful to conceptualize alternative trajectories of the counter-Smaug insurgency’s internal conflict mitigation.

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