Gloin meets an unfortunate end. Bilbo checks in on FourSquare. / All art courtesy of Aya Padrón.
Bilbo Baggins, a seemingly ordinary yet, as we shall soon see, rather extraordinary little hobbit, lives at Bag End, a modestly proportioned, LEED-certified in-hill construction near the hamlet of Hobbiton. Ah, here he is now, his stocky frame hunched floorward as he removes a tray of organic carroway seed cakes — a personal favorite — from his natural-gas-fired oven…baking and eating being two activities any hobbit is fond of engaging in. Bilbo is comfortably middle class — well-off enough to hire a gardener to tend his vegetable patch, and to keep his home outfitted with the latest in Energy Star appliances, but lacking the wealth needed to relocate (as many of the hobbit 1% have done) to the walled community of Grey Havens out by the bay, with views over the Great Sea so fair one could almost claim to glimpse the towers of Numenor on the horizon. He works from a home office in his hobbit hole as an IT representative, assuring anxious hobbit customers that no, their computer isn’t broken…have they tried restarting it? By night, he scans travel websites, dreaming of how he’ll spend his two weeks of annual vacation, while overlooking the fact that he’s never actually used his vacation time to travel, despite repeatedly and publicly claiming (as anyone who spends more than a few moments within earshot could attest), “I’ve always wanted to visit the Sea of Rhun. You know, they say it’s the hidden gem of the Eastlands.”
Instead, Bilbo enjoys learning about the various places and cultures of Middle Earth through his role as a Couchsurfing host, which, as a matter of fact, is how he winds up meeting a band of 13 raucous dwarves and one aged but clearly mischievous wizard named Gandalf. After their visit had been arranged online, he rather doubted whether the dwarves, in the end, would come to stay at Bag End, knowing as he did how their race prefers sleeping in caves and wouldn’t be fond of the gluten-free / vegan pantry he very clearly advertised on his CS account page. But nonetheless, here they are knocking on the dual-paned smart-glass and reclaimed-river-ferry wood of his hobbit door. When the dwarves, upon entering, start in with an a cappella version of an old folk song, something concerning an ancient technique for manufacturing hammered goblets, the thought crosses Bilbo’s mind that this may be some new species of flash-mob action, and his nose wrinkles.
But no, the dwarves are legitimately on the road, making their way back East to Lonely Mountain, where resides a powerful dragon named Smaug the Golden, who, for the last 200 years or so, in the common reckoning, has been hoarding the most valuable of all modern treasures: technology patents. He now has such a monopoly on the patent market that the ordinarily industrious dwarves are unable to put into production any of their ingenious and delicate round-cornered touchscreen tablets (mobile data plans sold separately) for fear of legal action, and the only solution, in their minds, is to take Smaug’s patents by force. The dwarves tell Bilbo as much — while attempting clandestinely to deposit the hobbit’s no-bake pipe-weed cookies under the rug. Though at first Bilbo doubts the veracity of their tale, a quick Google search confirms the existence of Smaug and the great patent law crisis of Middle Earth, which has been described as “a roadblock to innovation and all that is good on this earth” in the op-eds of the Angmar Times. “Dear me, what a villainous plight,” mumbles the hobbit to himself, shuddering at the mere thought of dragons and armed conflict and trademark legalese. Imagine his shock, then, when the dwarves further reveal they’ve come to Bag End specifically to enlist him for their journey, convinced with dwarven fervor that the services of an IT expert will come in handy when confronting the dragon.
A high-pitched and somewhat unseemly argument ensues, with Bilbo steadfastly refusing the unexpected and, in his mind, overly forthright invitation. But Gandalf knows which button to push (he’s already scanned Bilbo’s browser history with a tap of his magic staff): “Bilbo, my boy, this may be the best chance you ever get in your short and rather inconsequential hobbit life to quit your job and travel the world.” (Yes, the wizard actually has the ability to hyperlink his speech.) Remarkably, this does the trick, but when the dwarves hand Bilbo his plane ticket to Lake Town, eastern hub of Fire Drake Airlines and closest port of call to Lonely Mountain, he turns them down flat: “I want an ‘authentic cultural experience.’ We go on foot, or I don’t go.” Gandalf sighs. Bilbo pulls from a closet and dusts off an 80-liter trekking pack, a never-used graduation gift from his mother (Belladonna Took, herself quite a renowned — or, from the perspective of the average Shire-dweller, infamous — wanderer, as seems to come naturally to most belonging to the Took lineage), double checks a few select webpages he’s bookmarked for just such an unlikely occasion — 40 travel accessories that will prepare you for anything, How to pack food for the backcountry — and the next morning they’re off. Before exiting the Shire’s 4g network coverage, he composes a tweet: “Finally doing it! So excited, and ever so overjoyed to announce to my cousins, the Sackville-Bagginses: suck it. #halflingburn”
The journey gets off to a rocky start when Fili, scouting ahead, is so engrossed in a Spotify playlist that Kili recently shared with him — it has all his favorites: “Ode to Mountaintop Removal,” “The Ballad of Thorin, Son of Thrain, Son of Thror,” etc. — that he doesn’t notice he’s led his companions into a den of Luddite trolls (less sophisticated relatives of the patent trolls of the East, many of which were hired by Smaug in order to amass his patent collection, and promptly eaten on completion of their contracts). After a somewhat uncomfortable few hours where the dwarves are kept in sacks while the three trolls debate how to cook them — Asian fusion vs. “Mordor style” (blackened) — Gandalf is able to distract the trolls relatively easily with a series of YouTube videos depicting kittens playing with balls of elvish twine, until the sun comes up and they’re turned to stone by its heavenly rays.
Following this embarrassing (for the dwarves) and trouser-soiling (for Bilbo) experience, the party is relieved to have the opportunity to spend time relaxing at Rivendell, the super-exclusive 7-star resort of the elves. Gandalf secures them a complimentary private suite by promising Elrond, property manager, favorable coverage in the next issue of Conde Naste. Bilbo, having never before seen the work of elvish masons, marvels at every detail of the hotel’s high-end design features through the pale glow of his smartphone, snapping photos of intricate botanical reliefs, cozy fireplace nooks, and innovative lighting solutions for dark corners, assigning each a clever and logical filename, and wistfully daydreaming about how they will later be cataloged in his ever-growing “Remodel Inspiration” board on Pinterest, which he curates diligently and, some might say, obsessively. Balin, on the other hand, cleaving to a stubborn dwarven aesthetic, is unimpressed, and uses a desktop in the business center to leave an anonymous TripAdvisor review hinting that Rivendell just might have a bedbug problem, closing with, “It’s no Moria.”
Despite Elrond’s generous offer of a digital copy of Middle Earth Trail Atlas (2014 Edition), Gandalf insists on employing Siri-based navigation via his new, unwieldily large (even for a wizard’s pocket) iPhone 6, having been a stalwart devotee to the Apple cause since early in the Third Age. Consequently, soon after the party departs the Last Homely House, they find themselves lost on a high, deserted 4×4 road in the Misty Mountains (the route was abandoned many years earlier upon construction of the Luthien Tunnel, a wonder of modern elvish engineering). They take shelter from a sudden snowstorm in a cave, not realizing the cavity is actually a disguised entrance to a top-secret military technology development laboratory, run under the auspices of a cloak-and-dagger government agency, codenamed “Necromancer.”
Immediately, security goblins equipped with night-vision and tasers set upon the party, subduing and transporting them to a holding area deep under the mountains. They later manage to escape, but Bilbo becomes separated and, after hours of aimless wandering, unwittingly stumbles upon the latest in computer-generative security systems, the Ghastly and Odious Long-Lived Underground Minion, or “Gollum,” a technology so cunning it can only be unlocked through the answering of riddles. However, it so happens Bilbo is an especially talented riddler, and after running through a repertoire of some of Middle Earth’s finest head-scratchers, defeats Gollum to obtain the most precious prototype in the entire facility: a golden ring that renders the wearer invisible. (It will later be suggested by multiple government watchdog agencies that the ring was forged using no small amount of black magic, an allegation that Necromancer and its political supporters have yet to confirm or deny.) Just before rejoining the dwarves on the eastern slopes of the Misty Mountains, Bilbo updates his FB status: “What has 10 hairy toes and kills at riddles? This hobbit.”
Inexplicably still pulling from his iPhone, Gandalf passes the dwarves sketchy directions for the upcoming trek through Mirkwood National Forest before taking his leave of the little folk — he must catch a flight to Wizard-BEX ’14, being held this year in Isengard, where he has been tapped to deliver the keynote: “10 Best Maiar WordPress Themes.” Now wizard-less as well as map-less, the party quickly becomes disoriented in Mirkwood and spends days tramping in circles, hungry, thirsty, and demoralized. “What would Bear Grylls do?” wonders Thorin aloud in his gruff baritone. Bombur decides the answer is to drink from a river whose water has clearly been contaminated by runoff from a ‘clean bitumen’ plant upstream in Ered Mithrin. Needless to say, they are all in pretty rough shape when a scouting party of wood elves discovers them and takes them prisoner — all except Bilbo, who uses his cloaking technology to avoid detection.
Still invisible, Bilbo forces his weakened, stubby legs, capped by what at this point are mud-caked and fungally compromised hiking boots, to keep pace with the swift, light strides of the elves, at last following them through the stone gates of their woodland fortress. Many days pass, the dwarves held for ransom in the dungeon, Bilbo living incognito within the elvish halls, pilfering food to regain his strength, updating his resume, publishing a stream of wordy yet rather trite blog posts on the trials of travel abroad (it’s around this time that friends and family back in the Shire begin to quietly block his Facebook updates), and devising a plan of escape. Said plan, when finally put into action, involves springing the dwarves from their cells and concealing them inside barrels of all-grain, craft-brewed, thrice-hopped elvish ale, which the elves regularly ship via raft down the Forest River to the shores of Long Lake and the bustling tourist bars of Lake Town (which, it turns out, are primarily frequented by the wood elves themselves, who, with their considerable old-money wealth, often sojourn to Lake Town to ‘get away from it all’).
And so it is that, a full month after their originally booked airfare would have delivered them there, Bilbo and the dwarves arrive at the settlement of Lake Town, gateway to Lonely Mountain. The hobbit is taken by a sudden spell of giddiness in realizing the geographical accuracy of these monikers: “I see, I see — the town is in fact constructed on a network of wooden piers above the waters of the lake, and the mountain stands tall yet isolated, utterly removed from any greater range…” “I realize you do not share my command of foreign languages, Bilbo,” Thorin grandiosely interjects, “but these sites are more accurately called, in the old tongue, Esgaroth and Erebor, respectively.” The next time Thorin logs into Snapchat, he notices, a scowl cutting a fissure across the igneous geology of his face, that Bilbo has deleted him from his friends list.
Bilbo and the dwarves set out on their final trek, tracing the River Running to its source on the southerly slopes of Lonely Mountain, passing as they do charred expanses that once were lush meadows, a phenomenon of destruction cited by some as evidence of Smaug’s ruthlessness, by others as inarguable proof of global warming. Entering via the front gate of the mountain hold seems far too risky, but fortunately Thorin, who spent his childhood here, holed up in his room playing Middle Earth’s earliest first-person shooter games as his longbearded elders lamented the demise of dwarf culture, knows of a second, secret point of access, which leads directly into the great patent storeroom, and the lair of the dragon himself. The dwarf leader, in a moment of meta-existentialism upon considering that this story is called The Hobbit and not The Thirteen Dwarves, selects Bilbo for the role of reconnoiterer and, if the opportunity arises, burglar. Forever outnumbered 13-1 in the decision making process, the hobbit acquiesces.
Stale and formidably dark is the tight tunnel that conveys Bilbo to Smaug’s chamber, where he notices with immense relief that the dragon lies in deep slumber. He avails himself of the opportunity to peruse the shelves and shelves of patents: “No. 109396-B – Concerning the display of commercial links rendered in verdana font within the text of an email;” “No. 45302-F – Concerning any app which, in the interpretation of the patent holder, denigrates, or attempts to denigrate, the reputation of the elves of the race of Avari, or any likenesses thereof…” Though Bilbo may be in possession of extensive IT expertise, his skills fail him in the parsing of such obtuse and legalistic language; it’s as if the patents were written in the cursed tongue of the Dark Lord himself. Grasping at random, he pulls a single patent file, stuffs it haphazardly into his tunic pocket, and begins to make his way back to the tunnel entrance.
But what’s this? Bilbo, naturally curious as hobbits are (though they continuously attempt to deny it), can’t help but survey the majestic bulk that is Smaug — the sword-like lances of his teeth, the cruel razors of his claws, the rich weight and seeming impenetrability of the scales covering his limbs, back, and underbelly…and there it is. A single missing scale on Smaug’s left breast, a framed patch of skin as bare as it must have been at the dragon’s birth. Bilbo, feeling this intel may be of some significant import to someone other than himself, quickly pulls out his phone and snaps a photo. But alas, he has neglected to switch the sound profile to “stealth,” and the artificial shutter effect that emanates from the device reverberates with force around the stone chamber. Instantly the dragon awakens and, spying the thief and the purloined patent certificate, erupts in a fury of fire that singes the hobbit’s backside as he flees for his life through the tunnel.
No sooner has Bilbo rejoined his companions and commenced in a somewhat comical stop-drop-and-roll, than an enraged Smaug bursts through the side of the mountain, spouting fire and rising with haste on the force of the gales whipped up by his muscular wings, which swiftly propel him in a straight path towards Lake Town — in his mind, the obvious point of origin of the dastardly patent thief. Smaug’s transit is lightning-quick, but the 4g lte blanket network of Rhovanion is quicker. Bilbo pulls out his phone, opens his newly captured image file, and texts it, with a speed only well-practiced hobbit thumbs can achieve, to Bard, vocal Tea Party leader and resident gun nut of Lake Town. The message is received just as Smaug begins to rain fire on the wooden structures (truly an unfortunate construction decision, made specifically to give the tourist destination that ‘quaint’ feel) of the settlement. Bard, overjoyed at the opportunity to test out his newly purchased black-market Oliphaunt rifle in the field, grips the weapon with purposeful hands, takes aim at the miniscule target on the dragon’s chest as he makes another destructive pass, inhales sharply, and fires. Following a roar so deafening it is reportedly heard echoing off the turrets of Minas Tirith, far to the south, Smaug plummets in a death shroud of fire and smoke into the waters of Long Lake, taking most of the town with him.
Back at the mountain, the hobbit and dwarves receive the news of Smaug’s demise in near real time, thanks to the handful of Lake Town survivors with active Twitter accounts. Thorin and company are jubilant, running back into the mountain and literally frolicking (quite unseemly behavior for dwarves) among the millions and millions of patent sheets, but what they fail to consider is that, now unguarded, the patent cache is already being targeted for capture by forces other than their own. Within a day, the elves of Mirkwood (still aggravated by the escape of the dwarves, as well as the loss of their finest ale casks), the remaining residents of Lake Town (understandably incensed by the destruction of their home), and the goblins of the Misty Mountains (having discovered Bilbo’s theft of their most precious prototype), among others, have converged on Lonely Mountain, making ready for war.
What results will come to be known as the Battle of Five Armies, in which the ‘good’ races (or, to certain revisionist Middle Earth historical scholars, those left standing to tell the tale) vanquish the ‘evil,’ though in the process losing many of their number, including Thorin, leader of the dwarves. Bilbo, unabashedly concluding that this is not his fight, cowers behind a boulder throughout the fray, periodically peering out over the carnage to observe and commentate for his livecast of the event, transmitted back to an eager audience in Hobbiton. Gazing into the front-facing camera on his tablet, he sums it up: “War is hell,” just before a particularly voluminous spray of orc blood splatters across his face and he loses consciousness. (Years later, this three-word judgment will be used against Bilbo by several of his opponents in a Republican primary for the Shire mayoral race, discrediting him among the hardliners and chickenhawks of his party and costing him the nomination.)
When at last Bilbo comes to, and sees that the battle is over, and that he has lost many friends, he quickly decides that he’s had quite enough of travel for a while, thank you very much. The remaining dwarves, now doling out patents to those who fought on their side, offer him as many as he can carry, though he settles for just two small sacks’ full, confident the licensing fees these will bring him will ensure he never has to work another day in his life. Thus, he promptly books a one-way ticket back to Hobbiton — on Southwest, of course, where hobbit sacks always fly free — and within the day is safely ensconced at Bag End once more, content to go on baking carroway seed cakes and reading the travel tales of others…until the next band of Couchsurfers sweeps him up with an unanticipated proposal of true, hobbit-life-altering, adventure.
This post was originally published in December of 2012.