I have recently had some interesting correspondence with Stephen Angelo Vrettos, a student of Commerce and Law at the University of Sydney in Australia. With Stephen’s permission I have combined our comments to make this blog post and invite comments from readers.
Basically, our discussion concerns Tolkien’s changing conception of the course of the River Running near the Lonely Mountain, the location of the ruins of Dale, and the movements of Dain’s dwarves around Bard’s camp of men and Elves. Tolkien’s own drawings show the geographical development, and I copy two of them below (scans lifted from the web, the illustrations are copyright The Tolkien Estate) to illustrate the differences at a glance. The situation across all of Tolkien’s illustrations is complicated, and will be discussed below.
First, Tolkien’s illustration of “Smaug Flies Round the Mountain” (no. 75 in The Art of The Hobbit—see below). You can see the River coming out of the Front Gate of the mountain, going towards the viewer (east) towards Ravenhill, where it turns abruptly to the north, with the ruins of Dale on the west side of the River next to the eastern spur of the mountain. This illustration shows Tolkien’s earlier conception.
Second, Tolkien’s illustration “The Lonely Mountain” (no. 77 in The Art of The Hobbit). Here you can see the River emanating out of the Front Gate, moving east towards Ravenhill, near which it makes an abrupt turn north, followed by an abrupt turns west back towards the mountain, followed by another turn north, and another turn east, leaving the ruins of Dale now located on the east side of the River, with a loop of the River.
Textually, the scenario is also complicated. In the manuscript, as given by John D. Rateliff in The History of The Hobbit, we have this description:
Before setting out to search the western slopes for the hidden door, on which all their hopes rested, Thorin sent out a scouting expedition to spy out the land to the east by the Front Gate. Bilbo went with them—and Balin and Fili and Kili. After a couple of days of silent journey they came back to the Running River, which took a [?sudden>] great western turn and flowed toward the mountain, which stretched out its arms to meet it. The bank was rocky, tall, and steep here, and gazing out from the brink, over the narrow river, foaming and splashing over boulders, they could see in a wide valley shadowed by the mountain’s arms, the grey ruins far-off of ancient [?towers>] houses, towers, and walls.
“There lies all that is left of Dale” said Balin. [p. 472]
This passage seems to describe the scenario visible in “The Lonely Mountain,” but it does not mention the looping of the River Running nor the specific location of Dale.
The text as published in September 1937, in Chapter 11 “On the Doorstep” of the first edition of The Hobbit, reads (bold emphasis added):
Before setting out to search the western spurs of the Mountain for the hidden door, on which all their hopes rested, Thorin sent out a scouting expedition to spy out the land to the South where the Front Gate stood. For this purpose he chose Balin and Fili and Kili, and with them went Bilbo. They marched under the grey and silent cliffs to the feet of Ravenhill. There the river, after winding a wide loop over the valley of Dale, turned from the Mountain on its road to the Lake, flowing swift and noisily. Its bank was bare and rocky, tall and steep above the stream; and gazing out from it over the narrow water, foaming and splashing among many boulders, they could see in the wide valley shadowed by the Mountain’s arms the grey ruins of ancient houses, towers, and walls.
“There lies all that is left of Dale,” said Balin. [The Annotated Hobbit, p. 257]
The change was apparently made at the proof stage. Tolkien corrected the first proofs in March 1937, and the revised proofs in April 1937.
With regard to the illustrations, the River Running and Dale are notable in “Thor’s Map,” and in various versions of “The Front Gate,” “The Lonely Mountain” and “Smaug Flies Round the Mountain.” The easiest way to cover the maps is to use the numbering system in The Art of The Hobbit (2011). There, “Thor’s Map” appears in items numbered 24, 25, 27, 28 and 29. No. 24 is the only page from the first manuscript of The Hobbit, while no. 25 is a more complete drawing that probably circulated with the manuscript. Both 24 and 25 show the Lonely Mountain with North towards the top, and Dale on the east side of the River Running, which does not yet have a loop. No. 26 is a sketch, which positions east at the top, and with Dale located on the west side of the looping River Running. This is followed in no. 27 (final art) and no. 28 (the proof).
No. 63 is the final version of “The Front Gate,” which doesn’t give enough perspective to show the course of the River Running.
No. 83 is an ink map of the Lonely Mountain and surrounding lands, which shows a pencilled correction, adding the loop of the River Running, over the ink original.
There are four versions of “Smaug Flies Round the Mountain” that are relevant. The first two, nos. 74 and 75, both show Dale on the eastern side of the River Running, and one can see the remains of the bridge near Ravenhill. With nos. 76 and 77, the loop is added, and Dale appears on the western side of the River Running, which runs from the Front Gate down to Ravenhill (the remains of the bridge is visible in both drawings), before looping up to the other spur of the mountain and then turning southwards again after Dale (leaving Dale now on the western side of the River).
What is clear from all this is that between December of 1936 (when Tolkien completed some illustrations) and April 1937 when he finished correcting the proofs, his ideas on the location of Dale and the shape of the River Running changed.
What is less clear is how to explain the apparent ambiguities left in the text, particularly about the positioning of the camp of the men of Laketown and the Elves, and the way of passage by Dain and the dwarves coming from the east to the Front Gate.
The question remains as to why Dain’s emissaries needed to cross the River in order to approach the camp of the men of Laketown and the Elves. Here are the appropriate published texts (bold emphases added):
Chapter 15, “The Gathering of the Clouds”
There came a night when suddenly there were many lights as of fires and torches away south in Dale before them.
“They [the men of Laketown and the Elves] have come!” called Balin. “And their camp is very great. They must have come into the valley under the cover of dusk along both banks of the river.”
That night the dwarves slept little. The morning was still pale when they saw a company approaching. From behind their wall they watched them come up to the valley’s head and climb slowly up. Before long they could see that both men of the lake armed as if for war and elvish bowmen were among them. At length the foremost of these climbed the tumbled rocks and appeared at the top of the falls; and very great was their surprise to see the pool before them and the Gate blocked with a wall of new-hewn stone.
As they stood pointing and speaking to one another Thorin hailed them: “Who are you,” he called in a very loud voice, “that come as if in war to the gates of Thorin son of Thrain, King under the Mountain, and what do you desire?”
But they answered nothing. Some turned swiftly back, and the others after gazing for a while at the Gate and its defences soon followed them. That day the camp was moved to the east of the river, right between the arms of the Mountain. The rocks echoed then with voices and with song, as they had not done for many a day. There was the sound, too, of elven-harps and of sweet music; and as it echoed up towards them it seemed that the chill of the air was warmed, and they caught faintly the fragrance of woodland flowers blossoming in spring. [The Annotated Hobbit, p. 320]
Chapter 16, “A Thief in the Night”
As soon as Bombur had gone, Bilbo put on his ring, fastened his rope, slipped down over the wall, and was gone. [. . .]
It was very dark, and the road after a while, when he left the newly made path and climbed down towards the lower course of the stream, was strange to him. At last he came to the bend where he had to cross the water, if he was to make for the camp, as he wished. The bed of the stream was there shallow but already broad, and fording it in the dark was not easy for the little hobbit. He was nearly across when he missed his footing on a round stone and fell into the cold water with a splash. He had barely scrambled out on the far bank, shivering and spluttering, when up came elves in the gloom with bright lanterns and searched for the cause of the noise. [The Annotated Hobbit, p. 328]
Chapter 17, “The Clouds Burst”
Trumpets called men and elves to arms. Before long the dwarves could be seen coming up the valley at a great pace. They halted between the river and the eastern spur; but a few held on their way, and crossing the river drew near the camp; and there they laid down their weapons and held up their hands in sign of peace. Bard went out to meet them, and with him went Bilbo.
“We are sent from Dain son of Nain,” they said when questioned. “We are hastening to our kinsmen in the Mountain, since we learn that the kingdom of old is renewed. But who are you that sit in the plain as foes before defended walls?” This, of course, in the polite and rather old-fashioned language of such occasions, meant simply: “You have no business here. We are going on, so make way or we shall fight you!” They meant to push on between the Mountain and the loop of the river; for the narrow land there did not seem to be strongly guarded.
Bard, of course, refused to allow the dwarves to go straight on to the Mountain.
[. . .] In the camp all was now astir, as if for battle; for the dwarves of Dain were advancing along the eastern bank.
“Fools!” laughed Bard, “to come thus beneath the Mountain’s arm! They do not understand war above ground, whatever they may know of battle in the mines. There are many of our archers and spearmen now hidden in the rocks upon their right flank. Dwarf-mail may be good, but they will soon be hard put to it. Let us set on them now from both sides, before they are fully rested!” [The Annotated Hobbit, pp. 336-338]
The question is: “If Bard’s camp is already situated east of the river, why do Dain’s emissaries need to cross the river in order to approach the camp?”
It appears that the text might follow the original idea of the River Running not having the loop, and thus Dale was on the eastern bank. Adding the loop in the river puts the ruins on the western bank. However, the camp is described (in Chapter 15) as being moved to the east of the river, and right between the arms of the mountain. This apparently means that the camp was moved to the northeastern edge of the peninsula that is circumscribed by the first loop of the Running River, and thus the camp is much nearer to the Front Gate, which is “right between the arms of the mountain.” This leaves one to wonder where Dain’s forces were precisely. Might they have crossed the river from east to west, thereby being on the Dale side of the river, while they were coming round the eastern spur of the Mountain? Thus they would have to cross the river from west to east as it looped up to the north before turning east and running alongside the eastern spur of the Mountain? Again there are ambiguities here.
Two areas of importance to this discussion are marked on this close-up.
The yellow area is where Bard probably set up the main camp. The orange mark highlights the east bank of the loop of the River opposite Dale. It seems that the River runs next to the cliffs of the eastern spur of the mountain. Is there enough room along that eastern bank for Dain’s dwarves to have moved, or might they have had to ford the river somewhere to the right of the orange mark, and thus be on the western/Dale side of the River?
In chapter 17 it is noted that “Runners came in to report that a host of dwarves had appeared round the eastern spur of the Mountain and was now hastening to Dale” [The Annotated Hobbit, p. 336] There is ambiguity here in the phrase “hastening to Dale.” Does this mean that Dain and his dwarves crossed the river and were thus on the western/Dale side of the River? Or are the words just subjective meaning that the dwarves were hastening towards Dale. Tolkien does note later that the dwarves “halted between the river and the eastern spur; but a few held on their way, and crossing the river drew near the camp” [The Annotated Hobbit, p.337]. Which brings up the questions of whether or not Bard kept some men camped on the Dale side of the River, or whether Dain might have sent a party of dwarves across the River while the main army halted east of the River? One expects that Tolkien would have described either scenario more clearly if it had been the case.
Why did Tolkien make these alterations? Might it have been to make it a bit more difficult for Dain to come to the aid of his kinsmen in the Mountain, adding the terrain as one further obstacle? Comments and other interpretations welcomed.