Friday, December 27, 2013

how to kill a dragon

[SPOILER WARNING! Don't read this post unless you've seen the new "Hobbit" movie!]

I mentioned, in my review of "The Desolation of Smaug," that I had found the battle between the dwarves and Smaug in the caverns of Erebor confusing. What boggled my mind most was Thorin's apparent strategy: lure Smaug into the great thronehall, the Hall of Kings, and bury Smaug under a deluge of molten gold. As strategies go, this didn't strike me as particularly wise or workable, but it's apparently what Thorin was going for. I wrote:

How exactly does one fight a massive, talking, evil-tempered dragon? The dwarves know their way around Erebor, and elect to lead the dragon into the furnace-chamber, where the forges are. Smaug is goaded into re-lighting the forges, which allows the dwarves to melt metal and send it sluicing toward the dragon. It's not a very good tactic, as tactics go; the dragon's movements are unpredictable, and Erebor's immense interior gives Smaug the chance to move about freely. It's the final part of the battle, though, that truly confuses me. The dwarves lead Smaug into the main thronehall. Together, they tug on the chains attached to a huge stone structure, which turns out to be the cover for an enormous, solid-gold statue of a dwarf—probably a famous ruler. The stones covering the golden statue fall away; Smaug, for whatever reason, turns around and watches the statue as it's revealed, then is mesmerized by the sheer amount of gold it must contain. As if on cue, the statue suddenly liquefies, pouring itself onto the floor of the thronehall and covering Smaug, seemingly burying him. Smaug is not so easily defeated, though, and only moments later he emerges from the golden muck, a beautiful aureate version of himself. He drags himself out of the mountain, flapping his wings and managing to gain enough altitude to shake himself free of all the liquid gold. He then makes his way to Lake-town to exact his revenge on the people who helped the dwarves, rumbling, "I am fire! I am death!" Bilbo, watching Smaug depart, asks faintly, "What have we done?" The battle with the dragon was visually splendid, but that bit with the golden statue failed to make any sense to me. How did the dwarves get the statue to melt so suddenly? How, in the midst of all that chaos, did they time the statue's melting so perfectly? What was that statue doing, sitting so close to the furnaces, if it could melt so easily? And gold is a soft metal: wouldn't a statue of pure gold collapse under its own weight? None of this made any sense to me. Perhaps a nerd's explanation in defense of this scene might involve dwarvish enchantments on the statue, keeping it solid until the sheer heat from the furnaces broke through the magic, releasing a torrent of gold into the thronehall. But no mention was made of any enchantments, so the battle scene played out somewhat nonsensically. That, by the way, is my only major complaint about the film. It's too bad this problem appears so close to the end.

Charles read my review after writing his own, and emailed me the following response:

I just read your review, and I see that you were confused about what was going on in that scene, especially when it came to the statue. What happened there was this: Smaug's fire lit the forges, which melted down the gold that had solidified in the furnaces (even though it didn't look at all like gold, and instead looked like maybe steel with a lot of impurities on the surface). Then I think it was Bilbo who pulled a lever that released all the gold into the system of troughs. This is when Thorin grabbed the shield and body surfed the river of gold (and yes, I agree, he should have been severely burned). Remember at the end, when the river of gold runs over a ledge and cascades down into a hole? This is the point where Thorin jumps off the shield and lands on top of a pile of rock. That pile of rock is actually a mold into which the gold is being poured to create the statue. When Thorin orders the dwarves to release the bonds, they pull apart the mold, leaving the mostly molten statue still standing there. When the incredible heat of the molten gold melts the outer part that had solidified, the whole statue melts.

So that's what happened. It's still ridiculous, of course, but mainly because there is no way the statue should have been able to support itself for as long as it did. I've thought about it some more, though, and I suppose there is technically a way that this might have worked: there could have been a hollow and relatively thin-skinned statue inside of the mold already, and the molten gold was poured into that. Thus the statue would have remained standing until the heat of the molten gold overcame the structural integrity of the original statue. That's reaching quite a bit, though, because how exactly would they have built a hollow statue inside the mold? Or would they have made the statue first and then put the rocks around it (but if so, why?). I suspect that what we were supposed to believe is that the molten gold that came into contact with the rock mold solidified, leaving a molten core, and then collapsed. Perhaps there was a bit of cinematic time-stretching going on, and the statue only stood for a split-second before collapsing. It still seems rather unlikely to me, though, because I don't think the brief time that the gold was in the mold was long enough for even a surface layer to solidify--the rocks would have heated up quickly and reached equilibrium with the gold. Anyway, we're now at the quibbling stage, but that should at least help clear up the confusion.

I just re-watched "The Desolation of Smaug," and I specifically watched for (1) whether Thorin was, in fact, "body-surfing" on a river of gold (he was in a wheelbarrow when he did it—Barrow-rider!); and (2) whether all the molten gold was being poured into that great stone mold, i.e., the golden statue wasn't something pre-made that had been heated to the melting point by the furnaces. Charles is correct: Thorin's little surfing excursion does take place on a river of gold, and all the gold from all the cisterns atop all the furnaces is made to melt and to flow into the giant stone mold of the dwarf king. The mold is yanked open when Smaug is tempted into the thronehall, and the statue, which is basically molten gold that has temporarily held its shape, collapses and washes over the dragon.

There are a few things to note about Thorin's plan. First, it relied on the dwarves' being able to goad Smaug into the thronehall. Smaug, for all his intelligence, shares with Khan Noonien Singh (actor Benedict Cumberbatch played Khan in "Star Trek Into Darkness" and was also the voice of Smaug in "Desolation") a certain hubris, which makes him easy to manipulate. Thorin taunts Smaug at several points, calling him "fat" and a "witless worm." The dwarves split up to increase their chances of survival, and separately yet collectively lead Smaug into the Hall of Kings. Second, the mold had been placed in the thronehall for a totally other purpose: to establish the golden statue as a tribute to Erebor's ruler, or as a tribute to rulers past. Thorin must have remembered that this was the case. Third, because gold is a soft metal, no statue that huge could possibly have stood on its own for long, even after cooling down, had it been made of pure gold. This means that the gold in the cisterns above the furnaces had to be an alloy.

What this implies, in terms of physics and chemistry, I don't know; I'm not a scientist. Can a gold alloy harden so fast, once poured into a mold, that it'll retain its shape for at least a few seconds if the mold is removed? Or were we, the audience, witnessing yet another cringe-inducing example of what I like to call "Hollywood physics" (see here and here)? Perhaps it doesn't matter: Thorin's plan was for the gold to wash over Smaug, which means that Thorin himself may have expected the molten metal to slump instantly. The fact that the golden statue kept its shape for a moment was also what caused Smaug to stop and stare: Tolkien's dragons are fascinated by anything gold, and that statue represented a prodigious achievement. Was Thorin gambling on the statue's retaining its shape long enough to give the dragon pause?

I'm still not convinced that Thorin's plan was a good one. Perhaps it was the best that he could do, given the circumstances, and given his refusal to die cowering like the last of his people inside Erebor. But there seemed to be something awfully contrived and Rube Goldbergian about Thorin's attempt to bury Smaug under molten gold. Think about it: how long would it take for the stone mold to fill with molten gold? And how long would it take to coax Smaug from the furnaces into the Hall of Kings? The dwarves, with their deep knowledge of stone- and metal-lore, doubtless knew, down to the second, how long the mold would take to fill, but there was no guarantee that they would be able to entice Smaug into the thronehall within that time frame. That, for me, is the central implausibility with Thorin's plan. And because this is a problem with story logic, it erodes suspension of disbelief.*

It's a shame the dwarves didn't have some sort of bomb. They did fashion something like grenades, which they cast down upon Smaug to annoy him and to draw him toward the Hall of Kings, but nothing on the order of the magical bomb we see in "Dragonslayer": the resurrected wizard Ulrich himself, whose life-force is tied to Galen's amulet. Ulrich allows himself to be carried off by Vermithrax; Galen smashes the amulet when it begins to glow brightly; Ulrich explodes in a fireball of unleashed magical potency, and the dragon is felled in mid-flight. If only the Arkenstone could have been made to explode, eh?

*Note, too, that the Hall of Kings was cavernous enough for Smaug to flap his wings and hover above the molten gold. He should have been led to a smaller chamber. The only problem with that plan is that the huge golden statue wasn't in a smaller chamber. Thorin couldn't guarantee that Smaug wouldn't hover. He also couldn't guarantee that Smaug wouldn't leap backward to avoid the onrush of gold and burst out of the hall, into the open air—as he eventually did.



  1. Was it a wheelbarrow? I thought it was a shield, but it happened so fast that I don't really remember. Whatever the case, it still wouldn't have been enough to protect him from the heat of the molten metal.

    As for suspension of disbelief, I would say that if you are going to accept Jackson's reworking of Tolkien, you may want to go the extra step and accept that he is very over-the-top, often to the point of ridiculousness. The overland portion of Bombur's ride in the barrel, for example, was no less ridiculous in terms of the sheer coincidental physics involved, not to mention what bouncing and spinning along at that speed would do to a living creature. Granted, it does not nearly have as much importance in the story, but it is just as unlikely.

  2. I can accept Bombur-physics more readily than statue-physics (or Thorin's statue-strategy) mainly because Bombur's hillside roll didn't really present me any problems with story logic: it was just a cartoonish moment in the story that made the kids in the audience (and me) laugh. Sure, there's a lot in this trilogy that's implausible and requiring acceptance/suspension of disbelief, but where does one draw the line? At talking, sapient spiders? At the very existence of elves, dwarves, hobbits, dragons, and wizards?

    For me, acceptance of Peter Jackson's project means, in this trilogy's case, accepting that Jackson's decided to own the story more fully and present us with his idiosyncratic and very non-canonical take on it. He's not interested, this time around, in creating a homage to Tolkien; he's got his own agenda, which seems to involve tying this story intimately into his filmic "The Lord of the Rings." Acceptance of that doesn't mean blind acceptance of every aspect of Jackson's work, especially not those aspects that create more questions than they answer.

    My view, anyway.

  3. Oh, yeah: it was a wheelbarrow. There are a few seconds devoted to tracking Thorin as he grabs the wheelbarrow and runs it among Smaug's legs as he makes his way to one of the streams of molten gold. I was reminded of "the kid" in "The Matrix Revolutions" whose job is to ferry ammo out to Captain Mifune in the field of battle.

    As for who pulls the lever to release the gold: I'm not sure who pulls it, although I'm pretty sure it wasn't Bilbo: he had been tasked with pulling the lever that sent water cascading onto the water wheel (and onto Smaug).

  4. You want to talk 'suspension of belief'?

    Let's talk 'Battlefield Earth'.

    Personally I think it's a fun movie and I enjoy it (own the DVD).

    But as for the science end of it (1000 years in the future and the planes will still fly)--it stinks.

    I still enjoy it.

  5. I guess I'm just more sensitive to the ridiculousness of having someone spin inside a barrel because I've actually done that. When I was much younger, my friends and I thought it would be cool to roll an oil drum down a hill with someone inside. Being the intrepid soul that I am, I volunteered. Holy crap was that horrible, getting banged about inside the oil drum, dizzy as all hell and unable to get out until the thing came to a stop when it hit a tree. In retrospect, I'm not sure how I escaped permanent brain damage (unless I didn't...). Had YouTube existed back then, I would have definitely had my fifteen seconds of fame.

    So that's my story, and maybe that's why Bombur's baddie-busting barrel battle bothered me more than the statue bit. Repressed trauma, perhaps?

    Childhood stupidity aside, I of course see your greater point and do not disagree. I guess I just personally did not see the statue sequence as that big of a leap. I suppose I figured since we were going off the reservation anyway, I'd just go with the flow. Sure it was ridiculous, but it was fun.

    There were so many things I probably didn't remember correctly about the statue sequence. Like that Bilbo was tasked to release the water. To tell you the truth, I still probably wouldn't be able to name half the dwarves in the company, let alone tell you what they did during that sequence.

  6. "To tell you the truth, I still probably wouldn't be able to name half the dwarves in the company..."

    By this, I assume you mean that you'd be hard-pressed to put names to faces for the movie version of the story. (I'm sure you can recite the dwarves' names by heart, hardcore Tolkienian that you are.) Me, too, although some of the dwarves stand out. Gloin is the big, blustery redhead (whose picture of Gimli is seen by Legolas); Bofur is the Irish dwarf (trivia: James Nesbitt's two daughters play Sigrid and Tilda, the two [non-canonical?] daughters of Bard the Bowman); Dwalin is the burly, rough-voiced Scottish dwarf (Graham McTavish, who had a reputation as a mad Scotsman on the set, it seems) with the Popeye forearms and the Klingon beard and hairdo; I know Fili and Kili, mainly because Kili's the dwarf with no facial prosthetics; Thorin and Balin are both no-brainers... but after that, I have trouble identifying the rest, such as the older dwarf with the ear trumpet that got crushed in the goblin caves, and the younger dwarf with the prominent forehead who seems vaguely gay.

    While I'm writing on things dwarvish, I thought it was interesting that when Thorin told Balin, while they were in the Elvish prison, that he (Thorin) had told Thranduil to go [insert dwarvish swearing here], the Korean subtitles actually translated the words (something scatological) while there was no corresponding translation in English.

  7. The elves' endless supply of arrows, and Rambo-like rapid-firing of, had me suspending more than disbelief way before they ever made it to the mountain.

    It must have been minutes before my eyes rolled back around and righted themselves in their sockets to only roll back again as the dwarves gave up so quickly on the keyhole while Bilbo stuck around for the moon to enlighten them and the hole.



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