Plot holes aren’t the biggest issue with the Hobbit movies. Like An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug is plagued more by heavy narrative bloat and a dragging pace. But there are details that niggle in the mind once the movie is over. I’m sure that Tolkien fans will be able to answer for every single one of them with a thorough explanation that comes straight from the text. For someone who last read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings many years ago, however, these questions are cause for puzzlement. And some may indeed be unexplainable, at least definitively.
Maybe some or even all of these will be answered in the last installment of the trilogy. I somewhat doubt it, but given that it will likely approach three hours in length, it will certainly have the time to do so. We’ll have to wait for There and Back Again to find out.
It should be obvious, but because we discuss the entire plot of The Desolation of Smaug, you’re hereby warned that SPOILERS are abound after the jump.
How Did the Orcs Catch Up With the Party So Quickly?
The end of An Unexpected Journey saw our heroes rescued from their orc pursuers by giant eagles, this universe’s favored vehicle for deus ex machina. The eagles carried Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves a good long distance before depositing them in a safe place and sending them on their way. But as this film begins, the orcs have caught right back up to the group again. Can wargs run nearly as fast as eagles can fly?
There’s no indication of how much time has passed between the previous film’s end and this one’s beginning. One could assume that it’s been a week or so, and that the mounted orcs have had ample time to catch up with the on-foot group. However, when the dwarves find shelter, the orcs are called off their hunt to return to Dol Guldur, and they make it there that same night. And Dol Guldur is a considerable distance from Beorn’s house — much further than the house is from the mountains, in fact. So clearly, wargs are the way to go if you want to get anywhere quickly in Middle-earth.
How Does Beorn’s Skin-Changing Work?
The group is taken in from the orcs by Beorn, a dude who can turn into a bear. When they first arrive, they make it into the house by the skin of their teeth, as he is right on their heels in bear form. The skin-changer then holds off all the orcs on his own, with nothing but a few growls (which makes it seem unlikely that, as we learn later, his whole race was wiped out by orcs, but that’s another issue). Beorn can’t safely interact with his guests until he’s back in man form.
But if Beorn truly becomes a bear when he takes one’s shape, then wouldn’t he pose a danger to his beloved animals? If he has nothing but animal instincts, those cooped-up goats and horses would make quite an attractive meal. So does he retain some sapient faculty as a bear? In that case, is he just being a dick when he chases and nearly eats the dwarves? In the book, Gandalf says that Beorn “is not the sort of person to ask questions of,” so even Tolkien himself dodged a real explanation of what’s up with this guy.
Did the Group Really Have to Go Through the Spooky Forest?
Once the dwarves leave their refuge, the only thing standing between them and the Lonely Mountain is Mirkwood, a vast forest that’s feared for its spookiness. It’s inhabited by giant spiders, and if a traveller steps off the main path, they become wrapped in an illusory funk. The safest path, we are told, is to go south around the forest. But Thorin insists that they go through this incredibly hazardous area, because time is of the essence. They have to get to the mountain by Durin’s Day, after all.
But look at the map again. One option that is never discussed is going north around the forest. It’s not that much further than going straight through. Additionally, the group has horses on loan from Beorn, so they could probably compensate for the greater distance with increased traveling speed. Gandalf is able to make it to Dol Guldur on horseback long before Bilbo and the dwarves make it through to the other side of Mirkwood, and the distance going north from Beorn’s house to the mountain is only slightly more than that from the house to the fortress. All the trouble with mirages and spiders and ornery elves could have been avoided.
Elves Can Get Drunk?
The dwarves end up getting imprisoned by the forest-dwelling elves ruled by Ned the Piemaker. Bilbo evades capture thanks to his ring and later masterminds a breakout. His plan, which involves sneaking the dwarves out in barrels floating down a river, is clever, but it wouldn’t succeed without one lucky break: the jailer elves get drunk, letting him easily take the keys.
It’s quite a thing to watch elves, whom we’ve seen mainly as supernaturally graceful, succumb to the power of booze. Except in The Return of the King, we watched Legolas easily best Gimli in a drinking contest. While the dwarf was laid out cold by the sheer quantity of alcohol they quaffed, Legolas felt nothing but a tingle in his fingers. I thought that elves could hold their liquor in addition to all the other things they’re naturally great at. Should the keys to the dungeon really be left in the hands of such lightweights?
How Does the Morgul Poison Work, Again?
During the dwarves’ escape from the wood elves, they are attacked by both elves and orcs. Despite speeding through river rapids while under attack on two fronts, they all escape serious injury, with one exception: Kili is shot in the leg with an arrow. At first, it seems like no big deal. But then an orc reveals that the arrow’s head was a Morgul blade, the same kind of weapon used on Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Now, in that film, Frodo was so weak he couldn’t move almost immediately after getting stabbed, and the end result of the injury would be him turning into a wraith. Here, though, it takes a while before Kili starts to feel any ill effects. Even after suffering for a considerable amount of time, he gets healed with relative ease. All that has to happen is for an elf to press some special plant to his wound and chant a few words. Contrast this with Frodo, who was on death’s door within a day and needed special treatment from Elrond himself. Is a dwarf’s constitution stronger than a Hobbit’s? Is it because Frodo was stabbed in the chest while Kili is struck in the leg? The movie is definitely suggesting that it’s the same poison in both cases, since the orc explicitly name-checks “Morgul,” and the same plant (kingsfoil) is needed for its treatment. So why does it seem not-so-big a deal here?
Why Doesn’t Sauron Kill Gandalf?
Gandalf is off-screen for a good portion of this movie. He’s wrapped up in the continuing subplot of figuring out what’s up in Dol Guldur. In a surprise to absolutely no viewers, the Necromancer turns out to be Sauron returned, and he easily bests Gandalf in a magic fight (for a great sorcerer, Gandalf sure does lose in magical confrontations in this series). The last we see of the wizard, he’s cooped up in a cage, watching helplessly as an army marches out of Dol Guldur.
But why is he in a cage and not… well… dead? What reason does Sauron have to keep him alive? I would accept the explanation that Sauron wants to interrogate him, but no explanation is given at all. It seems an unwise strategy to keep a wizard alive, which is a mistake the bad guys in this series continue to make.
What’s Going to Happen to the Black People in Middle-Earth?
During production of An Unexpected Journey, a woman claims to have been denied a role as an extra because her skin was too dark. In a possible attempt to rectify this, The Desolation of Smaug features two black extras during a scene in Lake-town. They have the distinction of being the first non-white people who aren’t faceless villains whom we have seen in the entirety of the Lord of the Rings film series thus far.
Here’s the thing, though. Once it’s been established that this universe is in fact not completely lily-white, I’m going to ask what happens to that diversity. This is a prequel to the Lord of the Rings series, after all, where the good guys are a monolith of Caucasian-ness. If there are two citizens of another race in this part of the realm, there are surely more elsewhere. It’s an odd case, caused by an increased sense of progressive awareness since the original films came out. Not progressive enough for them to make any important characters who aren’t white, mind, but still.
How Does Smaug Know Anything About the Outside World?
When the party finally reaches the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo heads in alone to scope out the place and seek out the MacGuffin, the Arkenstone. He soon runs into Smaug, who seems more intrigued than disturbed at having a thief in his midst. The two engage in a verbal tete a tete for a while, through which Smaug is able to discern Bilbo’s motives for being there. It culminates with Smaug taunting Bilbo with the thought that Thorin cares more for the Arkenstone than he does for Bilbo as a companion. The dragon also ominously speaks of a greater darkness that is coming, alluding to Sauron’s rise.
Here’s the thing, though: Smaug has been cooped up in this mountain for more than a hundred years, ever since he first took it. How does he know about Sauron? How does he know that Thorin is seeking the Arkenstone? How does he even know who Thorin is? Did he take time to bother learning the names of the dwarves’ royal lineage before he charbroiled their home? No one could possibly have delivered any news to him, even if he were accepting of visitors, given that the mountain is totally sealed. Is there a seeing stone in the vast treasure horde?
What Was the Logic Behind Thorin’s Plan to Kill Smaug?
The final fight of the film has Bilbo and the dwarves scurrying around the interior of the Lonely Mountain with Smaug in hot pursuit. Thorin comes up with an idea to fight the dragon: light the forges. That is all that he says, and just what this is supposed to do is not clear at all. Even as they go through the complicated steps of getting the forges running again, it isn’t evident how doing so will help. The audience doesn’t catch on to what’s going on until the plan is complete, and the group sends a wave of freshly-smelted gold crashing over Smaug. But it doesn’t work. Smaug shrugs the attack off, flying away with a badass-looking gold sheen.
But why did Thorin think that this would work in the first place? Smaug is a dragon. He breathes fire. He is a creature that is made for the heat. What reason did Thorin have to think that molten gold would kill him, or even hurt him a little? Hell, the dwarves even relight the forges by tricking Smaug into roasting them with his fiery breath. If Smaug can dish out that kind of temperature, it stands to reason that he could resist it.