Saturday, December 7, 2013

Masters in this Hall

One of the minor characters so well-drawn in Tolkien's Hobbit is the Master of the Town of Esgaroth. We first meet him in the tenth chapter when Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves enter a big feast which the Master is holding. His first reaction is one of surprise:
The Master of the town sprang from his great chair.
When the elves accuse the dwarves of being vagabonds and escaped prisoners, the Master's reaction provides a glimpse of a cynical character:
"Is this true?" asked the Master. As a matter of fact he thought it far more likely than the return of the King under the Mountain, if any such person had ever existed.
When presented with two competing claims,
the Master hesitated and looked from one to the other. The Elvenking was very powerful in those parts and the Master wished for no enmity with him, nor did he think much of old songs, giving his mind to trade and tolls, to cargoes and gold, to which habit he owed his position.
But the popular clamor takes over while the Master dithers and events are taken out of his hands.

When the dwarves leave,
the Master was not sorry at all to let them go. They were expensive to keep, and their arrival had turned things into a long holiday in which business was at a standstill.
In the fourteenth chapter, when the Master appears again, he is shown as a coward. When the dragon attacks, one of the fighting men
ran to and fro cheering on the archers and urging the Master to order them to fight to the last arrow.
The Master, however, has other concerns.
The Master himself was turning to his great gilded boat, hoping to row away in the confusion and save himself.
After the defeat of the dragon, the townsmen want to have the dragon-slayer be their king. The Master objects:
In the Lake-town we have always elected masters from among the old and wise, and have not endured the rule of mere fighting men.
His argument backfires, though he holds on to power temporarily.

Tolkien does not spend much time on this particular character. He does not even give him a name. But in a few words, concentrating mainly on actions, he is able to evoke a character type that anyone can recognize.