|J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium location|
A drawing of Esgaroth
|Type||Town built upon trade between Men, Elves and Dwarves in northern Middle-earth |
|Ruler||Master of Lake-town|
Esgaroth, or Lake-town, is a fictitious community of Men upon the Long Lake that appears in the 1937 novel The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Constructed entirely of wood and standing upon wooden pillars sunk into the lake-bed, the town is south of the Lonely Mountain and east of Mirkwood. The town's prosperity is apparently built upon trade between the Men who inhabit it, and the Elves and the Dwarves of northern Middle-earth. The chief mode of transport of the people of Esgaroth is stated to be their boats.
At the time in which The Hobbit is set, Esgaroth appears to be a city-state, and a republic with no king (the only real republic shown in Middle-earth). The Master of Lake-town was said in-universe to be elected from among the "old and wise". Esgaroth has been interpreted by some as a critique of capitalism.
Esgaroth was located in north-eastern Wilderland, a large inland region of Middle-earth. It was situated on the western shores of the Long Lake, close to the inflow of the Forest River. The Forest River provided an upstream route to Mirkwood. The Lonely Mountain, which could be seen from the town and could be reached by travelling up the Long Lake and then up its northern inflow, the Celduin. The Celduin flowed out of the south of the lake, providing a travel route from Esgaroth all the way downstream to the land of Dorwinion on the Sea of Rhûn.
The inhabitants of Esgaroth knew the language spoken by most of Tolkien's Middle-earth, Westron. Amongst themselves they spoke an ancient form of it, which was loosely related to but distinct from the also-ancient language of the Rohirrim. Tolkien "translated" Westron into English in his text, so to represent the ancient relative of it that the Rohirrim spoke, he substituted Old English. Thus, Tolkien substituted Old Norse for the language of the Men of Esgaroth (in person and place names, etc.) because it is an ancient relative of Old English.
Master of Lake-town
Master of Lake-town is the title given to the elected leader of Esgaroth. The Master of the town when Bilbo and Thorin's Company arrived in The Hobbit was portrayed as a capable businessman, but more than a little greedy and cowardly. He was stated as having run off with a large amount of gold and dying in the epilogue.
Concept and etymology
Lake-Town was modelled closely after the neolithic pile dwellings that have been found at Swiss lakes. Compared to Dale, the other town on the shores of Long Lake, Esgaroth is the more "mannish" and vernacular settlement. Its masters do not have any elvish-sounding names as the former kings of Dale, nor is Esgaroth a monarchy. This stems from the fact that in the past, Esgaroth was less influenced by the refined Númenorean civilisation than Dale.
The meaning of the name Esgaroth is unclear. While it is not Sindarin, one of Tolkien's elvish languages, it may be "'Sindarized' in shape" as the author himself explained. In early manuscripts, Tolkien provides a root esek meaning "sedge" or "reed" in the early elvish language of Ilkorin, but reeds are not mentioned in the description of Lake-town that was published in The Hobbit. The name has, however, been compared to the Sumerian word gi meaning reed.
Esgaroth has been interpreted as Tolkien's criticism of capitalism featuring a ruling elite class that exploits the lower-class citizens. The Master of Lake-Town, Thorin Oakenshield who has become obsessed with the dragon's hoard, and Smaug himself may be seen as illustrations of the "greedy, destructive side of capitalism". The Master, however, is rather trapped in his monotonic life of bureaucracy and cronyism owing to the fact that he is both the chief capitalist and chief politician of the town. On the other hand, Esgaroth does not abandon capitalism after the destruction of Smaug. While the town experiences a new prosperity, the "managerial class" of merchants is not replaced. Although he portrays the highly capitalistical town in a bad light, Tolkien does not advocate a socialist system for the reconstructed Lake-town either. Instead the town's situation at the end of The Hobbit has been called an "orderly liberty".
It has also been observed that there is an internal division in the minds of the people of Esgaroth. What they remember of the town's glorious past is preserved in songs and tales, but this lore is not considered actual history by the people but rather fiction. A few songs though would look into the future foretelling the return of the dwarven kings along with a new age of prosperity. The unexpected arrival of Thorin therefore causes great excitement among the Esgarothians who immerse "themselves in a fantasy that is only tangentially connected to the old prophecies ... and is almost completely detached from the world around them." The practical Master is capable of adapting to this new situation by assisting in the composition of new songs from which he profits. Eventually it is Bard though whose voice in the battle against the dragon is the voice of legend when it is revealed that he is the direct heir of Lord Girion of Dale.
In other media
The 2013 feature film adaptation of The Hobbit features Stephen Fry in the role of the Master of Lake-town in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. In the film version, the Master is not an elected ruler (it is implied he had inherited the position), and he is much more avaricious and selfish than in the novel. Along with his deputy Alfrid, he employs spies and imposes heavy taxation on the town. In the film version, he shows a heavy disdain for the character Bard. When Smaug attacks Lake Town, the Master shows another deviation by immediately attempting to flee with the town’s treasury, before being killed by the falling corpse of Smaug. Alfrid, who had been pushed off the boat by the Master, reluctantly works for Bard before escaping from Esgaroth, dressed as a woman, with all the gold he can carry.
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