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A drawing of Esgaroth
|J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium location|
|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 which 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 (descendants of the Edain and thus distant cousins of the Dúnedain of Gondor), Elves and Dwarves of northern Middle-earth. The chief mode of transport of the people of Esgaroth is 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 people had always elected from among the old and wise the Master of Lake-town and did "not [endure] the rule of mere fighting men".
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, which lay about 50 miles to the west. The Lonely Mountain, which stood about 30 miles to the north and which could be seen from the town, 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.
Esgaroth is likely to have been settled in ancient times. It had lands suitable for agriculture, and it also had woodlands (furnishing timber and firewood). Furthermore it was at a junction of significant waterways, which provided a strategic location for defence, water-supply, fishing and trade. The early trading partners would have included the Elves of Mirkwood.
In due course Esgaroth became a major town in, if not the capital of, the Kingdom of Rhovanion, the realm of Northmen which lay between Mirkwood and the Celduin river. In T.A. 1250 Vidugavia, the king of Rhovanion, received Valacar as an ambassador from Gondor (which lay far to the south). Valacar stayed in the kingdom for several years, developing a keen interest in the lands and people, and can hardly have avoided Esgaroth.
Rhovanion was conquered by the Wainriders in T.A. 1856, and its people enslaved. They were possibly freed in T.A. 1899 when Gondor won a major battle against the Wainriders, but in any case their freedom was assured when Gondor comprehensively defeated the Wainriders in T.A. 1944. Although Esgaroth recovered, it seems that its kingdom of Rhovanion was never re-established.
The heights of Esgaroth's subsequent prosperity were linked to its ability to trade with Erebor, the Dwarvish kingdom under the Lonely Mountain to the town's north. Erebor flourished from T.A. 1999 to 2770, when it was sacked and occupied by Smaug, a dragon.
At some stage in its history the original Esgaroth had been destroyed and a smaller town built in its place close by. By T.A. 2941 the "old pilings of a greater town" could be still seen at low tide.
The events of T.A. 2941 are mainly told in The Hobbit. Esgaroth became involved when a strange group arrived in the town: Thorin Oakenshield (who was the claimant to Erebor), his company of other Dwarves, and Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit. The people of Esgaroth gave aid and supplies to this group, and set them on their way to the Lonely Mountain.
When the group reached the Lonely Mountain, they disturbed Smaug, who then flew south to attack Esgaroth. The dragon destroyed the town with fire and brute force, killing a quarter of the population. Further loss was only prevented when Bard the Bowman slew the dragon. Bard was a man of Esgaroth who had indirectly learned of a weakness in Smaug's armour that had first been noticed by Bilbo.
Bard then led a large contingent of Esgaroth men to the Lonely Mountain, where they fought in the Battle of Five Armies.
Afterwards Esgaroth, its third iteration, was rebuilt near the ruins. It received some of the treasure that Smaug had stolen, though the town's Master ran off with some of the gold. Part of the town's population followed Bard to resettle the Kingdom of Dale. However Erebor was also restored at this time, and overall Esgaroth prospered.
As a trading people, the Men of Esgaroth knew the Common Speech, 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 (of which Modern English is largely derived).
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 capable, but more than a little greedy and cowardly. His name was never given, although he earned the unpopular title "Moneybags" later. He was one of the few people in the town who did not eagerly welcome Bilbo and the Dwarves, fearing reprisal from the Wood Elf King. When Lake-town was destroyed by Smaug, the Master was largely held accountable, especially since he was one of the first to flee. Bard the Bowman, who had slain the dragon, was the hero of the people but he refused to seize control, insisting on working with the Master who did all he could to shift the blame onto the Dwarves.
The Master did not fight in the Battle of Five Armies. Instead, he stayed behind to direct the rebuilding of the town. Afterwards Bard gave much gold to the Master for the people of the town, but the Master fell under "dragon sickness" and kept the gold for himself, fleeing Long Lake only to die of starvation in the wastes. It was afterward stated by Balin that a new Master had been elected who was wiser.
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. With the guidance of his deputy Alfrid, he employs spies and imposes over taxation on the town. The Master sees Bard as a threat to his status, yet, he could not eliminate him, as Bard had the peoples' favor. After the arrival of Thorin's Company, and the seeing the support of the townsfolk for their journey to Erebor, the Master expresses his support as well, though he fully expects them to be killed by the dragon Smaug. The Master uses this circumstance to finally imprison Bard when he publicly opposes the town's support for the Dwarves' plan. When Smaug attacks Lake Town, the Master attempts to flee with the town's treasury gold in his boat. He refuses to pick up pleading townsfolk, and even goes so far as knocking Alfrid over board to lighten the load. In a departure from the novel, the Master meets his end when the lifeless body of the slain Smaug crashes into his boat, killing him and his remaining cronies. Alfrid basically takes the Master's place in the remaining events of the film, reluctantly working for Bard before escaping from Laketown with all the gold he can carry to presumably die in the wastes (though a scene in the Extended Edition has a different version of Alfrid's death, where he is suffocated into a troll's mouth).
In the Real Time Strategy game, The Battle for Middle-Earth II, the settlement of Esgaroth is featured in the campaign and available for skirmish.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1937), Douglas A. Anderson, ed., The Annotated Hobbit, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 2002), ISBN 0-618-13470-0
- "Esgaroth". Tolkien Gateway.