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Your Primer to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

It's always tricky to remember where things stand as you head in to see another installment in a movie trilogy, and this is especially true of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which requires viewers to keeping track of what happened in the original Hobbit book, the previous Hobbit movie, the Lord of the Rings films, and the LOTR appendices. So while this could have been a simple affair, it might feel like you need to be a wizard of Middle-earth to remember what's already happened, who all these characters are, and why these folks are on a quest in the first place — and what's that Arkenstone thing again? But rest assured, you do not need to speak Elvish or Orc to watch the new Hobbit. Here are nine things you need to know to get back in the (riddle) game.

Why is Bilbo part of this dwarf company again?
Gandalf recruited Bilbo and he agreed to be a hired hand, in the position of "burglar." He signed a contract for a share of the profits, or more precisely, up to but not exceeding one fourteenth of the total profit, if any. His role, of course, has since expanded, as he's saved them from mountain trolls and other dangers.

Profits? What profits?
Thorin Oakenshield (who comes from a long line of dwarf royalty) and his twelve followers hope to take back their homeland, the mining kingdom of Erebor in the Lonely Mountain, from the dragon Smaug. Part of this plan includes reclaiming the Arkenstone, a precious jewel that Thorin's grandfather Thrór believed symbolized his divine right to rule. But the Arkenstone was lost in the piles and piles of gold and other precious gems  amid the plunder the dragon now guards. So if they manage to get back the Arkenstone, they reason, they would also have access to a vast wealth, once the dragon is slain ... if the dragon is even still alive, having not been spotted in many decades.

What's the plan?
Gandalf has a map and key given to him by Thorin's father,  Thráin, which shows a hidden passage to the lower halls, since the front gate was sealed after the dragon's attack in the mass evacuation. Lord Elrond translated the map for them during a stop in Rivendell, and they have a general idea of how to find the invisible dwarf door. As you may recall from the excursion to the Mines of Moria in Fellowship of the Ring, some dwarf doors need a bit of moonlight to be seen — sometimes moonlight from a specific day and season — so the company has a limited window to find and use the door. Bilbo is to go in first, since Smaug knows the smell of dwarfs, but not hobbits. (And having an invisibility ring couldn't hurt — not that the others know that).

Why don't they have more help? Why not an army?
Thorin sent envoys to all seven dwarf kingdoms, but even his cousin Dain of the Iron Hills declined to RSVP. "This quest is ours and ours alone," Thorin lamented. On the plus side, more treasure for everyone! And besides, the last time they tried to get help to fight off Smaug, even the Elvin king Thranduil turned away despite Thorin's cries of, "Help us!" (Thranduil, by the way, is the father of Orlando Bloom's Elf prince Legolas, whom we see before he learned to befriend dwarves).

Okay. So we have thirteen dwarves. How do I keep track of them? Which is which? Is there a song?
Most of their names rhyme, so there should be (Nori, Dori, Ori!). Thorin, as previously mentioned, is the leader — and he's the one who looks pensive most of the time. Balin is the oldest, and his hair is white. Bombur is the heaviest. Bofur wears a hat. Bifur tends to not talk much owing to an old orc ax injury — it's still embedded in his forehead. Oin is a little hard of hearing. Gloin is Gimli's dad, and talks every now and then about missing his wife and son. Thorin's nephews Fili and Kili (the former with lighter hair, the latter with darker hair) are the youngest and the cutest. (Cute enough to attract an elf-maiden's eye in The Desolation of Smaug!) Really, Kili (played by Aidan Turner) is the one to watch this time out.

Why are the orcs on their trail?
After Smaug took Erebor, Thorin's people tried to reclaim Moria, but the orcs got there first, and they were led by Azog, the nastiest and palest orc around. Azog beheaded Thorin's grandfather Thrór  in battle, driving Thráin mad with grief. Thorin faced down Azog with nothing but a broken oak branch as a shield — hence his name, Oakenshield — and chopped off part of his arm. Needless to say, Azog the Defiler does not forgive easily.

Can't the wizards help?
Well, on a limited basis. "If you want to change the weather of the world, you should find yourself another wizard!" Gandalf jokes at one point. He is powerful, and he's not the only one of his kind — there's also Saruman the White (not to be trusted) and Radagast the Brown ("a gentle soul who prefers the company of animals") and two blue wizards who seem to be busy elsewhere. And for a chunk of the story, Gandalf is elsewhere, too. "Tolkien knew where Gandalf had gone, but he doesn't say in the actual novel," Ian McKellen reminded us. "It's all in the [LOTR] appendices, finding out what Gandalf is up to when he is not on the quest with the dwarves." Part of that we saw in the last Hobbit film, as he conferred with Elrond and Galadriel about the growing darkness in the east.

What's to worry about in the east?
Well, giant spiders for one. Remember Shelob, the giant spider in Return of the King? She had some babies before moving to Mordor. Radagast spotted them in his forest and alerted Gandalf that "some kind of spawn of Ungoliant" (Shelob's evil spirit mommy) came from the old fortress, Dol Guldur, which they had thought to be abandoned. "A dark power dwells in there," Radagast warns Gandalf. "It is the shadow of an ancient horror, one that can summon the spirits of the dead." And since that is the site of the Nine — the nine men given rings of power — Gandalf, of course, suspects the worst. For now, they call him the Necromancer.

What can the Necromancer do to hurt anyone, really? He's just one person, right?
If the Nine are raised, there will be Ringwraiths (or Nazgûl). If their Morgul blades (or arrows) are used to injure a dwarf or hobbit, he might become a wraith himself. While such an injury will never fully heal, at least the wraith-making can be stopped by good Elvish medicine (incantations and kingsfoil, hopefully administered by a really cool she-elf). And while the Necromancer is gaining strength, he can summon dark forces to his will — including any dragons left unattended. No wonder Gandalf bothered to get involved in a dwarf heist!

Photo: Warner Bros.