Tolkien’s dragons

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Smaug by Angus McBride
By John D. Rateliff

There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light. —J.R.R. Tolkien The Hobbit

J.R.R. Tolkien’s contributions to fantasy in general and dragon-lore in particular are so great as to place him in a league of his own. The whole concept of the PC party (specialists of different backgrounds working together toward a common goal) derives from Tolkien’s “Fellowship of the Rings,” while his own particular “take” on all the major fantasy races — elves, dwarves, goblins, etc. — have become the common currency for a whole generation of successors. He is the most imitated fantasist of all time, and his masterly portrayal of Smaug, “the chiefest and greatest of all calamities,” is the standard by which all other fantasy dragons should be judged.

Whereas after Grahame the tendency had been to treat dragons as witty and cute, Tolkien restored the sense of them as deadly predators. All of Tolkien’s dragons — Smaug from The Hobbit, Glorund from The Silmarillion, the wily but not over-bold Chrystophlax Dives from Farmer Giles of Ham — are clever, unscrupulous, greedy, and exceedingly dangerous. They can be bargained with, but each is capable of wiping out a small army or good-sized town all by himself. Anyone who dares to talk with one of Tolkien’s dragons had better have an escape route planned if he does not want to become the creature’s next meal.

Furthermore, Tolkien’s dragons delight in mischief: rather than kill Turin, a brave but rash and not overly clever hero, Glorund convinces him to abandon the people who rely upon him and sends him on a fool’s errand, while Smaug sows the seeds of doubt in Bilbo’s mind that shortly afterward help wreck his friendship with the dwarves. People who listen to dragons are apt to fall under their enchantment (“Smaug had rather an overwhelming personality”), and any spark of greed inside them usually fares into full life. Sometimes this dragongreed is even contagious, transmitted by contact with treasure “over whom a dragon has long brooded” — as shown in the fate of Thorin Oakenshield and to a lesser extent that of Bilbo himself (whose secret theft of the Arkenstone was a thoroughly uncharacteristic act). Similarly, Fafnir’s treasure, the hoard of the Niebelungs, seems to bring disaster to all who possess or even lay claim to it, while Beowulf’s grieving countrymen wisely decline to take any of the dragon’s hoard after his death, instead placing it all on his pyre and burying what remains in his barrow.

Finally, Tolkien’s dragons are hard to kill. Smaug destroys Dale and the Kingdom Under the Mountain, sweeping aside all resistance, and that was when he was, in his own words, “young and tender.” Later in the book we’re given a vivid description of his attack on the mountainside and burning of Lake-Town. Had he not been slain by Bard’s expert shot with a special arrow to his one secret vulnerable spot, Tolkien speculated that Sauron might have later manipulated him into destroying Rivendell. [1] Likewise, Glorund destroys the elven city of Nargothrond, effortlessly scattering and destroying its battle-tried elven warriors, while other dragons help plunder the great hidden city of Gondolin. For his part, Chrystophlax shows great reluctance to melee with anyone armed with a sword of dragon-slaying like Giles’ Claudimorax (and no wonder), but when faced with the possibility of losing his whole hoard handily massacres the Little Kingdom’s assembled knighthood, then later effortlessly puts a second army to flight. It’s possible to slay one of the Great Worms, but only by careful planning and good luck.

[1] Unfinished Tales (1980), “The Quest of Gandalf’s point of view, telling us how the contrast to Bilbo’s narrative, this bit of “alter- Erebor,” contains a behind-the-scenes look at events appeared to the wizard and the alternate Hobbit” lets us learn more about the opening chapter of The Hobbit from dwarves. In addition to offering an amusing Gandalf’s motives and plans.


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