John Howe

A FEW WORDS ABOUT DRAGONS

The Dragons of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

 

“I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, from his journals

 

Smaug the Golden occupies a place unique in the history of dragons. While J. R. R. Tolkien’s Smaug is in most respects a traditional dragon, direct descendant of Fafnír and Beowulf’s bane, he is also the first dragon to take center stage in modern heroic fantasy, single-handedly establishing the literary genre. Last of the ancient wyrms, he is the archetype of the modern fantasy dragon.

When Bilbo, armed with little more than his considerable courage, descends into the dark depths of Erebor, and finally arrives in the dwarven treasure chamber, he meets a dragon that sums up not only the fairy-tale dragon, but also the darker nid-draca.

“There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; 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. Smaug lay, with wings folded like an immeasurable bat, turned partly on one side, so that the hobbit could see his underparts and his long pale belly crusted with gems and fragments of gold from his long lying on his costly bed.”[1]

Smaug’s priceless waistcoat of jewels, besides being an appealing plot device, is a disguise. Most of the characters of the Hobbit are of a like nature – myth masquerading as a children’s story, but with none of the eager bowdlerization that removed so much of the substance of Grimm and older tales. It is also an inversion of the tale of Siegfried, where the hero’s vulnerable spot, the linden leaf that lands on his shoulder blade when he is bathed by the dragon’s blood, is transferred to the dragon. (Tolkien never explains Smaug’s greed, he does not need to; Bilbo is like Phaedrus’ fox, meeting the dragon in his hole full of treasure. It is simply in Smaug’s nature to love gold.) During their conversation, the glamour of Smaug’s voice draws much information Bilbo never intended to reveal – the same power that Fafnír’s voice possesses – the insidious poison of canny wisdom and suave persuasion. Tolkien noted, (speaking of Beowulf’s Bane) “Fafnir in the late Norse versions of the Sigurd-story is better; and Smaug and his conversation obviously is in debt there.”[2] Tolkien did steal a jeweled cup from Beowulf, though.

But Tolkien adds a touch of his own to Smaug’s character: the fire-drake of the North is curious, almost inquisitive, and clearly he enjoys the company of the diminutive thief. In many ways, this is a poignant revelation; Smaug is the last of his kind: opportunities for conversations are rare. Once the cup is stolen, though, his draconic nature reasserts itself, his fiery attack on Laketown setting the stage for the final fatal encounter with the descendant of Girion of Dale. Bard may seem an odd and distant character in the Hobbit, but he is a hero of dark times and ancient sagas who strides, almost unannounced, into a children’s story. He has no choice; there is a dragon to slay.

Even after death, Smaug retains something of the fear that is also one of Fafnír’s weapons. When he crashes into the Long Lake, destroying Esgaroth, his bones may later be seen through the water, but none dare dive to retrieve the gems that once studded his belly.

Conversation With Smaug, by J. R. R. Tolkien

This image was not used in the first edition of The Hobbit in 1937 but appeared in the second English impression of the same year and in the first American edition in 1938. The painting was reproduced in The J. R. R. Tolkien Calendars for 1973 and 1974 and in The Hobbit Calendar in 1976.

Tolkien imagined a Middle-Earth filled with dragons in the earlier Ages. His dragons fall into several categories, notably the Urulóki or fire-drakes, winged or wingless fire-breathers. There are also the “cold-drakes”, who are flightless and do not breathe fire. He also makes an intriguing mention of “were-worms” in The Hobbit, though their precise nature is not explained.

Additionally, Tolkien hints at creatures made and animated by Melkor (in this version Melko), resembling dragons and spouting flame, but not alive. Melko makes “dragons of fire” and “serpents of bronze” in preparation for his attack on the great city of Gondolin. “…from the greatness of his wealth of metals and the powers of fire (Meglin, betrayer of Gondolin) bid (Melko, Lord of Iron) make beasts like snakes and dragons of irresistible might that should overcreep the Encircling Hills and lap that plain and its fair city in flame and death.” He “…assembled all his most cunning smiths and sorcerers, and of iron and flame they wrought a host of monsters such as have only at that time been seen and shall not again be till the Great End.” [3]

Besides Smaug, mightiest of calamities, Tolkien gave names to only three other dragons: Scatha, Ancalagon and Glaurung.

Scatha, whose name Tolkien may have derived from the Old Norse skaða, meaning “to harm, damage or injure,” inhabited the Grey Mountains, to the north of Mirkwood. Fram, son of Frumgar, killed the dread “long-worm” in the early days of the Éothéod, the horse-people of Rohan. The dwarves of Ered Mithrin claimed Scatha’s treasure, but Fram sent them the creature’s teeth, saying “Jewels such as these you will not match in your treasuries, for they are hard to come by.”[4] Fram apparently lost his life in the troubles that followed. Although the dispute was later settled, distrust long remained between dwarves and riders.[5]

There were still dragons in the Grey Mountains centuries later. Nearly four hundred years before Smaug’s death, dragons attacked the dwarf kingdoms of the Grey Mountains, the Ered Mithrin. The War of Dragons and Dwarves raged for nearly two decades, ending with the death of King Daín the First, and his second son Frór. Daín’s eldest son Thrór led many survivors to Erebor, under the Lonely Mountain, while his younger brother Grór led others to the Iron Hills. Ered Mithrin was abandoned. The cold-drake who slew Daín is unnamed.

The Death of Smaug, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Colour sketch of the death of Smaug. A note to the left side of the picture reads: “The moon should be a crescent: it was only a few nights after the New Moon on Durin’s Day”; in the left-hand bottom corner: “Dragon should have a white naked spot where the arrow enters”; and at the bottom: “Bard the Bowman should be standing after release of arrow at extreme left point of the piles.” It was published in The J. R. R. Tolkien Calendars 1973 and 1974 as well as The Unwin Books edition of The Hobbit in the same year.

The greatest dragons, though, belong to the First Age of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

Ancalagon the Black was one of the first dragons bred by Morgoth. In Sindarin, the name means “Rushing Jaws” or “Biting Storm”. Ancalagon is described in mythological terms; his wings could block out the sun, he is the personification of the destroying dark.

During the War of Wrath, the final battle of the First Age, when the Valar had pushed Morgoth’s forces back to the very gate of his mountain fortress of Angband in triple-peaked Thangorodrim , he unleashed the last weapon he had been holding back: a mighty cohort of dragons, with the firedrake Ancalagon at their head. So formidable was their assault that the Valar were driven back into the ash-covered plain of Anfauglith, where they might well have perished if not for the arrival of Eärendil. The half-Elven Eärendil appeared from the West at the helm of his ship, the silver-sailed, swan-prowed Vingilot, which could navigate both the waves and the heavens. A Silmaril shone brightly on his brow, piercing the despairing gloom. With him came the great Eagles, led by their king Thorondor. The sky-battle lasted an entire day, until Eärendil broke Ancalagon’s might and threw him down. The great dragon crashed full on the tower-peaks of Thangorodrim, reducing them to rubble. The Eagles destroyed all the other dragons, although clearly some fled to nurse their wounds in the dark places of Middle-Earth. Some at least must have found refuge in the Northern Wastes and the Withered Heath, to the far north of the Grey Mountains, which became their spawning ground. It is possibly from there that Smaug descended on Erebor and Dale “like a hurricane coming from the North” in the year 2770 of the Third Age.

Ancalagon is said to be the greatest dragon ever seen in Middle-Earth, but the first was Glaurung. Glaurung, “the Worm of Morgoth”, is one of the deadliest, and of all Tolkien’s wyrms, the one most closely resembling his Norse ancestor Fafnír. Morgoth bred the dragons in the First Age, and of these, Glaurung is the first of the Urulokí. Wingless, he is considered the sire of his race, and the first dragon to come forth from Angband. (Tolkien does not explain how Morgoth creates dragons, we assume he is able to conjure them as evil spirits and clothe them in flesh.)

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Glaurung brings disaster and sorrow to his enemies during the major battles of the First Age. He first appears at the Glorious Battle, which sees the defeat of Morgoth’s forces and his first and bitter taste of Elvish bravery. “Then Fingon Prince of Hithlum rode against him with archers on horseback, and hemmed him round with a ring of swift riders; and Glaurung could not endure their darts, being not yet come to his full armoury, and he fled back to Angband, and came not forth again for many years.”[6]

In 455, he defeats the Noldorin Elves and their allies, breaking the centuries-old siege of Angband in the Battle of the Sudden Flame. “In the front of that fire came Glaurung the golden, father of dragons, in his full might; and in his train were Balrogs, and behind them came the black armies of the Orcs in multitudes….”[7]

Seventeen years later, he breaks the Elven armies in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, though he is wounded in the belly by the dwarf king Azaghâl, and limps back to Angband. Glaurung leads an orc-host of his own to the Battle of Tumhalad in 495, defeating the Noldor of Nargothrond, led by Túrin Turambar. The dragon then turned his attention to the underground fortress of Nargothrond itself. Túrin came too late to save his people, and, held immobile by dragon-spell, was forced to watch them led away to slavery in the North. Glaurung occupied the fortress, making it his own lair, where he laid, a dragon-king upon his bed of treasure, sending his orc-bands forth to ravage the kingdom.

 

Glaurung sets forth to seek Turin, by J. R. R. Tolkien, dated 1927

Painting by J. R. R. Tolkien, dated 1927, published in The Silmarillion Calendar in 1978. At the time of the painting, the dragon was still called Glórund – the caption was subsequently rewritten to match the finally published name of Glaurung

Nevertheless, his doom was near. Turin, released by Glaurung so that he might suffer the defeat of his people, later destroyed a force of orcs sent against him, rousing Glaurung from his dark lair. Making his way to seek his foes, Glaurung threw his vast bulk across the narrow river gorge of Cabed-en-Aras. “Then Turambar summoned all his will and courage and climbed the cliff alone, and came beneath the dragon. Then he drew Gurthang, and with all the might of his arm, and of his hate, he thrust it into the soft belly of the Worm, even up to its hilts. But when Glaurung felt his death-pang, he screamed, and in his dreadful throe he heaved up his bulk and hurled himself across the chasm, and there lay lashing and coiling in his agony. And he set all in a blaze about him, and beat all to ruin, until at last his fires died, and he lay still.”

There are many similarities between the tale of Túrin by Tolkien and Sigurd of Norse myth. Both slay dragons with swords re-forged, by stabbing the monsters from beneath. Fafnír and Glaurung display the same hypnotic power; their words are poison, and their gaze can stupefy. The tragic twist of fate that results in the suicides of Turin and his wife Níniel sees the dragon’s curse fulfilled.

Tolkien even makes a striking parallel with Fafnír’s Helm of Terror. The Helm of Hador, given into the hands of Thingol, was wrought by Telchar, smith of Nogrod. “Upon its crest was set in defiance a gilded image of the head of Glaurung the dragon, for it had been made soon after he first issued from the gates of Morgoth. Hador and Galdor after him had borne it in war; and the hearts of the host of Hithlum were uplifted when they saw it towering high amid the battle, and they cried: ‘Of more worth is the Dragon of Dor-lómin than the gold-worm of Angband!’” Named as “the Dragonhead of the North”, it was later offered to Túrin Turambar.

Glaurung evolved under Tolkien’s pen, first appearing in the Tale of Turambar and the Foalókë, in one of the stories later published in the Book of Lost Tales. Here the dragon is referred to as “Glorund, the Foalókë……….the serpent of wrath.” Glorund appears with a party of wolf-mounted Orcs, let loose by the diabolical Melko: “And a great worm was with them whose scales were polished bronze and whose breath was mingled fire and smoke, and his name was Glorund.” (“Lókë” is the name the Eldar gave to “the worms of Melko”.)

Tolkien echoes the story of Sigurd & Fafnír, recounting the result of eating a dragon’s heart, or tasting its blood, but apart from being henceforth endowed with the knowledge of “all tongues of Gods or Men, of birds or beasts”, the taster would also “catch whispers of the Valar or of Melko such as never had he heard before.” However, there is a warning: “Few have there been that ever achieved a deed of such prowess as the slaying of a drake, nor might any even of such doughty ones taste their blood and live, for it is as a poison of fires that slays all save the most godlike in strength.” Tolkien also reflects the fable of Phaedrus, in describing Melko’s dragons in these terms: “even as their lord these foul beasts love lies and lust after gold and precious things with a great fierceness of desire, albeit they may not use or enjoy them.”

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Tolkien created two more notable dragons. Chrysophylax Dives, in the comic tale Farmer Giles of Ham, published in 1949, is midway between Kenneth Graham’s Reluctant Dragon and Smaug. Indeed Farmer Giles is a reluctant hero himself, but, armed with a trusty blunderbuss (which he never fires), a magical sword called Caudimorax (“Tail-biter”, which proves most useful against dragons) and a largely undeserved reputation as a hero, he nevertheless manages to rid the kingdom of the dragon and become rich besides.

The other is to be found in Roverandom, the escapades of a little dog named Rover, who “was very small, and very young, or he would have known better.” After several adventures and an encounter with a wizard, Rover is graced with a pair of wings and a new name, Roverandom, and a new friend, a seagull named Mew. Together, they decide to fly to the Moon. Unfortunately, there is a dragon dwelling there: “All the white dragons originally come from the moon, as you probably know; but this one had been to the world and back, so he had learned a thing or two. He fought the Red Dragon in Caerdragon in Merlin’s time, as you will find in all the more up-to-date history books; after which the other dragon was Very Red. Later he did lots more damage in the Three Islands, and went to live on the top of Snowdon for a time.” After that, the creature flew to Gwynfa, “not so far from the world’s edge, and it is an easy flight from there to the moon for a dragon so titanic and so enormously bad as this one had become.” He was even responsible for turning the whole moon red, or even putting it out altogether, with his smoky breathing.

Mew the seagull prudently decides to return to Earth, but the wayward canine hero encounters the Man-in-the-Moon and his winged moon-dog. Roverandom and his new companion find themselves hotly pursued by the dragon, “leaking green fire at every joint, and snorting black smoke like a steamer.” The dragon nearly catches them when they find refuge in the very nick of time in an enchanted tower belonging to the Man-in-the-Moon, who wallops the dragon with an indelible spell. As for the dragon, he smacks full into the mountainside and wobbles off to nurse his nose in his cave. “The next eclipse was a failure, for the dragon was too busy licking his tummy to attend to it. And he never got the black sploshes off where the spell hit him. I am afraid they will last for ever. They call him the Mottled Monster now.”

The grandfatherly tone of both tales masks the erudition hidden in the texts; Tolkien, while clearly amusing himself, was nevertheless already weaving threads from many tales into his own, playing etymological games and falling under the spell of dragons.

Dragon, by J. R. R. Tolkien, 1927

Dragon by J. R. R. Tolkien, 1927. Written beneath the dragon are the following words from Beowulf: hringbogan heorte gefysed, which Tolkien translated as “…the heart of the coiling beast stirred” The drawing was published in the 1979 Tolkien calendar and was reproduced in J. R. R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (plate nr. 48).

Tolkien’s friend and colleague C. S. Lewis used the theme of powerful greed transforming not only heart but also body. Eustace Scrubb finds an abandoned dragon hoard in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the fifth book[8] in the Chronicles of Narnia. He curls up on the pile of gold and jewels and drops off to sleep, receiving a particularly nasty surprise when he awakes. “Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.” Eustace, in his dragon-shape, undergoes several humiliating trials, and is eventually transformed by Aslan into a (much-chastened) boy again. Lewis further links his tale to ancient hoard-wyrms by hinting that the original dragon was possibly once human himself, metamorphosed by greed into a miserable beast lurking in his gloomy, treasure-laden lair until his unmourned demise.

 

It is tempting to qualify Tolkien’s dragons as the first to re-emerge from nursery rhyme to adult book. He is certainly the first to treat dragons seriously, without any distance afforded by humour or satire, revealing and reveling in a world that can accommodate them. In Tolkien’s own words: “I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamental to the underlying ideas of the poem (Beowulf), which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.”[9]

 

Tolkien’s stories evolved almost independently of his will; in a sense he was writing myth. Speaking of The Silmarillion, he said that the stories “arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour …yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.”[10] His biographer Humphrey Carpenter explains that Tolkien wanted his mythology “…to be remote and strange, and yet at the same time not to be a lie. He wanted the mythological and legendary stories to express his own moral view of the universe………When he wrote The Silmarillion Tolkien believed that in one sense he was writing the truth …he did feel, or hope, that his stories were in some sense an embodiment of a profound truth.”[11] Humphrey adds: “As the years went by he came more and more to regard his own invented languages and stories as ‘real’ languages and historical chronicles that needed to be elucidated.“[12]

Through his fiction, Tolkien provides a lesson on the nature of legend and myth. In The Lord of the Rings, essentially an ethical quest, and not an epic such as The Silmarillion or an adventure story like The Hobbit, there is no more need for dragons. They belong to another Age.

They will certainly appear elsewhere, though, and in unprecedented numbers, becoming, as descendants of Smaug, some of the most popular creatures in modern fantasy fiction. Smaug the Golden may be the last dragon in Middle-Earth, he is certainly no longer alone.

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A German version of this text is visible at the web site of official Tolkien publisher Klett-Cotta.

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SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY

Speaking of Tolkien, my good friend Stephen Hickman has a painting up for sale. If you are interested, please contact him directly: Stephen Hickman <shickman@stephenhickman.com>. He will be more than happy to provide more detailed information on the piece.

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RUTH HAMBIDGE

A little over a year ago, I did a short newsletter about the illustrator Ruth Hambidge. It was almost entirely focused on her marvelous illustrations for one book: The Coasts of Illusion, written by Clark B. Firestone and published by Harper Brothers Publishers, New York & London, in 1924. Of Ruth Hambidge’s life, I was unable to find much information, thus was surprised and delighted to be recently contacted by a member of her family. I’m very excited, and hope more details of her life and art will help complete the portrait of this remarkable artist. More soon.

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FOOTNOTES

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, published by George Allen & Unwin, London, 1937

[2] From The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, published in 1981 by George Allen & Unwin, London. Letter 122 (dated 18 December, 1949)

[3] From The Book of Lost Tales. Volume II. Part II. J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. First published in Great Britain by George Allen and Unwin. 1984.

[4] This may be a metaphor for a feud or a declaration of war, as armed warriors sprang up from the dragon’s teeth sewn by Cadmus and Jason.

[5] The death of Scatha is not dated, but may be situated in the early days of the Éothéod, possibly around the year 2000 of the Third Age. The War of the Dragons and Dwarves ended with Daín’s death in T.A. 2589. Bard killed Smaug in T.A. 2941. “Long-worm” should not be considered part of Tolkien’s taxonomy, it is simply a kenning.

[6] The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, published by George Allne & Unwin, 1977

[7] ibid.

[8] In reading order, that is: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was the third book published of the seven of the Chronicles of Narnia, after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian. The Magician’s Nephew, originally published second to last, recounts events in Narnia preceding the others, so is now considered by many to be the first in the series. The Horse and his Boy, published fifth, is considered to be the third book chronologically. The remaining two are The Silver Chair (published in 4th position) and The Last Battle.

[9] “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” 1936 lecture given by J. R. R. Tolkien, published in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien.

[10] J. R. R. Tolkien. A Biography. By Humphrey Carpenter. First published by George Allen and Unwin. 1977

[11].ibid.

[12] ibid.

All images are from the Tolkien Gateway web site.