The Ancestors of Smaug

© Joe Mandala 1994

One of the most intriguing characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is the dragon, Smaug, which Bilbo tricks (for a time, at least) and Bard kills as a prelude to the story’s climax. Smaug is a dragon, and to understand Smaug, one must know what a dragon is, at least what Professor Tolkien saw a dragon to be. By the ancestors of Smaug is meant those characters and sources from which Tolkien drew to create the character, and the general gist of The Dragon in his view (i.e., in his previous conceptions of a dragon). So in this manner we will examine the predecessors of Smaug, both from the works Tolkien drew from, and his earlier creations in the form of the dragon.

What is a dragon, anyhow? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a dragon is, 1) "a huge serpent or snake; a python" or 2) "a mythical monster, represented as a huge and terrible reptile, usually combining ophidian and crocodilian structure, with strong claws, like a beast or bird of prey, and a scaly skin; it is generally represented with wings, and sometimes as breathing out fire." In other words, a dragon is a beast both horrible in aspect and destructive in nature. In these two qualities, every dragon in western literature and mythology agrees. Some, including the Sanskrit and Irano-Persian traditions, have ascribed a cunning and evil intelligence to the dragon, and there are a few corresponding incidences in Northern European tradition, though the majority are there considered to be beasts or demons of hell.

Since Professor Tolkien studied much of "northern" mythology and language, and was interested in constructing a "mythology for England," whose peoples were nearly exclusively northern in descent (excepting, of course, the Romans and modern immigrations), we will look upon the possible inspirations for the inclusion of dragons in this mythology. Smaug, of course, being a representative of the final form of the dragon as Tolkien would have it. There are two main dragon characters that would have great influence on any reading of them in northern myths. The first is the dragon of Beowulf. Without name, and generally without much character, this is simply a beast - a destructive denizen of hellian nature presumably originating with the rest of the "monsters" as descendants of Cain and outcasts from the people of God. This dragon has most of the characteristics of the dragon as defined above, with the added weapon of a poison bite (presumably of pythian origin). There are, however, obvious similarities with the events surrounding the destruction of the dragon and the calling out of Smaug. A thief descending through secret passages disturbs the dragon from his rest by stealing a portion of the dragon’s gold (which is another common thread), much as Bilbo awakens Smaug by stealing the goblet. In both instances, a hero apart from the thief destroys the dragon, restoring peace and security to the land. Bard, however, unlike Beowulf, is not slain, and goes on to re-found the town of Dale. The reluctance of the Dwarves to accompany Bilbo in confronting Smaug is reminiscent of Beowulf’s companions (save one) fleeing from the sight of the dragon. All in all, though, as a character, Beowulf’s dragon little resembles Smaug except in form and destructive capacity.

Another northern dragon who turns out to be much more akin to Smaug is Fafnir, the dragon slain by Sigurd at the prompting of the dwarf/giant/shape-shifter Regin (who happens to be Fafnir’s brother). It is open as to whether Regin and Fafnir (and their brother Otter) were giants or dwarves, though their father Andvari was definitely a dwarf. The shape-changing ability which all of Andvari’s sons had was generally ascribed to giants, while the rabid desire for gold was a dwarven characteristic. Be that as it may, Fafnir was remarkably similar to Smaug while he was in his dragon form in the story regarding Sigurd. Like Smaug, Fafnir is a guardian of a golden hoard, and like Smaug, Fafnir is intelligent and can speak. This may be due to the fact that Fafnir transformed himself into a dragon, and not from any inherent draconian qualities. As the story goes, Sigurd slays Fafnir, and as the dragon lies dying he engages in a long discussion with his slayer to discover who he is. A kind of riddle-game much like the exchange between Bilbo and Smaug ensues, and Fafnir eventually gets Sigurd’s name, curses him, then dies. Similarly, when Smaug finds out where Bilbo is operating from, he flies out in a rage and destroys Lake-Town and commits the kind of destruction that Fafnir wished upon Sigurd. It is interesting to note that both Fafnir and Smaug are described as having bewitching eyes that can daze and hypnotize any that look upon them. And so we come to the development of the dragon in Tolkien.

Dragons in Middle-Earth were said to have been made by Morgoth, though not necessarily created by him. If, in fact, they were twisted mockeries of a creation of Illuvatar, we know not their source, unless it is perhaps the Great Eagles (though this seems unlikely as the first of Morgoth’s dragons were ground-creeping cold-drakes). Dragons were more powerful than Balrogs (who were Maiar, remember), and therefore were the most powerful beings in Middle-Earth excepting the Valar. The most powerful of these, and the most famous, was Ancalagon the Black. This dragon seemed to have most of the characteristics of Beowulf’s dragon. He was fairly intelligent, however, though he rarely used this characteristic. In general, Ancalagon flew about in battle razing entire divisions until he was finally destroyed by Earendil.. The most interesting, and only other widely known of Morgoth’s great drakes was Glaurung, the Deceiver. Glaurung was a land-bound drake, though he breathed fire. He therefore had both the cthonic characteristics of Morgoth’s earlier dragons and the ouranic qualities of dragons such as Ancalagon and Smaug. It may be that he is a transitional form from the bestial Beowulf-type dragon to the highly intelligent and deceptive Smaug.

Glaurung knew he was powerful and used it. Though generally forthright destruction and physical prowess was usually enough to get an immediate goal accomplished, Glaurung was much more cunning than his contemporaries in the hierarchy of Morgoth. It was his nature to trick and deceive and to lay down lies and deceptions so cleverly that they could not be discovered until it was too late. In this manner, he accomplished much more than he could have with brute force, and caused the destruction of the Elven stronghold of Nargothrond and the death of mankind’s greatest hero to date, Turin Turambar. Glaurung’s conscious use of deceit over strength and wiles over power is a characteristic akin to the Biblical form of the dragon, the Serpent in the Garden - Satan himself. He is a warning to all to trust not in the advice of your enemies and always to be true to oneself. Though Smaug is definitely a powerful creature, and an extremely intelligent one, he is no match for Glaurung, though similarities can be seen. It is likely that Bilbo could not have withstood such a creature as Glaurung, and indeed Gandalf mentions that dragons are not what they once were when he doubts that there are any dragons around anymore that have the power and strength of fire to melt a Ring of Power.

We can see the development of Smaug from influences in northern mythology, and can see a cohesive development of dragons within Tolkien’s own myth structure. This shows a deliberate inclusion of dragons in the fabric of Middle-Earth as an essential element, and a willingness to draw from existing mythologies. It is an impressive synthesis indeed to create Smaug from such disparate characters as Fafnir and the dragon of Beowulf without sacrificing that internal cohesiveness so necessary to any "believable" mythology.

Finis.

Editor's Note:

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