October 2018 Bundle

BEWARE the Most Dreadful Danger of Tolkien Dragons!

By John Elton Pletcher
Humans display a historic fascination with dragons. Something fiery and wonderful captivates us about those ferocious creatures. Dr. Ernest Drake’s Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragons supplies a facsimile of a very old volume. Perhaps fictitious—but maybe real, it is described as “an original, published on a print run of 100 copies in 1895, of which a copy was recently found in a bookshop near the Seven Dials in London.”[1] This multi-sensory, present-day replica is color-rich, texture-laden, and crafted to look antique. As a “dragon manual,” it supplies a compilation of pictures of different dragon species, field samples, as well as pointers for hunting and taming the great scaly beasts. I must admit, it’s marvelously entertaining, mildly mysterious, and at points almost convincing. 

No doubt about it. Fire-drakes are fearsome. Their massive force, winged flight, and snorting flames evoke our dread. But there’s another even more diabolical danger that few mortals dare to ponder. Tucked into his manual’s pages, Dr. Ernest Drake lends poignant dragon wisdom. Although J.R.R. Tolkien is never mentioned, Drake’s insights reflect a sneaky and dangerous behavior of Tolkien-dragons. We shall see that connection before we are through. But first, let’s consider Tolkien’s own dragon-fascination.

Deep Dragon Desire

Scene after scene, The Legendarium envelops readers in wonder. And the episodes with dragons are no exception.

Even Tolkien’s dragons draw us into wonder. But beware! As we shall see, the Professor demonstrates a very unique purpose in employing such mesmerizing, diabolical creatures.

Smaug’s infamous appearance in The Hobbit was not Tolkien’s first time telling a dragon tale. In a letter to W.H. Auden, the Professor explained his own childhood fascination with the fiery beasts: “I first tried to write a story when I was about seven. It was about a dragon. I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon,’ but had to say ‘a great green dragon.’ I wondered why, and still do.”[2] At this early age, Tolkien was turning words in clever ways even as he word-painted with dragons. 

In his essay On Fairy-stories, the Professor recalled such early fascination: “The dragon had the trade-mark of Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world . . . I desired dragons with a profound desire.”[3]

Such desire proved pervasive. Tolkien scholarship included his literary research and writing on the classic Beowulf, which of course featured a formidable dragon.[4] So should it really surprise us that dragons spewed flames in Tolkien’s tales for years to come? 

Even Tolkien’s dragons draw us into wonder. But beware!

Lord Smaug the Impenetrable

Before departing on their adventure, Gandalf aimed to bolster the Dwarves confidence in Bilbo, his selected “burglar.” The Wizard insisted he was “one of the best, one of the best—fierce as a dragon in a pinch.” Thorin explained details of the treasure’s history, including his own family’s craftsmanship under the Mountain. “So my grandfather’s halls became full of armour and jewels and carvings and cups, and the toy market of Dale was the wonder of the North.” And Thorin’s further explanation is instructive: 

“Undoubtedly that was what brought the dragon. Dragons steal gold and jewels, you know, from men and elves and dwarves, wherever they can find them; and they guard their plunder as along as they live . . . There was a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm called Smaug.”[5] 

Later in the adventure, Bilbo’s first encounter with Smaug proved breathtaking: 

“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.”[6] 

Bilbo—conveniently concealed by the Ring’s invisibility—encountered the frightening guardian of the treasure. What an opulent hoard to behold! Even Tolkien’s dragons draw us into wonder. But beware! 

In keeping with our oft-repeated, thick thematic thread, it should not surprise us that more wonder-words emerge with Tolkien’s dragon scenes. As Bilbo encountered Smaug and the immense treasure, we read: “To say that Bilbo’s breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful.”[7] 

Of what days was Tolkien speaking, “when all the world was wonderful”? He was hearkening back to ancient scenes of the earlier ages and Elven lore in The Silmarillion. That First Age included the granddaddy of all winged fiery ones, Glaurung. This beast originated in Morgoth’s deep fortress of Angband. He was “the first of the Urulóki.”[8] 

Much could be made of both Smaug and Glaurung’s ferocious demeanor, their terror in flight and their terrible flames. But Tolkien’s stories actually convey something even more frightening when it comes to dragons. They possessed the ability to cast a spell with their eyes. In Tolkien’s tale “Of Túrin Turambar,” we read: 

“Glaurung withheld his blast, and opened wide his serpent-eyes and gazed upon Túrin. Without fear Túrin looked into them as he raised up the sword; and straightway he fell under the binding spell of the lidless eyes of the dragon, and was halted moveless. Then for a long time he stood as one graven of stone . . .”[9] 

Bilbo risked potentially experiencing a similar phenomenon when facing Smaug: 

“Bilbo was now beginning to feel really uncomfortable. Whenever Smaug’s roving eye, seeking for him in the shadows, flashed across him he trembled, and an unaccountable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell the truth to Smaug. In fact he was in grievous danger of coming under the dragon-spell.”[10] 

It seems that “dragon-spell” might be capable of inducing several dreadful ailments. 

Brushes With Dragons? Beware!

Even Tolkien’s dragons draw us into wonder. But beware! 

Tolkien’s tremendous dragon characters have an additional spellbinding power over humans. For those who dwell too long in the presence of dragons and their plunder, it’s a dreadful character flaw. Without fail, Tolkien dragons are greedy. And as a result, they are hoarders. In the battle with Túrin, Glaurung broke down the bridge and cast it “into the foam of Narog; and being thus secure he gathered all the hoard and riches of Felagund and heaped them, and lay upon them in the innermost hall, and rested a while.” 

It’s vintage dragon posture. 

Under the Mountain, Smaug boasted in banter with Bilbo: 

“I am armoured above and below with iron scales and hard gems. No blade can pierce me.” 

“I might have guessed it,” said Bilbo. “Truly there can nowhere be found the equal of Lord Smaug the Impenetrable. What a magnificence to possess a waistcoat of fine diamonds!” 

“Yes, it is rare and wonderful, indeed,” said Smaug absurdly pleased. 

Back to the old dragon manual’s stunning connection with Tolkien dragons… Dr. Ernest Drake’s Dragonology warns of this greedy hoarding behavior as evolving “because dragons have a soft, unarmoured ‘Achilles spot’ on their bellies. When they lie on treasure, some of the jewels stick, providing them with protection in their one vulnerable area.” 

Unfortunately, humans are capable of falling under this dreadful spell. We can become equally arrogant and greedy, much too much like Tolkien’s dragons. Tolkien aimed for us to see applicability—even our own culpability—as we stare in wonder at his fire breathers. Colin Duriez observes: 

“In the human beings of Middle-earth, such as elves, hobbits, and humans, here can also be a dragon-like quality. It could be presented as a psychological state, the ‘Dragon-complex’ (to invent a name for it). The quality is that of possession, possessiveness. A dragon like Smaug embodies possessiveness vividly in his great, but useless, hoard. But possessiveness applies to knowledge, power over others, and many other areas.”[11] 

There are certainly positive, contrasting characters, including Ilúvatar and Aulë of The Silmarillion and Sam and Tom Bombadil of The Lord of the Rings. They are not obsessed with possessing but instead exude joy in creating and sharing. And Duriez gives a one-two punch with this statement: “Human beings are wrong to be dragon-like, bestial, but a dragon is a dragon.” 

As we ponder these wondrous, ferocious creatures, let’s gaze beyond their armor-like scales, clenching claws, and foul snorts of fire. Let’s dare to stare at our own deep caves of materialistic greed and hoarding. Can we admit we too often succumb to a “dragon complex?” Once we own it, then may we choose contentment over greed. Let’s work with open, generous hands instead. Resist our bestial impulses of hoarding with selfish possessiveness. 

Let us be the kind of characters who exude joy in creating and sharing with others! 

Even Tolkien’s dragons draw us into wonder. But beware! 




[1]Edited by Dugald A. Steer, Candlewick Press, 2003. On the copyright page, the publisher admits: “Unfortunately, the publisher has been unable to ascertain whether a real Dr. Ernest Drake ever lived in St. Leonard’s Forest or wrote a book called Dragonology and so, with regret, is unable to make any claim as to the truth of this and must present this volume merely as an interesting curiosity.”

[2]The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 214.

[3]Tolkien On Fairy-stories, 55.

[4]‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.’

[5]The Hobbit, 32.

[6]Ibid; 227.

[7]Ibid; 227.

[8]The Silmarillion, 133.

[9]Ibid; 256.

[10]The Hobbit, 236.

[11]Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings: A Guide to Middle Earth, 165.