Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tuesday's Dragon

Also called: Trâgu, The Golden, The Magnificent, The Dragon of Erebor

You knew you would see him on this list eventually. Possibly the most famous dragon of modern literature, Smaug is an essential component of any dragon listing. And with good reason!

Smaug was heavily inspired by the famous dragon in the Beowulf epic and, indeed, so closely resembles that dragon that one could easily call Smaug his "literary descendant." Unlike Beowulf's nemesis, however, Smaug is far more sentient and, therefore, more evil. But just like that dragon, Smaug keeps a vast and fabulous hoard, a pile of gold on which he slumbers amid greedy dreams. And make no mistake, just like his predecessor, Smaug knows every last piece of his hoard!

There are four known dragons who inhabit Tolkien's elaborate and brilliant world of Middle Earth: Ancalagon, Glaurung, Scatha, and Smaug. In the later part of the Third Age of Middle Earth, Smaug is the greatest dragon yet living, possibly the greatest that ever was. With violence and fire, he took the land of Erebor for his own, driving out the dwarves who dwelled in the Lonely Mountain, and stealing all their treasures. He ruled that land and terrorized the inhabitants for two whole centuries before we finally meet him for the first time in Tolkien's first novel of Middle Earth, The Hobbit.

In that book, we see an echo of the Beowulf themes that must have been an enormous influence on Tolkien. We meet his protagonist, the hobbit of the title, Mr. Bilbo Baggins, assuming the role of the runaway slave from the original epic. But that thief slipped by accident down to the dragon's hoard; Bilbo goes on purpose, a reconnaissance mission for the dwarves with whom he is traveling.

Thirteen dwarves, as led by Thorin Oakenshield, solicited Bilbo to be their personal burglar, a useful asset, they feel, on a quest to reclaim their treasures from Smaug's hold. So Bilbo journeyed with them to the Lonely Mountain and is sent at last down to the treasure hold. There he beholds the hoard of Smaug for the first time:

"Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves" (The Hobbit, Chapter XII).

Many artists have painted and sketched their own personal visions of Smaug's treasure trove. My personal favorite is the picture at the top of this page by Greg and Tim Hildebrant. It was in the hardbound copy of The Hobbit that my parents owned when I was growing up. But two of the other most famous versions have been John Howe's:

And Alan Lee's

Definitely starting to feel some dragonish glory now!

Surely with all that treasure to keep track of, the dragon couldn't possibly miss a single cup? Or so, Bilbo reasoned. But no sooner had Bilbo escaped with his purloined goods, and hardly had the dwarves had a chance to admire his achievement, when Smaug awoke.

"He stirred and stretched forth his neck to sniff. Then he missed the cup!
Thieves! Fire! Murder!  Such a thing had not happened since he came to the Mountain! His passes description . . ." (The Hobbit, Chapter XII).

So, just like Beowulf's dragon, Smaug comes bellowing forth in full fury. His hide is armor plated and impervious to all harm save on his tender underbelly. But even this has been so crusted over with gems after centuries of sleeping on treasure, that no mere sword can hope to pierce it.

This is Smaug's boast to Bilbo when, after the fire of his first fury passes, he returns to his lair and there meets the hobbit thief. He boasts and even proves his words by rolling over so that Bilbo may see the glorious armor he has accumulated over the years. Only Bilbo, though his eyes are dazzled by the glitter, sees something else as well: A bare patch in the hollow of Smaug's left breast.

And when Bilbo later communicates this message to the dwarves, he is overheard by thrush.

(Hmmm . . . A thrush! Now isn't that just the oddest literary connection? It's been so long since I read The Hobbit, I didn't actually remember that part!)

Anyway, as it turns out, there was a day when the Men of the Lake-town had been able to speak the language of birds. And there is one who still does: Bard the Bowman. When the time comes, and Smaug, in a rage once more, is burning and destroying Lake Town once and for all, the wise thrush comes to him and whispers: "The moon is rising. Look for the hollow of the left breast as he flies and turns above you!"

So Bard shoots his final arrow, a black arrow. And it sinks home.

Thus ends the flaming, furious, dreadful life of Smaug the Magnificent, greatest dragon of the Third Age.

And one can't help but think it was just in time for more reasons than one! Not just for the people of Lake Town or the dwarves. After all, it wasn't long after these events that Sauron rose up from Mordor and summoned all the dark powers to his thrall. What might he have done with an evil as mighty and deadly as Smaug if given half the chance? Interesting speculation . . .

Smaug has found his way into numerous depictions. Many great artists have illustrated him, not to mention the famous illustration rendered by Tolkien himself:

Yes, we have seen Smaug more magnificent. But there really is nothing quite like seeing an author's own interpretation, is there?

Smaug has made his way into Movie World via this 1977 filmadaption:

What a charmer he was back then, eh? Kind of like a scale-covered cat.

Smaug even made it into Video Game World in 2003.
Complete with Video Game hoard.

But, of course, everyone is the most excited about the upcoming 2012 feature film of The Hobbit.

Though I can't help but wonder if we'll see any of Smaug in this part 1 movie? We might not get much Smaug-ishness until 2013 when part 2 releases. In the meanwhile, we do know that Smaug will be voiced by the marvelous Benedict Cumberbatch.

If you have seen him in his Sherlock Holmes role you know he has the perfect voice for a dragon! I'm excited. You should be as well.

Smaug on a scale of 1-10

Evil:  9
 Smaug is a satisfyingly and wonderfully evil villain!

Scariness: 10
I can only remember one dragon who ever scared me more! (More on that one later.)

Poison: ?
I can find no references to Smaug being poisonous.

Hoard: 10
A sublime hoard that includes mithril silver and the dwarves' brilliant Arkenstone.

Cleverness: 4
I'm not giving him more than 4. After all, he did roll over and show Bilbo his weakness. Seriously, Smaug? After centuries of people wanting to slay you? You've gotten to comfortable in your scariness.


Clara said...

I'm soo excited about The Hobbit movie! Me and my family just finished our annual Lord of the Rings watching tradition Saturday:)did you like the movies?

I'm reallly looking forward to Moonblood! can't wait!

Anonymous said...

Christa here!
I do hope you write about Ancalagon and Glaurung soon!

Galadriel said...

Where's Scatha? I don't remember where that one is. Smaug is really impressive.

Anonymous said...

Christa again.

I nearlly forgot about it. There was this wonderful picture done of Smaug by Michael Hague:http://bp1.blogger.com/_rf5j7tUYNdo/SId-BOh01OI/AAAAAAAAANg/HkN2GHo_fEQ/s400/Hobbit+Hague.jpg

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

I'd forgotten about that one too! That's one of my favorite depictions of Smaug ever! Can't believe I forgot to include it in this post . . . thanks for remembering for me! :)