Spoilers: Start of Hobbit: Battle of the Five armies
Throughout human mythology there have been common themes and subjects that have appeared with frequency. Usually this can be explained as an expression of a community’s social unconscious; ghouls, vampires and wendigos allude to the widely held taboo regarding cannibalism for example.
Taking this as the case, one would assume the most prevalent mythological being would be representative of a common theme deemed important to the human psyche. The being would come in many different variants however the message this creature represents would be all the same.
And so it is that we have the cultural anomaly that is the dragon. The dragon is present everywhere, even in places where there would be no reptiles or birds that would serve as inspiration. It takes many forms; from the Norse lindwyrm to the Chinese Long.
But it seems as the dragon has many shapes so does it have meaning. Some dragons represent power, some represent Christian sin, some represent lust, some represent temperance, peace and life. It is this paradox of the dragon that feeds my interest in the subject (actually, to be honest, what feeds my interest is that they are basically fire breathing dinosaurs with wings, but for now lets just pretend I'm an adult).
Given this popularity of dragons throughout history, there is no reason for them to be absent in modern day narrative.
Strangely though, dragons have not played as huge a role as one would have expected. For one thing they, along with elves, dwarves and other prisoners of the Tolkein universe have been assigned to the fantasy world and are hence ever resigned to be the final dungeon bosses in WOW.
But there have been a few popular forms of media that I think have done dragons in an interesting way or at least put a little more effort into them.
So I am going to take a tour through various interpretations of dragons in popular culture, exploring how these modern depictions represent modern ideas but mostly I'm gona judge the hell out of them.
Probably the most recent depiction of dragons in popular media (which is ironic given it draws from the oldest text), is of Smaug the impenetrable in the recent Hobbit films. Through Smaug we saw a brief glimpse of the dragon concept that is held within the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkein is considered to be the father of fantasy by some and the rapist and plunderer of norse mythology by me, but nevertheless his dragons are quite interesting.
Tolkien dragons come from Morgoth or as he is otherwise known “not-Satan” who wished to use them in his battle against the creations of Iluvatar or “not-God”. Dragons come in your basic flavours: you have your fire drakes, ice drakes, sea serpents, regular serpents.......pistachio.
Whatever the shape, his dragons hold certain characteristics in common. These characteristics can be summed up in one word: evil.
In x words that would be:
Tolkein dragons have a love of gold and wealth, though they never mine or smith their own objects. No, dragons prefer to order on amazon or alternatively bully some dwarves. Dragons and dwarves in the Tolkien universe are arch enemies; dwarves because they like mining for precious minerals under big mountains and dragons because they are like big fire-breathing magpies. This adoration of gold is not very well explained in Tolkien's usually heavily detailed world but from the actions and behaviour of Smaug in the hobbit, combined with Tolkien's own beliefs; there may be three reasons.
1. It may be a form of protection as Smaug spent centuries lying on a sea of gems so that they would embed in his skin and protect his soft belly from arrows, which worked out perfectly.
2. Dragons are a metaphor for humanity’s consumer greed, something Tolkien was personally against.
3. Dragons like shiny things.
Along with a tendency towards filigree, dragons are amazingly cunning. Often they use this intellect to mess around with their food before they eat it. Smaug wastes no time in trying to derive information from Bilbo as he tries to glean who he is and where he comes from. With the little knowledge he gains Smaug is able to come to the conclusion that Bilbo has been sent to steal from him on behalf of the dwarves. Smaug also holds an impressive knowledge of each and every piece of treasure in his hoard; instantly realising that Bilbo has taken a cup. As soon as Smaug recognises Bilbo's plan, he sets about trying to drive a wedge between him and his allies showing a distinct understanding of the human psyche.
But with this intellect comes a fatal flaw, in that Smaug has a certain weakness to riddles and mind games. Bilbo exploits this by using several riddles to entice Smaug into revealing information about himself.
One must understand that this scene in the book and later movie, is based off the Lay of Fafnir. Bilbo makes an effort not to name himself as in the myth, it is believed a dying Lindwyrm may put a curse over someone once they know their name.
It is this dialogue that results in Bilbo realising Smaug's weakness. As it was Sigurd's objective to try and gain prized wisdom from Fafnir.
Another thing taken from the Fafnir legend is that of the dragon spell. Tolkien's dragons often hold a hypnotic ability to bend the will of men or drive them insane. In Fafnir's legend, it is Sigurd's companion who is driven mad with gold sickness, just as Thorin Oakenshield becomes obsessed with his own treasure.
The dragon spell has been used by dragons such as Glaurong in order to wipe memories and drive people to suicide. Smaug it seems, may have some form of dragon spell that relies on a person having to give their name, but it is equally possible that Tolkien simply wrote his Bilbo/Smaug scene to brazenly mirror earlier Dragon stories. Magic or no, Smaug still has an understanding of human psychology which he uses against his enemies.
So given that Dragons are gigantic, fire breathing, hypnotic evil-masterminds, it begs the question of how were they wiped out by the time the Hobbit was written.
Basically, Tolkien doesn't give any good answers, just that Smaug happened to be the last of the “great dragons”. However, he does mention that their disadvantage happened to be the fact they were slow to mature. But even if it takes several hundred years to make one Smuag, that's still one Smaug and one Smuag can destroy the combined kingdoms of Dale, the lonely mountain and the Wood elves that not even Sauron and his ugly-face parade could conquer.
And I suppose that brings me to my main criticism of the Tolkien dragons (you know aside from the plagiarism), its that they are immensely powerful, yet very easily defeated. I think Smaug is the perfect example of this case. Anyone who has watched the third Hobbit movie has only received a taste of the disappointment that was Smaug the stupendous.
In the books Smaug's demise resulted in Bilbo noticing there happening to be a gap in his jewel encrusted belly just above his heart, this piece of information was overheard by a thrush who fluttered down to Bard the bowman and let him know. Bard was then able to aim one of his arrows at the spot, hitting it dead centre and killing Smaug instantly. Now, I think everyone should just take a minute to appreciate that the last great dragon of middle earth was thwarted by a song bird.
If this doesn't make sense, again it has been nicked from Fafnir and I'm not going to even bother explaining it because you can just go read it, trust me its much better than this farce.
Obviously, there are some flaws with this concept. Chiefly, being if Smaug had an exposed belly the entire time during which he destroyed Dale and the lonely mountain's armies how was he not shot down like a pheasant. Furthermore, how did Smaug, in all his intellect and for all the decades he spent in the Lonely mountain, not ever once look down and notice that one of the jewels he had placed to cover his heart was missing. Lastly, how did Bard know what the fuck this bird was saying? And what did the bird get out of this? Who does it work for? Fuck that Elf/dwarf romance bullshit from the movies, I want to know what this bird's story is.
This sort of thing doesn't happen to be an exception to the rule, by the way. In Tolkien's universe the one weakness all dragon's share happens to be generic, white-teethed heroes.
The tradition all went back the first dragon, Glaurong whose immense size and hypnotic gaze meant nothing against the forces of one noble dipstick hiding in a ditch (Again see Fafnir and assorted dragon myths). This dipstick was named Turin Turanbar heir to the Folk of Hador, Lord of the cumbly-wumbly candy stick hills and hero of the oogly-boogly (insert old English word for sock here) islands. He wielded a magic sword, I'm not bothered remembering its name because having a magic sword in Middle Earth is like owning a Katana in feudal Japan. So Turin managed to defeat this omnipotent beast by stabbing it in its tummy with a pointy stick.
This happens again, and again throughout Tolkien's stories. Anytime, a mighty dragon threatens some dwarf's stash of shiny rocks the hero of the day comes out of the woodwork and stabs it with a special sword that Tolkien goes to lengths to name.
This took a humorous turn when it came to the case of Ancalagon the black. Now I want you to take this moment to look up the size scale of Ancalagon, all the while remembering that one pretty faced douche-bag was all it took to bring him down.
I suppose there's a possibility that I'm missing some sort of a point here, that the reason dragon's are so easily thwarted is because Tolkien is referencing previous great works. But luckily I've read many dragon myths throughout the European and world cannon and I can say that usually it takes a little more than one blue eyed prick and his big, pointed long-thing to bring a dragon down; like a sheep filled with sulphur or eight barrels of hard liquor.
I suppose there is nothing more to say about Tolkien's dragons. Their story's are all pretty much the same: dragon appears, burns some things, tricks some people, then (INSERT NAME HERE) son of (INSERT NAME HERE) heir to (INSERT KINGDOM HERE) of the (INSERT FAMILY TREE HERE) stabs him with a magic sword and everyone goes home to do their hair.
Dragons aren't mere animals in Middle Earth, so perhaps we can shed some light on their psyche by analysing Smaug. Smaug is described everywhere by everyone as an evil character. Gandalf calls him the most greedy and wicked of worms (by worms he obviously means the old translation wyrm that means serpent, you'd be surprised how much confusion this has caused). Even Tolkien himself considers Smaug to be nothing more than a generic evil being.
At his core, Smaug isn't really evil. Of course he's killed countless people, destroyed entire kingdoms and takes sadistic pleasure in the suffering of his enemies but in all honesty, would you really call a man a monster just because he crushed a few ants? Smaug doesn't appear to care much for what happens in middle earth so long as he is left alone to his cavern. He does not actively cause destruction unless provoked. He doesn't demand taxes or tributes, nor does he lord over lands and that's more than can be said for the dwarves who previously lived there. He may be considered greedy, but Smaug seems to have little more than an attraction to gold rather than any sort of desire to amass wealth. Indeed, Smaug does not actively seek any more gold than he has. He does not see gold as power, but instead something of a symbol of his own strength.
Smaug can be anxious or even paranoid, this is more than well portrayed with Benedict Cumberbatch's voicing of the character. He is afraid that someone will come and try to take everything away from him. And, to be honest, he's 100% correct. But this anxiety may go deeper; one can even imagine Smaug as being fearful for his own life.
Despite his constant boastings, Smaug is the last dragon of Middle Earth. From the sounds of things, he was quite young by the time he took over the lonely mountain and by then most of his race was presumably dead if not extinct. He would have seen countless long haired, square-jawed messiahs defy all odds and kill his species. Not only would this place him in extreme doubt on the supremacy of his species, but this would also have harboured a deep resentment of the races of Middle Earth, all who seemed to be out to destroy his race. He has mentioned before that he had fought against a large number of “heroes of old”, implying that Smaug had on numerous occasions been confronted with people who wanted to kill him. Smaug would have probably developed a siege mentality, naturally seeking somewhere he could take refuge whilst at the same time a means to grow stronger and re-affirm his own strength.
This interpretation would explain all of his behaviour, from his taking the lonely mountain to his apparent 150 year dormancy to his constant shouting about how great his various body parts are.
From this stance, Smaug seemed like more of a tragic character than the horrible monster to be slain. It really doesn't do him justice to be killed at the hands of a garden variety song bird or alternatively in the movie adaptation by a hastily imagined one dimensional hero and his son: Middle Earth's Ron Weasley.
So maybe Smaug and the Tolkien's dragons had more complex characters at a deeper level?
Pffft, yeah and Hamlet has an Oedipus complex.
So in summary we can say that Tolkien's dragons are big, greedy excuses to give a heroic moment to an otherwise bland, unmemorable character. Like the guy who killed Smaug. Seriously, if Bert the magic thrush hadn't shot Smaug with that black bullet then you wouldn't remember the first thing about him.
Except for his snot nose son. I think the fact that little twat didn't lose his head from the sheer force of the bow string was the greatest tragedy of the entire Tolkien cannon.
But of course this is Lord of the rings we're talking about: all candy floss and objective morality. This isn't Game of thrones.
Oh and speaking of which.....