|Dragon's Mouth Spring, Yellowstone Park
SPOILER ALERTS for both The Hobbit and Beowulf
"Beowulf's dragon, if one really wishes to criticize, is not to be blamed for being a dragon, but rather for not being dragon enough, plain pure fairy-story dragon." So wrote J.R.R. Tolkien in his 1936 lecture entitled, "Beowulf: The Monsters And The Critics." Tolkien attempted to rectify this in his book The Hobbit, by reducing the dragon as an overarching symbol of fate to that of a mere fairy tale monster. Granted, Tolkien was writing the book for children, but if he'd known how popular his now classic would be with adults as well as children, I wonder if he would have changed the characterization quite so much.
Tolkien was a scholar of the Old English poem Beowulf, written sometime between 700 and 1000 A.D., drawing on its influence to create the fictitious world of Middle-earth and the dragon character of Smaug. This essay will not discuss Middle-earth but will instead focus on Smaug.
Dragons have existed in folklore for centuries. They were usually characterized as ferocious worms with a poisonous bite and (rarely) fiery breath. Some were winged, but most were not. All of them, the Western ones that is, were symbols of evil, and in Christian countries - the Devil. None of them were depicted as guardians of treasure, except for the dragon in Beowulf. This is important because in Beowulf, the dragon becomes not just a symbol of evil, but a symbol of destiny, or as Tolkien said in his lecture, the theme of "the inevitable victory of death."
In the poem, Beowulf - a Scandinavian prince - proves himself a worthy hero by defeating first the monster Grendel, then Grendel's mother. Beowulf becomes a leader of the people and rules in peace for 50 years, until the dragon awakes.
The dragon has been dormant for 300 years, guarding a hoard of "riches of a high-born race."* We soon realize that the dragon is more than a simple monster when we learn that the treasure does not represent greed, but the hopes and aspirations of a bygone race. An unknown man who was the last of his kind, buried the riches in a stone vaulted barrow (burial mound) and said these words, "Now, earth, hold what earls once held and heroes can no more; it was mined from you first by honourable men . . I am left with nobody to bear a sword or burnish plated goblets, put a sheen on the cup. The companies have departed . . No trembling harp, no tuned timber, no tumbling hawk swerving through the hall, no swift horse pawing the courtyard. Pillage and slaughter have emptied the earth of entire peoples." The dragon in Beowulf is not just guarding a treasure, he is suppressing an ancient heritage.
It is true that the Beowulf dragon is described as "driven to hunt out hoards under ground, to guard heathen gold through age-long vigils, though to little avail," but we also learn that Beowulf is "destined to face the end of his days in this mortal world; as was the dragon, for all his long leasehold on the treasure." Their fate is tied together. The dragon is much more than a monster.
In contrast, Tolkien treats the "long-forgotten gold"** in The Hobbit not as an historical and cultural legacy of the dwarfs, but more as a symbol of the dwarfs greed, the "desire of the hearts of dwarves." So it follows that when we first hear of Smaug, we learn that dragons are purely monsters, driven by greed. They "steal gold and jewels . . wherever they can find them; and they guard their plunder as long as they live and never enjoy a brass ring of it." There is no hint of mortal destiny entwined with that of the dragon; indeed, the dwarfs never confront the dragon at all.
In Beowulf, the "veteran king sat down on the cliff-top. . .sensing his death. His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain: it would soon claim his coffered soul, part life from limb. . " Beowulf's doom is foreshadowed, making the unnamed dragon much more frightening than Tolkien's dragon. Smaug, though he's capable of carrying away "people, especially maidens, to eat,"** may be evil, but he is not represented to us as fate, an "overseer of men."*
By emphasizing treasure not as the grief of a lost people but as mere jewels; by focusing on the greediness of both the dwarfs and the dragon; and by making the demise of Smaug happen by a person other than the dwarfs, I believe Tolkien missed an opportunity to re-create an epic character, one that would forever intertwine the name of Smaug with Destiny.
*All Beowulf quotes from Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, copyright 2000, W.W. Norton & Company
** All Tolkien quotes from The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, copyright 1937