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In "On Fairy Stories" (delivered as an Andrew Lange Lecture in 1938) Tolkien confides that as a child he was little moved by Alice in Wonderland or Treasure Island,

"But the land of Merlin and Arthur was better than these, and best of all the nameless North of Sigurd of the Volsungs, and the prince of all dragons. Such lands were pre-eminently desirable. I never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse. And that was not solely because I saw horses daily, but never even the footprint of a worm. The dragon had the trade-mark Of Fairie written upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was a profound desire.I desired dragons with a profound desire."

This fascination with dragons continued into adulthood and played a prominent role in one of his most famous professional papers as a medieval literary scholar,"Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" (read as a Gollanze Memorial Lecture in 1936):

"A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men's imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold. Even to-day (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm."

In response to the criticism that Beowulf reflects "a wilderness of dragons," Tolkien notes that "dragons, real dragons, essential both to the machinery and the ideas of a poem or tale, are actually rare," and the author "esteemed dragons, as rare as they are dire, as some do still. He liked them--as a poet, not as a sober zoologist; and he had good reason."

In Middle-earth, dragons were created by Morgoth the Enemy. The first to appear was Glaurung, an Uruloki or fire-drake, known as the "father of dragons." Emerging from Angband too young, he soon thereafter went back into hiding with Morgoth. When he next appeared at the Battle of Sudden Flame, however, he lead the charge into the battlefield, clearing the way for the Balrogs. In the next major battle, Unnumbered Tears, his "strength and terror" was "great indeed." Azaghal, however, wounded Glaurung, preventing him and "his brood" from destroying all of the Noldor on the battlefield. Later Glaurung displayed an ability to control Turin for a time with a "binding spell" using his "lidless eyes." With the fall of Norgothrond, the dragon gathered the wealth of Felagund together in a heap and rested upon it in the innermost hall, taking time out only to route Mablung's elves and put a spell on Nienor. Ultimately, Glaurung was killed by Turin as Turambar when he snuck up and stabbed the dragon in the belly while he was sleeping. After Glaurung's death, his brood continued to play a role in the battles of the First Age, participating in the fall of Gondolin. During the defense of Thangorodrim at the end of that age, Morgoth used a new kind of dragon that could fly. The mightiest of these dragons, Ancalagon the Black, was slain by Earendil. During the Third Age, the Dwarves tangled with cold-drakes in Ered Mithrin, north of Mirkwood, and with the death of Dain I, Durin's Folk were forced to flee. The people who later became the Rohirrim, the Men of Eotheod, also tangled with a dragon (a "long-worm") named Scatha in Ered Mithrin and became embroiled in a feud with the Dwarves. Fram, whose father Frumgar led his people to the headwaters of the Anduin, killed the dragon (ca. TA 2000) and took his treasure. When the Dwarves demanded the treasure and Fram refused, (some say) the Dwarves killed him. (The horn Eowyn gave Merry was from this treasure.) In TA 2770 Smaug, a winged dragon, took Erebor, removing the last of Durin's Folk from the region.


Smaug, said in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings to be "the greatest dragon of his day," is similar in many respects to Glaurung. He procures and defends a hoard. He breathes fire. He also has a soft underbelly, which, like Glaurung, proves his undoing, even though he wears a coat of jewels over it, with just one defect, "a large patch in the left breast as bare as a snail out of his shell," through which Bard the Bowman sends an arrow.

When Bilbo meets and talks to Smaug in The Hobbit, the dragon makes it clear that he has keen smell, hearing, and perhaps some other intuitive sense: "I smell you and I feel your air.I hear your breath." Unlike Glaurung, who is lidless, Smaug has a "drooping lid" over his left eye. Like Glaurung, however, the thin, piercing ray of red from his roving eye put Bilbo "in grievous danger of coming under the dragon-spell." Presumably, had Smaug been able to see Bilbo, he would have gained control of him much as Glaurung did over Turin and Nienor.

Although Smaug had a dwarf-like love of gold and other treasure, and little desire to be far from them, he was a serious danger to all the free peoples of Middle-earth. In Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings there is a discussion of a chance meeting between Thorin Oakenshield and Gandalf, who was worried about "the state of the North," in particular, "the desolation of the Dragon" because "The Dragon Sauron might use with terrible effect." As Gandalf explains in the appendix, in a section of a chapter omitted from The Lord of the Rings (but published in full in Unfinished Tales):

"Yet things might have gone far otherwise and far worse. When you think of the great Battle of Pelennor, do not forget the battles in Dale and the valour of Durin's Folk. Think of what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador, night in Rivendell. There might be no Queen in Gondor. We might now hope to return from victory here only to ruin and ash. But that has been averted--because I met Thorin Oakenshied one evening on the edge of spring in Bree. A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-earth."

Seen in this way, The Hobbit is the beginning of the War of the Ring, on which the future of that later war depends.

Because no other dragons are mentioned in The Lord of the Rings, one might conclude, as Tolkien's proofreader, Naomi Mitchison, did, that there were no more dragons after Smaug. In a letter to her (25 April 1954), Tolkien responded: "Dragons. They had not stopped; since they were active in far later times, close to our own." Tolkien goes on to say that perhaps one sentence in the trilogy might be misleading: "there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough." To Tolkien, however, the statement implies "that there are still dragons, if not of full primeval stature." As "On Fairy-Stories" makes clear, it would have been unthinkable for Tolkien to have done away with dragons altogether.

"Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril."

Like the authors of the Middle Ages, Tolkien provides a reasonable number of dragons in his writings on Middle-earth: neither none nor a wilderness of dragons. As Tolkien notes in "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," the focus in medieval literature is really only on two dragons: "Fafnir and Beowulf's bane." In his writings on Middle-earth, the focus is likewise on just two: Glaurung and Smaug, and only one other is named, Ancalagon the Black.

Tolkien offers no other information about dragons within the bounds of his stories about Middle-earth except for a poem called "The Hoard" in his book of poetry, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.. The unnamed dragon plays an intermediate role in the story, taking his hoard from an old dwarf and dying in turn at the hands of a young warrior.

Still Tolkien does provide yet another encounter with a dragon, presumably outside of the framework of Middle-earth in a delightful story called Farmer Giles of Ham. In this story, a common farmer, Giles, first encounters a lost giant, whom he accidentally routes. The giant then informs one of his neighbors of his adventure, a dragon named Chrysophylax Dives (alias Chrysophylax the Bold), who visits the land the giant found to eat sheep, cows, and humans. Because he was considered a very courageous man after the incident with the giant, Giles is eventually forced into confronting the dragon. In this encounter his luck holds again and he manages to defeat a fairly cowardly Chrysophylax with the help of a special sword, Caudimordax or "vulgarly Tailbiter." The dragon bargains for his life, but despite his promise, he does not return with treasure. Forced to confront the dragon still again by his king, who plans to confiscate the treasure, Giles survives an attack, killing most of the king's knights, and once again gets the best of Chrysophylax, who brings back part of his treasure for Giles and helps him defend it in revolt against the undeserving king.

Chrysophylax is very similar in many respects to Smaug. He can fly and breath fire. He gathers and defends a hoard. He does not, however, seem to have the ability to bind others with spell. Rather he bargains, blusters, whines, and bullies depending on the circumstances. He has no honor, since he rarely intends to keep a promise, but he can act benevolently out of friendship, which he gradually develops with Giles. He also has a sense of irony and a sense of humor.

One unfortunate appearance of dragons came much againts the wishes of Tolkien when The Lord of the Rings was published by Ballantine in the U.S. Speaking of the paperback cover, Tolkien writes:


 "I think the cover ugly; but I recognize that a main object of a paperback cover is to attract purchases, and I suppose that you are better judges of what is attractive in USA than I am. I therefore will not enter into a debate about taste--(meaning though I did not say so: horrible colours and foul lettering)--but I must ask this about the vignette: what has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs? I do not understand how anybody who had read the tale (I hope you are one) could think such a picture would plese the author."

Later when Tolkien confronted an agent of Ballantine concerning the points above, "her voice rose several tones and she cried: 'But the man hadn't TIME to read the book!" Needless to say, Tolkien must have quickly seen the futility of pointing out to her or the artist that there were, as far as he knew, no two- or three-headed dragons in his Middle-earth.


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ECH - December 31, 2007