Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Draw of Dragons

I thought a lot about what I wanted to write for this post. I felt like I could talk about something really good – something really deep – with the topic ‘Monsters and Critics’. I floated from one idea to another, trying to think of something particularly creative. As I tried to think creative thoughts, though, dragons were always lurking at the back of my mind, trying to make themselves my subject matter.  I kept pushing them away, however, because they seemed too commonplace. Dragons are everywhere: they’ve been used in countless tales, stories, poems, books, and pieces of art. They are perhaps one of the most standard fixtures of what we perceive as the ‘fantasy world’.  So they’re not unique, right? I probably shouldn’t write about them…they’ve already been written about time and time again.  So I counted dragons as a barrier between me and my ‘creative’ post, and tried to think of something else.

But I couldn’t escape them: every wisp of idea that I had just kept getting pushed away by this looming cloud of dragons (a “wilderness of dragons”?!?!). So then I started thinking: why can’t I get dragons out of my head when I sit down to write a post about ‘Monsters’? Then I thought: wait a minute, I’m not the only one who can’t shake this idea of dragons – they really are everywhere (that was the reason I didn’t want to write about them). Is then society, like me, obsessed with dragons? In his essay Monsters and Critics, Tolkien says that “even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who have yet been caught by the fascination of the worm” (16). I’d like to examine that idea in this response: what is this “fascination of the worm”? Why are dragons the ‘monster’ of choice (yes, I do generalize here) when we think of fantasy? Is there something special about them? What can an examination of Tolkien’s concept of dragons, and the dragons in his stories, tell us about this phenomenon?

In his essay Monsters and Critics, Tolkien attempts to show that in Beowulf, monsters are actually essential to the appeal of the story, and do not lessen it, as some critics have claimed. Indeed, he says that “the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness” (19). If monsters are so fundamental to Beowulf, then Beowulf’s dragon carries particular import. According to Tolkien, “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 his significance than his barrow in gold” (16). It would seem that the dragon, as both a “creation of men’s imagination” and as a piece of “legend,” is a monster with special significance. The dragon, created by us, occupies both our imagination and our tales: we have made it (whether you want to call it a monster, an idea, or a piece of legend), and put it on a throne. So what can Beowulf’s dragon tell us about this enthronement?

By using a dragon as Beowulf’s last test, and as his bane, the author ties the story to a greater body of legend and heroism. According to Tolkien, in Northern legend “the prince of the heroes of the North, supremely memorable […] was a dragon-slayer” (16). The dragon, in this sense, is the classic legendary ‘test’ of the ultimate hero. Beowulf, as a hero, must follow the footsteps of his metaphorical forefathers of legend, and defeat a dragon.  So there is a historic-legendary quality to dragons: perhaps we can call it a ‘tradition of dragons’.

Tolkien also claims that Beowulf’s dragon, in line with other dragons of legend, increases the poeticism and the sensitivity of the tale. Tolkien says that the author of Beowulf  “esteemed dragons, as rare as they are dire […] he liked them – as a poet, not as a sober zoologist” (12). Dragons are not merely ‘monsters’ (as a “sober zoologist” might think), but pieces of poetry. They add to the taste of the story – to its spirit – and not just to its plot.

So far, we’ve see a ‘tradition of dragons’ and a ‘poeticism’ surrounding the concept of the dragon. Perhaps these are two partial explanations for the dominance of dragons in our minds, our stories, and our culture. I would like to further emphasize these two explanations in an analysis of an actual story with a dragon (and not a critical essay). For this ‘dragon story’, I’ve chosen Tolkien’s Of Turin Turambar from the Silmarillion.

In this story, Morgoth and his forces of evil are the general foes of Turin and the free peoples of Middle Earth. The dragon Glaurung, however, is the much more direct enemy of Turin and those close to him. Both Turin and his sister Nienor’s encounters with Glaurung drive the entire plot of the story, making Glaurung the true adversary in the tale.

If Glaurung is the adversary, then Turin is the hero who must face him. The characteristics, actions, and interactions of these two draw largely upon the ‘tradition of dragons’ that I highlighted before. Many aspects of the story, in that which concerns ‘the dragon’ and ‘the hero,’ draw upon legend and the common traits of the ‘dragon-hero’ story. I admit that in the following analysis of the ‘common traits’ of the ‘dragon-hero’ story, I am drawing mostly from my own experience with these stories: when I point something out as “common,” it is probably because I have personally seen it many times before. Maybe the fact that I even have a general construct of a ‘dragon-hero’ story is a topic that could be explored further, but I will leave that for someone else.

In any case, let’s look first at Glaurung and his characteristics. These largely fit into the classic image of dragons of tale and legend. To me, it seems that heroes are constantly being warned against gazing into a dragon’s eyes, or listening to/believing its words, for the power of these will lead the hero astray. Tolkien, in this line of tradition, emphasizes the power and dangerous consequences of Glaurung’s eyes and voice.

Glaurung’s eyes – lidless “serpent eyes” (213) – have the power to put a “binding spell” (213) upon humans. With his gaze, Glaurung holds Turin in place, makes Turin believe his lies (and thus leads Turin astray), lays “a spell of utter darkness and forgetfulness” (218) upon Nienor, and literally knocks Turin unconscious so that he “lay as one dead” (222).

Glaurung’s voice is the device through which he enacts his cunning and his malice. His eyes can put humans under a spell, but it is his voice that drives them to misinformed action. This is another common trait of the dragon: dangerous cunning. Glaurung weaves lies, speaks them to humans, and produces evil consequences. Turin “hearkened to [Glaurung’s] words, and he saw himself as in a mirror misshapen by malice, and loathed what he saw” (214). Because of Glaurung’s lies concerning Turin’s sister and mother, Turin goes on a hopeless search that eventually leads to his doom. Nienor also succumbs to the words of the dragon, for it is he that tells her that she has committed incest unknowingly with her brother. This is the truth, but it is crafted with cunning and malice, and meant inspire despair in Nienor. Glaurung succeeds in this, for Nienor commits suicide. We have evidence, then, of the power of the dragon’s voice and of his cunning.

Glaurung is also a hoarder, like countless dragons of legend. After the warriors of Felagund are defeated, Glaurung “burned all about him … denied [the orcs] their plunder … the bridge he broke down … he gathered all the hoard and riches of Felagund and heaped them, and lay upon them” (214). Can we really have a dragon who doesn’t like treasure? A dragon who isn’t greedy? Well, Tolkien at least follows this traditional theme, and thus connects Glaurung to his ancestors of legend.

In terms of the ‘hero,’ Turin’s quest to kill Glaurung follows a common trajectory: a path, in fact, very similar to Beowulf’s own dragon quest. In this scenario, the dragon threatens the land – “Glaurung came to the borders of Brethil,” (220) the people are afraid – “there was great fear among the people,” (220) the hero offers himself to find and kill the dragon – Turin “offered therefore himself to seek the dragon,” (221) and the hero travels alone, or with very little aid, to complete his quest. Turin has two volunteers accompany him, while Beowulf only has one. Both heroes fight the dragon alone, however. Turin kills the dragon by thrusting his sword “into the soft belly of the worm” (222). It is definitely common knowledge dragons have a soft spot on their belly. Honestly, it seems crazy to me that in The Hobbit, the man who kills Smaug needs the raven to tell him this little piece of information. Really? Who doesn’t know about the dragon’s soft spot? In any case, this hero’s quest to find and kill a dragon follows a path very similar to many before it.

In this way, Tolkien taps into that giant reservoir that is dragon legend. His dragon, his hero, and the hero’s quest, follow from that ‘tradition of dragons’. What about the ‘poeticism’ of Glaurung, then?  Does Glaurung add a taste, or a spirit, to this story? I would argue that he definitely does.

Glaurung, with his malicious manipulation of the fate of Turin and Nienor, makes the reader feel the bite of destiny. Glaurung casts spells upon the two siblings, but he also puts us under a spell of sorts. Turin and Nienor are driven towards their dooms, and we are driven towards frustration at these dooms. As a dragon, Glaurung has the power to manipulate the story, and he does this artfully. He colors the tale with his own malice and intentions, which evoke a certain poeticism of their own. It’s almost like Glaurung adds poetry and creates poetry. I’m having trouble putting Glaurung’s poetry into words, but maybe that’s as it should be. The ‘taste’ that Glaurung adds is, after all, a ‘taste,’ and how can one describe that.

I feel like I’ve only scraped the surface of “why” dragons are so predominant in my mind, legend, and culture. Yes, they draw from a tradition, and yes, they add poetry. But there’s so much more, isn’t there? I know that I’m drawn to dragons, more so than any other ‘monster’. But is this something personal for me, or is it something that I’ve drawn from reading so many stories with dragons?

 -E. O'B


  1. A very good question: why are dragons the quintessential monsters? The question that I would put to you as an historian is, can we be sure that they have always had this power over our imagination? I mentioned in class that the dragons in medieval bestiaries are actually much more like large snakes, not Glaurungs at all, but just the natural enemies of elephants. There are other dragons in medieval tradition, e.g. the dragon of St. George, but only Beowulf's dragon and Fafnir come anywhere close to our contemporary image of dragons. Is it that we have been particularly selective? Or do dragons tell us more about our modern imagination as such?


  2. A very good question: why are dragons the quintessential monsters? The question that I would put to you as an historian is, can we be sure that they have always had this power over our imagination? I mentioned in class that the dragons in medieval bestiaries are actually much more like large snakes, not Glaurungs at all, but just the natural enemies of elephants. There are other dragons in medieval tradition, e.g. the dragon of St. George, but only Beowulf's dragon and Fafnir come anywhere close to our contemporary image of dragons. Is it that we have been particularly selective? Or do dragons tell us more about our modern imagination as such?


  3. It strikes me as entirely appropriate to put our experience of reading Tolkien into relation with out whole literary experience. You point out some interesting recurring features of dragons: their cunning, hoarding, the hypnotic quality of the gaze, the threat to the land. In the Middle Ages, St. Margaret bursts out of the dragon that consumed her; dragons or monstrous beasts like them (e.g., great serpentine sea creatures) appear among the exiguous remains of Romanesque painting (an example at the Cloisters Museum in New York); it’s easy to see the whale who swallows Jonah as a similar beast, and this was a fascination of early Christian art. In medieval exegesis, Jonah is a type for Christ (actually this is stated in the New Testament directly), and medieval paintings sometimes depict Christ marching out of a monstrous beast who stands for hell, and must be a relative of the dragon. The most famous dragon would be the beast of Apocalypse, which is sometimes translated as ‘dragon. ‘ This dragon is directly equated with Satan, and will face the woman of the Apocalypse who will bear a son, etc.

    Your post made me wonder if Tolkien held some idea of archetypes – which certainly wouldn’t have been unfashionable in his day. Have you ever read ‘From Ritual to Romance’ by Jessie Weston? It’s a bizarre little book, perhaps more of interest now as a curiosity in the history of scholarship, in which the author posits that many romance themes of the Middle Ages, particularly of the grail stories, descended historically from secret ritual, mainly agrarian, cults that endured in the mountains and countryside of medieval Europe outside of Christian norms. Her historical arguments probably say more now about her historical moment than they do about the Middle Ages. She was writing in the light of the landmark influence of James Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’. In any case, she was hugely influential on the literary world after 1910. Dragons come up in her book once or twice, as the source of the blight of the land, such a blight as perhaps Glaurung promises. Weston held, I think, to a view that saw myth as the narrative elaboration (and deviation/falsification) of an original ritual. She thought that unlocking the ritual at the root uncovered the reality of the story. But, even if we accept her historical claims, stories can change the meaning of their ‘sources.’ How do Tolkien’s stories change the meaning of the dragon by inserting it into a specific context? Moreover, do dragons comment on specific concerns contemporary with his life?

  4. While reading your post, particularly the section in which you discussed the malicious device of the dragon's voice, I had a sudden thought of something that probably seems at first to be an odd comparison. Your description of Glaurung's voice made me think of the power of Saruman's voice, particularly as he addresses the crowd outside of Orthanc in The Two Towers. Their powers of deception and manipulation as linked to words and voice seem surprisingly similar.

    While I don't want to go quite so far as to claim the Saruman shares all of the qualities of a dragon, I do want to ask this: Why, if the two share this same manipulative mechanism, is there a very different reaction in the reader to each of them, even if we just consider the instance in which they are specifically using the power of their voices? Even though we see them doing nearly the same thing, I probably never would have thought of a connection before. By giving abilities like deception and manipulation to a dragon, a giant beast, it seems to have an entirely different tone than when it comes from someone who has a form more similar to ourselves.

    In class, we talked about one possible interpretation of monsters being that they reflect human vices. I think this is closest to being accurate. It seems that by expressing human vices, sins, or fears in the form of something more foreign to us, the sort of beast that instinctively plagues our nightmares from the time we are children worrying about "monsters under the bed," it has a greater impact and is more likely to evoke a sort of awe or horrified wonder than if we see the same sort of cruel action coming from someone who is, or is at least more similar to, a man.

    -Catrina D.

  5. In The Hobbit, we also see a glimpse of Smaug’s cunning use of his abilities:

    “Whenever Smaug’s roving eye, seeking for him [Bilbo] in the shadows, flashed across him, he trembled, and an unaccountable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug. In fact, he was in grievous danger of coming under the dragon-spell.” (Inside Information, pg. 224)

    Like Catrina, I too was reminded of Saruman after reading about the manipulative power of a dragon’s voice. Both Glauranng and Saruman are cunning and use their voices to dominate and manipulate other wills. If we are to claim that dragons are the embodiment of the human vice of greed, Saruman is not the only being in human earth who is characterized with dragon-like qualities. We often consider the elves as a richly moral and spiritual people, but the king of the Wood-elves in The Hobbit is described just as greedy and possessive as Smaug, if not more so: “If the elf-king had a weakness it was for treasure, especially for silver and white gems; and though his hoard was rich, he was ever eager for more” (Flies and Spiders, pg. 168). Other major characters of Tolkien’s legendarium, such as Morgoth, Sauron, Fëanor and his descendants, Thingol and Denethor are also characterized by greed, the desire to possess and/or to control.

    The major difference between these beings and dragons, however, is choice. The dragons of Middle Earth were bred by Morgoth to be powerful, dangerous and wicked. Like orcs, they had no moral choice. Beings, on the other hand, do have a moral choice between “good” and “evil”, and choosing to be dragon-like is choosing to be sinful.

    - BLS