Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dragons, and Other Beasts

From children’s stories to ancient legends, monsters are ubiquitous. Many of the stories we are told involve trolls and goblins, giant snakes, spiders, and sea-monsters. But dragons seem to be everywhere, stealing princesses and guarding treasure. With fire-breath and talons as long as your arm, they were always the most terrifying creatures in any fairy tale. But what makes any monster so scary to a reader, and what makes a dragon the scariest one of all?
                   Of all the creatures in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the dragon is the primary source of anxiety and terror for our traveling friends. Throughout the story, spiders, trolls, and orcs attack the party head-on, but the dragon makes a very different entrance. We encounter him fast asleep, “dream[ing] of greed and violence” (The Hobbit, 201). The dragon’s first impulse is not to immediately eat Bilbo, but to speak to him and try to trick him into coming closer. This is hardly what one would expect as a first move from a creature large, indestructible, and with enormous teeth. Unlike the spiders, who rush at the travelers immediately and when they speak only discuss the best way to consume their prey, this dragon speaks intelligently and is willing to wait for his future meal. He is a “real worm, with bestial life and thought of his own” (Shippey, Road to Middle Earth, 90). This “thought of his own” is exceedingly important, and is precisely what makes a dragon different from another monster. Unlike Gollum’s muttering or the spiders’ hissing, Smaug speaks with “the characteristic aggressive politeness of the British upper class” (Shippey, 90). He communicates with Bilbo, and uses his smooth tongue to manipulate him. The sheer brute force of a massive enemy is not too hard to overcome with numbers, but a clever monster is one who can toy with his prey- the act becomes less meal-like and more of a game. Smaug is a cross of villain, predator, natural disaster and archetype- he is cunning and conniving, a beast who consumes his prey, a force that can char cities with his fire-breath, and greedy and jealous. He needs this combination to truly be a powerful and terrifying villain. 
                  In an earlier class, we discussed what exactly makes someone or something evil- the ability to control the will of another person. Bilbo has “an unaccountable desire [seize] hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug” (The Hobbit, 209). Smaug seems to have some sort of subliminal control over Bilbo, as Saruman’s velvety voice might. This makes Smaug evil, perhaps. But are all monsters evil? It seems unlikely. The spiders of Mirkwood are closer to predators than monsters, and the trolls as well- their prey is still in full control of their will, and this allows them to find a way to beat them. Ultimately, Smaug’s demise is due to his bestial side overcoming his manipulative one, when he is attacking the Lake-town and Bard is able to shoot him down; he is caught off-guard as merely a large beast, rather than as a king of the mountain.
                   Is the dragon in Beowulf evil too, then? Or Fafnir in The Story of Sigurd? Neither truly has the manipulative power of Smaug. Fafnir does not reason with Sigurd, not speaking until his last words, and is run right through with Garm (Lang, The Story of Sigurd, 360). Beowulf’s dragon does not speak, only guards his hoard, and is on the offensive after some treasure is stolen. But in the case of both of these dragons, where each is inseparable from his cursed hoard, the hoard and greed for treasure is what causes the hero to falter. It could be argued that the treasure itself manipulates the hero, controlling his will, making the piles of gold evil but not the dragon.  Why do we need the dragon then, if the beast isn’t in itself evil? We mentioned in class how every hero needs an adversary in order to prove himself- the dragon serves as a vessel for the treasure, to fight the hero and even cause his demise. Grendel does not manipulate Beowulf- he is fully in control when fighting him. But when fighting the dragon, Beowulf is “inspired…by the thought of glory” (Beowulf, 181) and in his dying moments “want[s] to examine that ancient gold, [and] gaze [his] fill on those garnered jewels” (Beowulf, 185).  The dragon, together with his hoard, has the components of evil: the ability to control the will of the hero, and the power and strength to fight him. These dragons have three of the four components- they are a destructive force of nature, an archetype of greed, and a predator happy to gobble humans, but they lack the cunning manipulation of a real villain, making these dragons each simply a difficult beast to slay.
                   Aside from dragons, what about other monsters? Is Grendel evil, or Shelob? Grendel “waged his lonely war” (Beowulf, 13), attacking men with brute force but never being clever or manipulative. Even though he is has human ancestry, he acts more like a beast. Beowulf is able to use brute force right back at Grendel to defeat him, and not much more. Grendel does not have the ability to overpower Beowulf’s will. Shelob hungers after Sam and Frodo, but does not try to trick them, only trap them in her literal webs. Gollum, though, does manipulate the hobbits, even though he lacks the strength and power of Shelob and other monsters without the Ring- he is evil, but not as powerful as a bigger creature.
                   These monsters, although not as terrifying a dragon, are still scary and important obstacles for the hero to overcome. But the dragon, both evil and extremely powerful, is the perfect enemy for a hero.  To a certain extent, the One Ring is Frodo’s dragon, as Smaug was for Bilbo. Its capacity to manipulate and it’s sheer power make it the most difficult possible enemy to face, and it takes both incredible will and brawn to overcome it.  A dragon, in Beowulf, The Hobbit, and countless other tales, is just a physical manifestation of these properties, one that is easily and strikingly visualized, and capable of destruction by a true hero. A dragon is the mightiest and most worthy foe, and a true match for a hero.

-Suryalekha Rajan


Tolkien, J. R. R.. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings. 1937. Reprint. London: Harper Collins, 1999. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R.. The return of the king: being the third part of The lord of the rings. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1965. Print.

Shippey, T. A.. The road to Middle-Earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 19831982. Print.

Lang, Andrew, and H. J. Ford. The red fairy book. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien.The monsters and the critics, and other essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 19841983. Print.

Holland, Kevin. Beowulf. Translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland ... Lithographs by Virgil Burnett. London: Folio Society, 1973. Print.


  1. I actually have a couple of questions regarding the role of dragons as the monsters that are central to the plot of fantasy stories in terms of obstacles that the hero has to overcome. During class today, we discussed LeGuin's assertion that "fantasy is true and that is why adults are scared of it...they are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom". This made me think back to our ideas on why dragons were specifically considered the most worthy of foes for the hero. I absolutely agree that there is a trickery, deceit and cunning to dragons (like Smaug) that doesn't necessarily exist for the other monsters, but could it also be that these dragons are closest to what adults believe to be their own reality? Could they be mythological extensions of our own reality and represent manifestations of the freedoms that adults don't know they want and are thus fearful of? How then, can on rationalize this association with freedom and the dragon that LeGuin discusses based on the fact that dragons, particularly Smaug, play the role of the oppressors, at least in terms of taking away certain freedoms? I suppose a better way to phrase that question would be to ask if the hero's quest is actually for hope or freedom?


  2. Perhaps the fact that monsters don't match up to the definition of evil that you suggest indicates not that monsters aren't evil, but that that definition is ultimately inadequate. Grendel, for example, is described repeatedly in no uncertain terms as evil. How than might we describe the evil embodied in the monster? I think you're correct to point to a sort bestial wildness as lying at the heart of why a monster inspires terror, and also correct to note a distinction between the spiders of Mirkwood and other monsters. There's something to this combination of animal and human, distorting both, that (to my eyes) lies at the heart of the monstrous. Considering our talks on evil it might be worth thinking how this distortion of human and animal nature might be considered evil, and how this might relate back to the question of dominating other's wills as evil.

  3. I think that what makes something evil is not "the ability to control the will of another person" but rather the choice to control wills of others. Gandalf could supposedly control the wills of others but chooses not to, while Saruman does, and is evil. Glaurung, Smaug and others have this characteristic of evil, while many monsters - like the spiders of Mirkwood - do not.
    I may be reading this wrong, but I take it that dragons are "both evil and extremely powerful... the perfect enemy for a hero." But it seems that not all dragons you mentioned (certainly not all that I can think of) don't fit the definition of evil provided (neither do their external attributes, like treasure). How far do we have to restrict our concept of "dragon" to fit the definition? What do we make of dragons that are not evil? Are there dragons that are not monsters?

    Chloe B

  4. I don't necessarily agree with your statement that dragons have some sort of mystique about them because they are particularly evil or devious; I think that a large part of the appeal of dragons is the fact that they appear in so many mythological traditions in strikingly similar forms. From Europe to China to the Middle East to Central America, dragons appear in folk lore. How can the same idea be so prevalent and appear in such disparate cultures? I think the first thing to look for is the fact that mythical creatures often found inspiration in the unexplained. In this case, I would point towards dinosaur bones, huge artifacts people would find with no idea where they came from. Somehow a dragon just works as a realization of what dinosaur bones would belong to. The snake-like characteristic of dragons probably derives from just that, snakes. Their deadly nature is an obvious villainous attribute, while the exoticism of a creature that moves without wings or legs lends the snake with a mythological mystique. I'm sure there are other reasons for why dragons are so common, and I'm equally sure that Tolkien would be interested in investigating those reasons. I say this because here is a cultural fragment that isn't limited to just one society, but a massive swath of humanity. Dragons not only represent great evil but the shared history of humanity and perhaps one of the biggest (in terms of size and prevalence) cultural fragments ever.
    - BM McGuire

  5. Surya,
    I agree with your point that Smaug’s intelligence, speech, and manipulative capabilities are what truly make him such a terrifying beast. Unlike the trolls and the spiders, which are only terrifying in their physicality, Smaug’s smooth speech and cunning add an extra element to be terrified of. I think that Smaug is the most terrifying monster in the Legendarium because his motivations are the most recognizably human.
    The hobbits and dwarves are most terrified of Smaug because they see him as the monster most akin to themselves. He doesn’t kill just to satisfy the need for sustenance or out of pure violence – he kills out of greed, in order to accumulate gold and treasure, much like a dwarf or a human might. It is this recognition of intelligent and human-like motivations that is truly frightening (this, of course, being paired with Smaug’s brute force, talons, and teeth).

  6. You raise a very interesting question that we didn't really address in class - are all monsters evil? While you address the specific ways in which Smaug is evil, I think the question has more room to be explored. Are the trolls in the Hobbit truly evil? While they are certainly monsters, is their desire to eat the dwarves (and Bilbo) actually bad, in the moral sense? They, after all, do have to eat. I think there are actually two separate (although often combined) definitions of monsters: the one that we mostly focused on in class is monsters as creatures: trolls and spiders and dragons (oh my). The second definition, which we conflated with the first, is monsters as specific iterations of adversity, most often tailored to the hero they oppose. However, it is possible to separate these two things: take, for instance, Professor Lupin from the Potter series. Werewolves in Tolkien's world are most certainly monsters, as is Rowling's Fenrir Greyback; Lupin on the other hand is in quite a different category, where he falls under the beast monster category, but hardly counts as an iteration of adversity, save in a brief section of PoA. In Middle Earth, Tolkien mostly combines beast-monsters and adversary-monsters; however, there are the Ents, who could well fall into the beast-monster category and aren't evil in the least. The trolls might also classify as beast-monsters, since we can hardly hold their need to eat against them, although we certainly might condemn their choice of Bilbo as a meal. Even the spider offspring might classify only as beast-monsters, for they need to eat as well. Shelob and Smaug, however, certainly are a combination of the two, combining their physical natures with true evil. Anyway, this is a bit of a tangent, but a separation that bugged me a bit during class. Great post!
    Murphy Spence

  7. I really like your analysis of the relation between monsters and heroes, and would like to draw it out further- I would go even further than what you already said and say that true monsters aren’t even necessarily evil or dispensers of evil themselves, but actually in fact merely bring out certain traits in the heroes themselves. What do these various dragons, what do these “true” monsters (not lesser ones such as trolls and spiders who are just hungry) really do? This is best shown in the purest monster, the Ring, which I think is your strongest point, asserting the Ring is a monster itself. Having no menacing physical form, one would not associate the Ring with traditional monstery, but the Ring is the truest monster of them all. The Ring’s evil stems not from its menacing attacks on its victims, but from what it brings out in the Ringbearers (and others, as best exemplified through Saruman and his fall) themselves. All the evil that Gollum, Sauron’s servants, Boromir, Frodo even, do is because of the Ring, yet it does nothing more than use these people themselves. Frodo had it in him to betray Sam, but it’s the Ring that brought it out; Saruman wreaks havoc and destruction in the West Fold, Rohan, and Fangorn, and he does it as a servant of the Ring. As you pointed out comparing the Dragon and its might compared to a lesser monster, its soft actions are more powerful and evil than its physical ones. The true monster takes no menacing form, but merely evinces the worst from the best.

    SB Chhabra