J.R.R. Tolkien’s first story concerned a “green great dragon”, which he was told was not the correct way to speak of dragons. Years later, the author found the means to speak of dragons in a most compelling fashion. But how great were his dragons, and why did they like gold so much?
I always thought the movie “Dragonslayer” was a bit goofy and slow in some places but there is one memorable scene that pretty much sells the movie, I think, to anyone who sees it. That’s where the dragon’s head rises up to dwarf the young magician who really has no clue about what he’s up against.
I think whoever came up with that scene must have read Tolkien. In the story of Turin Turambar in The Silmarillion, after Glaurung has destroyed Nargothrond and sent Turin north to Dor-lomin on a hopeless quest, Morwen and Nienor leave the safety of Doriath. They are overtaken by Mablung and a company of Elven horsemen who are nonetheless persuaded to accompany the women to Nargothrond.
There by the river Narog Glaurung raises a mist and disperses Mablung’s company. Morwen is carried off by her maddened horse and the Elves never hear of her again. But Nienor recovers her wits and retuns to Amon Ethir, the Hill of Spies, which stands directly east of Nargothrond (across the river). “And looking westward,” we are told in the story, “she stared straight into the eyes of Glaurung, whose head lay upon the hill-top.”
Now, that is one big dragon.
I think most fans would say that dragons and Tolkien go hand in hand. Tolkien definitely like to tell dragon tales. Yet surprisingly he only told us two full stories about dragons. In 1954 Naomi Mitcheson asked Tolkien some questions about Middle-earth after she looked over the galleys for The Lord of the Rings. In Letter 144 he responded on a question about dragons with:
Some stray answers. Dragons. They had not stopped; since they were active in far later times, close to our own. Have I said anything to suggest the final ending of dragons? If so it should be altered. The only passage I can think of is Vol.I p. 70: ‘there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough’. But that implies, I think, that there are still dragons, if not of full primeval stature….
Tolkien’s first dragon tale is long since lost, and probably wasn’t very long anyway. Of that story he could only recall one detail, years later, when writing to W.H. Auden in Letter 163: “I first tried to write a story when I was about seven. It was about a dragon. I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon’, but had to say ‘a great green dragon’. I wondered why, and still do.”
When time came to tell the tale of a Hobbit, Tolkien needed a monster greater than all other monsters. He had goblins and wolves and spiders, but he wanted something more terrifying, more powerful. He wanted a dragon. Of all the creatures encountered in The Hobbit, only Smaug seems invincible except for the one bare patch on his chest. One could well imagine Beorn charging the dragon in his bear form only to end up burned to a crisp. As great a warrior and hero as Beorn was, he was no match for a dragon.
Bard the Bowman, on the other hand, was the descendant of ancient kings whose realm had been destroyed by Smaug. Fate was on his side, and the power to speak with thrushes. But perhaps if Bard had not had the black arrow which passed down to him from his ancestors of old even his skill and courage might not have been sufficient to bring down the great dragon (which was not green).
The black arrow was made by the Dwarves of Erebor before Smaug destroyed their kingdom. Why should it be a potent weapon against dragons? Dwarves had no love for dragons, and the dragons had certainly been a plague upon the Dwarves. But was the arrow really an “arrow of dragon-slaying” or was it just an arrow of exceptionally good quality?
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