Smaug, the Hoarder: What Tolkien Teaches Us About Dragons, Possession, and Sparkly Things.

When we think of dragons, we think of Smaug.  We think of greed and cunning.  We think of a monster to be defeated.  And, scarily enough, we also might think of stealing his treasure for ourselves when the dragon is dead.

I just finished reading The Hobbit for a Theology of Tolkien class that I am sitting in on (because I miss being in school and I’m not ashamed of the fact).  I knew I wanted to write yet another dragon post once I finished the book, but the issue was what to focus on.  Of course, I knew I was going to talk about Smaug, but what about Smaug? Besides,  I’ve already talked about Smaug in this post.

But because I am now so wise in the ways of Tolkien, I felt like I should talk about something insightful and clever, something that you might not know.  So, if you already knew this… well, I can’t help that and if you’re a nice person, you’ll pretend this is all brand new and enlightening and I have changed your life.

So, on to my brilliant post.

One of Tolkien’s most famous articles – perhaps his most famous – is The Monsters and the Critics.  In this astoundingly well-formed presentation, Tolkien was able to address the contesting views of critics regarding the Old English poem Beowulf, particularly regarding the complaint of certain critics that the Beowulf Poet spent far too much time on the monsters, which many critics consider to be juvenile and uninspired.  For Tolkien, however, the monsters were of central importance.

Smaug broods malevolently on his pile of gold....

The third monster in Beowulf is, of course, the wyrm.  This dragon is, as Tolkien points out, supremely draconic in many ways.  It embodies what a dragon is supposed to be and what we think of when we think of the ultimate dragon: a large, forbidding, firebreathing monster curled up on a heap of treasure.  Now, I have already made my position on this very clear – dragons are simply misunderstood and their love of sparkly things is perfectly understandable – but for the sake of classic literature, dragons certainly have a very established position. They are the firebreathers and the treasure-hoarders.

When Tolkien created his dragon, Smaug, he drew freely on this tradition.  I saw a number of parallels between the wyrm in Beowulf and Smaug:

  • They both come to possess and guard a fabulous wealth of gold.
  • They are both fiercely protective of this wealth, to the point that when a small, enterprising individual comes and takes something, each of these dragons erupts from his cavernous hall and wreaks havoc upon the surrounding populace.
  • Each is defeated by a blow to the single, weak spot, the only place where it could be hurt.

Tolkien certainly allowed his knowledge of older myths and stories to influence his Lord of the Rings series.  But despite all of these parallels between wyrm and Smaug, the most interesting, I thought, was not physical or plot-related.  Rather, it was the theme of possession.

Possession figures largely in Tolkien’s novels.  The idea of owning something, keeping it, hiding it, and hoarding it is the downfall of one character after another, and nearly causes the end of Middle Earth entirely.  If you’ve read the books (or seen the movies – that works, too), you know that Smeagol deteriorates into Gollum because of the festering need to possess the One Ring.  Boromir tries to claim it.  Aragorn struggles to resist taking it as his ancestor Isildur did.  Frodo fails in the end to resist the desire for it.

Melkor and Ungoliant: two of the less savory contestants for the Silmarils

Tolkien takes this theme back even further.  For instance, in The Silmarillion, the fabulous Silmarils are created to capture the light of the two trees that once lit the world.  Light that used to be shared equally becomes encased in three jewels that can be owned, worn, or simply hidden.  Feanor, the creator, refuses to give them up when asked by the Valar.  He guards them jealously.  They pass through a succession of owners before they are finally returned to nature and taken out of the hands of men and elves and Valar entirely.

Possession, as you may have realized, is not generally considered a good thing for Tolkien.  His greatest heroes – Aragorn and Beren and Faramir – are the ones who refuse ownership of the Ring or the Silmarils.  While to own something is not necessarily to be evil (we do not need to be communal with everything we have), Tolkien’s representation of possession is more like “possessiveness”, and it often leads to secrecy, hoarding, and jealousy.  Possession makes such virtues as self-sacrifice and generosity much more difficult.

Tolkien’s theme of possession appears in The Hobbit, the first of his books in the world of Middle Earth.  It is hinted at in the appearance of Gollum when Bilbo first finds the Ring, but manifests chiefly through Smaug.

Smaug wreaks vengeance on Laketown for his lost treasure.

At last, we come back to the dragon.  Yes, I know it took a while and I’m sorry, but I feel like most of the previous information was important, so you’ll just have to get over it.

Smaug embodies the idea of possession quite simply because he is a true literary dragon.  Like the Beowulf wyrm, he is a creature whose sole purpose is to hoard and possess.  He does nothing with the gold and jewels that he has stolen from the dwarves, save to encrust his belly with them for protection.

A beautiful painting by Alan Lee of Smaug's death

While the dragon dies, his legacy certainly does not.  Smaug’s jewels fail to protect him in the end, and he falls to his doom, leaving his fabulous wealth behind.  But the story of The Hobbit does not end there.  The treasure of the dragon remains, and his stench lingers.  As Bilbo says, it does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, but he did not anticipate the troubles a dead one might cause.  Soon, the dwarves, elves, and men are fighting amongst themselves for possession of the hoard.  The spirit of Smaug, the desire to possess the entirety of his wealth, infects those left behind.

Tolkien’s dragon is a terrible, looming figure at the end of road, brooding within the Lonely Mountain on his piles of gold.  When we think of dragons, we think of Smaug.  We think of greed and cunning.  We think of a monster to be defeated.  And, scarily enough, we also might think of stealing his treasure for ourselves when the dragon is dead.

Dragons have come far in literature and no longer regularly fill their traditional role.  Despite this, we still see dragons like Smaug as the true dragons, the possessors and hoarders of treasure.  Tolkien took the concept of the dragon as the dragon ought to be and wove it flawlessly into a key theme in his myth.  Defeating dragons is more than simply dealing a death blow to the monster.  Oftentimes, the dragon lives on, and all that glitters is not necessarily ours for the taking.