The second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, has just been released. Its fearsome dragon is just one example of the many such beasts that feature throughout the literature of Northern Europe. In a BBC Radio 3 Night Waves programme, Dr Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough helps to explore the genealogy of such monsters alongside Matthew Sweet and John Lennard.
Tolkien’s creation drew on a long heritage of dragon myths, particularly from Old English and Old Norse literature. Barraclough focuses on one of the most enduring of these stories, the legend of Sigurd the dragon slayer, which appears in sources such as the Old Norse Volsunga saga. Sigurd slays the dragon Fáfnir, who had been transformed into a dragon after stealing a cursed ring and gold. Dragons also feature in the older Old English poem Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon text that Tolkien studied intensively and that he described as being “among my most valued sources.”
Today we may no longer believe in dragons, and have perhaps even trivialised them by featuring them in cartoons and theme parks. However, older dragons too were not necessarily perceived as being real creatures that genuinely terrified. Rather, the outlandish tales of Germanic literature suggest dragons performed a mainly symbolic function. In Anglo-Saxon stories, for example, dragons often hoard gold, which implies that kings must redistribute their wealth or society will grind to a halt. Indeed, Tolkien’s twentieth-century dragon can be seen as representing the horrors of industrial warfare; Smaug can be viewed as a kind of scaly aeroplane, a weapon of mass destruction from above.
The discussion begins at 31:17.