Booknotes: Facing the dragon

Dragons have always impressed, especially in the "Game of Thrones" series. But there is still no greater dragon than Smaug.

Smaug: Literature's greatest dragon — perhaps history's greatest dragon.

Smaug: Literature's greatest dragon — perhaps history's greatest dragon.

Mike Selby

“Daenerys Targaryen is no maid, however. She is…a mother of dragons.”

So writes George R.R. Martin, describing a main character from his ‘Songs of Fire and Ice’ series (Game of Thrones).

Daenerys is a young exiled woman who is planning to claim the throne of the Seven Kingdoms with the help of three dragons. Although she has raised the dragons from birth, one — Drogon — is not easily controlled. In the fifth book of the series, ‘A Dance With Dragons,’ Drogon kills and eats a small child. Although heartbroken, no one is terribly surprised, as that is what dragons do.

J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, Anne McCaffrey, Christopher Paolini, Lewis Carroll, Robert Munsch, Frank L. Baum, Andrew Lang, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Kenneth Grahame, E. Nesbit, Gerald Durrell, Terry Pratchett, Stephen King, and Cressida Cowell are just a very small sample of authors who have written books about dragons.

These reptilian fire-breathing giants (which for some reason appear in every culture throughout history) are typically either evil monsters bent on destruction, or are kind and bring good luck. There has been a recent increase in another type, one of the bumbling fool, which tends to be found now in stories for young readers.

In 2010 ‘The Guardian’ newspaper stated the dragon from J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ was easily one of, if not the, “best dragons in literature.”  The dragon’s name in this story is Smaug.

Smaug is perfect name for this terror who has decimated towns, stolen treasure, and exiled the dwarves.  The word “smaug” would be the past tense of the old Germanic word “smugen,” which means to squeeze through a hole. It is also past tense for “smeogan,” an Old Norse word for penetrating; and “smeagan” in Old English, meaning “crafty.” The Germanic word “smugen” also appears in Old English, this time meaning to creep.

Squeeze, creep, crafty, and penetrating. Smaug’s very name was enough to keep the population of Middle Earth away from him.  This was Tolkien’s first stroke of genius with the dragon. The second stemmed from his disappointment from all other dragon stories. Those dragons were fierce and malevolent, but not very interesting.

So Tolkien has Bilbo (the hobbit of ‘The Hobbit) not only face Smaug but talk directly to him. It is not so much Smaug’s replies which readers found striking, but his manner of speech. Smaug talks with the exact hostile civility of the British upper class. “You seem familiar with my name,” he tells Bilbo, “but I don’t seem to remember smelling you before.”  Did he say “smelling” because he can’t see Bilbo, or as an insult?

Tolkien knew this type of speech well. He was an undergraduate at Oxford when the First World War broke out.  Although his education gave him an officer’s rank, he was not of “proper stock.” He was not only beneath his fellow officers, but as an orphan, had no family standing either. He knew all too well what someone meant when they can “smell” you.

The third stroke of genius was Tolkien’s refusal to send any of the typical and cliched heroes to deal with Smaug. Instead he sends Bilbo, who is so modern and unaccustomed to such things that he is very much the spitting image of us.  The dwarves, the elves, the men — all share a common characteristic: they are without fear. Everyone in ‘The Hobbit’ (besides Bilbo) is ready to face any foe, and more than happy to die trying. Feelings of not being enough haunts Bilbo at most every turn.

Yet it is Bilbo who sneaks down a tunnel to face the dragon. “Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did … He fought the real battle in that tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay ahead.”

Tolkien lays great stress on this scene, and as one reviewer noted “No one can fight a dragon, but everyone can fight fear.”

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library