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

Just Posted

The City of Cranbrook and the Ktunaxa Nation raised the flag of the Ktunaxa Nation at the arches entrance into the city’s downtown core during a ceremony on Monday, June 21. Photo courtesy City of Cranbrook.
Ktunaxa Nation flag raised at downtown arches entrance

The Ktunaxa Nation flag was raised at the Cranbrook arches — the… Continue reading

Kimberley Search and Rescue were able to quickly respond to a call for service and transport an injured mountain biker to East Kootenay Regional Hospital over the weekend. Kimberley SAR file photo.
Kimberley Search and Rescue respond to injured mountain biker on Bootleg Mountain

Kimberley Search and Rescue responded to a call for service this past… Continue reading

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

City of Cranbrook, Ktunaxa Nation to host flag ceremony on National Indigenous Peoples Day. (Corey Bullock file)
City of Cranbrook, Ktunaxa Nation hosting flag ceremony on National Indigenous Peoples Day

A temporary road closure and speed limit reduction will be in effect during the ceremony

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Over 5K jabbed at Interior Health mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics

The clinics have made stops in more than 40 communities since launching last week

Pictured is Mrs. O and her grade 4/5 class at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Cranbrook. Mrs. O challenged her class to read 36,000 pages in May and they far surpassed that goal. The students were then allowed to choose her fate. (Corey Bullock/Cranbrook Townsman file)
WATCH: St. Mary’s Catholic School grade 4/5 class wins reading challenge

Teacher lets students choose fate after reading over 47,000 pages in one month

Golden Ears Mountains, captured in May 2021. (Black Press Media files)
2nd year of day passes required for entry into 5 provincial parks launches in B.C.

Pilot program seeks to protect the environment by addressing visitor surges amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Lincoln Mckoen. (YouTube)
Anglican bishop of the central Interior resigns over sexual misconduct allegations

Lincoln Mckoen was elected as a bishop of the Territory of the People region last year

Left to right: Doug Ford, Jason Kenney, Brian Pallister (photos via Wikipedia)
Pollster paints a perilous premier picture

As we know, our friends at Angus Reid Polling like to take… Continue reading

The Groundhog (Marmota monax): Day after day, over and over, we ask ourselves the same question: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? (photo courtesy Wikipedia)
Why we’re using “Groundhog Day” incorrectly as a metaphor

“Groundhog Day:” Not just for February 2, but every day

The former Kamloops Indian Residential School on the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc reserve. (Allen Douglas/Kamloops This Week)
Tk’emlups preparing for archaeological work at B.C. residential school site where remains found

The 215 graves are, to the band’s knowledge, undocumented deaths for which it is still collecting records

Fans watch the warm-up before Game 6 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens in NHL playoff hockey action Saturday, May 29, 2021 in Montreal. Quebec’s easing of COVID-19 restrictions will allow 2,500 fans to attend the game for the first time in fourteen months. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Two-thirds of Canadians say governments shouldn’t lift all COVID-19 restrictions

Poll reports Canadians who gained pandemic weight say they have gained 16 pounds on average

Paul Bernardo is shown in this courtroom sketch during Ontario court proceedings via video link in Napanee, Ont., on October 5, 2018. Teen killer and serial rapist Paul Bernardo is set for a parole hearing today. The designated dangerous offender, has been eligible for full parole for more than three years. Bernardo’s horrific crimes in the 1980s and early 1990s include for kidnapping, torturing and killing Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy near St. Catharines, Ont. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Greg Banning
Killer rapist Paul Bernardo faces parole hearing today; victim families opposed

Designated dangerous offender has been eligible for full parole for more than three years.

People look over the damage after a tornado touched down in Mascouche, Que., north of Montreal, Monday, June 21, 2021. Dozens of homes were damaged and one death has been confirmed. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
One dead and extensive damage as tornado hits Mascouche, Que., north of Montreal

Damage reported in several parts of the city, and emergency teams dispatched to sectors hardest hit

Most Read