“Never laugh at live dragons…”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
“The bells were ringing in the dale
And men looked up with faces pale;
The dragon’s ire more fierce than fire
Laid low their towers and houses frail.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Dragons are legendary creatures with reptilian features that appear in the folklore of numerous cultures worldwide. It cannot be specified how the dragons became a part of the mentioned folklore, but it is known that the characteristics and descriptions of dragons vary from culture to culture. The dragons in western cultures are often portrayed as winged, sometimes horned, and able to breathe fire, while the dragons in eastern cultures are depicted as wingless, four-legged, serpent-like creatures who are intelligent. Perhaps people, as Tolkien himself suggested in one of his lectures, believed in the existence of dragons because they discovered dinosaur fossils, and had no other explanation for their existence other than the fact that dinosaur-like creatures still roam the lands. Whatever the reason may be, dragons have found their way into mythologies all around the world, assuming many different shapes and characteristics, ranging from the Chinese dragons with potent powers and control over rainfall and typhoons, to the dragon slain by Saint George in a well-known medieval legend. Therefore it is no surprise that the dragons found themselves in Tolkien’s works, all across Middle-earth and beyond.
Dragons in Middle-earth
Tolkien had been fascinated from an early age, reading the Germanic heroic legend about Sigurd of the Völsungs and his slaying of Fáfnir, the prince of dragons. He was inspired by this and other legends involving dragons, so it only makes sense that he decided to incorporate dragons in his works, not only in the works set in Middle-earth but also in other settings.
The origin of the dragons that existed in Middle-earth is relatively unknown, save for the fact that they were bred by Morgoth during his battle with the Noldor, for he perceived that Orcs alone could not secure him his desired victory. How the dragons were created remains unclear, since it was never described in any of Tolkien’s works. Although there are several different types of dragons, there are certain characteristics that all of them share: they are enormous in size, they possessed great physical strength and were armored with iron scales that no weapon could pierce, their lifespan was long and slow, and their lust for treasure (especially gold) was immense. In addition to that, they were extremely cunning and intelligent, and their eyes and words possessed a hypnotic spell called “dragon-spell”. However, all dragons had a weak spot as well, in the region of the chest, a soft spot that could be pierced by darts or blades, which aided many heroes in their slaying of dragons. In The Book of Lost Tales II, an interesting legend among Men is mentioned:
“(…) so that it has been long said amongst Men that whosoever might taste the heart of a dragon would know all tongues of Gods or Men, of birds or beasts, and his ears would catch whispers of the Valar or of Melko such as never had he heard before.”
It is also mentioned that only a few people ever managed to slay a dragon and that the blood of dragons is venom, so it is unlikely that anyone could taste the heart of the dragon without seriously injuring themselves.
There are several different types of dragons in Middle-earth, some greater in number than others. It is important to note that some of the dragons were of the winged sort (rámalóke), while there are some examples of dragons who were not. The most notorious type was the fire-drakes, or urulóki (plural form,, the singular form is urulóke) in Quenya, meaning fire-serpent or fire-dragon. This term includes dragons with the ability to breathe fire but excludes the lesser beasts known as the cold-drakes, which will be discussed later on. The fire-drakes were created by the Dark Lord Morgoth in the First Age, during the Wars of Beleriand, otherwise known as the War of the Great Jewels. Some well-known fire-drakes are Glaurung, Ancalagon, and Smaug. The fire-drakes are also mentioned in The Fall of Gondolin, where they played a significant role in the events described in the book. Even though they were created by Morgoth, they survived even after the downfall of their creator, troubling mainly Dwarves. The fire-drakes who fought against the Dwarves had such potency in their fiery breath that they managed to melt some of the Seven Rings of Power, although Gandalf mentioned (sometime during the Third Age) that not even the fire of the fire-drakes is powerful enough to harm the One Ring.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, another type of dragon existed alongside the fire-drakes, the cold-drakes. When it came to their physical appearance, the cold-drakes were pretty similar to their fire-breathing counterparts, except for the fact that they could not breathe fire. They were also bred by Morgoth in the First Age, and after the War of Wrath, they mainly dwelt in the Grey Mountains and the wastes beyond them. The cold-drakes grew greater in numbers as time passed, and during the Third Age, they became a serious threat to the Dwarves mining in the Grey Mountains. In the year 2589 Third Age, the King of Durin’s folk, Dáin I was slain, together with his second son Frór, at the gates of their hall by a cold-drake, which forced the Dwarves to migrate eastwards, where they established their realms in the Iron Hills and Erebor later on.
In The Book of Lost Tales II, another type of ‘dragons’ were mentioned, the Iron Dragons. However, these were not like any other. They were forged by the cunning sorcerers and smiths of Morgoth, from iron and flame. They were inanimate in nature, and they served as ships of a sort to transport Orcs armed with scimitars and spears across difficult terrain since they could coil themselves around and above all obstacles. Although they are described as inanimate, there is a possibility that some of these were living creatures, namely the fire-creature that had Balrogs upon it, and the one that drained the Fountain of the King. Another possibility is that these mentioned were actually fire-drakes, but without further explanation, both possibilities remain unconfirmed.
Another term mentioned in relation to the dragons is ‘long-worm’, the only named dragon referred to explicitly as ‘the worm’ being Scatha. Since the term ‘worm’ was often used by Tolkien as a nickname for dragons, it is unclear whether there is any difference between the regular dragons and the long-worms.
There are some other types of dragons mentioned in The Lost Road and Other Writings, in the chapter discussing etymologies. They are the fealóke, or spark-dragon, and lingwilóke, fish-dragon or sea-serpent. However, none of these are ever mentioned outside of this chapter.
The dragons the readers are most familiar with, Glaurung, Ancalagon and Smaug, along with some other, lesser-known dragons, will be discussed in more detail in the following paragraphs.
Glaurung, also known as the Father of Dragons, was one of the first lieutenants of Morgoth during the First Age. The exact date of his creation is unknown, but his first appearance in the world took place during the Siege of Angband, in the year 260 First Age. He was known by many names other than the ones mentioned, such as Glaurung the Golden, the Great Worm, the Dragon-king of Nargothrond etc.. He had four legs, could breathe fire, but unlike his descendants, he had no wings and therefore could not fly. He was a sentient dragon, who could understand speech and talk. When he first appeared in Middle-earth during the Siege of Angband, he was still very young and did not possess his full strength, but nevertheless his assault aided the forces of Morgoth in their battle. However, the victory did not last long, since the dragon was forced to retreat to Angband when Fingon rode against him. The fact that Glaurung’s assault did not go as planned angered his creator and master, Morgoth, who believed that he revealed himself too soon, before achieving full maturity, and banned him from leaving Angband for around two hundred years.
Glaurung reached his full might just in time for the Battle of the Sudden Flame, the breaking of the siege of Angband in the year 455 First Age. He led the army of Balrogs and Orcs against the Noldor and forced them to retreat, burning everything in sight. However, in the year 472 First Age, there was a counter-attack in which Glaurung was wounded by Azaghâl the Lord of Belegost and he fled to Angband.
His battle ventures continued in the year 495 First Age, when he led an army of Orcs against Nargothrond, where he met Túrin Turambar, who tried to stand up to the dragons, but failed, which resulted in Glaurung’s destruction of the realm. Upon meeting Túrin, the dragon made his first move in his plot to bring doom to the children of Húrin, by putting him under the dragon-spell, convincing him to go look for his mother and sister. Then, being a true dragon, he made his abode in Nargothrond, laying down on his hoard of treasure. His peace was disturbed the following year, when in a surprising turn of events, he came across Nienor, Túrin’s sister, who he also put under his spell, only this time the spell was stronger and it wiped out her entire memory. She eventually wandered into the land of Brethil, where she was found by Túrin, who had no clue about their relationship since he never met his sister and she could not remember who she was. They eventually married, but the evil plot of Glaurung was not yet over. Attacking the realm, he forced Túrin to reveal himself and go after Glaurung, which he did, and after many toils, he managed to deal a mortal blow to Glaurung with his black sword Gurthang, but the dragon’s blood was venom, and it burned Túrin’s hand and he fell unconscious. The final act of Glaurung’s plot happened when Nienor, or Níniel as Túrin named her, came upon the scene and wept, for she believed Túrin to be dead. With his final breath, Glaurung revealed to her his plot and the fact that she and Túrin are brother and sister and with his death, all the spells were undone, and Nienor saw the truth. Unable to stand the truth that was revealed, she leaped into her death, and upon waking and learning the truth from Brandir, Túrin cast himself upon his sword. And thus ended the plot of Glaurung, and it indeed brought doom to the children of Húrin.
The greatest dragon in Middle-earth was Ancalagon the Black, who was the leader of the host of winged fire-drakes, unleashed by Morgoth during the War of Wrath against the Valar, in the year 587 First Age. Unlike Glaurung, he was a winged fire-drake, which is the main difference between the two. The attack of the winged dragons led by Ancalagon drove back the forces of the Valar, attacking them with bolts of thunder and fire storms. Nevertheless, the Valar claimed their victory in the end, and Ancalagon was slain by Eärendil, who cast him from the sky upon the peaks of the mountain Thangorodrim, destroying the mountain. Ancalagon’s name was mentioned by Gandalf, in reference to the fact that not even his fire could do any harm to the One Ring, as mentioned before.
Smaug was the greatest fire-drake in the Third Age, appearing for the first time in the year 2770 Third Age. Smaug is described in more detail by Bilbo, when he first entered the chambers of Erebor:
“There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light. Smaug lay, with wings folded like an immeasurable bat, turned partly on one side, so that the hobbit could see his underparts and his long pale belly crusted with gems and fragments of gold from his long lying on his costly bed.”
Although he is described the same as his predecessors Glaurung and Ancalagon, Smaug was noticeably smaller in size than they were. Like all dragons, he had a lust for gold, and it is mentioned that he was always aware of his entire hoard, which is why he could immediately notice something missing. He was also very intelligent and cunning, proud and vain when it came to his armor and was convinced of his invulnerability.
When Smaug first appeared in the Third Age, he attacked the city of Erebor, forcing the Dwarves to flee, and continued his conquest by attacking the city of Dale. After destroying the two cities, creating the Desolation of the Dragon as it was later called, he made his abode in Erebor, laying on his own hoard of gold and treasure. He dwelt there undisturbed until the company of Thorin Oakenshield arrived at Erebor, that is until they sent Bilbo inside Erebor as a burglar, to steal some of Smaug’s treasure. Upon entering the hall through the secret passage, Bilbo saw the great dragon, and even though he was intimidated by the sight, he managed to steal a cup and slip out of the hall. However, when Smaug awoke, he realized that a cup was missing, and figured out which way the burglar came. When Bilbo decided to return to the hall, only this time wearing the One Ring that made him invisible, Smaug was pretending to be asleep, and immediately upon smelling Bilbo, he started talking to him. Bilbo was smart enough to know that when talking to dragons, one should use riddles, to avoid revealing any information. But Bilbo forgot about the effect dragon-talk can have on people, and he almost fell under the spell of the dragon, but he managed to regain his true self. Smaug and Bilbo had an interesting conversation in riddles, through which Bilbo convinced the dragon to show him his belly, where he noticed a soft spot not covered in scales. Bilbo fled the hall, followed by dragon fire, and informed the Dwarves of his findings, oblivious to the thrush listening beside them. Using some of the information obtained from his conversation with Bilbo, Smaug concluded that the Lake-men of Esgaroth must have helped the Dwarves, so he decided to attack their town. During this attack, the thrush flew into town and found Bard, a descendant of Girion, Lord of Dale, and informed him of Smaug’s weak spot. Thanks to this information, Bard was able to kill Smaug by firing the black arrow directly into the soft spot without scales on Smaug’s body, ending the attack on his town.
Other dragons in Tolkien’s works
There are several other dragons mentioned in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, some of them in Middle-earth, and some elsewhere. In Middle-earth there was Scatha the Worm, of whose life little is known, except that he possessed a massive hoard stolen from the Dwarves. He was slain by Fram, son of Frumgar in the early days of the Éothéod. There was also Gostir, one of the Dragons of Morgoth, mentioned only in the etymologies section of The Lost Road and Other Writings. Another dragon appeared in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, although there was only a description of his appearance, so he remained unnamed. In other Tolkien’s works, namely Roverandom and Farmer Giles of Ham, dragons have appeared in various roles. In Roverandom, several dragons appear and are described in greater detail. In Farmer Giles of Ham, the dragon Chrysophylax Dives appears and plays his role in Tolkien’s parody of the great dragon-slaying traditions.
To conclude, dragons played a significant role in certain battles fought in Middle-earth, although their ulterior motive had always been greed and lust for gold. They possessed great hoards of treasure and fought to protect them with all their power. What happened to the dragons after the Third Age is not clear, even though Tolkien mentioned in one of his letters that they continued to exist for some time, even close to our own time. It is clear that Tolkien had a great love for Dragons, possibly stemming from his love of heroic dragon tales from an early age. Whatever the reason may be for his addition of dragons into the world of Middle-earth, they fit in perfectly and added their very own special touch to the events described in his works.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.) – The War of the Jewels
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.) – The Book of Lost Tales II
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.) – The Silmarillion
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.) – The Lost Road and Other Writings
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.) – The Children of Húrin
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.) – The Fall of Gondolin
- J.R.R. Tolkien – Tales from the Perilous Realm
- J.R.R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
- J.R.R. Tolkien – The Hobbit
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (ed.) – The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
- J.E.A. Tyler – The Complete Tolkien Companion
- Christina Scull, Wayne G. Hammond – The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide Part I