When Westerners think of dragons, we often think of vicious flying serpents who also guard a hoard of treasure–a mound of gold, silver, and jewels. Dragons are usually depicted as enormous, scaled beasts with long teeth who breathe fire, and who also hate humans. Unless, of course, humans have tamed them to the point where they can ride them.
Tolkien certainly tapped into the typical dragon narrative when he created Smaug in The Hobbit. Smaug is one of the most well-known dragons in contemporary literature. He lived deep in the Lonely Mountain where he slept and guarded his hoard of treasure.
In the distant past, Smaug learned about the riches and wealth that the dwarves had accumulated under the Lonely Mountain, so he laid waste to the surrounding countryside and all the people who lived there. The dwarves, who lived in the mountain, fled from this destruction and Smaug took possession of the hoard of gold and jewels, while also continuing to terrorize the country. That time was known as the Desolation of Smaug.
He remained under the Lonely Mountain for centuries…until Bilbo Baggins showed up. Bilbo Baggins, the hero from The Hobbit, was tasked with breaking into the dragon’s lair to steal the Arkenstone, a valuable gem that belonged to the dwarves.
With the help of the One Ring, which rendered him invisible, Bilbo snuck into Smaug’s lair. Once there, the hobbit and dragon carried on a long conversation. They also exchanged names. Both the exchange of names and the talking were very important in Tolkien’s world as they were in the world of Norse stories. In a popular Norse tale, the dragon definitely liked to talk.
Sigurd the Dragon Slayer
One of the most famous stories from Norse legend is of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer. Sigurd is also one of the most famous heroes from Norse mythology.
In the tale, Sigurd seeks out the dragon Fafnir because he guards a huge hoard of gold and jewels. Like many Western dragons, Fafnir is a huge serpent with nearly impenetrable scales, and he blows poison from his mouth.
With the guidance of his mentor, the dwarf Regin, Sigurd finds the dragon, digs a trench and lays in wait for Fafnir to slither to his watering hole. When Fafnir emerges from his cave to get a drink, Sigurd stabs him from below with a fatal blow.
After this happens, Fafnir the dragon takes a long time to die! After the attack, Sigurd jumps out of the trench and faces the dragon. They have a long conversation while Fafnir dies, in which he asks Sigurd questions and also tells Sigurd about himself. At first, Fafnir tries to get Sigurd to tell him who he is and who his father is; Fafnir figures that any man brave enough to take him on would have to be nobly born. In the Norse world, your reputation was very important as was the reputation of your father.
However, a name is a powerful thing to relinquish so it takes a while before Sigurd finally tells Fafnir who he is. Finally, Fafnir mocks Sigurd, rightly saying that he had been taken as a prisoner in war (Sigurd’s father was defeated in battle and Sigurd and his mother taken by the king who had defeated his father). After this, Sigurd relents and admits his family name. He has to prove he is worthy, even to a dragon.
They continue to talk with Fafnir telling Sigurd about how he terrorized the region and that men feared him:
“I wore a terror-helmet
Against all men
So long as I sat on my treasure.” (Poetic Edda, 244)*
The dragon also prophecies about Sigurd’s future, saying that stealing his treasure will bring about Sigurd’s doom:
“My clanging gold,
This ember-glowing wealth,
Will bring about your death.” (Poetic Edda, 245)
Like most brave heroes, Sigurd is full of his own worth and doesn’t listen to Fafnir. He condemns the dragon to Hel and takes the treasure once the dragon dies.
Bilbo and Smaug
Something similar happens in The Hobbit when Bilbo encounters Smaug. They talk for a long time!
Smaug, for his part, likes to talk, for “no dragon can resist the fascination of riddling talk and of wasting time trying to understand it.” (Hobbit, 213).
Like Sigurd, Bilbo remembers the stories from his ancestors so he is knowledgeable about how to speak to a dragon. He knows how to not give too much away, at least not at first. Bilbo is quite clever!
One of the first things Smaug wants to know is who Bilbo is and where he comes from, which is similar to the story of Sigurd and Fafnir. Clever Bilbo does not tell him. All he says is that he comes from “under the hill.” He continues to talk in riddles about who he is, but the more he does it, the closer he gets to revealing the truth.
In The Hobbit, Smaug taunts Bilbo, similar to how Fafnir taunts Sigurd. Both dragons also mention what will happen to the treasure once the hero takes it away. Fafnir tells Sigurd that he’ll be cursed if he takes the treasure (which he was!). Smaug informs Bilbo of something important that he’d not thought of–how will he get the dragon’s treasure back home? It is too much to carry. It would be a major undertaking. Or, perhaps, as Smaug alludes, the dwarves are keen to keep it all for themselves. Once planted, this seed of doubt grows in Bilbo.
Dragons and Dwarves
In both stories, the dragons warn the heroes about trusting dwarves. Fafnir tells Sigurd not to trust the dwarf, Regin:
“Regin betrayed me,
He will betray you as well
He will bring death to us both.” (Poetic Edda, 246)
Sigurd doesn’t believe Fafnir–he is a dragon after all and they can’t be trusted–but after the dragon’s death, Sigurd roasts his heart over the fire. When he touches it to see if it is done, he burns his finger and puts it in his mouth. Once the blood from the heart touches Sigurd’s mouth, he can understand the speech of the birds who roost overhead. Not knowing Sigurd can understand them, they speak of Regin’s treachery. When Regin returns to the campfire, Sigurd kills him.
In The Hobbit, Smaug warns Bilbo against the dwarves: “…don’t have more to do with dwarves than you can help!” and “You’ll come to a bad end, if you go with such friends.” (Hobbit, 214).** The night before this, Bilbo had snuck into the dragon’s cave and stolen one cup, which he then presented to the dwarves. Smaug asks Bilbo if the dwarves gave him a good price for the cup. When Bilbo hedges and haws, Smaug continues to egg him on about the dwarves being untrustworthy.
“And I suppose they are skulking outside, and your job is to do all the dangerous work and get what you can when I’m not looking–for them? And you get a fair share? Don’t you believe it! If you get off alive, you will be lucky.” (Hobbit, 214).
All of this talk creates some suspicions in Bilbo. Unlike Sigurd, though, Bilbo expresses his concerns with the dwarves once he leaves Smaug’s lair. They assuage him and yet “the enchanted desire of the hard had fallen from Bilbo.” (Hobbit, 220).
One more small similarity–after Bilbo leaves Smaug’s cave and comes out again to talk to the dwarves, a small bird, a thrush, is sitting on a rock nearby with his head tilted as if it is listening. Bilbo doesn’t like the look of him, but the dwarves say the thrush is good luck. In the end, the dwarves are right. The thrush overhears Bilbo mention Smaug’s weakness and they take that information to Bard the Bowman. Bard understands the thrush and he kills Smaug using the bird’s information.
In both stories, communicating with birds brings important and life-saving information to the heroes.
In Sigurd the Dragon Slayer and in The Hobbit, the dragons are slain and the treasure taken. Unlike Sigurd, Bilbo is not the one who kills Smaug, that was the human, Bard the Bowman. But if it hadn’t been for Bilbo, for his stealth and cleverness, none of that would have come to pass. Smaug would have remained living under the Lonely Mountain with his hoard and terrorizing the region forever, or at least as long as dragons live.
If you want to learn more about Norse dragons, check out a previous blog post I wrote about Sigurd and Fafnir in more detail, plus there are more dragons! Norse Dragons: Worms of the North.
*All quotes from The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes, translated and edited by Jackson Crawford.
**The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien. Ballantine Books. 1966.