The Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities

Smaug is what we of Othello’s trade call an area weapon: precise location of the target is not required, nor is fastidious marksmanship necessary for good terminal effect.

 “The Individuated Hobbit – Jung, Tolkien, and the Archetypes of Middle-Earth” by Timothy O’Neill (Houghton Mifflin 1979)

I wrote a year ago in anticipation of the release of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and in that piece addressed the nature of Smaug the Dragon. I took the opportunity on Friday 13 December to have a look at “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” It was a wonderful rendering of a collection of various elements that appear primarily in “The Hobbit” but also in the Appendices to “The Lord of the Rings” and in “Unfinished Tales”.

I have to hand it to Peter Jackson that he and his team seemed to have dreamed the same dream as I have when it comes to rendering the dwelling of the Elves and the musical liet-motifs that accompany them. Thranduil’s realm was beautifully created and the King himself was as mercurial and unpredictable as he appeared in the book – perhaps even more so. He seems to lack some of the ethereal beauty of the Eldar but after all – he is Sindar and a Wood Elf at that. But it is not of Mirkwood or the Elves or the Spiders that I write. Nor is it of Laketown ruled by the Master, marvellously overacted by Stephen Fry in much the same way as Barry Humphries went over the top with the Goblin King in “The Unexpected Journey”. In both cases they work splendidly.

The real centerpiece is the conversation with Smaug and the calamitous aftermath. But first things first. Smaug is pronounced “Smowg” as in “ow” and not “or”. I must confess to having thought in the past the pronunciation was Smorg   but then I was inconsistent because Sauron was always Sowron and never Soron. It is all made clear in the 5th Appendix to “The Lord of the Rings” and all disputes can be resolved with a quick reference to that part of the text. It brooks no argument and Jackson has it right.

Smaug

As to the dragon himself. In many respects the movie Smaug represents the archetype of the evil, malevolent, devious and malicious dragon. My own impression of dragons was shaped at an early age from a reading of Kenneth Graham’s “The Reluctant Dragon” and from Tolkien’s “Chrysophylax Dives” in “Farmer Giles of Ham”. Then along came “The Hobbit” and Smaug was one of the first big nasty dragons but within the context of a book for a younger audience not the sort of beast that would scare your socks off.

Then came the novella “Dragonrider” by Anne McCaffrey which won a Hugo and was later transformed into a novel which was the first of the wonderful and evocative “Dragonriders of Pern” series. A different sort of dragon altogether. Then came the dragons that were mentioned in Tolkien’s other writings – Ancalagon the Black and Scatha who appear by mention only and the frightful Glaurung from the various tellings of the tale of Turin Turambar. By the time we reach Glaurung we know that Tolkien understands his monsters and dragons in particular. Although Grendel and Grendel’s mother are not dragons they are monsters and Tolkien’s analysis of the monster motif in “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics” makes it clear that the nature of the beast villain is well known to the writer.

But Jackson’s rendering of Smaug takes the evil dragon to a whole new level. I had the impression that there was a lot of Fafnir – the giant turned dragon and hoarder of the Rhinegold in Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” – in Smaug but there were other features as well. We never saw Smaug in “An Unexpected Journey” but he is gradually, tantalisingly revealed throughout his interview with Bilbo in the vast expanse of the treasure cave where he dwells, concealed by mountains of his gold with which he will part not one piece. And Bilbo seeks the most unique piece of the dwarven treasure of all – the Arkenstone. Smaug understands this in short order strips Bilbo’s prevarications away. The Hobbit is a threat to the treasure and is an ally of the hated dwarves. Only by using the ring does Bilbo escape the jaws of the beast and even then Smaug with a dragon’s sense for anything golden knows that there is magic in the air. It is at this stage that Smaug is revealed in all his horrifying might – a creature not only of intelligence, Machiavellian cunning and subtlety but of terrifying and destructive power.

The voice of Smaug is Benedict Cumberbatch who does a magnificent job bringing light and shade to the creature, creating a nuanced character full of menace until he is fully revealed in the white heat of his wrath. We last see Smaug heading for Laketown and the movie ends.

Peter Jackson has redefined the dragon in art. Smaug takes many elements of dragons in myth, legend, literature and performance art and moulds them all together into an instantly recognisable and yet unique recasting of the evil monster.

As Bilbo is conducting his conversation with Smaug, the dwarves wait outside the back gate. The rumbling from deep within the mountain can be heard and the younger dwarves question what it may be. Balin son of Fundin, he who was later to go to Moria and meet his own nemesis in the form of the Balrog replies – “that, laddie, was a dragon”.

He was so right. Jackson’s rendering is unmistakably, magnificently, awfully a dragon – the chiefest and greatest of calamities.

Smaug 2

Note

For some general bakgorund information on Smaug see the Tolkien Gateway

For a piece on the history of dragons from the Satanic lizards of the Bible to the Jungian monsters in us all see this piece from The Guardian

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