Amidst trolls, orcs and sundry other dangers, one memorable antagonist stands out in The Hobbit: the giant, dwarf-eating, hobbit-scaring, treasure-hoarding dragon Smaug.
Published on this day in 1937, The Hobbit has delighted and terrified generations of children. But where did the idea for Smaug come from? Like his whole world of Middle-earth, J. R. R. Tolkien drew deeply on real mythology to create the dragon. In fact, some of the roots of Middle-earth lay with his childhood love of dragons, so it makes some sense that a book Tolkien wrote for children would center on a dragon.
“My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!” Smaug announces to a terrified Bilbo Baggins in both the book and the recent movie. In The Hobbit, Bilbo is travelling with a band of dwarfs to Smaug’s lair in the Lonely Mountain, there to steal some of his ill-gotten treasure. In the end, the quest leads to Smaug’s death and an epic battle between good and evil.
Smaug was not created whole-cloth, of course: He shares a number of qualities with dragons from Norse mythology and medieval literature.
The most important of of Smaug’s antecedents was Fafnir, a treasure-hoarding dragon from a Norse epic. Tolkien first ran into Fafnir in a story-book when he was very young, writes literature scholar Jonathan Evans, and the dragon had a profound effect. “I desired dragons with a profound desire,” Tolkien later said. “Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.”
Some of young Tolkien’s first attempts at storytelling, influenced by Fafnir, were about dragons, and the memory of Fafnir was realized in Smaug. Like Smaug, Fafnir has a giant hoard of gold that is his main preoccupation. He also talks, warning the hero Sigurd that taking his hoard of gold will result in trouble. “That same gold which I have owned shall be thy bane too,” Fafnir says.
Tolkien was also interested in the unnamed dragon who kills Beowulf, who also shared a few characteristics that are also found in Smaug, Evans writes. Beowulf's dragon also has a hoard, and in Beowulf, as in The Hobbit, someone stealing a gold cup from the dragon’s treasure starts a lot of the trouble.
Artists and writers in the generations before Tolkien also incorporated dragons into their work. In fact, Wagner's famous operas features Sigurd and Fafnir, though Wagner, being German, changed the hero's name to Siegfried. But Tolkien was one of the first to take elements from a bunch of different myths and recombine them into a totally new universe with its own rules. The Hobbit isn't a retelling of any myth, although it does share the dragonslayer narrative about struggle against evil that is common to many myths. It helped that he was a Beowulf scholar and read Icelandic as well as Anglo-Saxon English. He even lamented in a letter that he wished he had been able to master Old Irish as well, in order to draw on more early source material.
"I find 'dragons' a fascinating product of imagination," he wrote in the same letter, addressing a fan and friend, Naomi Mitchison. Tolkien's relationship with dragons began in childhood, so it seems natural that he included a dragon in a book written for children. But Smaug offered him an opportunity to go beyond his source material: "In the dragon-lore of Middle-earth we see the dragon-lore of the Middle Ages ... disassembled, taken down to its elementary components, rationalized and reconstituted,” Evans writes.