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Tolkien's dragon: Why Smaug is 'the greatest of the dragons of his day'

Despite the fact that the only good view of him in all the lead-up to this weekend’s release of the “Hobbit” sequel was an image plastered on the side of an airplane, it’s undeniable that the biggest star of Peter Jackson’s latest film is Smaug the dragon.

As entertainment writer Ruel S. De Vera of the Philippine Daily Inquirer put it in his review of “The Desolation of Smaug,” “Come for the Hobbit, stay for the dragon.”

Having a memorable dragon as a character is noteworthy partially because, as anyone who’s ever watched old Disney movies or cracked open a Harry Potter book knows, there isn’t exactly a shortage of them in pop culture. You don’t have to be an avid fantasy buff to feel like the dragon has been overdone during the last millennium or so — to the point where vampires and zombies seem practically full of untapped potential by comparison. From Puff the Magic Dragon to Norberta the Norwegian Ridgeback to the seven-headed, ten-horned stand-in for Lucifer from the Book of Revelation, dragons are pretty much everywhere, especially if there’s a knight or wizard involved somehow.

But "The Hobbit" author J.R.R. Tolkien’s dragon still warrants special attention (and not just because he landed the top spot on Forbes’ list of the richest fictional characters by a huge margin).

Smaug isn’t just another winged, fire-breathing beast. In Jackson’s words, quoted by Entertainment Weekly, he’s “the Hannibal Lecter of the dragon world.” Or, as he’s aptly described in one of the appendices to “The Return of the King,” he is “the greatest of the dragons of his day.”

Tolkien himself was smitten with the scaly creatures. In a 1955 letter to the poet W.H. Auden, he mentioned that the first story he ever wrote — when he was 7 — was about a “green great dragon.”

“Dragons always attracted me as a mythological element,” Tolkien said in a 1965 interview with the BBC. “They seemed to be able to comprise human malice and bestiality together so extraordinarily well, and also a sort of malicious wisdom and shrewdness — terrifying creatures!”

The perfect distillation of those traits, Smaug the Magnificent/the Impenetrable/the Tremendous/the Terrifying, owes his existence primarily to two literary forebears.

The first is the dragon from the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf,” which, like some medieval precursor to Godzilla, is seen to crawl out of its mountain barrow after hundreds of years lying dormant to ravage the neighboring villages when a thief disturbs its slumber. Sound familiar?

“‘Beowulf’ is among my most valued sources,” said Tolkien, a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature for 20 years who died in 1973, “though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing.”

Unlike Smaug, however, the Beowulf dragon is basically a dumb animal, unable to speak — let alone engage in witty banter with Hobbits.

“Beowulf's dragon, if one wishes really to criticize,” said Tolkien in a lecture titled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” “is not to be blamed for being a dragon, but rather for not being dragon enough. … There are in the poem some vivid touches of the right kind — as tha se wyrm onwoc, wroht waes geniwad; stonc aefter stane [‘By then, also, the dragon had wakened and with it new strife. It slithered and sniffed along the stone walls’] — in which this dragon is real worm, with a bestial life and thought of his own, but the conception, none the less, approaches draconitas [‘dragonishness’] rather than draco [‘dragon’]: a personification of malice, greed, destruction (the evil side of heroic life), and of the undiscriminating cruelty of fortune that distinguishes not good or bad (the evil aspect of all life).”

The other main source of inspiration came from the Norse Eddas — specifically, the story of Sigurd and the dragon Fáfnir, in which the hero, after mortally wounding the beast (a man transformed into a dragon by his love of a stolen pile of gold), converses with him in riddles much like Bilbo does with Smaug.

Although in crafting his great, greedy worm, Tolkien mostly eschewed the overtly religious symbolism of something like St. George’s dragon — opting instead for a “pure fairy-story dragon” — Smaug is not without a bit of Christian subtext himself.

As Tolkien explained it, the name Smaug derives from the “past tense of the primitive German verb smugan, to squeeze through a hole” — “a low philological jest,” according to Tolkien, likely referencing the New Testament verse about rich men and needles.

The name has other connotations, too. Smeag is an Old English word used to describe a worm; the German schmauch means “smoke;” the Polish word for dragon is smok; and smugan also happens to be related to smygel, “to creep," "crawl" or "burrow,” from which the name Sméagol is derived.

But Smaug’s love of riches is really his defining trait, as well as one of the key themes of “The Hobbit,” where characters are stricken with “dragon sickness” — a consuming greed.

Jackson summed it up to Entertainment Weekly, saying, “Smaug is a paranoid psychopath. He has a lust for gold, but it’s a lust that he can’t explain. He’s not like a normal person who wants wealth for all the trappings of fast cars and yachts. Smaug doesn’t have any of that, the poor guy. For 200 years, he’s been there on this pile of gold waiting for someone to come, just sitting there doing crossword puzzles and catching up on ‘Breaking Bad’ seasons on Netflix. He hasn’t got much else to do.”

In that way, Smaug is at once instantly classic, tapping into the original meaning of the word “dragon” (from the Greek drakon, “to guard”) and drawing on the great literary serpents like Fáfnir. But he’s also perfectly modern, suited in the way he embodies a particular vice to current audiences as much as he was to readers of “The Hobbit” when it was first published more than 75 years ago. And that is what makes him "the greatest of the dragons of his day."

Other sources: "The Annotated Hobbit," by Douglas A. Anderson

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.