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The Dragons of Middle-earth

There is perhaps no element of fantasy literature that's more ubiquitous, pervasive, or familiar to contemporary readers than dragons. From Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, dragons are at the centre of thousands of stories, and although it would be unfair to state that Tolkien invented dragons as we know them, I believe that without him, they wouldn’t look and act as they do in our collective imaginations. I think it can be argued that Smaug the Golden is both the first dragon of contemporary fantasy, and the last dragon of old Germanic mythology. He is the reason for the dragons that we’re all so well acquainted with.

However, by starting with Smaug, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Although he is the first dragon Tolkien named in his published works, in the chronology of Arda, he is the final dragon. And there’s a long heritage of monsters that preceded him.

So in the annals of Arda the very first dragon, the father of them all, is the “Great Worm” Glaurung. And Glaurung’s date of birth (or hatching) is unknown. His master Morgoth intentionally kept his existence a secret until he was ready to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting Elves. But, as I guess is quite common with rebellious young beings, Glaurung was impatient, and he emerged from his master’s dungeons two hundred years before Morgoth was ready to unveil him.

However Glaurung's official debut came with the disastrous Battle of Sudden Flame, which broke the military supremacy of the Noldor and their allies. And Glaurung was the reason for all this sudden flame. The Father of Dragons led the largest army of orcs and balrogs that the world had ever seen, and the "Elves and Men withered before him."

But the Battle of Sudden Flame was just a taste of the horror that Glaurung would eventually unleash. Only seventeen years later came the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, and this was arguably the greatest loss ever suffered by the Free Peoples in Middle-earth's history. In this battle, Glaurung once again emerged from Morgoth's fortress, but this time he was not the only one of his kind. Tolkien tells us about Glaurung's brood, which he describes as "many and terrible", and these children of Glaurung caused immense devastation upon the field of battle.

Now within Middle-earth, not all dragons are created equal, and as is always the case with Tolkien, there are a few different types of dragons throughout the Legendarium. But Glaurung and his brood are among some of the most dangerous, for they are all of the class of Urulóki - known more commonly as fire-drakes. So as the name suggests, Glaurung and his brood were all endowed with the ability to breathe dragon fire. And dragon fire is no ordinary thing. In The Lord of the Rings we're told that it's hot enough to melt Rings of Power. The only other place where that could happen is in the fires of Mount Doom.

But anyway, in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, Glaurung and his brood lay waste to the lands of the Sons of Fëanor, and they "sweep apart" the two factions of Elven allies. And when that was done, Glaurung went after Lord Azaghâl, the chief of the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains. And although Azaghâl's Dwarven army hewed Glaurung and sent him into a rage, they were unable to kill him. And when the battle was over, Azaghâl was just another slain hero, who'd met his end in the fires Glaurung.

And there's something really interesting here, because although in the First Age dragons are portrayed as the destroyers of many mighty Elven armies, and in later Ages they're known as the great enemies of the Dwarves, in Tolkien's entire Legendarium we're not told of a single named dragon who is ever killed by an elf or a dwarf. Every dragon that dies, is slain by a single mortal Man, standing alone in single combat.

And this brings us the the eventual doom of Glaurung. Now I don't want to unnecessarily spoil anything, but just like with all future dragons, Glaurung is slain by a mortal Man. And there's no battle. There are no armies. There is simply Glaurung and the son of Húrin. But before his black sword pierces Glaurung's belly, Tolkien demonstrates some of the other lesser known powers of Glaurung the Golden. Because although the dragon is most famous for his fiery breath, he has another power that proves perhaps even more destructive.

Glaurung is a master of minds. Not unlike Sauron, Glaurung uses deception against his enemies, but this is not the limit of what he can do. More than once in the Legendarium he uses his power to hypnotise his enemies, and he freezes them in place. Which renders them completely helpless against him. But even this is not his greatest gift. At one point in the story, Glaurung comes across a young maiden and he uses some sort of spell to utterly obliterate her mind. He destroys her memories. And when he's finished with her, the maiden is left with no idea who she is, why she's there, or even what her name is. And Glaurung only chooses to release the maiden from her amnesia at the absolute most destructive moment for her. (This is a great story that's covered in the Children of Húrin)

However, eventually Glaurung is slain, and so he becomes the first in a long line of dragons to be killed by Mannish heroes. Over the Ages he would be joined by the "Long-worm" Scatha who was slain by Fram (an ancestor of the Men of Rohan), the Beast of Gondolin who was vanquished by Tuor (the only Man in a city full of Elves), and of course Smaug who is slain not by dwarves or by wizards or by hobbits, but by Bard the Bowman and his Black Arrow. However of all the dragons in Tolkien's Legendarium, there is one who stands out amongst all others. One dragon who was the greatest of his kind, the mightiest of them all, and the ancestor of all future winged dragons. Ancalagon the Black.

So the truth is that we don't know a huge amount about Ancalagon, but we do know that Morgoth bred him to be the greatest dragon that ever lived. And he was unleashed in Morgoth's final hour, during the War of Wrath. Now there is a little bit of debate amongst fans in regards to Ancalagon's size. If you google him you'll probably find an image comparing the sizes of all the dragons in Middle-earth, and Ancalagon will no doubt be outrageously huge. And to be fair, Ancalagon was massive. But he probably wasn't that massive. I mean we know that he could fly, and even in a fantasy setting, the laws of physics do have a limit. Although again to be fair, we are told that when Ancalagon was cast down, his body fell from the sky and broke all three of the tallest mountains in Middle-earth after he landed on top of them. But I would argue this is more due to his power than his size. After all, we're also told that when Gandalf killed the balrog in Lord of the Rings, and cast its body off the peak of Zirakzigil, it broke the mountainside, but this doesn't make the balrog the size of a mountain.

Anyway, regardless of the question of his size, Ancalagon's might is undeniable. For a moment it looked like he might be powerful enough to drive back the combined strength of the Valar, and Tolkien tells us that Ancalagon led the vanguard of "the winged dragons, that had not before been seen; and so sudden and ruinous was the onset of that dreadful fleet that the host of the Valar was driven back, for the coming of the dragons was with great thunder, and lightning, and a tempest of fire."

But, as with all others, even Ancalagon was eventually slain. And just like all others, his doom came at the hand of a single individual. Eärendil the Mariner.

Now referring to Eärendil as a mortal Man is a little bit misleading, because technically he's the son of a mortal Man and an immortal Elf. In fact he is the only pure 50/50 man elf hybrid in the whole Legendarium (except for Galador and Gilmith who I mentioned in the Fun Fact about Half-Elves of Gondor). But for most of his life, Eärendil is counted amongst the race of Men, and just like Fram, Tuor, Bard, and the son of Húrin, he alone takes down Ancalagon, in what must have been one of the most epic battles in Middle-earth's history.

So with Ancalgon dead, the race of dragons seemed to disappear from the world for a very long time. Throughout the entire Second Age there is absolutely no reference to any living dragon of any kind. But they were not all gone. And in the Third Age, dragons returned to once again plague the Free Peoples of the North. But many of these dragons were a bit different.

So we're told by Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings that the seven Dwarven rings were "the foundation of each of the Seven Hoards of the Dwarf-kings of old", and it's highly likely that these treasure hoards were what attracted the dragons of the Grey Mountains in the first place. Gandalf tells us that "the Dragons devoured them, and of the Seven Rings some were consumed in fire." Although how Gandalf could know this is a little questionable.

But regardless of the specifics, we know that in the year 2570 of the Third Age, dragons returned from the "wastes beyond" and thus began the great War of the Dwarves and Dragons. However as I said, not all of these dragons were like the Urulóki of the First Age. Many of these dragons were Cold-drakes known as Foalóki, and Tolkien tells us that they "are cold as in the nature of snakes and serpents, and of them a many having wings go with the uttermost noise and speed."

However, the War of the Dwarves and Dragons is not a happy story. For twenty years the Dwarves fought the dragons, and in that time they held their ground in the Grey Mountains, but ultimately, this was not a war the Dwarves could win. Eventually King Dáin I and his son Frór were killed by a Cold-drake outside their very own doors, and this marked the end of the Dwarves' resistance in the Grey Mountains. King Dáin's eldest son and his heir, Thrór (that same Thrór who becomes the grandfather of Thorin Oakenshield) led many of the Dwarven survivors to Erebor, where they rebuilt the great Dwarven Kingdom under the Mountain. And for two hundred years, the Dwarves of Erebor prospered under King Thrór. However the dragons that killed Thrór's father were not gone forever, and in the year 2770 of the Third Age, Thrór would face a terror far greater than the one that killed his father and brother.

Because of course, 2770 is the year that Smaug the Golden descended from the North "like a hurricane", and sacked Erebor. He killed every guard who came out to challenge him, he destroyed the city of Dale, and for the following 171 years, Smaug slept on his newly acquired pile of gold. Now I reckon we all know the story of Smaug's eventual demise, and I'm not going to explain the entire plot of the Hobbit, but when Bard the Bowman fired that fateful arrow, not only did he kill Smaug, and rescue lake town, and avenge Dale, but he also ended a far greater conflict. He killed the last dragon of the North, and he finally ended the threat that Morgoth had unleashed with Glaurung at the Battle of Sudden Flame, 6517 years earlier.

However there is one last thing to say about Smaug. Because although he is the last dragon of the Legendarium, one could also argue that he also is the last dragon of a far older literary tradition. You see, although I think it's fair to say that Tolkien popularised dragons in the genre of modern fantasy, he did not invent them. And the original tales of dragons and mortal Men (at least in Western European culture) come from the writings of Tolkien's beloved ancestors, the Anglo-Saxons.

So between 1920 and 1926, Tolkien jumped head first into the realm of old English literature by translating the epic tale of Beowulf into modern English. And of course at the end of the tale, the hero Beowulf (spoiler for a poem that's over 1000 years old) dies slaying a giant fire-breathing dragon. Furthermore in the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which Tolkien translated in 1920 whilst working as his University's youngest professor, Sir Gawain battles fire-breathing wyrms. And of course, perhaps the most famous Anglo-Saxon tale to feature fire-breathing dragons is the Norse-Germanic Völsunga Saga, starring the fire-breathing monster Fafnir and the mortal Man Sigurd. (This is the same Sigurd/Siegfried that Chrsitoph Waltz talks about in Django Unchained, and one of the main characters in Wagner's 'The Ring Cycle'.) Now there are a number of striking similarities between Fafnir and Smaug, as well as between Fafnir and Glaurung. In fact Bilbo's dialogue with Smaug almost perfectly mirrors Sigurd's exchange with Fafnir, and Glaurung's description as a flightless dragon who hoarded gold and breathes poison also mirrors Fafnir perfectly.

So I guess this means that although dragons have been a part of Western imagination for over a thousand years, and although dragons have become one of the most recognisable elements of modern fantasy, it is Tolkien who tied these two strands together, and popularised dragons as we know them today. Not long ago, I was watching a movie with my nephew and he wanted to put on How to Train Your Dragon. And I was immediately struck by the fact that the humans (despite speaking with Sottish accents) all claim they are Vikings. Why is it that even in a 21st Century children's movie we associate dragons with old Norse mythology? It's because of Tolkien. It's because Tolkien created the first dragons of the modern era, by adapting the ancient dragons of Europe's historic past. Think about that next time you see a dragon on TV!

So, thank you all for reading, and if you enjoyed reading this, you may also enjoy watching it. Over the course of lockdown I've been working on a series of YouTube videos about Tolkien's Legendarium. The series is called Tolkien Untangled, and so far I've uploaded 4 episodes explaining the Beginning of Days, 6 episodes telling the full story of Fëanor and the Silmarils, four episodes about the differences between the Lord of the Rings books and movies, and I've started a new series of character studies like this one. Next up is the eagles of Middle-earth! So check out Tolkien Untangled on YouTube if you'd like to learn more.
Thanks again everyone. Much love and stay groovy ❤️
Here's a link for my most recent video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sc2AfUm6pZ4
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