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