Talk to the Dragon: Tolkien as Translator
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Talk to the Dragon:
Tolkien as Translator

In chapter 12 of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins finally meets the dragon Smaug, the object of his and his companions' quest. This encounter with the dragon is in a sense both the climax and the anti-climax of the story. It is also a turning point, both structurally and morally. The story has up to this point been episodic in structure, a travel narrative with each adventure coming on top of the previous one, as Bilbo and the dwarves travel to The Lonely Mountain (Erebor). It has also been morally simple for the most part, with Bilbo and his companions as unambiguous protagonists, facing various kinds of evils (goblins, wolves, spiders and hostile elves). After the meeting with the dragon, however, the narrative becomes more unexpected, entangled, ambiguous, and political, culminating in the hostile encounter between Bilbo's companions and the elves and men of Lake Town (Esgaroth), and Bilbo's subsequent betrayal of his dwarf friends.1

In this article, I will analyze the encounter between Bilbo and Smaug, trying to come closer to the identity and the origins of the dragon. I will show how Tolkien is acting as a translator of a kind, by which I mean that he is using Old Norse sources not only as an inspiration for this scene, but that he also gathers a subtext from them, making his dragon much more ambiguous and still more frightening a brutish beast. I will argue that Smaug the dragon might be regarded as an uncanny monster and that this uncanny aspect of the dragon is present not only in The Hobbit but also in its major source, the Old Norse poem Fáfnismál. Thus Tolkien is acting as a translator not only of motifs but also of ideas, and even of eerie feelings.2

When Bilbo, and the readers of The Hobbit, are confronted with the dragon, they are in for a surprise, as Smaug's behaviour is somewhat unusual for a dragon. Dragons are an ancient and fairly ubiquitous cultural phenomenon, the origins of which are extremely hard to trace.3 Tolkien clearly expected his readers to be a little familiar with dragons: various statements made in the book suggest that he is addressing an audience with some previous knowledge of said species, in theory if not practice.4 This ideal audience would not have been surprised to see Tolkien's dragon as depicted in the book: a huge, scaly, fire-breathing, flying monstrosity, resting on its treasure.5 This is what a dragon should be like, and in four out of the five times that Tolkien's dragon appears it behaves more or less as a 'generic' dragon might be expected to, wrecking things without giving much thought to it. If anything, the dragon is pleased about [End Page 27] the destruction it wreaks, which is unsurprising, since dragons are evil monsters and being dangerous and destructive is their role. And Smaug, the dragon in The Hobbit, lives up to this expectation. He turns out to be as bestial and as monstrous as the best of dragons.

Evil monster he is indeed, but how? It is the fifth scene, in which my interest lies, the one where Tolkien's dragon might be said to defy expectations. Initially, the dragon is mentioned as the main antagonist of the dwarves visiting Bilbo Baggins, as the object of their quest and as a destroyer and killer whose death they desire. The actual encounter with the dragon keeps being postponed as the quest proceeds, with trolls and goblins and wolves and spiders and elves—but no dragons, until the story is well advanced. Then, finally, Bilbo Baggins has to walk into the dragon's lair (happily invisible, though) and steal something from it, only to bring the dragon's wrath upon himself and the dwarves, who all nevertheless escape from it—the dragon eats their ponies instead.6 And it is at that point in the narrative that Bilbo is again sent to face the dragon. This time, it is awake and it speaks—and I will now have to stop referring to the dragon as...