I was eagerly waiting to see how the dragon was depicted in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. Needless to say, armed with my 3D glasses, I went to see the movie the day it was released.
Smaug is one of the most well-known dragons in fiction, imagined anew by every reader for the last 77 years. Depicting him on the screen was an onerous task, something like casting an actor to play a famous person in a movie, and is subject to much discussion.
J R R Tolkien’s dragon was inspired by dragons in Scandinavian mythology. Like the dragons from the Norse sagas, Smaug has a lust for gold, he is winged and fire-breathing. He also has a particular trait of Scandinavian dragons – he can speak and argue the point. But what do Scandinavian dragons look like?
We know what dragons from other parts of the world look like because people have been creating images of them for centuries, even millennia. The earliest depiction of a Chinese dragon is an arrangement of shells from 6000 years ago. The oldest representation of a European dragon is a large snake-like creature painted in about 500BC. There is a wealth of beautiful images of Iranian dragons from at least a 1000 years ago.
Imagining a dragon
The Scandinavian dragon is more elusive. Despite the fact that there are many dragon stories among the Norse sagas, the ancient Scandinavians left very few images of the creatures. There is a carving from a church door of hero Sigurd killing the dragon Fafnir from around 1200AD. There are some very serpentine dragons on rune stones and jewellery etc from 8th Century AD, but there appears to have been no tradition of illustrating the sagas, which were oral tales.
The sagas themselves are light on physical detail. The two most famous dragons are Fafnir and the dragon in the 3000-line poem Beowulf. Neither of these sagas describes the dragon.
So when Tolkien came to draw Smaug, he didn’t have much to go on. Tolkien drew Smaug as a big dragon sitting on top of his hoard. He has four legs, no horns and a three-pronged tail terminal. He is red-gold in colour.
Reimagining a most famous dragon
We finally get to see Smaug in the second Hobbit movie. With only a glimpse of him in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was keen to see how Peter Jackson and his conceptual designers, Alan Lee and John Howe had reimagined Smaug. He is huge – a massive creature, many times bigger than Tolkien’s vision, sleeping amongst his mountainous hoard of gold.
He is not golden at all and, most interestingly, he is a wyvern – a two-legged dragon – using the “elbows” of his bat-like wings to assist movement on the ground. Smaug retains his ability to talk and Benedict Cumberbatch provides the voice. The dragon’s facial expressions and movements also come from Cumberbatch via motion capture.
Scandinavian dragons are lindworms, shortened to worms, or wyrms, sometimes wingless, but always two-legged. The Hylestad portal dragon has two legs. So I think those designing the movie dragon were well within their rights to depict a wyvern.**
Images of this latest version of Smaug are still hard to come by on the internet, and we will have to wait until the end of this year when the final Hobbit film is released to see how Peter Jackson deals with Smaug’s demise. Perhaps the clearest picture is the one promoting the movie on this Air New Zealand plane.
*You can see how illustrator Dean Jones and I imagined Scandinavian dragons in my book Dragon Companion. They are more slimy and slobby.
**There is already controversy about the number of legs. According to this blog Peter Jackson changed his mind. In the prologue to the first Hobbit movie, Smaug has four legs, while in the second movie he has two. I’m not entirely convinced.
Tolkien’s Smaug: The Annotated Hobbit
The Sigurd Portal: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/sigurddoor.html#photographs
Benedict Cumberbatch: http://www.avclub.com/article/here-are-some-pics-of-benedict-cumberbatch-doing-m-106616
Air New Zealand Plane: http://www.smh.com.au/travel/travel-news/the-hobbits-smaug-fully-revealed-on-air-new-zealand-plane-20131202-2yksj.html
The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien, 1970, Unwin Books
The Annotated Hobbit, 2002, annotated by Douglas A Anderson, Houghton Mifflin
Dragon Companion: An Encyclopedia, 2007, Carole Wilkinson, illus. Dean Jones, black dog books
Dragons vs Wyverns: The Question of Smaug http://atolkienistperspective.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/dragons-vs-wyverns-the-question-of-smaug/
For the original story of Fafnir read The Story of the Volsungs, Chapter XVIII http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/vlsng/vlsng20.htm
For Beowulf and the Dragon read Beowulf chapters XXXIIItranslated by Francis B Gummere, 1910, http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/beo/beo31.htm