I doubt if JRR Tolkien would recognise his Smaug in Peter Jackson’s new CGI Hobbit spectacular, with its colossal, grandiose dragon voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Tolkien’s beast, at least in the author’s original illustrations, was an elegant Rackhamesque creature: a fire-orange, slightly languid lizard, all stuck over with jewels from years of lolling about in his lair, where his vast treasure was stored.
Smaug was created by Tolkien out of his love for Beowulf, whose hero battles with “the fiery dragon, the fearful fiend”. But Tolkien also threw in a little wordplay for good measure: the name came from the old German smugan, meaning to squeeze through a hole, presumably in reference to the biblical parable about rich men and needles; while Smaug’s treasure-guarding echoes the origin of the word dragon itself, from the Greek drakon, “to watch”.
For all its contemporary role as a cliche of fantasy epics, the dragon’s true power comes from a darker place. It casts a long shadow over our folk memory, across the caverns of our collective fears. It may even reach back into prehistory: when the fossilised bones of sauropods were first discovered, they were claimed to be the remains of dragons – a notion encouraged by the convention that dragons didn’t really die, they just cast off their bodies.
But the dragon cannot be contained by palaeontology. It writhes out of reality and into western creation myths, from the pagan Norse beast Níðhöggr, gnawing away at the roots of Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, to the Book of Revelation and its “great red dragon with seven heads and 10 horns” that attempts to eat the offspring of “the woman clothed with the sun” as she gives birth.
Throughout the Bible, in fact, the dragon is the embodiment of evil, a stand-in for Satan. There’s a wonderful 15th-century oil in the Prado, attributed to a “master of Zafra”, that depicts the archangel Michael (looking rather girly with his crimped hair and bejewelled breastplate) straddling an extraordinary dragon. This medieval mashup has the paws of a lion, the wings of a vulture, the neck of a sea serpent and a head seemingly composed of a horned cow crossed with the archetypal Chinese dragon familiar from 1,000 vases and takeaway menus.
It’s a mark of the monster’s shape-shifting qualities that its satanic western aura is sharply contrasted by the rearing, joyous, prancing imperial dragons of China: symbols of good luck and nobility rather than of disaster, often bearing pearls and surrounded by clouds and fire. At least one emperor, Yaou, was said to have been the product of a liaison between his mother and a red dragon.
In fact, so rich were the oriental legends of dragons that they convinced the Victorian geologist Charles Gould that dragons had really existed. “There is nothing impossible in the ordinary notion of the traditional dragon,” Gould declared in his 1886 book Mythical Monsters. “It is more likely to have once had a real existence than to be a mere offspring of fancy.” Gould surmised that these dragon stories drew on a “long terrestrial lizard, hibernating and carnivorous, with the power of constricting with its snake-like body and tail, possibly furnished with wing-like extensions”. Since Victorians regularly read reports of maned and long-necked sea monsters in their newspapers, such faith in the fabulous was by no means unusual.
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