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Tolkien's Five Dragons: From Middle-Earth to the Moon

Updated on January 1, 2015
Eye of Glaurung (my illustration)
Eye of Glaurung (my illustration)

Dragons in the fantasy writings of J.R.R. Tolkien

Smaug from The Hobbit is the most famous of J.R.R. Tolkien's dragons, but he is by no means the only one, nor the most terrible. There were many other dragons in Middle-earth before him, a few with famous names.

Some of Tolkien's most memorable dragons are not from Middle-earth at all, but appear in fantasies and fairy-tales he composed for his children. For most of these stories, we have Tolkien's own paintings and drawings of his favorite mythical monster.

The Great White Dragon of the Moon

Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Great White Dragon of the Moon is a fearsome creature, but he derives from one of Tolkien's most touching stories. In 1925, while Tolkien was enjoying a beach holiday with his family, his second son Michael lost a little toy dog in the sand. J.R.R. Tolkien soothed four-year-old Michael's distress by telling him a marvellous fairy tale about the lost toy, which was actually a real dog under a wizard's enchantment.

"Roverandom" had numerous adventures, even glimpsing the shores of Elvenhome. The magical dog's most harrowing adventure was a close encounter with the Great White Dragon on the moon!

Tolkien adapted this monster from Arthurian mythos. Those legends tell of two fearsome dragons found at the base of one King Vortigern's tower. Upon their discovery, Merlin prophesies Britain's future by identifying the red dragon with the native British and the white dragon with the Saxon invaders. Tolkien explains, "He [the White Dragon] fought the Red Dragon in Caerdragon in Merlin's time, as you will find in all the more up-to-date history books, after which the other dragon was Very Red." (That is, bloody from the Saxons' savage conquest.)

There are actually many white dragons on the moon, Tolkien explains, but the worst of them is responsible for lunar eclipses: his sooty breath and flames turn the moon dark or blood-red. As Professor Tolkien knew well, dragons or monsters swallow the moon in a number of mythologies.

At any rate, Roverandom and his friend the moon-dog blunder into the cave of the Great White Dragon, and an epic chase ensues. Luckily, like Smaug, the White Dragon is tender underneath. The dogs are saved in the nick of time when the Man-in-the-Moon shoots a spell at the dragon's stomach, driving it away.

The illustrated edition Roverandom include Tolkien's ink drawing of "The White Dragon Pursues Roverandom and the Moondog." In this picture, the dragon looks exactly like Tolkien's later sketches of Smaug. (Both dogs are fitted with wings for their lunar excursions.)


Note: The cover art at right is the DUTCH version of Farmer Giles of Ham; I show it here because it's got Tolkien's drawing of a dragon and a warrior on the cover.

Farmer Giles of Ham is another pre-Hobbit fairy tale originally composed to entertain Tolkien's own family. It was published decades later in The Tolkien Reader (delightfully illuminated by Pauline Baynes, who also drew the classic illustrations for C.S. Lewis' Narnia books).

Farmer Giles is a pseudo-medieval story about a resourceful, plain-talking farmer who accidentally becomes a local hero after driving off a giant stomping on his livestock. (Literally. The poor cow!) Giles' reputation as a monster-slayer becomes something of a liability when a fierce dragon starts menacing the neighborhood.

Chrysophylax is a wicked and sly dragon, a formidable monster with trickster speech and a touch of vanity (much like Smaug). He is, however, comically brought to heel by Giles' conveniently magical sword, Caudimordax ("Tailbiter" in Latin). GIles does not attempt to slay the worm (an old word for "dragon"), only extort treasure in exchange for sparing his life. After all, the dragon's name is Chrysophylax, "Gold guardian" in Greek.

Meanwhile, the local king arrives in the village of Ham with a view to appropriating the dragon's treasure. When Chrysophylax fails to appear on the appointed day, the outraged king sends Giles off to kill the dragon and retrieve its gold and jewels. Giles outwits king and dragon both, forcing the wicked worm to come back with him carrying a portion of its treasure. The king finds it not so easy to prize the riches away from a hero with a live dragon at his beck and call.

A running joke through both this story and Roverandom is the biting of dragon's tails (although in Roverandom, the bitten tail belongs to the Midgard Serpent). The Little Kingdom where Giles resides has a tradition of serving a Mock Dragon's Tail feast each year, real dragons being scarce. Chrysophylax is lucky that Farmer Giles does not force him to provide the main dish.

Smaug the Magnificent

The Annotated Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien includes Tolkien's painting of Smaug and Bilbo on the cover, as well as a number of Tolkien's ink drawings of Smaug and the Lonely Mountain

Smaug, of course, is Tolkien's most famous dragon, and he appears in dozens of the author's drawings and paintings. You know him: sly, arrogant, mighty, yet possessing a sort of Achilles' heel -- an unarmored patch of skin over one breast where his coat of jewels and treasure leaves him bare.

This theme of the dragon's vulnerable underbelly may be traced to the Norse saga of Siegfried and the dragon Fafnir. In that tale, too, a Dwarf challenges a hero to fight a dragon for its gold. Siegfried slays the dragon by digging a pit so as to strike the worm's vulnerable underbelly. This is approximately the gambit used to slay Glaurung (see below), and Siegfried's sword Gram, named for the Norse hound of the underworld, also appears as the name of Farmer Giles' dog in a much less epic dragon-slaying adventure.

Smaug is slain by an arrow, not a sword, and Tolkien rings several other changes on the classic dragon-slaying myth. His hero is decidedly unheroic, but all the more courageous for daring to engage the wily dragon in dialog. The conversation between Smaug and Bilbo is one of the most memorable scenes in all of Tolkien's writing. The fall of Smaug is suitably spectacular.

As for the meaning of Smaug's name, Tolkien confessed that "the dragon bears a name -- a pseudonym -- the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb Smugan, to squeeze through a hole: a low philological jest." (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #25) Tolkien was a scholar of old Norse, Germanic, and Old English texts like Beowulf, from which he may also have borrowed the incident of Bilbo stealing a gold cup from the dragon's hoard and sending Smaug on a rampage (although in that same letter Tolkien says "the incident of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances...I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same.") See Beowulf lines 2221 and following for this episode.

Glaurung the Golden

Glaurung, or Glórund the Foalókë (dragon) in Tolkien's earliest writings, is the first of the dragons of Middle-earth. Glaurung's name comes from the Elvish word for "golden." He is golden in appearance only, for he is possessed of a diabolical intelligence and a wicked tongue. Wingless as he is, he is a powerful foe, terrorizing and slaying Elves, Dwarves and Men in the First Age.

Various versions of Glaurung's story appear in the oft-rewritten versions of The Silmarillion which J.R.R. Tolkien continued to rework all his life. These variants are published in The History of Middle-earth, Tolkien's unfinished writings edited and arranged by his son Christopher. However, I recommend the version in The Children of Húrin, a tidied and polished edition weaving together all the raw manuscripts into a unified novel.

[Serious spoilers ahead!] Glaurung is the emissary of the Dark Lord -- not Sauron, but Sauron's master in those days, Morgoth, a greater and more terrible foe. One of Morgoth's braver but more futile opponents is Húrin, an ordinary man who fights alongside Elves. He is captured in battle and forced to endure a living torment, chained to Morgoth's throne and forced to watch as the Dark Lord weaves especial vengeance against Húrin's family.

Glaurung the dragon is Morgoth's chief weapon of destruction. While he slays many, he spares the children of Húrin in order to toy with their minds, paralyzing them with his stare and manipulating them with mocking words. For example:

"Evil have been all your ways, son of Húrin," said he. "Thankless fosterling, outlaw, slayer of your friend, thief of love, usurper of Nargothrond, captain foolhardy, and deserter of your kin. As thralls your mother and your sister live in Dor-lómien, in misery and want. You are arrayed as a prince, but they go in rags. For you they yearn, but you care not for that. Glad may be your father to learn that he has such a son: as learn he shall." And Túrin being under the spell of Glaurung hearkened to his words, and he saw himself as in a mirror misshapen by malice, and he loathed what he saw.

Most of these accusations are true, although cast in the worst possible light: Túrin is accursed by Morgoth, and leads many comrades into peril or death through over-boldness or sheer bad luck. But Túrin's mother and sister are safe, and he wastes precious time looking for them when in fact an Elf-maid who loved him is the orcs' captive. She dies before Túrin turns back to save her.

Túrin eventually finds his sister, but it has been so many years since they parted that he does not recognize her. In the meantime, Glaurung has caught Niénor and blocked her memories. Brother and sister wed in ignorance. Túrin finally ambushes and slays Glaurung, striking a mortal wound in his soft underbelly like Siegfried does Fafnir. Before Glaurung dies, he reveals Túrin's true identity to Niénor. She commits suicide in horror, and her brother follows suit. Yet it is said in the Silmarillion that Túrin will rise again to avenge his family and slay Morgoth in the Last Battle at the end of time.

Ancalagon the Black

Glaurung's machinations against the children of Húrin set him apart as the most ruthlessly intelligent of Tolkien's dragons, but he is not the mightiest. That dubious honor falls to Ancalagon the Black (From the Elvish roots Anca, "jaws," and alagon, "storm-wind"), mentioned in various manuscripts of Tolkien's posthumously-published work, The Silmarillion. We don't know much about Ancalagon, save that he is one of the dragons with "wings of steel" loosed by Morgoth during the last great battle of the First Age, when Elrond's father Eärendil

"...came, shining with white flame, and about Vingelot [his flying ship] were gathered all the great birds of heaven, and Thorondor [king of the eagles] was their captain, and there was battle in the air all day and through a dark night of doubt. And ere the rising of the sun Eärendel [sic] slew Ancalagon the Black, the mightiest of the dragon-host, and he cast him from the sky, and in his fall the towers of Thangorodrim [Morgoth's fortress] were thrown down." ~ from the "Quenta Silmarillion" in The Lost Road by J.R.R. Tolkien

Ancalagon is one of the countless bits of Tolkien's mental mythology of Middle-earth, only some of which made it into his published works in his own lifetime. But a close reader of The Lord of the Rings will recall Gandalf telling Frodo that "nor was there ever any dragon, not even Ancalagon the Black, who could have harmed the One Ring."

Other Dragons in Middle-earth

Beyond these dragons of note, there are others, unnamed, both wingless and winged, and some even made of iron. They are devastating weapons against the Elves of the First Age, instrumental in the destruction of the great Elven kingdom of Gondolin (from which escapes Elrond's father Eärendil, the king's grandson), as told in "The Fall of Gondolin," Book of Lost Tales 2, which is actually my second-favorite Middle-Earth story after The Lord of the Rings.)

At the end of the First Age, Eärendil and the eagles wiped out all but two dragons, but these flee eastward and evidently breed a new generation. Thror's map in The Hobbit indicates that "far to the north are the Grey Mountains & the Withered Heath whence come the Great Worms."

Smaug is one of these "Great Worms." Another is Scatha:

Then Éowyn gave Merry an ancient horn...

"This is an heirloom of our house," said Éowyn. "It was made by the Dwarves, and came from the hoard of Scatha the Worm. Éorl the Young brought it from the North. He that blows it at need shall set fear in the hearts of his enemies and joy in the hearts of his friends, and they shall hear him and come to him." -- from "Many Partings," The Return of the King

The Rohirrim originally dwelt in the North not far from the dragon-infested Grey Mountains. Presumably Scatha was long dead by this time.

We have a hint that Smaug may actually have been the last dragon, or at least the last one anywhere near the events of The Lord of the Rings. A scene which never made it into LOTR's appendices has Gandalf explain his involvement with the Dwarves' quest of vengeance in The Hobbit by saying he feared Smaug would be used against Rivendell if Sauron arose again. He was only too happy to have Thorin eliminate the dragon. Gandalf's words only make sense if there were no other dragons left to be a threat. (This lost scene is found in Unfinished Tales, edited by Tolkien's son Christopher, or in an appendix of The Annotated Hobbit)

Guestbook - For fellow Tolkien fans

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      ringsfan 3 years ago

      Nice :)

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      TanoCalvenoa 4 years ago

      When I first heard the name "Smaug" I thought it was "Smog." Being from super polluted big city area in Southern California, this mistake I hope is understandable.

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      TanoCalvenoa 4 years ago

      Chrysophylax - what a great name for a dragon!

    • john-dewitt-7 profile image

      john-dewitt-7 5 years ago

      The information about Tolkien and his writings in Middle Earth is staggering! Great lens

    • tinw profile image

      tinw 5 years ago from Middle Earth

      @GordonMeagher: Great teacher! My Mom read The Hobbit to me when I was little, then "graduated" me to LOTR when I was 8 or so. :)

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      GordonMeagher 5 years ago

      Great Lens - The Hobbit is the book that turned me on to reading. When I was in 3rd class we had a hip teacher that read the book out loud from start to finish. I then found the book in the local library and I have never looked back.

    • tinw profile image

      tinw 5 years ago from Middle Earth

      @emmaklarkins: Thank you! To be fair, none of us knew this until recently: starting in the 1990s, Tolkien's son Christopher began arranging and publishing reams of his father's manuscripts, giving us a much fuller and richer knowledge of Middle-earth and its history than we knew before!

    • emmaklarkins profile image

      emmaklarkins 5 years ago

      This is an amazing resource! Looks like I don't know as much about Tolkien as I thought!