The Evolution of Smaug
This essay will discuss the nature and characteristics of Smaug as described in The Hobbit, but also alterations of these traits which Tolkien made during the writing process.
I am sure many of you are familiar with the explanation Tolkien wrote in a letter to the ‘Observer’ in January 1938:
“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.”
So that’s it, not a very exciting story.
However, what most people might not know: Smaug has not always been called Smaug! In the very first manuscript (of which merely six hand-written pages exist), back in a time when the wizard was called Bladorthin, the chief dwarf Gandalf, and his grandfather Fimbulfambi, Smaug also had a different name, and it was Pryftan. Apparently “pryf” is the Welsh word for “vermin” and “tan” means “fire”, so that name – as most of his others – was possibly also very well considered. However Pryftan didn’t survive very long. Already in the second manuscript, written down only shortly after the first, Tolkien struck out Pryftan and wrote Smaug instead. Why he changed the name, we will never know.
From the very beginning up until the published book, the text read that dragons live “practically for ever, unless they are killed.” When Tolkien in 1960 attempted to re-write The Hobbit in a more mature way to better fit the tone of the Lord of the Rings (he never made it past Rivendell), this line was changed to “five thousand years maybe”, and soon to “a thousand years maybe”.
I suppose Tolkien was always aware they are mortal, just within a much longer time range than men, or even dwarves. Since he was writing a children’s book at first it was convenient to write “practically forever,” as 1000 years are already hard to grasp for a human, especially a child. It is interesting he lowered the number from 5000 years, which probably sounded too exaggerated, even for a dragon.
We have no knowledge on Smaug’s age at the time Thorin and company arrived at Erebor. However, we know from the appendices in Lord of the Rings that he attacked Erebor in the year 2770 of the Third Age, which means he had been sitting on his gold for 171 years already. Smaug himself actually mentions that he is an old dragon.
The first dragon sounds described in the book are the first things Thorin heard when Smaug sacked Erebor: “A noise like a hurricane”. It is actually surprising an Englishman would use this comparison as there are practically none of those in Europe. There are cyclones in South Africa, but considering how short a time Tolkien lived there, and how early in his life this was, it is doubtful he remembers one from there. I suppose Thorin must have experienced hurricanes if he makes a comparison like this. They emerge out on the sea, so one or the other must have hit the Ered Luin at one point.
The sounds of Smaug were most vividly described by Tolkien. Apart from his talking (which we’ll consider later) there are descriptions such as thrumming, whirring, roaring, rumbling, snoring, bellowing, bubbling, burbling, snorting and he was even compared to the noises of an erupting volcano. His laughter was “a devastating sound” which not only shook Bilbo from the ground, it even frightened the dwarves high up in the tunnel. His anger is described as having a “horrible sound” and in death he lets loose a shriek that deafens men, fells trees and splits stones. In the first manuscript this scream even made stars fall down from the sky.
The most interesting part about this is the following:
“A sound, too, began to throb in his ears, a sort of bubbling like the noise of a large pot galloping on the fire mixed with a rumble as of a gigantic tom-cat purring. This grew to the unmistakable gurgling noise of some vast animal snoring in its sleep down there in the red glow in front of him.”
I immediately had to think of the low rumble elephants make! Also notice the comparison to cats, which Tolkien didn’t like at all. He even called cats creatures of Mordor.
If you think now that Smaug might be an awfully noisy dragon, then be aware that he could also leave his lair in silent stealth.
Apparently Smaug doesn’t smell good. A couple of times his fragrance is described as “stench”, “foul reek” or “stink”. It is actually so bad that his awful smell can even be tasted on the tongue.
Unfortunately we never learn how large Smaug really is. The only hint we get is that he can’t fit through the secret door, which is “five feet high and three may walk abreast”. Later in the book when they actually open the door it gives us exact numbers: 5 feet high and 3 feet wide (150 cm x 90 cm). That indeed isn’t a big opening at all, smaller than our average doors, a pony would already have trouble with that, and considering Smaug eats men, dwarves, and ponies he has to be larger than that anyway. In the very beginning the door started off as “four walk abreast”, but even that doesn’t give us a lot more space either. So we can only speculate on how large Smaug really is.
We do know that Smaug grows by eating lots of men and dwarves, so considering he already didn’t fit through the secret door 171 years ago he is possibly a lot larger by the time Thorin and company arrive.
The number of Smaug’s legs is never mentioned, there are dragons with two, four or even no legs appearing in different legends and mythologies all around the globe. Even in Middle-earth there have been wingless dragons (Glaurung for example). However from drawings Tolkien himself made of Smaug we can assume he had four legs and two wings.
His wings are described as “folded like an immeasurable bat”. This statement can be understood in two ways: Either Tolkien means the appearance of the wings is the same (leathery instead of feathery as on birds) or even the anatomy. Bats have enormously long fingers between which stretches the skin of their wings, so one could say they fly with their hands. If that was true of Smaug as opposed to the idea of his wings being stretched between enlarged ribs (compare my essay on The Hobbit’s biology) then in fact he has six limbs which would be very awkward for a reptile. It might be one of these things we just have to accept due to being in a fantasy world.
But let’s get back to another troublesome detail in the above bat statement, the wings are supposed to be FOLDED like a bat’s. Interesting comparison, considering bats fold their wings in front of their body and not on the back as we would expect of a dragon. However in the next sentence it is mentioned that Bilbo can see Smaug’s underparts, which means the wings can’t be folded like a bat’s at all!
Everybody is familiar with Smaug being a red-golden dragon. But originally Tolkien only wrote “red” and added the “gold” a bit later.
Red is a colour known in real world reptiles such as certain snakes or lizards. Gold can be read in many different ways, it can be any kind of yellow, orange or red, all of which also appear in reptiles of our world.
Originally in the manuscript there is mentioned a certain slime on Smaug’s body in which the gold is stuck. Everybody who has ever touched a reptile knows they have a dry and smooth skin, although in earlier times it was believed that snakes and other reptiles may be slimy. Tolkien himself probably found out after a while and struck the slime part out again. A hint of it remains in the published book though, when the bats flee the mountain after the dragon’s death their “feets slithered on stones rubbed smooth and slimed by the passing of the dragon.” It is possible Tolkien simply forgot to delete this second mention.
Smaug knows the smell of dwarves, but remarkably enough, not of men, as he assumes Bilbo might be a man from Lake-Town. Considering how many men he ate it is actually unbelievable he doesn’t notice right away Bilbo is an entirely new fragrance. He might have forgotten because it’s so long ago? No, he remembers the smell of dwarves (which he hasn’t eaten for that long as well) just fine, can even smell there are thirteen of them! However he definitely has never smelled hobbit before, but that is not a surprise, where he comes from there are no hobbits.
Besides all his other humanlike abilities such as being cunning and able to talk, the fact he knows people by smell is a typical animal attribute.
Smaug also dreams, usually of his own greed and violence however.
There is a reddish glow all around Smaug which makes it easy to make him out in dark places. He is also surrounded by a certain heat and smoke. The heat makes it hard to bear his presence, and the smoke even emerges out of the gate.
It is never really revealed what causes the desolation of Smaug. The book seems to make us believe the mere presence of the dragon is enough to keep the areas surrounding the mountain desolate, whether or not he destroys them over and over again. Another hint is the fact that after Smaug’s death the desolation “was now filled with birds and blossoms in spring and fruit and feasting in autumn.” So just like after a natural catastrophe nature recovers quickly and takes hold of the land once more. If he had to destroy it actively every once in a while this means he must have been one busy dragon. Plants are usually very quick to reclaim once desolated patches of land.
However when the dwarves arrive at the Lonely Mountain it is said that on the western side they could actually find some grass for their ponies because there were “fewer signs of the dragon’s marauding feet”, which does imply Smaug tramples over the land around his lair every once in a while. But there we actually have a contradiction within the book. While both this incident and Thorin saying the dragon often comes out of the Front Gate imply Smaug being in and out of the mountain all the time, the people at Lake Town say they only know Smaug as a legend because nobody has ever seen him. Yes, we don’t know Smaug’s actual size, but he is definitely huge and I doubt the whole population of Esgaroth would miss such a large beast. Also Thorin wasn’t entirely sure Smaug still had the same habits nowadays. So the assumption should rather be that the dragon hasn’t left his lair for a long time and the desolation is caused by the fact that he is around.
One of the main motifs of the book is the dragon sickness, which more or less drives Thorin throughout the last third of the story. While he seems to be especially prone to dragon sickness it is interesting to find out that Tolkien originally had it planned the complete opposite. After he had written Smaug’s death, he was putting down some more plot notes for the rest of the story. There it says that of all the people, dwarves understood the power of the gold best and were therefore most frightened to claim or spend it. This notion then turned the opposite way, making dwarves especially susceptible to dragon sickness. One could only imagine how the book would have ended if he kept his original idea!
Also note that the dragon sickness might also be the reason for actual allies to take sides against each other. Suddenly everybody wants the gold, even somebody with as poor a claim as Thranduil.
Throughout all the writing process however one detail remained constant: Bilbo never fell for the dragon sickness.
The main reason for me to approach the whole Smaug topic was the question: “What did he eat in the past 171 years?”
The book gives us a few hints. It is said that Smaug grew after eating lots of men and dwarves from Dale. After that he kept on hunting people of Dale, especially maidens (no idea what makes their taste so special) until the town was completely deserted. After that nobody even dared to get near the mountain. We do not know when he reached that point, but it must have been a long time ago considering the people of Lake Town can’t remember ever seeing a dragon. He does eat six ponies of Thorin’s company when they reach the mountain, but still we must assume he hasn’t eaten in over 100 years before that.
Certain real world reptile species are known to be able to go for extremely long times without food, although the record is somewhere over one year for some snakes. One could argue that snakes don’t reach an age anywhere near 1000 years, so what is one year for them could be a hundred years for a dragon. However, after such a long period of famine it is hard to grasp how Smaug can be so agile to fly TWO attacks. One would imagine him being extremely weak after such a long time of starvation, there is no way a couple of ponies would give him his full strength back in a matter of seconds.
Maybe he did eat however and we just don’t know anything about it. Sadly Tolkien doesn’t give us any solution to this question. Or maybe the next paragraph gives us a better answer:
In the beginning of the book Bilbo assumes “dragons must sleep sometimes”. In fact Smaug seems to do little else! He hasn’t left the mountain for ages and we are told he knows the amount of his gold down to the last ounce because he sleeps on it all the time.
As we just considered, he hasn’t really eaten in all this time either, so I thought: What if Smaug is in some kind of “hibernation”? Classic hibernation however doesn’t make much sense as poikilothermic animals are more or less forced to hibernate once temperature sinks below a critical level. It’s possible Smaug shares one feature with dinosaurs. Yes, they are all reptiles, but due to their vast size many dinosaurs were actually homeothermic, meaning they could maintain their own internal temperature just like we can. Without knowing his exact size, Smaug is undoubtedly huge, so we can assume he is homeothermic as well. In fact Tolkien even states so, just think of all the heat coming from Smaug’s body. He is not only homeothermic, he is actually hyperthermic – warmer than he really has to be!
So what we really have to look at is not hibernation, but aestivation. What is this? It is the summer equivalent of hibernation, meaning reptiles from very warm regions will go into this kind of dormancy in order to survive extreme heat and drought. This comes a lot closer to the conditions under which Smaug has been living for 170 years. So what happens during aestivation? Similar to hibernation the whole metabolism also shuts down, and animals don’t eat, but unlike hibernation their body temperature stays unaltered. The interesting thing is that they won’t lose any weight during aestivation! Real world reptiles can go up to 3 months in aestivation – let’s just say we expand that for a reptile the size of a dragon to 170 years.
So far scientists have not found out exactly how aestivation works and why reptiles don’t lose weight during such a long dormancy, so there is not much more to be said about it. But we might have found an elegant way for Smaug to stay in his mountain for such a long time and come out pretty much unharmed.
For a really old reptile Smaug is actually very clever. He even loves riddle talk as much as Gollum. I suppose lurking around in mountains for centuries is so boring one really comes to appreciate a change in the course. However after being amused by Bilbo in the beginning, Smaug loses his temper very quickly. So that is either just the way dragons are, or Smaug can’t stand the presence of another person after such a long time of solitude.
When making film-Smaug Peter Jackson said the hardest thing was to make a credible speaking reptile. It made a lot of people wonder whether Smaug speaks like we do at all. There have even been theories of Smaug doing some sort of telepathy for communication. How is this matter addressed in the book? Well it is barely touched on, but he does laugh so loud that it makes both Bilbo and the dwarves tremble. And after a thought, when he goes back to speaking, it actually reads “…he said aloud…”. So whether or not he uses lips and tongue to speak as we do, his words can definitely be heard.
It is often stated Smaug comes from the Withered Heath, beyond the Grey Mountains, a place where lots of dragons dwell. Even Thorin himself knows this story. At the time Smaug came to Erebor there were still a lot of dragons living there. Smaug was the last of the great dragons, so we never know what happened to the others.
But why Smaug? It is said he “was a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm”, so he probably really was the “chiefest and greatest of calamities”, as Bilbo said to flatter Smaug. But we know nothing more than he just came south one fine day.
Interesting enough, just the name Withered Heath tells us the place where dragons breed must be a vast desolate area. This is no surprise considering what was said about the desolation of dragons before, and how many of them must be living there.
Stories about Smaug
It is said the men of Lake Town still sing songs of the dragon and the destruction of Dale. In fact the newer songs already speak of Smaug’s death at a time he is still alive! This means the dragon – though still living there – has already passed into legend because he has not been seen in such a long time. But to the humans there it must have been so long ago that they don’t even believe in his existence anymore. And by that time he has already become the origin of legends such as the ridiculous assumption that he causes earthquakes.
When they see his glow for the first time, they can’t even believe it, making up stories about the King under the Mountain forging gold instead. However, when he turns out to be real after all, the fear of the dragon suddenly rises to such heights that even in death the men of Lake Town don’t dare to approach him.
Bilbo’s knowledge of dragons is quite interesting as well. At the unexpected party he knows absolutely nothing about them. However just a few months on the road with a bunch of dwarves makes him believe he has become a dragon expert. Believes – because when he enters Smaug’s hoard it is a lot more enchanting than he ever thought from all the stories he had heard. But he is confident enough to believe he knows when the right time is to visit the lair a second time while the dragon is asleep. Needless to say, he was wrong.
Of Elrond it is said that he hated dragons, although we do not know of any special occasions that made him do so.
“Every worm has his weak spot”, Bungo Baggins used to say.
And indeed, the first time Bilbo entered Smaug’s lair, although not even looking for it, he had found the dragon’s weak spot. During his second visit he even convinces Smaug to show him his full belly, encrusted with gems, save for one spot. This patch can’t be that small after all, considering Bilbo saw it right away, and from quite a distance, as he most probably wasn’t standing right next to the dragon.
Bard too finds the spot immediately (in the original manuscript even without the help of the thrush), another hint of it being not too small. But how is it possible he hit it right away? Yes, it’s the Black Arrow and all, which might or might not be a magic arrow (there are only hints, no clear statement). That arrow never failed Bard, so whether or not it is magical, it definitely gives Bard confidence to hit the right spot this time as well.
Perhaps the most amusing abandoned concept of the earlier manuscript is that Bilbo himself was originally supposed to kill Smaug. The scenario was never written out in full, but in a couple of plot notes Tolkien put it down for later. The first time was when the dwarves had just entered Mirkwood and he wanted to put down the plot starting from there. At that point there was just a little sentence hinting towards it: “He goes in and kills dragon as it sleeps with a spear.” Up until the published book Tolkien was eager about telling the reader there are spears to be found in the lair, even though he never needed them in the finalized story.
Later the idea was a lot better developed. The dwarves already made it to the mountain and Bilbo was just about to enter the dragon’s hoard for the first time, when Tolkien put down another sheet of plot notes. In these, Bilbo stabs Smaug with Sting (yet unnamed at this point!) and drives it so deep into his body that it disappears entirely. The following plotted scene would have made the second Hobbit film unable to keep its PG 13 rating. Because when the dragon dies, Bilbo sits in a golden bowl and surfs along on the gushing blood of the dragon to the outside, where he steps out as a harder and braver hobbit. No kidding!
Not long after, Tolkien struck this whole paragraph out and wrote instead one single line: “Dragon killed in the battle of the Lake” and voila – Bard was born!
Three hints of this abandoned concept still remain in the published book as we read it today:
- Bard is introduced very late and abruptly, as if Tolkien suddenly needed another dragonslayer.
- Bard’s black arrow disappears completely in the dragon’s body (like Sting would have).
- After Bilbo steals the cup, Smaug has an unpleasant dream of a warrior that is small in size, but bears a lot of courage and a bitter sword.
While the story makes a lot more sense as it stands today, it is still a bit sad this plot never saw the light of day.
These were all the hints on Smaug I could find in the books of Tolkien and Rateliff gathered together. In case I missed any, please use the discussion under this essay to talk about it. The next and possibly last step in the evolution of Smaug is his depiction in the upcoming film(s?). I wanted to have a simple look at book-Smaug before we see him on screen, but I am sure there will be a lot more to say about him once we see him in his full splendour.
Books used for this essay:
“The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien
“The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien
“The History of the Hobbit” by John D. Rateliff
“The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien” by Humphrey Carpenter