Dragons of Middle-earth

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Glaurung and Nienor. Illustration by Eric Velhagen.

One of the things that first drew me to read The Hobbit when I was seven years old was that there was a picture of a dragon on the cover. It was J.R.R. Tolkien’s own illustration of the Death of Smaug: A picture of a dragon with an arrow in it’s chest above a burning town. I’ve always loved dragons and when I was a kid any book with a dragon on the cover was enough for me to pick it up and start reading it. So the fact that Middle-earth had dragons in it was what got me into reading Tolkien. What is interesting about the dragons of Middle-earth is that they first appear in the First Age and cause all sorts of havoc and then completely disappear until towards the end of the Third Age. Tolkien also only named four of them. I thought I would explain in this article why there are dragons in Middle-earth and the different types of them that exist, such as cold drakes, then I will give a brief overview of dragon history in Middle-earth, and lastly I will examine the four dragons that Tolkien mentions, though two of them don’t have that much written about them.

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Illustration by J.R.R. Tolkien

Dragons were bred by Melkor, more commonly known as Morgoth (Sindarin: Dark Enemy) the first Dark Lord of Middle-earth, to be used in his wars against the Elven kingdoms of Beleriand. It is unknown whether they were created by Morgoth, or they existed as a species before Morgoth began breeding them for evil purposes. Another possibility is that like Balrogs, the first Dragons may have originally been Maiar that were corrupted by the Dark Lord, but there is no evidence of this. There were three known types of Dragon or Great Worms as they were also called: the first was the fire-breathing drakes, or Uruloki, these were the first dragons that appeared and they were unable to fly, secondly the winged-drakes that appeared later in the First Age, and lastly, the cold-drakes, these were lesser worms that couldn’t breathe fire. Dragon scales were pretty much impenetrable, and their eyesight, hearing, and sense of smell were all exceptional. It was virtually impossible to sneak up on a dragon as they would hear and smell anyone coming near. They were very intelligent full of cunning and guile,  though they were also vain, greedy, and deceitful, among other things. They could also put others under their spell, as what happened to Turin and Nienor when they gazed into Glaurung’s eyes.

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The first dragon appeared in 255 First Age (Years of the Sun). Glaurung, the father of all Dragons, issued out of Angband and even though he wasn’t fully grown he produced enough destruction to cause Elves to flee from him. After being injured he fled back to Angband and didn’t appear again until the Battle of Sudden Flame, or Dagor Bragollach, around two hundred years later, when he appeared fully grown with Balrogs and Orcs behind him. In the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, or Nirnaeth Arnoediad, Glaurung and other Dragons appeared and only the Dwarves covered in armour and face-plates could withstand them. After that Glaurung sacked the Kingdom of Nargothrond but was then slain by Turin Turambar. Dragons, described as “the brood of Glaurung” (Silmarillion, p. 242) were present at the fall of Gondolin, their fire-breath causing difficulties for the Elvish forces trying to defend the city. In the War of Wrath where Morgoth was defeated by the host of the Valar, his forces including his dragons were all mostly destroyed. As a last defence the winged Dragons issued out of the pits of Angband for the first time, the largest of them being Ancalagon the Black. The winged Dragons were defeated by Earendil and “great birds of heaven” (Silmarillion, p. 252) led by the Eagle king Thorondor, though a few managed to escape and hid in places like the Grey Mountains.

During the Second Age there is no mention of any Dragons and isn’t towards the end of the Third Age that Dragons seem to reappear in the histories.  In the First Age Dragons were under control of Morgoth, but by the Third Age they were seemingly acting more independently.  It was around the year 2570 when cold-drakes and winged-drakes begin to attack the Dwarves in the north. The Dwarves went to the Grey Mountains because they contained great riches, but there were Dragons there and they had grown strong again and they attacked the Dwarves and plundered their works. Dain I and his son Fror were slain at the doors of his hall by a great cold-drake. Not long after that the Dwarves abandoned the Grey Mountains and sought riches elsewhere. When rumour of the wealth of Erebor spread, it reached the ears of the Dragons in the Grey Mountains. Smaug the Golden, the most powerful Dragon of the age, destroyed the Dwarven Kingdom of Erebor and the town of Dale and then settled in Erebor for the next two hundred years until he was slain. Though the Dragons went on breeding in the Grey Mountains for a long time afterwards there is no further mention of them.

Glaurung

Glaurung in Battle

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Glaurung. Illustration by Vaejoun

Glaurung was the first dragon to appear. He is also referred to as “the father of dragons” (Silmarillion, p.151) and was a fire-drake. He had no wings, but walked on legs. When he issued out of Angband in 255 First Age he was still young and only half-grown, but the Elves fled before him in dismay as he defiled the fields of Ard-galen. Fingon, prince of Hithlum, hemmed him with a ring of archers on horseback and Glaurung could not endure the arrows as his scales were not yet hard enough and he fled back to Angband and didn’t come forth for another two hundred years.  Morgoth was displeased with Glaurung for revealing himself too soon and so it wasn’t until the Battle of Sudden Flame that Glaurung came forth again. This time he was in his full might as he led the Balrogs and Orcs to ending the Siege of Angband. In 470 the Battle of Unnumbered Tears he came out of Angband with other Dragons and withered all who stood before him. The Dwarves covered in armour managed stop the Dragons from withering all that was left of the Noldor. They encircled Glaurung and struck him with their axes and Glaurung in a rage struck down Azaghal, Lord of Belegost, and crawled over him, but Azaghal drove a knife into his soft belly and caused Glaurung to flee the battlefield.

Glaurung and Turin

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The Fall of Nargothrond. Illustration by woutart.

In 495 Glaurung and a large army of Orcs attacked Nargothrond. The warriors issued from Nargothrond to meet this force but were defeated. Turin Turambar was present in this battle but survived; his Dwarven mask helping him against Glaurung’s fire. After the battle Turambar sped back to Nargothrond but Glaurung was there before him and Nargothrond was being sacked. As Turin arrived Glaurung came out of the doorway and “opened wide his serpent-eyes and gazed upon Turin” (Silmarillion p. 213) Turambar looked into his gaze and fell under a binding-spell. Glaurung taunted him as Turambar stood there unable to move as Nargothrond was sacked and the women and children were taken away for slaves, including Finduilas, the daughter of Orodreth the King of Nargothrond, who cried out to Turambar as they were lovers. Once they were gone Glaurung released Turambar from his spell, but convinced him Morwen and Nienor (his mother and sister) were living in Dor-lomin in misery and that if he tried to save Finduilas, he would never see them again and so Turambar left for Dor-lomin and no longer tried to save her. Glaurung then gathered the entire hoard and lay upon it in the innermost hall of Nargothrond. When tidings came to Morwen in Doriath that Turin had been seen in Nargothrond she resolved to go and find him. Mablung and Nienor followed after her. Glaurung saw them coming and by going into a river he created a lot of vapour and a foul reek which caused their horses to go berserk and Nienor to be thrown by her steed. She made her way to Amon Ethir but Glaurung was there and put a spell of darkness and forgetfulness on her, causing her to forget everything including her own name, and then he departed. Mablung found her and led her away. When they were attacked by Orcs she recovered her sight and hearing and fled in terror to the forest. She ran for a long time and then collapsed and was found by Turambar who didn’t recognise her. He called her Niniel and took her to Ephel Brandir. Over two years passed. Turambar and Niniel’s love for each other grew and they married. In 497 Glaurung heard tidings the the Black Sword was in Brethil, so he left Nargothrond. When Turambar received news that Glaurung was approaching Ephel Brandir he set out to destroy him. Glaurung had to go over a narrow gorge unaware Turambar was there. Turambar drove his sword Gurthang into Glaurung’s soft belly up to the hilt as he tried to pass over the ravine. When Glaurung felt this he screamed and hurled himself across the chasm and set all about him in flames. Turambar followed him and retrieved his sword but was burned by the venomous blood and he collapsed. Niniel ran to Turambar and thought he was dead. Glaurung stirred and told her that her name was Nienor and that Turambar was her brother Turin. Then Glaurung died and Nienor remembered everything. She threw herself over the brink of Cabed-en-Aras and was never seen again. Turambar awoke learning that Niniel was dead and was also his sister Nienor. He ran off back to Cabed-en-Aras and fell upon his sword Gurthang. Mablung found him and Turin’s body was buried in a mound with the shards of Gurthang. Glaurung’s body was burned to ashes.

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The Death of Glaurung. Illustration by Elena Kukanova

Ancalagon the Black

During the War of Wrath the host of the Valar attacked Angband destroying most of Morgoth’s forces including his Dragons, Balrogs, and Orcs, and as a last defence Morgoth released his winged Dragons from the pits of Angband. This was the first time the world had seen winged Dragons. The mightiest of them was Ancalagon the Black, the largest Dragon ever seen. Earendil came in Vingilot along with all the great birds of heaven led by Thorondor the Eagle and there was a battle in the air for an entire day and night. As the sun was rising Earendil slew Ancalagon and Ancalagon fell upon the towers of Thangorodrim, a group of three volcanic mountains, and destroyed them.

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Ancalagon the Black. Illustration by rubendevela.

Scatha the Worm

Unless you’re particularly observant the mention of Scatha in the Lord of the Rings may have passed you by.  In The Return of the King, Eowyn gives Merry an ancient silver horn and says it was made by the Dwarves and came from the hoard of Scatha the Worm (The Return of the King, p. 1014). However this is not the only mention of Scatha. In Appendix A it says: “Of his son, Fram, they tell he slew Scatha, the great dragon of Ered Mithrin, and the land had peace from the long-worms afterwards” (The Return of the King, p. 1102). Scatha was possibly a cold-drake that attacked some Dwarves and plundered their hall. Much like what happened after Smaug died, there was a fight over Scatha’s hoard after the Worm was killed. Fram gained great wealth from the hoard, but the Dwarves claimed it as theirs. Fram instead sent them a necklace made from Scatha’s teeth and said: “Jewels such as these you will not match in your treasuries, for they are hard to come by” (The Return of the King, p. 1102). Apparently the Dwarves slew him for this.

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The Teeth of Scatha the Worm. Illustration by Matthew Stewart.

Smaug the Golden

Of all the Dragon’s in the Third Age the greatest known is Smaug. Originally he lived in the Grey Mountains, but when news reached him about the wealth of the Dwarven kingdom of Erebor he decided to grab it. His attack on the Dwarves was sudden and unexpected. Once he got rid of all the Dwarves he piled all the treasure he could find into a large pile in the lowest dungeon hall in the mountain and slept on it for a bed, only leaving occasionally for food (in this way Dale was eventually abandoned after Smaug would regularly come to eat it’s inhabitants). And so Smaug guarded this hoard for almost 200 years. That was until 13 Dwarves and a Hobbit appeared at his doorstep one day in 2941. Smaug was asleep the first time Bilbo Baggins came down the tunnel that led to the hall where he lay on his hoard. Bilbo stole a two-handled cup and went back to the Dwarves. The instant Smaug awoke he knew something was amiss. As Dragons have a keen sense of smell, there was a scent he was unfamiliar with and though he had a huge hoard, he noticed one of his cups was missing. He flew into a rage and flew out through the front gate. Bilbo and the Dwarves hid behind the secret door in the mountain as the Dragon searched for possible intruders. He found their ponies, who were running away from the mountain, and ate them. Eventually he returned to his resting place and waited. It was not long before Bilbo came back down to his hall. Smaug feigned sleep as Bilbo appeared. Since Bilbo was wearing the Ring, Smaug could not see him, but due to his keen Dragon senses he could smell and hear him, but once Bilbo realised Smaug wasn’t really sleeping, Smaug finally talked to him. Bilbo seemed to have good knowledge about how to talk to a Dragon as he flattered him (which Dragons love) and presented him with a lot of riddles and puzzles which Smaug probably understood better than Bilbo realised. Smaug worked out there were Dwarves with Bilbo, and with Bilbo they numbered 14, though he had no idea what Bilbo was, and he suspected the Men of Esgaroth had helped them at some stage. Smaug showed himself off to Bilbo and how his vulnerable underbelly was now lined with jewels, though there was one spot he had missed and Bilbo noticed this. When Bilbo returned to the Dwarves he told them about this and an old thrush overheard what he said. That night they hid in the tunnel and after just closing the door, Smaug hit the side of the mountain after stealthily leaving his hall and flying silently around the mountain. Smaug then headed for Esgaroth to punish the Men who had helped the Dwarves. His arrival was unexpected, but they had a small time to prepare thanks to Bard, a descendant of the lords of Dale, who recognised the signs of an advancing Dragon. The onslaught was terrible. Most of the town was burned down with archers shooting at Smaug with little effect. Bard was down to his last arrow when the old thrush that had heard what Bilbo told the Dwarves landed on his shoulder and told him where to aim. Bard aimed at the advancing Dragon and loosed his arrow at him. The arrow hit Smaug with deadly accuracy. Smaug shot up in the air and then fell on the burning remains of Lake Town and then both he and the town sunk under the waters of the lake. Bard survived by jumping into the water before Smaug crashed into the town. Afterwards there was a typical fight for the hoard that Smaug had left. It would have come to blows between the Dwarves (now bolstered with Dwarves from the Iron Hills) on one side and Elves from Northern Mirkwood and the Men of Esgaroth on the other hadn’t there then been a sudden attack from a force of Orcs and Wargs from Mount Gundabad. After this battle ended things were settled more peaceably.

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Conversation With Smaug by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Sources

Day, David, A Tolkien Bestiary, (Mitchell Beazley, London, 1979)

Foster, Robert, The Complete Guide To Middle-Earth, (Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1978)

Tolkien, J.R.R., The Children of Hurin, (HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2007)

Tolkien, J.R.R., The Hobbit, (Unwin Hyman, London, 1987)

Tolkien, J.R.R., The Return of the King, (HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1992)

Tolkien, J.R.R., The Silmarillion, (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1977)

Tyler, J.E.A., The Complete Tolkien Companion, (Pan Books, London, 2002)

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