Here there be Dragons: Smaug (2nd in an occasional series)

As a follow-up to last week’s post on J.R.R. Tolkien, I thought I’d pen a few thoughts on visual images of Smaug, the dragon in Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Smaug, J.R.R._Tolkien_-_Conversation_with_Smaug_(large)First we have Tolkien’s own illustration of the beast. Despite Tolkien’s literary portrayal of Smaug as an evil creature, the drawing is a delight to the eye. The dragon’s body is a graceful curve, ending in a fanciful fleur-de-lys tail, Smaug’s bright orange scales a pleasing and complementary contrast to the bright gold of his hoard. Like Alice’s Crocodile, Smaug’s claws are neatly spread, and their greenish cast makes them stand out against the background of gold. Crocodile like, too, is Smaug’s expression, not quite a grin, but the slight upward tilt suggests a degree of smugness and satisfaction with his accumulated (and ill gotten) wealth.

Smaug, b&w, direction pictured in bookDragonSketchTolkien drew another image in black and white, a stripped down version that again emphasizes the dragon’s pleasingly graceful curves and striking fleur-de-lys tail, while offering a better view of Smaug’s spectacular wings. This graceful image appears in my paperback edition of The Hobbit (Houghton Mifflin, corrected & revised text of 1978)  on the two half-title pages.

Peter Jackson’s second installment of The Hobbit gave us a marvelous Smaug. While not modeled precisely on the color drawing of Tolkien, Jackson’s Smaug remains true to its spirit. The closeup image of the dragon’s eye that ended Part 1 was a masterful stroke, and the sequel doesn’t disappoint. The film’s dragon is both graceful and menacing, its movements a sinuous ballet, the voice (actor Benedict Cumberbatch) precisely what I would expect, deep and Vadarlike, cultured and smugly amused by the puny hobbit. Smaug’s face, with the cat-slit eyes and catlike grin of the mouth, shows us an antagonist both elegant and cunning, attractive despite his evil intent. (Not something I would ever say of a human villain, but I just love dragons!)

The trailer below gives the most footage of Smaug that I could find–which is still only a few seconds right at the very end. Understandably the film makers wanted to give away only the barest teaser of one of the movie’s very best features.

And here’s a link to a fun and fascinating interview with the voice of Smaug, actor Benedict Cumberbatch (otherwise known as Sherlock Holmes—amusingly enough, his Watson, Martin Freeman, plays the young Bilbo). Lots of great details on how he went about playing Smaug.

J.R.R. Tolkien

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3, 1892, and this is a rather belated birthday tribute, occasioned by a recent viewing of the new Peter Jackson movie (The Hobbit, part 2).

lord of the ringsI first discovered Tolkien in high school. It was the ’70s, the height of the Tolkien craze, and all the older kids that I admired were heavily into this master of fantasy literature.

I bought The Lord of the Rings books one by one, in what I think were the original paperback versions, and I can still remember the anguish with which I finished part 2, “The Two Towers,” where I was left hanging as the dread spider Sheelob nabbed Frodo, and Sam took off with the sword and the Ring.

Fortunately, the local bookstore (a B. Dalton’s) had “The Return of the King” in stock, and my nerves were saved. I became another Tolkien fan, and have reread The Lord of the Rings more times than I can count. It never fails to inspire and move me.

I didn’t read The Hobbit until much later, and it took me several years to accept it on its own terms, as more of a children’s book, though I am happy to say that I finally came round to liking it for its own sake. Still, The Lord of the Rings will always be my favorite of the two. Back in the day, I eagerly bought The Silmarillion when it came out, and picked up other odds and ends of Tolkieniana from sale tables and used book stores over the years, so that we now own a Tolkien atlas, an oversized book of Tolkien illustrations, a Tolkien Bestiary, and his lovely Father Christmas tale, complete with the charming illustrations. Tolkien’s drawings were every bit as fine as his stories, delicately drafted creations that have quite an elvish flavor about them.

tolkienI also love photographs of Tolkien himself. A hobbitsy looking man if there ever was one, with all the doughty, understated qualities of a hobbit’s character to boot. His biography makes for fascinating reading.

One aspect of Tolkien’s work that I find especially sympathetic is his attitude of reverence and respect for the wonder and beauties of Nature—an attitude that never runs to sentimentality, and is fully aware of the dangers that Nature holds as well (think of Old Man Willow!). The Ents in particular are my absolute favorite of his creations. Treebeard is a marvel, and it tickles my fancy to think that Tolkien modeled Treebeard’s booming delivery on his friend C.S. Lewis, another famous Oxford don who was part of Tolkien’s circle.

Every time that I read about some horrible environmental degradation or see a beautiful, healthy tree wantonly chopped down in a neighborhood yard, I have a fierce longing to evoke the vengeance of the Ents upon the offender, wishing that I could call upon the mighty shepherds and defenders of trees to mow down these destroyers of beauty as they mowed down Saruman’s nasty little fiefdom. Like the evil wizard, too many people these days possess “minds made of metal and wheels” as Tolkien so aptly put it—completely blind to the beauties of the natural world.

The religious aspects of The Lord of the Rings are woven into the tale with equal subtlety. The moral growth of Frodo and Sam that leads to their sacrificial journey to Mordor, the wisdom of Gandolf, Galadriel, and Aragorn, and the beauteous vision of Tolkien’s Elves all lend themselves to our moral and religious stories, no matter what our faith. The Lord of the Rings is truly a timeless and universal tale, and Tolkien a towering literary saint.

Trees, Christmas and Otherwise

Trees have always had a special place in my heart.

My mother loved trees with the unconditional passion she reserved for all things that lie powerless before the adult world: young children, animals (especially cats), Santa Claus, and dandelions. Every fall when the old cottonwood in the corner of our yard loosed its leaves on the next-door-neighbor’s green and pristinely maintained lawn, she would snicker with childish delight. If my father went to prune a tree or shrub in our yard, she argued against it, fearing he’d cut the plant down to the roots and it wouldn’t come up again.

santa_final_smThe books and stories I read reinforced this maternal teaching. Hans Christian Andersen was the first of my favorite authors, and once I stumbled on his works in the school library, I devoured every story, loving them all, no matter how sad or gruesome. Andersen’s “The Little Fir Tree,” like my “Saint Nick,” is told from the tree’s point of view. It strengthened my belief that trees and plants, though mute, have feelings just as humans do.

When I was a child, the most important ritual of Christmas for me was the getting and decorating of the tree. After it was done, I’d turn off the lamps and sit in the dark, taking off my glasses so that the tree lights glowed like big fuzzy balls. In the light of day, I’d stand and contemplate the tree, taking loving measure of every ornament, stroking its spiky branches. Picking out trinkets for our tree to wear is still one of my favorite pre-Christmas activities.

It’s easy for me to understand the tree worship of some ancient cultures. Trees are big, awe-inspiring, and long-lived. There’s more than a whiff of the sacred around them.

But unlike gods, trees are vulnerable.

I was a sophomore in high school when the Tolkien craze hit, and The Lord of the Rings succeeded Hans Christian Andersen in my personal pantheon of mythic tree lore. Tolkien’s Ents, the gigantic “tree shepherds,” are my favorite of all his creations.

Tolkien was no tree-worshipping pagan, but a staunch and in many ways rather conservative Christian Roman Catholic in an England where Catholicism was still somewhat suspect. His reverence for trees is part of the Catholic reverence for the material world as a sacramental witness to the presence of God.

Trees arouse in us powerful feelings because of their size, their beauty, and their longevity: they are a locus for the sacred.

But for all their magnificence and might, trees in Tolkien’s world, as in ours, are tragically vulnerable to the ravages of human self-centeredness and human greed. In The Lord of the Rings, the evil wizard Saruman cuts them down in quantity to fuel the fires that stoke his schemes of domination. Treebeard, the head of the Ents, describes Saruman as incapable of appreciating nature’s beauty: the evil wizard “has a mind made of metal and wheels”.

Treebeard striding through the wood at Tringford Reservoir. Treebeard is the walking tree (Ent) in the 'Lord of the Rings' - and the unromantic will claim that this is merely the wreck of an ancient horse chestnut tree and dismiss the outstretched arms, the eyes, the ivy covered nose and the open mouth as pure imagination. This image was taken from the Geograph project collection (via Wikimedia Commons). See this photograph's page on the Geograph website for the photographer's contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Chris Reynolds and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Treebeard striding through the wood at Tringford Reservoir. The unromantic will claim that this is merely the wreck of an ancient horse chestnut tree and dismiss the outstretched arms, the eyes, the ivy covered nose and the open mouth as pure imagination. This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. The copyright on this image is owned by Chris Reynolds, who presumably also wrote the whimsical description above.

Thus the vengeance of the Ents upon Saruman is a delight. What green tree-hugger hasn’t wished for an army of Ents to add a little muscle to the cause? Unlike Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Lord of the Rings ends with the trees’ victory.

The Fir Tree of my story does not move in such exalted circles. In many ways “Saint Nick” channels my mother’s antic and rebellious spirit. Fir Tree is cheeky and eager for adventure, in personality more akin to the young hobbit Pippin than to the wise and stately Treebeard. Yet the stories of Tolkien and Andersen run somewhere in its sap, deep down in its treeish DNA.

What’s your favorite tree memory?

This post was originally written for Leila Taylor’s blog, Buried Under Books, where it appeared in Dec. of 2011.

Leave a comment below for a chance of winning “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree” in your choice of paperback or ebook. Contest closes midnight EST Sunday Dec. 8th.

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