Tag Archives: ring of the nibelung

Beowulf and The Hobbit: The Monsters and the Magic 2 — Dragons (with reference to Fafnir)

Tolkien’s image of Smaug

Thus far, our discussion of Beowulf and The Hobbit has taken us to the world of genre and then into the world of Grendel and the Goblins. Now we turn from such petty monsters as Grendel, trolls, goblins, what-have-you, to the big beasts. Dragons.

Beowulf has a dragon in the last, violent episode. Sadly, this wyrm is much less famous than Grendel, descendant of Cain. I think he deserves his day in the sun. So here it is.

The dragon of Beowulf comes upon a barrow left behind by the men of Geatland of old, now long-dead, long-forgotten — there is a touch of sorrow in the poet’s telling of this fact; the sorrow of the fated — doomed — Anglo-Saxon. Much feared by the Geats, the dragon takes possession of the hoard then lies silent and sleeping for three hundred years, almost if not entirely forgotten.

Then, one day, a wandering thief takes a vessel from the hoard, shows it to his master (Beowulf, King of the Geats?). The dragon knows. Is enraged. The fire worm flies into a rage, realising that men now know of the treasure. The dragon attacks the people of Geatland, attacks Beowulf’s kingdom.

Then the giver of gold disdained
to track the dragon with a troop
of warlike men; he did not shrink
from single combat, nor did he set much store
by the fearless dragon’s power, for had he not before
experienced danger, again and again
survived the storm of battle, beginning with that time
when, blessed with success, he cleansed
Hrothgar’s hall, and crushed in battle
the monster and his vile mother? (Trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology)

Beowulf did take with him 12 men, 12 thegns, 12 apostles of battle. And he did battle with the dragon, though only one of his men, Wiglaf, would stand by his lord. And, although victorious, clad in armour, Beowulf died in battle with the fire dragon.

Thus the dragon of Beowulf.

Smaug is a very similar case — although he took his hoard from the living. Nonetheless, he, too, has a precious vessel stolen. He, too, flies out in a rage and ravages the countryside. He, too, is slain by a man of valour.

Look, here. Beowulf takes 12 men to defend his kingdom; Thorin takes 12 dwarves (and one hobbit) to reclaim his kingdom. In the events that transpire, Beowulf is slain; so also is Thorin. Not perfect parallels, but present nonetheless.

But what do dragons represent? This, for me, is an important question. If memory serves me right, according to The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, Tolkien’s dragons symbolise the evil within human nature.

yawn

Facile.

Easy.

Dragons represent evil.

Outside of Pern or ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ where they are good and Harry Potter where they are mere beasts, this is obvious, taken straight from Revelation and other biblical references where a dragon may represent the devil, or even from Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica (although E V Rieu was very adamant in the introduction to his translation of it, The Voyage of Argo, that the beast guarding the Golden Fleece is a giant snake, for that is what drakon means).

But what sort of evil?

I believe that dragons are greed, avarice. Tolkien even makes reference to Smaug’s rage at the treasure burgled by Bilbo as being the extreme sort of anger only displayed by the very rich who have lost something they didn’t even know they’d owned until it was gone, but now it is very precious to them. Smaug is avaricious and sly — and so is avarice. It slips in when you aren’t looking, burns up everything, consumes you, and makes you want more, more, more.

The Beowulf dragon is about the same, really, given the parallels between him and Smaug.

Sigurd kills Fafnir; Norwegian stave church door

And if we want to press home this vision of dragons as symbols of greed, I shall quickly bring in the Volsunga Saga (trans. by Jesse L Byock as The Saga of the Volsungs). In this Icelandic saga, Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir (an event known to one and all through Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen — read my thoughts on Siegfried here) Tolkien himself tells it in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, on which I blogged here and here).

Fafnir, brother of Otr (Otter) and Regin, has demonstrated himself very avaricious from the start, when he and Regin encounter the Aesir with the skin of Otr who was slain by Loki (naturally). He demands, as ransom (wergeld), the skin of Otr filled with gold. And then he wants the entire skin covered with gold. At last — and I believe it is Regin and Fafnir’s father who does this — a cursed ring is added to the treasure, covering the last portion of Otr’s hair. Otter’s Ransom (gold).

Fafnir takes the treasure and the ring and eventually transforms into a greedy dragon.

Dragons are avarice, and this allegorical/analogical/symbolic interpretation of them is perfectly in keeping with mediaeval literary tastes, since mediaeval people loved a good allegory (see Dante’s Divine Comedy or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Pearl). Now, Beowulf may be an early mediaeval, pre-Viking, Germanic/Anglo-Saxon tale, but it was recorded by a Christian in an England acquainted with Continental tastes — and Tolkien was no stranger to symbol, although he hated allegory.

Could we not say that, although not an allegory for greed, Smaug is a symbol of greed and its destructive power in the human heart? Yes, I think so.

Siegfried

I just watched the third act of Siegfried tonight, having watched Acts 1 & 2 earlier in the week.  Siegfried is Wagner’s coming-of-age opera, wherein a young, brave warrior raised in the woods by dwarf slays a dragon and learns the meaning of fear when he encounters his first woman– Brunnhilde.

I enjoyed Siegfried’s encounter with Brunnhilde.  Look at the shiny armour.  It’s a man!  Here, I’ll take off his helm, it must be heavy.  Gee, that breastplate looks heavy, too.  This is not a man! And thus he is filled with fear at the sight of a woman.

I’ve never read any Wagnerian scholarship, so I may be off the mark on some of my observations, but very telling in this opera, this third act of the third act (Siegfried is the third of the four operas of the famous Ring Cycle), is Siegfried’s encounter with Wotan, Der Wanderer, his great-grandfather.  In this encounter, Siegfried shatters the Runestaff, which was both symbol and reality of Wotan’s power over the universe, as we had previously learned in Act 1 when Wotan tells Mime, the dwarf who raised Siegfried, all about it.

With the breaking of the runestaff comes the shattering of Wotan’s power.  We have learned already that this same staff when up against this same sword (Notung, which Siegfried reforged at the end of Act 1) on a previous occasion (Die Walkure) shattered the sword, leading to the death of Siegmund, Siegfried’s father.

How can Notung break the runestaff now?  All I can think of is the Ring.  Siegfried, having slain the dragon Fafnir, took the Ring of the Nibelung from Fafnir’s hoard in Act 2 (along with the Tarnhelm, of course — the Tarnhelm that had enabled Fafnir to turn into a dragon in the first place).

With the Ring, we were told in Act 2, Siegfried can rule the world.  And so the power of man rises as the power of the gods falls.  The gods diminish, as Wotan prophesied to the all-knowing Wala, Brunnhilde’s mother, at the beginning of the Act.

After Siegfried got over being afraid of Brunnhilde, he revived her with a kiss (true love’s kiss?).  Eventually, he convinces this shieldmaiden who has dropped her shield to drop the whole maiden bit as well.  With her loss of virginity will come Brunnhilde’s loss of power.  The gods diminish.

This diminishing of the gods is brought to these old myths by Wagner.  It is not present in the Nibelungenlied or Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.  From the synopsis I’ve read, it doesn’t seem to be in the Volsunga Saga, either.  The rise of man and the subsequent (necessary?) fall of the gods is Wagner’s 19th-century German humanism, not ancient or mediaeval heathenism.

Why need we have a Gotterdammerung?  Do the gods really need a twilight? Can man not rise without necessarily supplanting the divine?  I understand that the Gutrune story needs to be told, but it doesn’t mean twilight for the gods.  Rather, it means twilight for Siegfried and Brunnhilde.

I know that this theme of man’s rise vs. the gods exists elsewhere.  We see it in Zeus’ resistance to humanity gaining fire, to note the Classical example.  But could not humanity rise with the gods?  Could we not rise with the assistance of the gods?  (The Augustinian way.)  Or rise without their assistance but as a testimony to their power as the creators and sustainers of the universe?  (The Pelagian way.)