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Why did Tolkien imagine only Men killing dragons?

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Oct 25 2013, 10:43pm

Post #1 of 6 (1495 views)
Why did Tolkien imagine only Men killing dragons? Can't Post

[caption id="attachment_65802" align="alignright" width="193"]Glaurung the dragon, one of the chief weapons Morogth used to defeat the Eldar in Beleriand. Artwork: John Howe. Glaurung the dragon, one of the chief weapons Morogth used to defeat the Eldar in Beleriand. Artwork: John Howe.[/caption] In this new TORn library piece, guest writer Dr Timothy Furnish explores dragons and dragon-slaying in the Tolkien-verse. Are there reasons why only Men slay dragons in the world of Arda, and not elves or dwarves? Read on and find out!

Why did Tolkien imagine only men killing dragons?

by Dr Timothy Furnish, PhD.

Dragons were very important to J.R.R. Tolkien, who acknowledged that his very first attempt at fiction-writing, when he was seven, centered around a "great green dragon."[1]

In his seminal work Beowulf: the Monster and the Critics, Tolkien noted that in myth "there are... many heroes but very few good dragons."[2] And in On Fairy Stories he confessed that he "desired dragons with a profound desire."[3]

But Tolkien, despite a fascination with dragons, deployed them sparingly and judiciously in his writings. Only four were definitively named: Glaurung and Ancalagon, both in the First Age; Scatha and Smaug, both in the Third. Glaurung was the "Father of Dragons" who led the sack of the great underground Elf fortress-kingdom Nargothrond and was, later, killed by Turin Turambar, the most tragic human hero of the First Age. [4] Ancalagon "the Black" was "the mightiest of the dragon host" that fought on behalf of the Dark Lord Morgoth in the War of Wrath that ended the First Age, slain by the half-Man, half-Elf Eärendil from his flying ship Vingilot in Middle-earth's first aerial battle. [5]

No dragons were recorded by Tolkien as being active in the Second Age, but the Third -- in which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place -- saw two named ones, both killed by Men. Fram, the the son of Frumgar, chieftain of the Éothéod, the ancestors of the Rohirrim who lived "in the Vales of Anduin between the Carrock and the Gladden Fields",[6] slew the "great dragon of Ered Mithrin" (the Grey Mountains north of Mirkwood) a millennium before the War of the Ring. Fram was said, afterwards, to have been killed by Dwarves, whose treasure hoard the "long-worm" Scatha had occupied and which Fram refused to return (although he did, rather mockingly, send them a dragon-teeth necklace).

The most famous dragon of Middle-earth is almost certainly Smaug, whose demise came at the hands of Bard "the Bowman" of Dale.[7] Tolkien also stated that other dragons lived during the Third Age: an unnamed "great cold-drake" killed the Dwarf Dáin I and his son Frór in the Ered Mithrin, and "rumour of the wealth of Erebor... reached the ears of the dragons", of whom Smaug was the greatest, but not the only, example.[8] In fact, dragons seem to have existed after the War of the Ring and, indeed, into the Fourth Age and even afterwards "in far later times, close to our own."[9]

[caption id="attachment_81351" align="alignright" width="300"]Turin slays Glaurung by Ted Nasmith. Turin slays Glaurung by Ted Nasmith.[/caption] But this essay is not so much about dragons as it is about this question: why, with the possible exception of Eärendil, are all the slayers of dragons in Middle-earth Men?

Elves were certainly capable of being great warriors -- if not quite the superhuman athletes portrayed in Peter Jackson’s movies: Fingolfin fought Morgoth and wounded him seven times[10]; Ecthelion and Glorfindel slew Balrogs during the fall of Gondolin[11], costing each Elf his life; Gil-galad fought, along with Elendil, in personal combat against Sauron at the end of the Second Age, dying in the process (as did, of course, Elendil).[12]

And Dwarves, despite their shorter stature, were formidable warriors: Azaghâl, Lord of the First Age Dwarf kingdom Belegost, actually wounded Glaurung during the Fifth Battle, before dying[13]; and no less a Middle-earth strategist than the Lady Galadriel, in the Third Age, "looked upon the Dwarves... with the eye of a commander[14], seeing in them the finest warriors to pit against the Orcs." But, again, no Elf or Dwarf ever killed a dragon in Tolkien’s legendarium.[15] Why is that?


[1] The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carter, ed. (New York: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 2000), p. 214.
[2] Proceedings of the British Academy, 22 (1936), p. 258.
[3] "On Fairy Stories", in C.S. Lewis, ed., Essays Presented to Charles Williams (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1966 [1947]).
[4] See J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), pp. 176ff, 234ff.
[5] "Of the Voyage of Eärendil", in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977), especially p. 252.
[6] "Cirion and Eorl and the Friendship of Gondor and Rohan", in J.R.R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, Christopher Tolkien, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977), pp. 288ff; "Appendix A", "Annals of the Kings and Rulers", II, "The House of Eorl", in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary Edition (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), pp. 1064-1065 [hereafter LOTR].
[7] See J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit or There and Back Again (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997 [1937], especially pp. 223-225; "Appendix A", "Annals of the Kings and Rulers", III, "Durin’s Folk", LOTR, pp. 1072-1073; and "The Quest for Erebor", Unfinished Tales, pp. 321ff.
[8] "Appendix A", "Annals of the Kings and Rulers", III, "Durin’s Folk", p. 1072.
[9] Letters, p. 177.
[10] "Of the Ruin of Beleriand", in The Silmarillion, pp. 153-154.
[11] "Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin", in The Silmarillion, pp. 242-243.
[12] "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age", in The Silmarillion, p. 294.
[13] "Of the Fifth Battle", in The Silmarillion, p. 193.
[14] "History of Galadriel and Celeborn", in Unfinished Tales, p. 235.
[15] Although Dwarves “withstood [dragon] fire more hardily than either Elves or Men", in part because “it was their custom to wear great masks in battle hideous to look upon; and those stood them in good stead against the dragons” (“Of the Fifth Battle", p. 193). Turin actually adopted the practice of wearing such a Dwarf mask in his initial encounters with Glaurung (The Children of Hurin, p. 176).

[caption id="attachment_81349" align="alignright" width="300"]Smaug over Lake-town by John Howe. Smaug over Lake-town by John Howe.[/caption] Is it that Men, despite their mortality, were simply stronger than Elves and, of course, larger than Dwarves? When fighting a creature as large as a dragon, size would matter. Tolkien sometimes implied this, as when he said regarding one the two greatest warriors of Men[16] (or arguably of all the Children of Ilúvatar): "Turin grew in stature until he became tall among Men and surpassed that of the Elves of Doriath, and his strength and hardihood were renowned in the realm of Thingol".[17] Furthermore, he was "as agile as any Elf, but stronger".[18] Regarding Men in general, Tolkien observed on the one hand that while they were of like stature with Elves, they "were more frail, more easily slain by weapon or mischance, and less easily healed; subject to sickness and many ills."[19]

However, he also noted that the Númenóreans, at any rate, were "tall, taller than the tallest of the sons of Middle-earth"[20] -- which would, presumably, include Elves—and that, specifically, many such Men reached between six-and-a-half and seven-feet tall![21] While the great stature of the Númenóreans and their descendants in Gondor and Arnor was anomalous in the Second and Third Ages, it was even then not unique. Eómer of Rohan was "said to have been tall, of like height with Aragorn"[22] and even the Northern Man Bard is described as "tall" and yielding a "great yew bow"[23] -- clearly indicating he was a more imposing physical figure than his contemporaries in Esgaroth.

Both considerable strength and height seemed to be crucial in killing the fire-breathing leviathans of Middle-earth. Turin killed Glaurung -- as Sigurd did Fáfnir[24] -- by striking up at the soft underbelly from beneath. Tolkien did not detail how Fram dispatched Scatha, but since he was a flightless "long worm", like Glaurung, it’s probable that the Éothéod prince also used a sword or spear against that dragon in like fashion to how Turin had done so.

Bard’s black arrow, famously, brought down Smaug the Magnificent, but only because it was launched by one with "the sinews of the Kings of Men".[25] As for Eärendil’s battle with Ancalagon, Tolkien again did not mention the exact weaponry used, although a "wavering flame" and a Silmaril[26] may have been what overpowered the dragon. Also, while Eärendil may have been half-Elven, "his heart was rather with the kindred of Men and the people of his father"[27] —- and thus one might argue that all four dragon-slayers of Middle-earth history were Men, and that with the possible exception of this famous First Age mariner and interceder with the Valar, Men of greater physical power than even the legendary Elf warriors.

Another possible theory as to why Men killed dragons in Tolkien's world is, admittedly, more speculative and complex: because dragons, despite their possible creation by Morgoth[28] and indwelling by evil spirits[29], were nonetheless chiefly corporeal threats -- not preternatural ones. Dragons wreaked havoc by virtue of their vast size and power, especially their ability (the ones that had it -- for not all did) to breathe fire. (Glaurung was a partial exception to this, in that he was also capable of luring Men like Turin into evil plots[30] -- but even there the dragon was going beyond mere physical ruin at the behest of Morgoth, and not of his own initiative.)

Thus, rather mundanely, a large and powerful hero with some kind of keen blade or projectile was needed to stop a dragon, the best-armored behemoth of Middle-earth. Dragons were even greater in size than either Dark Lord, Sauron or Morgoth, of whom the former Tolkien said "[t]he form that he took was that of a man of more than human stature, but not gigantic;"[31] while of the latter that, in his battle with Fingolfin, he was "like a tower, iron-crowned, and his vast shield... cast[ing] a shadow... like a stormcloud."[32]


[16] Turin was exceeded in battle by only one man: his father, Húrin, “the mightiest of the warriors of mortal Men” (“Of the Ruin of Doriath”, The Simlarillion, ,p. 232) who single-handedly slew 70 trolls before being captured and taken as a prisoner to Morgoth (“Of the Fifth Battle", p. 195).
[17] The Children of Hurin, p. 81.
[18] Ibid., p. 89.
[19] “Of Men", The Silmarillion, p. 104.
[20] “Akallabêth", The Silmarillion, p. 261.
[21] “Appendix: Númenórean Linear Meaasures", “Disaster of the Gladden Fields", in Unfinished Tales, pp. 285-287. Thus the later term for Hobbits, “Halflings,” was intended, originally, as an exact description of their height: half that of a Númenórean.
[22] Ibid., p. 286.
[23] The Hobbit, pp. 224-225.
[24] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fafnir
[25] LOTR, p. 268. These are the words spoken by Boromir at the Council of Elrond in doubt about Aragorn’s lineage -- but mutatis mutandis, we can apply them to Bard, who indeed became the King of Dale.
[26] “Of the Voyage of Eärendil", p. 250.
[27] Ibid., p. 249. He chose, rather reluctantly, to be deemed an Elf in order not to be separated from his wife, Elwing.
[28] In “Akallabêth", p. 260, it is said that after the War of Wrath “Men... were troubled by many evil things that Morgoth had devised in the days of his dominions: demons, and dragons, and misshapen beasts, and the unclean Orcs... .” [emphasis added].
[29] The Children of Hurin, p. 178.
[30] Ibid., pp. 178-181.
[31] Letters, p. 322.
[32] "Of the Ruin of Beleriand", p. 153.

[caption id="attachment_71114" align="alignright" width="300"]The Doors of Night by John Howe Vingilot leaving The Doors of Night by John Howe.[/caption] Yet Ancalagon and his ilk were large and powerful enough to repel even the Valar, at least temporarily[33]; Glaurung alone broke the bridge before Nargothrond[34]; and just the sweep of Smaug’s tail sufficed to destroy an entire building, the Great House of Lake-town[35]. Brute force was the dragon’s forte; and such a creature was usually bested, if at all, in like (if narrowly targeted) manner. Magic, or some kind of otherwordly capacity, was not needed, or really even very useful, against a dragon -- but it was against, for example, a Balrog, which was primarily an evil spirit, a "demon of the ancient world"; or against the Nazgûl.

Hence only a powerful Elf lord like Ecthelion or a Wizard like Gandalf could dispatch a Balrog[36]; and the Black Riders pursuing Frodo feared Glorfindel[37], because "those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power."[38]

Magic, which according to Tolkien was employed by both Elves and Wizards, albeit "sparingly", is "an inherent power not possessed or obtainable by Men as such."[39] Thus when Gandalf told the Fellowship at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm that the Balrog "is a foe beyond any of you"[40], he did not mean (mainly) that it surpassed Aragorn and Boromir in physical strength but that, as he had told Aragorn earlier at the Chamber of Mazarbul: "swords are no more use here"[41] -- although they might have been against a non-magical dragon.

Finally, it may have been that Tolkien’s penchant for human dragon-slayers simply reflected his study of Beowulf[42] and the Völsunga saga, in both of which the human hero (Beowulf; Sigurd) killed a dragon (an unnamed one; Fafnir). But since Tolkien was quite willing to alter themes from mythology and folkore to fit into his legendarium, it’s hard to believe that he would have hesitated doing so with dragon-slaying, if such had suited his purposes.

That fact that he did not, that only Men killed the dragons of Middle-earth -- just as in the early medieval epics of northern Europe -- would seem to indicate that Tolkien believed these terrible creatures to be the appropriate antagonists for the heroes of Men, even in a world populated with Elves, Dwarves and other Free Folk. As such, it is little exaggeration to say that these four dragon-slayers helped save Middle-earth: Ancalagon and Glaurung might have snatched for Morgoth victory from the jaws of defeat; Scatha and certainly Smaug could have done the same for Sauron, or at least insured that, even were the One Ring destroyed, the victors in Gondor and Rohan would have found in the North "only ruin and ash"[43] afterwards.

Indeed, it was Eärendil, Turin, Fram and Bard who, in no small measure, made possible the post-Elven "Dominion of Men" by eliminating four of Middle-earth’s most dangerous (and sentient) WMDs.


[33] "Of the Voyage of Eärendil", p. 252.
[34] The Children of Hurin, p. 180.
[35] The Hobbit, p. 223.
[36] Despite Gandalf’s using the sword Glamdring against the Balrog in Moria, it seems clear that the Grey Wizard’s main weapons against this evil spirit were, rather, the otherworldly, myterious "Secret Fire" and "flame of Anor" (LOTR, p. 330).
[37] LOTR, p. 214.
[38] Ibid., pp. 222-223, when Gandalf is explaining to Frodo what happened at the Ford of Bruinen.
[39] Letters, p. 200.
[40] LOTR, p. 330.
[41] LOTR, p. 326.
[42] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beowulf
[43] "Appendix A", "Annals of the Kings and Rulers", III, "Durin’s Folk", LOTR, p. 1080. And possibly "no Queen in Gondor", if Rivendell had been ravaged by Smaug -- to the great loss of not just Aragorn and Gondor, but all Men going forward.

Timothy R. Furnish holds a PhD in Islamic, World and African history. By day he consults to the US government and military on issues relevant to those fields; at night and weekends he researches and writes about other ones, particularly Tolkien. He is writing a book, due out from Oloris Publishing next year, entitled Glorious Warriors and That Which They Defend: A Military and Political History of Middle-earth.


Oct 26 2013, 7:01pm

Post #2 of 6 (1335 views)
That's interesting. I had posted that observation a couple of years ago.... [In reply to] Can't Post

Men and Dragons


Oct 26 2013, 7:27pm

Post #3 of 6 (1332 views)
Does Bilbo count as a man? [In reply to] Can't Post

Bilbo was the slayer of Smaug in early drafts of The Hobbit. Tolkien had him slay the Dragon with a spear taken from the hoard. Tolkien eventually decided that this was not characteristic for Bilbo and he invented the character of Bard the Bowman.

'There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world.' - Gandalf the Grey, The Fellowship of the Ring


Oct 26 2013, 7:48pm

Post #4 of 6 (1345 views)
This ignores too much of what else [In reply to] Can't Post

Tolkien wrote about the differences between elves and men to try to reach a conclusion about size and strength.

I've seen similar discussion before about men, dragons, elves and balrogs. Maybe someone should include hobbits and giant spiders. Ok that ignores what is written in the hobbit about the mirkwood elves slaying the spiders but that is the equivalent of ignoring the fact that there were many dragons at the War of Wrath, which would mean many were slain by Elf and Maia, unless someone wants to put forward that Earendil slew them all.

Ancalagon and his like never even temporarily repelled the Valar. They repelled the Host of the Valar, no Valar were present, only Maia and Valinorean Eldar.

I simply think this is searching for answers that are not there in the intention of the author

(This post was edited by ElendilTheShort on Oct 26 2013, 7:53pm)


Oct 27 2013, 1:26am

Post #5 of 6 (1352 views)
Didn't dwarves [In reply to] Can't Post

Kill a lot of dragons in the withered Heath?

The Shire

Oct 27 2013, 6:04pm

Post #6 of 6 (1331 views)
Survivor [In reply to] Can't Post

I guess that Chrysophylax was one of the dragons that survived to relatively recent times. During Middle Ages the mastery of Men over dragons evolved from killing to taming.


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