Simmering Thoughts on Smaug: Why the Enduring Fascination with Dragons?

I went to see “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” with my children last night. I came away with simmering thoughts on Smaug and his family line. Why such great interest in this dragon and dragons in general?

Fascination with dragons is an enduring phenomenon in many quarters. But why? Is it because they personify evil, as in the case of Smaug the “Impenetrable,” the “Tremendous,” the “Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Ballantine Books, 1982, pages 222, 226), or as in the case of “the great dragon,” “that ancient serpent” of Revelation, “who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9).

Dragons always fascinated J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of Smaug and The Hobbit. Tolkien is quoted as sharing in a BBC interview that, “Dragons always attracted me as a mythological element…They seemed to be able to comprise human malice and bestiality together so extraordinarily well, and also a sort of malicious wisdom and shrewdness — terrifying creatures!”

Apart from Tolkien’s particular fascination, dragons don’t always represent evil. Just think of Puff the Magic Dragon, Eragon’s dragon Saphira, or many accounts of Chinese dragons. Sometimes dragons are used to symbolize sheer power, wisdom and cunning, mystery, magic, benevolence, and good fortune.

For those of you who are spellbound by dragons, what fascinates you about them? Does their lure or charm say something about ourselves, our aspirations, our fears, our views on good and evil? Please let me know what’s simmering.

This is the first post in a series on dragons.

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About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • Rob Hildebrand

    “Human malice and bestiality” hmmmm…. that makes sense. We would be repelled by the reflection of the embodiment of human vices. I might add “greed” to that list (in Tolkien and Lewis).

    • pmetzger

      Yes, greed is worth adding to the list. Certainly, in the case of The Hobbit, greed overtakes most everyone. Thanks for weighing in, Rob. With appreciation.

  • Jeff Haynes

    I’m not spellbound by dragons, but I have read a decent amount of fantasy and sci-fi literature. If we look at the basic premise of dragons, they are usually the following: immortal, rich, intelligent, and have the freedom to do what ever they want.
    If you add in the flying and breathing fire, who wouldn’t want to be a dragon?

    The best fantasy and science fiction setup a mythical world that engages real world issues and philosophy. So I think the dragon (usually but not always) represents the ego of man with the power and freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want. The ultimate ubermench with the will to power.

    • pmetzger

      Jeff, a bold suggestion, to be sure: “the dragon (usually but not always) represents the ego of man with the power and freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want. The ultimate Uebermench with the will to power.” Jeff, thank you for bringing to our attention your perspective.

  • John W. Morehead

    I’m glad to see you address this, Paul. The place of fantasy and the imagination is not given sufficient attention within Evangelicalism as it should. We praise Tolkien and Lewis, and yet somehow can’t manage to incorporate their fantastical insights into our theologies.

    Dragons have been a part of my interest in the fantastic and mythology for some
    time. Of course they are also a part of the Bible’s mythos with the Book of Revelation, along with other uses of monsters, behemoths, and leviathans.

    This author has some interesting thoughts on the dragon that Evangelicals might reflect on:

    • pmetzger

      Yes, John. We who claim to be Evangelicals can learn more than a thing or two from Tolkien and Lewis on how to cultivate our imaginations, especially as they relate to faith and how faith bears relevance for the subject of fantasy; the reverse is also true. Thanks for drawing the readers’ attention to this other author’s work on dragons.

  • John W. Morehead

    I should also add that there is an overlap between dragons and gargoyles, another area of interest of mine. In ages past gargoyles were carved by stone masons in cathedrals as sacred works of art. Interested readers can find my past interview with author Gary Varner who wrote a book on gargoyles and grotesques at one of my blogs:

    • pmetzger

      I encourage those following this blog post discussion to read my colleague, John W. Morehead’s work on this subject. John’s perspectives are always insightful and thought-provoking.

  • Joseph Ficken

    has always captivated me about dragons is their majestic prowess. They
    are the culmination of awe, fear, power, and beauty. Usually denoted as
    cunning and wise, it’s a powerful creature that is almost most human
    than we are.

    • pmetzger

      How thought-provoking–”almost [more] human than we are.” It is intriguing, Joseph, that you have had such a positive assessment of dragons. Where did such a positive read on dragons come from, I wonder? Thank you for your unique description of dragons.

  • DesertLady48

    Trying reading the Dragons of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. In this series, the dragons are vital parts of the planet’s protection. They are majestic, friendly, powerful.

    • pmetzger

      Thank you for your comment. Your remarks support the claim that dragons are sometimes presented in life-affirming and positive ways. Do you wonder why dragons play such significant roles and have such striking characteristics, as those you note? In other words, why dragons, and not other creatures?

      • DesertLady48

        I think it may be partly due to their flying abilities.

        • pmetzger

          Interesting. Thanks for your response.

  • Laurel

    In Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels (the books, NOT the movies), dragons are powerful, wise, and also, share a common heritage with humans. She has some terrific stories about people who are actually dragons and may or may not know it. I have been fascinated with dragons because of these and also other fantasy books. The immense age associated with dragons and the wisdom as a result of that age is one reason – and also, they can seem to be somehow supernatural or other-worldly, either as evil, good, or morally neutral creatures. I wonder if we instinctively know that something like dragons do exist?

    • pmetzger

      Most intriguing: “I wonder if we instinctively know that something like dragons do exist?” I would love for you to reflect more fully on that last statement. Perhaps, though, it is better left as a suggestive question. Even so, thank you for your concrete and multi-faceted response to the questions at the end of the post. Just the kind of thing I was looking for! More musings to follow…

  • Trudi Sang

    We saw the movie last night. I have enjoyed stories of dragons of the good and bad variety. The dragons of the Chinese fashion were even a part of our wedding decor. The dragon in the hobbit shows the power and evil any creature could possess and yet have nothing–sleeping alone with no real purpose but to kill. The wealth really means nothing except greed. I found his life sad.

    • pmetzger

      Brilliant reflection on Smaug, Trudi. Superb. Yes, pure unadulterated greed. Knowing you and James, I am confident that the dragon decor at your wedding was not of the Smaug variety, and most certainly, it is not part of the interior design of your married lives!