The Origin of Dragons

From The Simarillion   
From The History of Middle-earth   
The Book of Lost Tales 2: Turambar and the FoalˇkŰ   
The Book of Lost Tales 2: The Fall of Gondolin   
Comments & Discussion   

From The Simarillion    

In the Valaquenta, the 2nd chapter in The Silmarillion, Tolkien describes how Melkor recruited his first servants among the Maiar:

For of the Maiar many were drawn to his splendour in the days of his greatness, and remained in that allegiance down into his darkness; and others he corrupted afterwards to his service with lies and treacherous gifts. Dreadful among these spirits were the Valaraukar, the scourges of fire that in Middle-earth were called the Balrogs, demons of terror.
The Silmarillion – “Valaquenta”

The quote above would IMO leave room for the speculation, that dragons might be corrupted spirits as well as Balrogs. The following quotes indicate, that dragons were rather high up in the hierarchy of Melko's forces:

In the front of that fire came Glaurung the golden, father of dragons, in his full might; and in his train were Balrogs, and behind them came the black armies of the Orcs in multitudes such as the Noldor had never before seen or imagined.
’’The Silmarillion’’ – “Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin

There came wolves, and wolfriders, and there came Balrogs, and dragons, and Glaurung father of dragons. The strength and terror of the Great Worm were now great indeed, and Elves and Men withered before him; and he came between the hosts of Maedhros and Fingon and swept them apart. Yet neither by wolf, nor by Balrog, nor by Dragon, would Morgoth have achieved his end, but for the treachery of Men.
’’The Silmarillion’’ – Of the Fifth Battle: NirnaethArnoediad

From The History of Middle-earth    

The Book of Lost Tales 2: Turambar and the FoalˇkŰ    

In his earliest accounts of Dragons, which are found in The Book of Lost Tales 2 he draws two - rather different images of Dragons. In the tale of Turambar and the FoalˇkŰ he describes the Dragons as follows:

Now those drakes and worms are the evillest creatures that Melko has made, and the most uncouth, yet of all are they the most powerful, save it be the Balrogs only. A great cunning and wisdom have they, so that it has been long said amongst Men that whosoever might taste the heart of a dragon would know all tongues of Gods or Men, of birds or beasts, and his ears would catch whispers of the Valar or of Melko such as never had he heard before. Few have there been that ever achieved a deed of such prowess as the slaying of a drake, nor might any even of such doughty ones taste their blood and live, for it is as a poison of fires that slays all save the most godlike in strength. Howso that may be, even as their lord these foul beasts love lies and lust after gold and precious things with a great fierceness of desire, albeit they may not use nor enjoy them. Thus was it that this lˇkŰ (for so do the Eldar name the worms of Melko) suffered the Orcs to slay whom they would and to gather whom they listed into a very great and very sorrowful throng of women, maids, and little children, but all the mighty treasure that they had brought from the rocky halls and heaped glistering in the sun before the doors he coveted for himself and forbade them set finger on it, and they durst not withstand him, nor could they have done so an they would.
HoMeI – "Turambar and the FoalˇkŰ"

and a few pages later:

Many are the dragons that Melko has loosed upon the world and some are more mighty than others. Now the least mighty - yet were they very great beside the men of those days - are cold as is the nature of snakes and serpents, and of them a many having wings go with the uttermost noise and speed; but the mightier are hot and very heavy and slow-going, and some belch flame, and fire flickereth beneath their scales, and the lust and greed and cunning evil of these is the greatest of all creatures: and such was the FoalˇkŰ whose burning there set all the places of his habitation in waste and desolation. Already greater far had this worm waxen than in the days of the onslaught upon the Rodothlim, and greater too was his hoarded treasure, for Men and Elves and even Orcs he slew, or enthralled that they served him, bringing him food to slake his lust [?on] precious things, and spoils of their harryings to swell his hoard.

The Book of Lost Tales 2: The Fall of Gondolin    

The Dragons described above remind me pretty much of the Dragons that can be found in other Mythologies, (e.g. Fafnir in the Edda). Whereas in The Fall of Gondolin we find a completely different origin for Dragons:

Now the end of this was that Melko aided by the cunning of Meglin devised a plan for the overthrow of Gondolin. For this Meglin's reward was to be a great captaincy among the Orcs - yet Melko purposed not in his heart to fulfil such a promise - but Tuor and Earendel should Melko burn, and Idril be given to Meglin's arms - and such promises was that evil one fain to redeem. Yet as meed of treachery did Melko threaten Meglin with the torment of the Balrogs. Now these were demons with whips of flame and claws of steel by whom he tormented those of the Noldoli who durst withstand him in anything - and the Eldar have called them Malkarauki. But the rede that Meglin gave to Melko was that not all the host of the Orcs nor the Balrogs in their fierceness might by assault or siege hope ever to overthrow the walls and gates of Gondolin even if they availed to win unto the plain without. Therefore he counselled Melko to devise out of his sorceries a succour for his warriors in their endeavour. From the greatness of his wealth of metals and his powers of fire he bid him make beasts like snakes and dragons of irresistible might that should overcreep the Encircling Hills and lap that plain and its fair city in flame and death.
HoMeII – The Fall of Gondolin

and on the next page:

Now the years fare by, and egged by Idril Tuor keepeth ever at his secret delving; but seeing that the leaguer of spies hath grown thinner Turgon dwelleth more at ease and in less fear. Yet these years are filled by Melko in the utmost ferment of labour, and all the thrall-folk of the Noldoli must dig unceasingly for metals while Melko sitteth and deviseth fires and calleth flames and smok-es to come from the lower heats, nor doth he suffer any of the Noldoli to stray ever a foot from their places of bondage. Then on a time Melko assembled all his most cunning smiths and sorcerers, and of iron and flame they wrought a host of monsters such as have only at that time been seen and shall not again be till the Great End. Some were all of iron so cunningly linked that they might flow like slow rivers of metal or coil themselves around and above all obstacles before them, and these were filled in their innermost depths with the grimmest of the Orcs with scimitars and spears; others of bronze and copper were given hearts and spirits of blazing fire, and they blasted all that stood before them with the terror of their snorting or trampled whatso escaped the ardour of their breath; yet others were creatures of pure flame that writhed like ropes of molten metal, and they brought to ruin whatever fabric they came nigh, and iron and stone melted before them and became as water, and upon them rode the Balrogs in hundreds; and these were the most dire of all those monsters which Melko devised against Gondolin.

and several pages later:

And now came the Monsters across the valley and the white towers of Gondolin reddened before them; but the stoutest were in dread seeing those dragons of fire and those serpents of bronze and iron that fare already about the hill of the city; and they shot unavailing arrows at them. Then is there a cry of hope, for behold, the snakes of fire may not climb the hill for its steepness and for its glassiness, and by reason of the quenching waters that fall upon its sides; yet they lie about its feet and a vast steam arises where the streams of Amon Gwareth and the Hames of the serpents drive together. Then grew there such a heat that women became faint and men sweated to weariness beneath their mail, and all the springs of the city, save only the fountain of the king, grew hot and smoked.


This leads Christopher Tolkien to the following statement in his Commentary to the Battle of Gondolin :

In The Silmarillion the dragons that came against Gondolin were 'of the brood of Glaurung', which 'were become now many and terrible'; whereas in the tale the language employed suggests that some at least of the 'Monsters' were inanimate 'devices', the construction of smiths in the forges of Angband. But even the 'things of iron' that 'opened about their middles' to disgorge bands of Orcs are called 'ruthless beasts', and Gothmog 'bade' them 'pile themselves'; those made of bronze or copper 'were given hearts and spirits of blazing fire'; while the 'fire-drake' that Tuor hewed screamed and lashed with its tail.

Comments & Discussion    

A serpent creature, but with four legs and claws; his neck varied in length but had a hideous head with long jaws and teeth or snake tongue. He was usually heavily armoured especially on his head and back and flanks. Nonetheless he was pretty bendable (up and down or sideways), could even tie himself in knots on occasion, and had a long powerful tail. . . . Some had wings - the legendary kind of wings that go together with front legs (instead of being front legs gone queer). ... A respectable dragon should be 20 ft or more.
Manuscript of a Lecture about dragons, which Tolkien gave for children at the Oxford University Museum at Jan 1st, 1938

Generally Tolkien seemed greatly impressed by the Dragons he encountered in older Tales (e.g. Fafnir, in Volsungasaga and the Nibelungenlied; the Midgardserpent in the Vˇluspa or the Beowulf dragon). Probably this inspired his fantasy a lot, we find dragons in quite a few of his drawings or paintings, as well as in other stories (Roverandom, Farmer Giles of Ham) and in his lecture "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" he states:

As for the dragon: as far as we know anything about these old poets, we know this: the prince of the heroes of the North, supremely memorable – hems nafn mun uŮŮi me­an ver÷ldin stendr - was a dragon-slayer. And his most renowned deed, from which in Norse he derived his title Fßfnisbani, was the slaying of the prince of legendary worms. Although there is plainly considerable difference between the later Norse and the ancient English form of the story alluded to in Beowulf, already there it hadthese two primary features: the dragon, and the slaying of him as the chief deed of the greatest of heroes – he wŠs wreccena wide mŠrost. A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men's imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold. Even to-day (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of. the worm. More than one poem in recent years (since Beowulf escaped somewhat from the dominion of the students of origins to the students of poetry) has been inspired by the dragon of Beowulf, but none that I know of by Ingeld son of Froda.
Lecture "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", read to the British Academy on Nov. 25th, 1936

-- ChW

Dragons seem to be creatures largely present in the tales, legends and myths all over the world. In the fairy tales of South-Eastern? Europe (the Balkans) these monsters are of two types - serpent-like and those that flew. As for their outer appearance, it is interesting to mention that the ancient tales of the peoples of this region show them most often with three heads. Besides, when a prince-valiant happened to cut one of them, it would be recovered soon! More seldom(if any) are those of the dragons that blast fire. As for their character, they are cunning and ruthless creatures, very wise too. They also show greediness and....aparently a very "good taste" when it comes to young maidens and princesses. What is too remarkable, is that in this region of the world, the Dragons have gender. Most often the serpent-like dragons were femail, while the flying ones were most often male.



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