Talk to the Dragon: Tolkien as Translator
Tolkien Studies, 6, (2009) 27-39.
In chapter 12 of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins finally meets the dragon Smaug, the object of his and his companions’ quest. This encounter with the dragon is in a sense both the climax and the anti-climax of the story. It is also a turning point, both structurally and morally. The story has up to this point been episodic in structure, a travel narrative with each adventure coming on top of the previous one, as Bilbo and the dwarves travel to The Lonely Mountain (Erebor). It has also been morally simple for the most part, with Bilbo and his companions as unambiguous protagonists, facing various kinds of evils (goblins, wolves, spiders and hostile elves). After the meeting with the dragon, however, the narrative becomes more unexpected, entangled, ambiguous, and political, culminating in the hostile encounter between Bilbo’s companions and the elves and men of Lake Town (Esgaroth), and Bilbo’s subsequent betrayal of his dwarf friends.
In this article, I will analyze the encounter between Bilbo and Smaug, trying to come closer to the identity and the origins of the dragon. I will show how Tolkien is acting as a translator of a kind, by which I mean that he is using Old Norse sources not only as an inspiration for this scene, but that he also gathers a subtext from them, making his dragon much more ambiguous and still more frightening a brutish beast. I will argue that Smaug the dragon might be regarded as an uncanny monster and that this uncanny aspect of the dragon is present not only in The Hobbit but also in its major source, the Old Norse poem Fáfnismál. Thus Tolkien is acting as a translator not only of motifs but also of ideas, and even of eerie feelings.