The Reading Room
Dragons, Hoards, and Theft: Beowulf and The Hobbit
Among the many works that influenced and shaped J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth, none is more evident than Beowulf. This 10th Century Anglo-Saxon poem speaks of mighty kings, demonic beasts, and dragon-slaying heroes. One such hero is Beowulf. The tale of his encounter with a dragon shares many characteristics with Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the adventure that Bilbo, Thorin, and Company have with Smaug the dragon.
First, the Beowulf poet and Tolkien share similar dragon hoards. Both hoards are the remnant treasure of a high, noble race. Each contains brilliant gold, precious stones, cups, plates, armor, weapons, and the manufactured riches of craftsmen in astonishing amounts. The Beowulf poet explains that the treasure once belonged to a race of warriors. He describes them as “high-born” and “honorable men,” ruined by war and reduced to this forgotten buried treasure (2235, 2249). Similarly, Tolkien’s treasure is the wealth of dwarven lords fearfully abandoned to the greed of Smaug. Forged under the hammers of masterful dwarves and their elven allies, these wonders capture both sunlight and dragon-fire in their crystalized beauty. These treasures, like those seen in Beowulf, represent the culture, skill, and wealth of long-past noble civilizations.
Both treasures also suffer the misuse of a dragon’s guardianship. Beowulf describes the dragon’s treasure as “tarnished and corroding,” “rusty,” and “all eaten away” (2762-3). The dragon has not used his vast wealth, but rather hoarded and hidden it away. As a result, the treasure suffers, losing its newness and usefulness to erosion and decay. Smaug’s treasure also experiences unjust misuse. Rather than sponsoring trade and commerce among dwarves, elves, and men as it once did, the valuable gold and stones have become the bed of the vile Smaug. He does not use the treasure. He merely guards his piles from the hands of others. Both Beowulf’s and Tolkien’s treasures were created for beauty and usefulness – the armor for battle, the dishware for feasts, and the gems for ornateness. Now, under a dragon lock, they lie unused, disappointing their great potential.
In addition to the treasure troves, Tolkien also copies Beowulf’s dragon. Although the Beowulf poet does not offer much explicit description, the constant imagery and language of smoke, flame, and scorching surrounding the dragon clearly indicates that the monster breathes fire. The poet also calls the dragon “sky-winger” and “sky-plague,” kennings that symbolize the dragon’s ability to fly (2314, 2347). These two aspects are mimicked in Smaug. Tolkien describes Smaug as a red-gold serpent with giant wings and fires in his belly. Furthermore, both dragons use their flight and fire to vengefully destroy. Upon realizing the theft of their treasure, both dragons angrily arise from their underearth caverns and circle the surrounding wasteland in search of the thief and revenge. Both hunt till the dawn drives them back into their lairs. Later, each retaliates against men by scorching their towns with fiery breath, causing vast destruction and destroying the great halls of the Geats and Esgaroth. Thus, the Bard-killed dragon mirrors the Beowulf-slain serpent in fire, flight, and feud-fulfillment.
Lastly, both Beowulf and Tolkien use a thief to provoke the dragons’ wrath. While the Beowulf thief is unnamed, Tolkien’s is the ever popular burglar of Thorin and Company – Bilbo. Besides awakening the dragon’s wrath through their theft, these two characters share several other details. They both enter the dragon nest through a secret door. Both find the dragon asleep. Both steal a single gold cup from the hoard. Both flee the scene in fright and terror of the beast. Later, both lead a band of warriors back to the dragon. These details share between the two thieves further Tolkien’s link to Beowulf.
The similarities between Beowulf and The Hobbit examined in this essay barely scratch the surface of Beowulf’s influence on Tolkien. There are tens of more references between the two authors from places to people to poems to plot. All that is left is for people to read their works and find these similarities out.
Sources:Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2000.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit. New York: Mariner Books, 2007.