The redemption of Smaug

Smaug, as depicted in’THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG“ a New Line Cinema and MGM production. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Smaug, as depicted in’THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG“ a New Line Cinema and MGM production. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

I am afraid I am unable to reveal how the following manuscript fell into my possession. As it turns out, it was not that difficult to find. Unfortunately, as many people know, scientific research – even anthropological research, which is accustomed to questioning dominant paradigms – is often fraught with politics. Thus, ever since the initial anthropological work done by J.R.R. Tolkien on Middle Earth and the life of Smaug, almost 80 years ago, it has been almost impossible to publish research questioning the perspective that he laid down in his work. That being said, I think you will find that the following letter, transcribed here from a document found locked in a chest that was originally part of the treasure hidden under the Lone Mountain, completely undermines the dominant theoretical depiction of Smaug as nothing more than an evil and greedy creature.

Can we assume that these truly are Smaug’s own words in writing? If so, can we even yet assume that he is being truthful in his own account? I cannot dare to say. However, I present these words to you for your own judgment, in the interest of the accuracy of historical and anthropological research on Middle Earth and the study of dragon culture more generally.

To Whoever Might Chance To Find This,

If you are reading this, I am almost certainly dead. I write this letter in grief, knowing that whoever you are, you almost certainly think the worst of me. Already I know that the people of Laketown must have such terrible tales of me, after what I did to Dale. I know that nothing that I could possibly write or say will take away from their anger and sorrow.

I’m not writing for their forgiveness, or for yours. But as I’m lying here, feeling the comfort of cool gold against my skin, finally freed from the agony that haunted me for so many years, I find that I still feel a pain: a pain in my heart. Pain in the knowledge that I’m not truly known or understood, by anybody. Surely, you can relate to that kind of pain?

You may not know what it is like to be a dragon, but the pain of being misunderstood, or worse unknown, is no doubt universal. So maybe you can understand why I feel the need to write something down. To document why I’ve done all of the things that I’ve done. Maybe, in this way you can understand a little more about what it is like to be a dragon. I don’t expect you to forgive me… but maybe knowing me a little better will be enough.

I think I should start by explaining why I needed the gold under the mountain. It’s not greed, as you probably imagine, or a fascination with beautiful things… although I admit that I do find gold beautiful. There is a much deeper reason. A biological reason, actually, that I wanted the gold. No, it’s more than that…. not to sound hysterical or overly-dramatic, but: I needed the gold. I needed it when I first arrived, as I need it now, to lay in it, and feel it around me.

Have you ever wondered why dragons breathe fire? Of course you haven’t. Why would you? But if you think about it for a moment, you have to realize that there is something very unusual about the way that we fly. Indeed, about the fact that we fly at all. Our scales are like armor, and are very heavy. Our wings are broad, but do not actually have much in the way of surface. We have no feathers. We cannot fly the way birds or bats fly. It is not physically possible.

Somewhere along the way, millennia ago, some ancient dragon ancestor developed a chemical reaction in its digestive system: a small secretion of hydrochloric acid, dripping through a light internal honeycomb of bone, reacted with the calcium and produced hydrogen gas. This hydrogen gas, trapped in the innards of its body, made it lighter than normal. As a result, it jumped farther and longer, and was able to better catch its prey.

This is all speculation, of course. It was long before my own time. But I imagine that is how it must have began. Over time and evolution, we adapted to take advantage of this buoyancy, developed wings, and developed the ability to glide. It gave us an enormous advantage over other animals. Our skin and scales were much tougher than any birds, yet we could attack from above! A clear evolutionary advantage.

But this fine adaptation came at a cost. For one thing, the only way to efficiently be able to land when the circumstances demand it is to somehow get rid of large amounts of hydrogen gas very quickly. Once again, evolution discovered a trick: with the use of a chemical in our mouths, we could ignite the hydrogen as we exhaled, and burn it off in order to land very quickly.

Of course, evolution has a way of giving everything multiple purposes! You know this. If you who are reading this manuscript are human or dwarf or elf, you know that your mouth is used for both eating and breathing. In much the same way, breathing fire is both a way to burn off excess hydrogen and a great defense against enemies. Which purpose evolved first? We will probably never know.

Since the chemical reactions that produce the hydrogen gas also consume calcium, dragons have to take in enormous amounts of calcium in our diets. Some of my more uncouth relatives prefer to do this my crunching on the bones of elves, dwarves, and humans. Personally, I found that I could get what I needed with much less muss and fuss by simply gnawing on limestone. Granted, some of the impurities you get when eating rocks can lead to some indigestion, but ultimately I felt less guilty. I mean, do you have any idea how many humans you have to eat, if your main goal is just to digest the calcium in their bones. Very inefficient.

Anyway, that is not the worst of it. What I am about to tell you next is really what I have been leading up to, my explanation for my attack on Dale and why I have taken up residence under the mountain here. Again, I just want to remind you: I know that I deserve no love, after having killed so many. But hopefully you can at least understand that I am not a monster.

The by-products of those same chemical reactions, the ones that use hydrochloric acid to react with calcium and produce hydrogen gas, are corrosive and poisonous. If a dragon sits in one place for too long, a small chemical pool will literally collect around him. If it stays too long on our skin, even our strong scales will begin to weaken. What is worse, it is painful. Can you imagine, being such a victim of your own body’s inner workings that you are in constant pain? Constant pain! Imagine it likened to some kind of disease that you have to live with that can never be cured, except that you know this is just the sad way that your own body is designed.

Different dragons deal with this in different ways. Some are simply vagrant, constantly moving from place to place, never sleeping or living in one spot for too long, lest it be overcome with a stinking pool of corrosive filth that is constantly being secreted by his own skin.

Other dragons try living in pools, and sleeping immersed in water. The danger of this is that almost any pool will eventually become so polluted that it will be acidic, corrosive, and painful to continue living in. In addition, there will be the constant smell of dead fish and wildlife that were poisoned as a side effect. No dragon wants to kill fish this way! Poor fish.

So for many, many years, this is the life that I lived. Constantly moving. Constantly in pain. Never able to stay in one place for too long because of the toxicity of my own body… my own life! It was a constant physical agony, and a constant emotional torment.

But then, my thoughts turned to the gold under the mountain! Of course I had heard of it. It was quite famous among all species. And there is one thing about gold that is more important than anything else, to a dragon: gold is completely non-corrosive!

If a dragon sleeps and lives in a pile of gold coins, the acidic sweat oozing out of his body can simply flow away. It will not cause the gold to waste away. It will not build up on his skin. Instead, he will feel the constant cooling of the metal – such comfort! – while he is protected from an accumulation of his own acid waste.

I knew, of course, that this gold was hoarded by the dwarves. But this thought constantly gnawed at my mind: to the dwarves, gold is nothing but wealth. It is jewelry. Ultimately, it is pretty baubles. They didn’t need the gold, the way that I did! To them, a pile of gold was nothing more than a beauty, something with which to buy luxury.  To me, it meant the difference between a life of agony…. and a life without.

Round and round in my mind these thoughts went. How could they justify having all of that gold, when it meant so little to them, but would mean so much to me! For them it was luxury. For me, it was the answer to merely making my life tolerable!

A madness rose within me. How can I explain it? Let me ask you this: do you have any concept of charity, in the culture from which you come? Or compassion? Whether you are elf, dwarf, or human, when you see one person who has more wealth than he could ever need and another who will live a life of pain because he has nothing, do you not feel that the poor person somehow deserves to have more?

Finally, that was the only conclusion that I could come to. My need was greater than that of the dwarves. Whatever economic desire they might have, my need was physical. I would live in constant pain without a pile of gold to sleep under. By any natural laws of morality and justice, that meant that the gold was mine!

The rest is history. In the end, I’m not proud of what I have done. Sometimes in my dreams I still hear the screaming of the women and babies that I was forced to murder, knowing that they would never give me the gold of their own volition, or out of compassion for me. It haunts me, and will likely haunt me until the end of my days.

The only small solace I have, I suppose, is that now my pain is only psychic – only the pain of a grieving heart. I can lie here, under the gold coins, in comfort. Free of the agony of the acids released by my own poisonous body. Free from the physical pain and humiliation that has come to me through no fault, besides being born a dragon. From that physical torment, I am finally free.

Yours, in life and mortality,



[NOTE: This is just a playful little thing that came to me after watching the movie The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. If you are interested in this type of thing, however, there is a great modernist and post-modernist literary tradition of re-telling classic stories from the “bad guy’s” perspective. I would recommend The Last Ringbearer (Lord of the Rings from Sauron’s perspective), Grendel (Beowulf from the monster’s perspective), and of course Wicked (The Wizard of Oz from the witch’s perspective).]