As discussed previously, Dragon Con is my first major foray into all things Geek, both a hazing and an initiation, if you will. This ongoing multi-part journal recounts my experience and that of my two younger sisters (also first-timers).
Day One, Part Three
This entry is solely a recap of the first panel we attended at Dragon Con. As I said last time, I’m not going to go into this much detail for everything this weekend, but I thought it might be instructive to have a thorough look at what the panels can be like.
The panel we’ve chosen is called ‘Smaug Con: Tolkien and His Dragons’ and is part of the Tolkien’s Middle-Earth track.
We began by screening a brief bit from The Hobbit film, mostly the opening backstory that shows the fall of Erebor at the hands of Smaug and his lust for the Dwarves’ treasure hoard. After that, the panelists ran through a list of all the dragons that appear in Tolkien’s writings, which are mostly contained in The Silmarillion.
Now, nobody casually wanders into The Silmarillion, as it is written as a history and not a narrative (very few tales have solid narrative structure at all, or even dialogue). It’s a book for Middle-Earth fanboys or scholars no matter how you slice it. I suspect that we have a lot more fans of the films than the super-geek fans of the literature in this audience, with the former possibly being lost from the outset. But hey, dragons, right?
Now Tolkien’s mythology is as vast and varied as a real historical folk mythos–which was the point–and so a look at dragon mythology in the greater world is how we begin. Dragons show up in a lot of cultures, even in ways where it seems unlikely that one culture got the idea from another through transmission of ideas. This is especially strange since no one has seen anything like a dragon. It’s far stranger than, say, a unicorn, which is mostly just a horse with a bit of fancy (and Freud) added. No one runs into anything like a huge flying reptile that breathes fire (obligatory mother-in-law joke).
Dragons are almost always evil or antagonistic in Western tradition, but it is quite the opposite in Eastern tradition. However as Tolkien is writing in the Western style (indeed, his stuff is meant to be a mythos for England) his dragons are evil, fearsome antagonists.
Next is brought up that there are theories on why there might be an instinctive distrust or fear of dragons, and it even may explain where their particular aesthetic comes from. The panel didn’t mention it by name, but they were referring to the book An Instinct for Dragons by anthropologist David E. Jones about possible evolutionary origins of the dragon (which helps explain its universality). Essentially, primitive man had very specific predators to worry about: birds of prey (raptors), big cats, and snakes. Some lemurs in Madagascar still have specific warning calls that are different for each of these three threats.
Well, mix those three animals together and you pretty much have dragons.
Indeed, what variation you usually see in different dragons often boils down to them being more like one or another of the three, more bird-like, or more snake-like, etc. The implication is that we may have a negative orientation toward dragons (and understand what they look like) at a genetic level, and this contributes to their enduring position as one of the most dangerous beasties in any story they populate. This is similar to the ‘arachnid response’ which a lot of people have. Some people draw back in fear/self-preservation from arachnids or arachnid-shaped things even before registering what they’ve seen, just like pulling back a hand from a hot stove before knowing one has been burned. This, too, is hypothesized by some to be a genetic holdover from days where such reflexes were a matter of life and death (incidentally, Tolkien was arachnophobic, as is Peter Jackson).
Although it was not part of the panel, here is an excellent article that more fully explores the idea of monsters having an evolutionary basis. This article eventually explores the idea that all monsters–not just dragons–have some origin in our own internalizing of the behavior of other predators as a means to survival. That is, we started out a prey species, banding together for protection, but through the long ages eventually copied predators to become THE predator. Monsters are external, fanciful manifestations of two things, then: a face of fear, a warning against dangers; and also representative of ‘the monster within,’ the violent birthright of extant humanity which does not always fit neatly into modern civilization.
Monsters are the fear of that which is without, and they are the fear of that which is within.
The panel runs with this notion as a means of orienting ourselves to Tolkien’s dragons, that they may themselves have or suggest internal ‘monsters’ of humanity. It’s important to note that they definitely are not meant to be direct metaphors or allegorical. Tolkien openly despised allegory, but he did like and promote the idea of ‘applicability,’ that a story does not have symbols meaning one exact thing, but that people can find that similar themes can be applied to other areas of real life.
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
Tolkien also wrote academically on the idea of monsters being central to the story of Beowulf, and that discarding the monsters in favor of treating the epic poem as history was missing the point. Tolkien’s argument was well-received, and is probably one of the reasons you study Beowulf in literature classes instead of history classes. Based on this awareness, though, one can safely assume he was not being casual in his use of monsters in his own myth-making, especially the dragons.
The panel then included a recording of Tolkien reading one of his poems, called “The Hoard”, which you can hear here:
The poem is about an old hoard of Elvish gold, and a succession of people who covet it, take it, and sink to ruin possessing it. This poem illustrated the dominant form of interpretation for Tolkien’s dragons in the panel, which is the idea of ‘the dragon sickness.’ This is a sort of destructive form of greed, and isn’t necessarily something that only afflicts dragons, but explains some of their behavior and why they spread ruin.
In the better-known case of Smaug, the Dwarven hoard of gold is what attracts him in the first place, and it is implied that the ‘sickness’ of desire for that wealth was afflicting and corrupting the Dwarves before the dragon even showed. The panel pointed out that in the poem, killing the dragon means becoming the dragon in turn, circling back to the idea of the monster without being linked to the monster within.
This is a pretty common theme in Tolken’s writing. The One Ring is the most famous example obviously, where both the desire for and possession of the thing causes a corruption. The Hobbit features Smaug’s hoard and what it represents (power, kingship, kingdom) in a similar way, and The Silmarillion’s events are largely shaped by an overpowering desire for the Silmarils (some epic gemstones, basically). This is ‘the dragon sickness,’ then, akin to the mortal sins of Greed and Envy and their ensuing consequences.
One of the arguments in this panel as well helped make the connection between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings a little bit stronger. Just reading both creates a little disconnect, as outside of the accidental acquisition of the One Ring the whole Hobbit-dragon-gold-dwarf-quest seems meaningless: Why Gandalf takes time out of his extremely important mission to humor some homeless dwarves and why he manipulates a hapless hobbit into the affair all come off a bit mystifying. It seems more like an excuse to tell a story than something Gandalf would really do.
However, the panel points out that Sauron was rising at the time; until the fate of the One Ring was determined, he was still a threat. It was well-known that he would gather all evil things to himself if he ever came back into his own, and this might include Smaug. The idea of Smaug in Sauron’s arsenal is clearly not a palatable one if you’re playing the long game that Gandalf is.
So why the hobbit? For the same reason Frodo would later make a good Ring-bearer, Bilbo will make a good hoard-thief: Hobbits are not as susceptible to this ‘dragon sickness.’ Whether it is their love of simple pleasures that qualifies them is up for debate, but the hobbits are intentionally painted as simple folk who love family and their land and food over any type of power, glory, or the dominion of others.
The applicability here seems to be two sides of the same coin: dragons and their ‘sickness’ are one form of corruption and ill doings, while hobbits and their slower, simpler life are something of a salve to this wound. It may be that possession of wealth and power is the source of corruption itself, and the solution to its attendant sorrows is to simply not have the wealth or power in the first place.
Now there are other dragons and time was spent on them. However The Silmarillion is not even a tithe as widely-read as the other books, and I would bog this entry down even further to try to give any context to the discussion spent on them. I’ll say only that each was looked at a bit, how they represent a sort of evolution of this same ‘dragon sickness’ idea, and a relating of them to other famous dragons in ‘real’ mythology, like St. George’s, the Hydra, and so on. The most time was spent on Smaug and The Hobbit, as the moderator no doubt felt similarly about The Silmarillion’s, ahem, applicability to his audience.
Also discussed were dragon aesthetics, and we reviewed several illustrations which I cannot reproduce here. Some of the things touched on were the variations between dragon interpretations, such as whether they have more snake-like heads or more bird-like ones, or whether wings are one set of limbs with the dragons only having 2 more legs (making them bird-like) or if dragons still have 4 legs with wings sprouting separately (making them more cat-like). One of the panelists was Jef Murray who has done a lot of Tolkien-inspired art, and he commented on some of his own pieces as well as the work of others.
The panel concluded by showing the trailer to the upcoming second installment in The Hobbit adaptation, The Desolation of Smaug. For the first time we glimpse what Smaug will look like, for a whopping few seconds, but it was as appropriate a way to end the panel as any.
I hope this was a useful look inside a convention panel. Although they run the gamut on subject and tone, hopefully it is clear that they can be fairly academic in their approach as well. It’s much more than just fan club behavior, or obtuse dissections of meaningless details.
The other panels we attended over the weekend will get a mention and summary, so this is the last time I’ll spend this many words on just one event, to the relief of all. The next installment picks up after our panel has concluded.
photo credit: Ukitake123 via DeviantArt
photo credit: lotrwiki