Dragon scale: Why it’s impossible to size up Tolkien’s Middle-earth

A piece of fan art illustrating the relative size of Tolkien’s dragons raises a far more interesting issue than how big was Smaug or Glaurung or Ancalagon the Black. It’s an issue that should give pause for thought in any attempt to treat Tolkien’s legendarium as a piece of history, and especially in any attempt to depict it visually – whether in illustrations or movies.

The artist has ranged Middle-earth’s dragons in order of size, from Smaug (merely huge) to Ancalagon (truly gargantuan, even in the Godzilla order of things). The justification for this is provided here – the sizes depicted are inferred from Tolkien’s descriptions and from his artwork.

Key points are the size of Glaurung (or Glorund as Tolkien called him at the time) relative to the background of Nargothrond in the illustration ‘Glorund sets forth to seek Túrin’ (Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, p. 59); the size of Smaug relative to Bilbo in ‘Conversation with Smaug’ (The Hobbit); and this passage in The Silmarillion: ‘Before the rising of the sun Eärendil slew Ancalagon the Black, the mightiest of the dragon-host, and cast him from the sky; and he fell upon the towers of Thangorodrim, and they were broken in his ruin.’ The size of Thangorodrim, the mountain above the stronghold of the primal dark lord Morgoth, is based on Tolkien’s drawing ‘The Vale of Sirion’ (Artist and Illustrator, p. 59) and Karen Wyn Fonstad’s observation in her Atlas of Middle-earth (Houghton Mifflin, p. 22 in the 1991 edition) that it suggests a mountain 35,000 feet in height. Ergo, Ancalagon would have to be very, very big to ‘break’ Thangorodrim.

The art is evocative and impressive, and I certainly don’t mean to diminish the visual skills of its creator, who calls herself Hæddre – let alone impugn her passion for the topic. And it’s clear that many, many Tolkien fans have a thirst both for ‘facts’ about Middle-earth and convincing pictures of its multifarious creatures, places and things. This is clear just from Hæddre’s own post carrying her dragon chart, which has been liked, shared or commented upon more than 116,000 times as I write.

However, there’s a major flaw in the suppositions behind the dragon chart. Tolkien’s pictures cannot be taken as empirical evidence. They are heavily stylized, as befits a story with medieval or legendary/fairy-tale overtones. So, frequently, are his Middle-earth writings.

Tolkien admitted that his Bilbo in ‘Conversation with Smaug’ is not depicted to scale. ‘The hobbit in the picture of the gold-hoard, Chapter XII, is of course (apart from being fat in the wrong places) enormously too large. But (as my children, at any rate, understand) he is really in a separate picture or “plane” – being invisible to the dragon’ (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 27, c. March/April 1938, to Houghton Mifflin, the American publishers of The Hobbit).

Reconstruction of the temple of Jerusalem (from William of Tyre, ‘Histoire d’Outremer’)

Reconstruction of the temple of Jerusalem (from William of Tyre, ‘Histoire d’Outremer’)

It’s clear that the picture ‘Glorund sets forth to seek Túrin’ is even less likely to represent actual proportions: it is explicitly medieval in style, where ‘Conversation with Smaug’ has more in common with the classic children’s book illustration of the late 19th and early 20th century – Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, and so on. If we were to take actual medieval pictures as evidence for what life was like in the Middle Ages, we might have to assume that people were giants in those days.

In a conversation about this on the Tolkien Society Facebook page, Deborah Sabo picks up on the line about Ancalagon ‘breaking’ Thangorodim, and rightly points at that we should be wary of trying to mine Tolkien’s prose (and poetic) fiction for empirical evidence. It could be ‘poetic diction in a mythic style’, she observes, and the phrase might simply mean ‘breaking the mountainsides’.

Tolkien was a masterful mixer of the modern and the medieval. At certain points (particularly in many of the descriptions of landscapes traversed in The Lord of the Rings) he is using modern-day realism to create an air of verisimilitude. This is what allows so many of us to feel as if we are reading about something that really happened, or that we are making the journey ourselves. But at other points Tolkien uses profoundly figurative language – particularly when describing distant events in semi-legendary past. It’s quite right that Ancalagon’s fall should be told this way.

This mixing of medieval and modern styles matches the fact that his hobbits are much like people of the recent past (the past of Tolkien’s rural English childhood) yet venture out into an older world of legend and saga. It’s one of the elements that helps create the tremendous sense of deep perspectives in Tolkien’s legendarium, like a landscape in which the foreground is crystal clear but the distances blur into mist.

In a sense, therefore, exercises like this chart of dragon sizes are misconceived. And so are the segments of Fonstad’s Atlas devoted to the First and Second Ages, where the evidence is almost all in the mode of medieval chronicle. It’s a problem which also bedevils the depiction of Middle-earth in Peter Jackson’s screen adaptations. It is with marvellous economy that Tolkien’s writing conveys a sense of grandeur and scale; but in order to achieve a similar effect Jackson’s movies, locked into a photorealistic mode, only have recourse to making things really, really big. Barad-dûr is a prime example: unfeasibly tall.

While I admire the art of Alan Lee and John Howe, which underpins the films, and while I also admire the art of Ted Nasmith and others who paint or draw in a similarly realist mode, I’m not always convinced this the best possible way to illustrate the more mythic elements of Middle-earth. By contrast, Pauline Baynes’s Barad-dûr may be unfeasibly massive, but everything in her picture of Mordor (used on the cover of various 1960s and 1970s editions of The Lord of the Rings) is unrealistic, and wonderful. Likewise Tómas Hijo’s Smaug cannot be taken as a guide to the dragon’s ‘actual’ size, no more than Hijo’s people can; he’s drawing with a medieval artist’s freedom and panache.

On the other hand, it is inevitable that we should want to see more clearly into the misty distances – in fact, that’s exactly the sense of yearning that Tolkien aimed to instil. He wrote to his son Christopher (Letters no. 96, 30 January 1945: ‘I think you are moved by [the name] Celebrimbor because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed, distant trees (like Niggle’s) never to be approached – or if so only to become ‘near trees’ (unless in Paradise or N’s Parish).’ This was an emotion, he said, ‘that moves me supremely and I find small difficulty in evoking: the heart-racking sense of the vanished past’.

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10 Responses to Dragon scale: Why it’s impossible to size up Tolkien’s Middle-earth

  1. marcelaubron says:

    I like the “compare the actual size of dragons” picture floating out there – it might just be that this comes from the very SciFi attempt to compare spaceship sizes from the different franchises out there: Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica (old and new), Star Wars, Star Trek and so on [which can actually be sized up as statistics are important to any scientist!]

    And as with modern fantasy writing and fandom maybe the start of it all lies with SciFi … 🙂

    Thanks for highlighting the “medieval” necessities of storytelling – I am still trying to figure out how long Beowulf held his breath under sea … 😉

    • Brian Tither says:

      I am still trying to figure out the proportional size of Hreidmar’s children Otr and Fafnir, in The Saga of the Volsungs, when Otr is in otter shape and Fafnir is in dragon shape, especially in relationship to the treasure hoard that Loki takes from Andvari. The hoard is barely enough to cover and fill Otr’s otter’s skin and can be taken away in two chests by Sigurd after slaying Fafnir after the latter had sat on it for a long time in dragon shape. Obviously Tolkien is referencing this when Bilbo takes his share of Smaug’s hoard home in two chests in The Hobbit when he originally was contracted to have a one fourteenth share of the profits.

  2. Graham Hart says:

    A natural, “in-world” explanation for the remote language used to describe the War of Wrath could be that the author of the Quenta Silmarillion was not an eye-witness to the events and may have been limited to basing their account on poetic source-material, transmitted via Numenorean traditions rather than directly from living (Elvish) participants.

    Or maybe the winged dragons were powered by internal nuclear reactors, which in Ancalagon’s case went critical. [joke]

    • Mark A. Golding says:

      But Tolkien did live long enough to see atomic bombs and even atomic power reactors, and he could have read about them in science fiction much earlier. So Tolkien may have imagined that the most advanced dwarves used some type of atomic energy to power the lights: “The light of sun and star and moon in shining lamps of crystal hewn, undimmed by cloud or shade of night there shone forever, fair and bright.” and the grow lamps used in their underground farms, if they did not chemically synthasize their food.
      And Morgoth, with his superior knowledge, no doubt used some form of atomic energy to power his vast underground civilization in Angband which supported armies of millions of orcs.
      So it is easy to believe that Ancalagon had some type of atomic reactor to power his anti gravity, and when he fell upon Thangorodrim the reactor might have exploded with enough force to wipe out all life on Middle Earth, if the Valar, invisibly present, had not used their powers to slow down the energy release billions of times, so that Beleriand did not sink beneath the sea for several years, when everyone had been evacuated.

      • Brian Tither says:

        Or Tolkien being an Old and Middle English and Old icelandic professor and concerned with teaching things like the ‘medieval’ necessities of story-telling was concerned with illustrating that in his story-telling rather than anything to do with the atomic age that he was in. With all the planning and scheduling that he had to do for the Oxford English department (not to mention creating his legendarium) I doubt that he had very little time to read science fiction. But I guess it is easy to assume that he read a lot of science fiction given that his works are mistakenly catergorised as such. I catergorise The Hobbit ‘A story of long ago’ and The Lord of the Rings ‘a tale that grew in the telling’ like Tolkien states them to be in the foreword of each book. Have a read some time of ‘The Seeress’s prophecy’ a translation of the Old Icelandic poem ‘Voluspa’, which prophesises the fall of Midgard/Middle-earth and see where Tolkien got his ideas. The Dwarves’ names in The Hobbit, amongst other things, also come from there.

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  4. Yewtree says:

    I’m glad I’m not alone in the sense of there being mysterious depths to Tolkien’s world. But I rather like the sense of untold stories and feel it gives a spaciousness to the legendarium.

    I always liked the saying “he can see in the dark like the cats of Queen Beruthiel” — until someone actually told me who Queen Beruthiel was and why she had so many cats. I think perhaps she’s evidence that Tolkien read Gormenghast.

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