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).
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’.