Tag Archive: dragon


The Desolation of Cinema

I couldn’t get any sleep last night until I had written the first draft of this article. At times like these I feel a little sorry that the scifi zine I used to write for ceased to be some years ago. R.I.P. e!Scope (hi, Jörn!). At least there we had an audience of ~3,000 people who could probably have been understanding readers for the rant that is to follow. Now it’s just another blogger ranting away. Why, you ask? Well, because I just saw “The Hobbit 2 – The Desolation of Smaug”.

Ennor, bâr nîn (Middle Earth, my home)

A bit of my background with “Lord of the Rings”. There were two worlds which I adored since I was old enough to appreciate Scifi and fantasy, “Star Wars” and Middle Earth. “The Hobbit” was a gift from my mother when I was nine years old, I was supposedly “too young” for the “Lord of the Rings”, which I read shortly thereafter. And yes, the first volume was a bit harsh for an 11-year-old impatient girl, but I made it through and Tolkien has been one of my favorites ever since. When I was thirteen, I learned Sindarin online and communicated in Elvish, we had a regular vocabulary of around 600 words. The site we used is still online btw. My online alias which I still use today, Thiliel, is inspired by Sindarin as well. It is a translation of my European name and means “The Shining One”. My love for Tolkien came to a peak when the “Lord of the Rings” movies came out since 2001. Yes, they are an interpretation, but rather a good one. Especially the Elves were portrayed in a more somber, haughty nature, the original gaiety, singing and rhyming which is paramount in Tolkien’s fiction was replaced by the elegant, noble Elven folk. Again, an interpretation, but one I could and can live with. It is not mine, but at least it is consistent.

“The Hobbit 1”

Let’s skip a bit ahead in time. The year is 2012. I have played two Lord of the Rings-campaigns with my roleplaying group in anticipation of the movie that is eagerly expected by Tolkien-afficionados around the world: The Hobbit! I have re-read the book two times already.

I left the theater with mixed feelings a year ago. Peter Jackson still had enough credit with me that I would trust him to make a decent movie out of this material, because he had proven himself worthy before. Now, I wasn’t so sure. Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Ian McKellen were excellent choices for the characters. Also Lee Pace as Thranduil was a pleasant surprise, although Luke Evans looks so much like Orlando Bloom he would have been the obvious choice. Nevermind. The dwarves I could live with. Not my interpretation, but acceptable in a way. What really stung with me though was Radagast. That’s an interpretation I can’t live with. Unnecessary slapstick; check. Fecal humor; check. Cowardly behavior; check. Bunny waggon – wtf? Jar Jar Binks Alert!

Now let’s get down to business. I think I have at length expressed that I don’t criticize just for the hell of it, but I’m a genuine fan and have always been greatly inspired by Lord of the Rings. I know a lot of work has gone into making the “Desolation” and it shows; some aspects like the visuals, costumes and concept art hold their ground. Especially the scenes in Erebor and Esgaroth were convincingly made. Mirkwood wasn’t half bad either.

But there are just so many things that make me go to bed angry.

Picture by Irise on deviant art

The Carrock

First off, Beorn. They are making three  movies out of one relatively short book. There’s a lot of stretching and plot-threading going on. Nevertheless, they cut one of the funniest scenes in the whole Hobbit down to some wild escape and like two minutes of meaningless conversation. Why can’t they take the time to tell this like it’s meant to be but add action, action, action and a love story (more about THAT later!). The dwarves still have a funny potential and weren’t completely fun-neutered like the elves. So why not make the best of these adorable scenes? Who doesn’t remember the way grumpy Beorn has to be carefully prepared for guests? (We have tons of CGI at hand, would a few animals serving the food at Beorn’s house have been so much effort? I still understand why they left his one out though, they cut Tom Bombadil as well in LOTR.) And last but not least – why the bloody hell would Beorn build a house in which he cannot stand up straight? He is huge, the audience gets that without any Gandalfy headbumping.

The Womenfolk

Secondly, Tauriel. I don’t even have words. I kept thinking of “The TV Set”  as I watched this horrible romance unfold. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s worth it. It tells the story of a writer who runs a pilot for a series, but the channel directors and consumer research force him to alter his script in so many ways that he’d rather die of embarrassment than let this misogynist fart-humor monster that his show has become air on television. For evaluation, the test audience are given controls with which they indicate throughout the pilot what they like and don’t like. It comes as it has to. Sex sells. We all know it.

Let me tell you a bit about elves. Elves in romantic contexts are rare in that universe. Interracial relationships are a once in a millennium exception (Beren & Luthien, Arwen & Aragorn). How likely is it for an approximately 700-year-old Elven woman to have feelings for a little dwarf, who has the lifespan of a gnat, that go anything beyond pity?  Whose peoples have been  not friendly with each other for centuries? The ‘couple’ gets more screen time than Bilbo! And then the healing… blegh! Of course, it’s Arthelas. Does anyone except me smell a best of Galadriel and Arwen cook-up?

“Hmm, let’s see, we have to insert some kind of fair Elven maiden here. She should be really sexy, possess exceptional healing powers and a halo, fall in love with a member of another race… and of course, we’ve had blonde and a brunette already, let’s have a redhead for a change so we have covered all young adult porn categories!”
The only explanation for the character Tauriel is this: The “Star Wars Episode II” phenomenon. There has to be love involved. Even if it derails the story completely. Padme & Anakin 4eva ❤ ❤

 WhoooaooooOOOWhoooa!

“What place does 3D have in a serious tool show?” Just an example for all the action and blam blam poing. It’s okay if Legolas does a stunt in, let’s say, in  a clash of armies once or twice. Good for a laugh, let’s move on. But this Elven Killing Machine Ninja thing is really starting to annoy me. All the things that were kept under control in LOTR seem to get completely out of hand here.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cogwheels. So the part inside the Erebor was pretty cool as a visual fireworks. Skyrim, anyone? Dwarven architecture rocks. Still, what does it have to do with “The Hobbit”? Smaug was a good dragon even if they have to put Cumberbatch in everything nowadays. I could live with this kind of furor in say, “Indiana Jones” minus Shia La Beouf. It’s just there for the sake of WhoooaoooWhooa! “Badabing, you’re scared half to death.” (Tim Allen)

The Desolation of Cinema

What am I going to the cinema for? If I want a ride in a rollercoaster, I’ll go to an amusement park. If I want to almost drown in a river, I’ll go whitewater rafting. If I want to scratch a kinky itch and experience a tete-á-tete between a dwarf and an elf, I’ll go read fan fiction on fanfiction.net or something – and it will probably be better written.

And what for? More money? Better ratings? Awards? The real LOTR-fans might think of this like me. It almost borders on desecration. I am seriously disappointed. So it’s not a movie for the fans.
The average non-fantasy-nerd consumer however will probably appreciate the movie up to a certain point. But we have also reached the time where all the movies of this production size sort of blend in together. It’s just one giant omnium gatherum of the same old formula, boy meets girl, boy fights robots/orcs/own people, becomes king/leader/marries/saves the world. That’s okay, in a way we expect blockbuster movies to be like that. Or at least we have come to accept them this way, mostly. But recently, you can’t even distinguish which  Pocahontas revamp you are watching – “Indiana Jones”, “Lord of the Rings”, “Star War”s, “Star Trek”, you name it… So the average consumer will be left with nothing discernible at the end of this movie except with “Oh yeah, dude, it was so cool when x / y did that stunt with the x / x”, except it’s dwarves now, not jedis.

What is it good for?
So why make this movie at all? As a fan, I am severely disappointed. I watch the worlds of my childhood and teenage imagination get trampled on. Over and over. Another franchise is down. As an average non-nerd consumer, I still feel punked and cheated. Should have stayed home and watched Avatar or whatever!
Who are you making movies for, guys?

Official promotional poster

And having watched “The TV Set” I might even be understanding of what the evil overseer made you do to your creative child and have you paint a clown mask and tits on it. I’m so sorry for your loss.

Update: TolkienEditor has recut the three movies into one film, 4,5 hours long. He has thrown out all “unengaging plot tangents and constant narrative filibustering”, and created a version that’s actually watchable. The story mainly focuses on Bilbo, as in the original book, and all the annoying crap isn’t as annoying.

Dragon Lore

“A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow in gold.”

J.R.R. Tolkien (p. 16, sources below)

The dragon is known as a mythic creature in many cultures. The word derives from latin “draco”, or greek “drakon”, which probably comes from the verb δρακεῖν (drakeîn) “to see clearly”. Though in the east he has more positive connotations as a a symbol of good luck and fertility, in the west a dragon commonly symbolizes chaos and perdition. Especially in the middle ages. Since the bible was the most wide-spread book back then, it’s not surprising that its mention of the dragon in the Book of Revelation (which tells about the apocalypse) had a great impact. Here is the bit:

1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.”[a] And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. (Revelation 12,1-6)

The Revelation of St John: 10. The Woman Clothed with the Sun and the Seven-headed Dragon by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). Wikimedia Commons.

This is the only time the dragon is mentioned in the bible. Archangel Michael fights with the seven-headed dragon who, yes, you might already have guessed that, is Satan himself. So this is one of the reasons the dragon is seen as a hideous creature.

Probably much older are conceptions of ancient Germanic mythology. For example the  Midgard Serpent or Jormundgard (Old Norse: Midgarðsormr) was involved in the creation of the world as well as its destruction.

In most medieval epics, though, the dragon antagonizes the human hero. Beowulf, Dietrich of Bern, Siegfried (“Nibelungenlied”), Tristan or St. George for instance, are all dragonslayers. As Winder McConnell puts it: “If you have not slain a dragon, as a hero, you are noone.” Interestingly, in medieval heroic epics dragons seldom fly. Thinking about it now, I have not encountered a dragon in the works I have read that was explicitly said to have taken flight (“Tristan”, “Iwein”, “Sigenot”, “Nibelungenlied”…) Being called wyrm or trachen in middle high German, they seem to be crawling rather than flying. Which does not make them any less of an opponent for the hero, but maybe I’ll go expand the notion found in Röhrich’s article and suspect this might be a newer concept. Lecouteux seems to be of the same opinion.

In medieval legends the dragon represents evil, chaos, and the struggle of the holy saint against it. The most famous is St. Georg, who is still to be found in various art.

Woodcut St. George and the Dragon, Raphael, 1505.

One of the positive aspects about dragons is that dragon blood, or sometimes a stone to be found inside the dragon’s head (after you decapitated it, of course) was said to have healing powers. It was believed to cure almost anything. In Siegfried’s case, who is said to have killed a dragon in the “Nibelungenlied” (~1200), bathing in the dragon’s blood makes him able to understand the birds. It would have made him absolutely invincible too, if there hadn’t been that thrice-damned basswood leaf that covered up a small spot on his back, so Hagen could kill him anyway (oops, Spoiler!).

Siegfried in Fritz Lang's "Die Nibelungen" (1924) is about to kill the poor dragon and bathe in its blood. For the film, eight people had to sit inside the model dragon to operate it.

Another interesting aspect about western dragons and their appearance that might explain the wing-theory: They were pieced together from various bits and pieces. You might have heard of so called bestiaries. They were related to encyclopaedias like Isidor’s of Seville, but mainly collected animals and sorted them. Also, they interpreted them, mostly in a christian context, for they were mainly made in monasteries and used in their lectures.

British Library, Harley MS 3244, Folio 59r from bestiary.ca

For example, here is one description of what is said about dragons in various bestiaries or encyclopaedias.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 4:4-5): The dragon is the largest serpent, and in fact the largest animal on earth. Its name in Latin is draco, derived from the Greek name drakon. When it comes out of its cave, it disturbs the air. It has a crest, a small mouth, and a narrow throat. Its strength is in its tail rather than its teeth; it does harm by beating, not by biting. It has no poison and needs none to kill, because it kills by entangling. Not even the elephant is safe from the dragon; hiding where elephants travel, the dragon tangles their feet with its tail and kills the elephant by suffocating it. Dragons live in the burning heat of India and Ethiopia. (Book 16, 14:7): Dracontites is a stone that is forcibly taken from the brain of a dragon, and unless it is torn from the living creature it has not the quality of a gem; whence magi cut it out of dragons while they are sleeping. For bold men explore the cave of the dragons, and scatter there medicated grains to hasten their sleep, and thus cut off their heads while they are sunk in sleep, and take out the gems. (text from Medieval Bestiary)

Here is another:

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 18): The Dragon is most greatest of all serpents, and oft he is drawn out of his den, and riseth up into the air, and the air is moved by him, and also the sea swelleth against his venom, and he hath a crest with a little mouth, and draweth breath at small pipes and straight, and reareth his tongue, and hath teeth like a saw, and hath strength, and not only in teeth, but also in his tail, and grieveth both with biting and with stinging, and hath not so much venom as other serpents: for to the end to slay anything, to him venom is not needful, for whom he findeth he slayeth, and the elephant is not secure of him, for all his greatness of body. Oft four or five of them fasten their tails together, and rear up their heads, and sail over sea and over rivers to get good meat. Between elephants and dragons is everlasting fighting, for the dragon with his tail bindeth and spanneth the elephant, and the elephant with his foot and with his nose throweth down the dragon, and the dragon bindeth and spanneth the elephant’s legs, and maketh him fall, but the dragon buyeth it full sore: for while he slayeth the elephant, the elephant falleth upon him and slayeth him. Also the elephant seeing the dragon upon a tree, busieth him to break the tree to smite the dragon, and the dragon leapeth upon the elephant, and busieth him to bite him between the nostrils, and assaileth the elephant’s eyen, and maketh him blind sometime, and leapeth upon him sometime behind, and biteth him and sucketh his blood. And at the last after long fighting the elephant waxeth feeble for great blindness, in so much that he falleth upon the dragon, and slayeth in his dying the dragon that him slayeth. The cause why the dragon desireth his blood, is coldness of the elephant’s blood, by the which the dragon desireth to cool himself. Jerome saith, that the dragon is a full thirsty beast, insomuch that unneth he may have water enough to quench his great thirst; and openeth his mouth therefore against the wind, to quench the burning of his thirst in that wise. Therefore when he seeth ships sail in the sea in great wind, he flieth against the sail to take their cold wind, and overthroweth the ship sometimes for greatness of body, and strong rese against the sail. [This is usually said of the sawfish.] And when the shipmen see the dragon come nigh, and know his coming by the water that swelleth ayenge him, they strike the sail anon, and scape in that wise. (from Medieval Bestiary)

Sooner or later, descriptions of dragons and other animals must have interlocked, maybe that’s how it got its wings. I enjoyed reading about the other animals as well. To the modern reader, some of these notions about the pelican or the elephant seem so absurd that it is almost funny. But you have to remember that knowledge back then was very unevenly distributed and easily distorted. So what I wanted to show here is that the depiction of other (fictional) animals had a great impact of how a medieval author must have imagined the dragon.

E.g. the crocodile (seen in action here)

Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 12v

or the Griffin (also in action devouring something).

British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 7v

For example, the dragon Phetan in ‘Wigalois‘ is said to have yellow coloring at his sides like the crocodile in the ‘Etymologiae’, and feet similar to the Griffin (cf. Lecouteux p.26). So the visual nature of the dragon is very heterogenous around 1200 and can vary because of the interferences with other popular works.

If you want to read up on anything, you might enjoy these German sources:

Lecouteux, Claude. Der Drache. In: ZdfA 108 (1979). S. 13-31.

Röhrich, Lutz. Drache, Drachenkampf, Drachentöter. In: Enzyklopädie des Märchens: Handwörterbuch zur historischen und vergleichenden Erzählforschung. Bd. 3. Hg. von Brednich, R. W. [u.a.]. Berlin [u.a.]: de Gruyter, 1999. Sp. 787-820.

McConnell, Winder. Mythos Drache. In: Dämonen, Monster, Fabelwesen. Hg. von Ulrich Müller. St. Gallen: UVK, Fachverlag für Wissenschaft und Studium, 1999. S. 171-183.

Tolkien, John R. R. Beowulf. The Monsters and the Critics. In: The monsters and the critics and other essays. Hg. von Christopher Tolkien. London [u.a.]: Allen & Unwin, 1983. S. 5-48.

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