See Smaug Speak

Dragons and Academia: A Love Story

A replication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original illustration of Smaug, The Dragon-usurper of The Lonely Mountains

In good fantasy stories, dragons are probably more talkative than any other fantasy race or singular protagonist or antagonist.

In fact, regardless of a dragon being good or evil, dragons without exception love to talk. They absolutely love playing with language and just saying things in general. Philosophy is a sport to them. Whenever the hero interacts with a dragon, the dragon will monologue and such without fail and will genuinely enjoy the act of debate.

This is essential to their DNA, which is obvious to anyone who has read high fantasy. What may not be obvious is that it stems from the field of philology, J.R.R. Tolkien’s field of study when he was an Oxford professor. Tolkien’ nature as an academic has, knowingly or unknowingly, influenced what we see as a fact about dragons: their academic glee.

In fact, I’d argue every dragon since Tolkien represents some of the best and worst aspects of academic thought and institutionalization.

The nature of dragons as academics has also had a profound impact on our modern media and stories, culminating in recent years with the release of the video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Before we get into this, a quick argument: video games are works of literature. This is important to consider, firstly if you are to read anything as a text: you have to consider it as an important work of merit and artistic distinction.

Secondly, much like books and film, there are plenty of bad and shallow video games that do not need much in terms of textual scrutiny. For games like Skyrim, which has built a considerably filled-in world with its own monsters and gods, the effort has been put in to create a textual experience. So it’s only fair that we give it the same consideration from a critical standpoint — and give it due consideration, alongside other games, as a work of literature.

But first, the unquestioned author of literature and codifier of dragon-kind: J.R.R. Tolkien.

I’ve been meaning to update my library with a new copy of The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit. I’ve read them, but they are also just so enjoyable to read. Consider the opening passage of The Hobbit on the subject of good mornings:

Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

““What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”
“All of them at once,” said Bilbo. “And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain.
“Good morning!” he said at last. “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over The Hill or across The Water.” By this he meant that the conversation was at an end.
“What a lot of things you do use Good morning for!” said Gandalf. “Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won’t be good till I move off.”

I always smile when I read this passage because it shows a demonstrated love of language. The Hobbit is full of fun little turns of phrases like this, primarily because it is a very short read and as such worth very much of your time even if you are not a part of the intended audience (children).

People rightfully remember The Lord of the Rings as the first great work of epic high fantasy literature in the modern era, but this ignores how enjoyable The Hobbit is as its own work.

Supposedly this whole endeavor of epic novels that fundamentally changed literature began with Tolkien grading papers. While writing comments on one paper, he was struck by inspiration and wrote down the sentence: “In a hole in a ground, there lived a Hobbit.”

This both is a whimsical explanation of the book’s creation and a good reason why college professors may tend to “lose” your final papers.

But I’m getting sidetracked. The focus of this essay is the dragon Smaug, who for most of the book is the ultimate evil of the book. Smaug, as it turns out, is only the catalyst for The Hobbit’s climax, and in turn is actually not the main villain of the work (he’s more a embodiment of greed and avarice, the emotions of which are a much more direct and metaphorical villain for the book — affecting every single protagonist in a way, except maybe Gandalf).

When Bilbo Baggins finally confronts the dreaded Smaug … he’s still extremely dangerous but Smaug also is ecstatic at the opportunity to play around with language with someone (Bilbo) who appreciates wordplay as much as he does. It’s very different from what we were expecting: he’s still to be feared, but he’s definitely not a mindless monster.

It’s a callback to Bilbo’s duel of riddles with Gollum earlier in the book, though surprisingly the Hobbit actually feels like he’s in less danger with Smaug than he was with Gollum.

Also unlike Gollum, Smaug eventually figures out who Bilbo is, why he broke into the mountain, and where he came from (this later proved to be Smaug’s undoing). Gollum is completely fooled by Bilbo essentially cheating to win their game (it’s implied Gollum would have killed Bilbo regardless, so it’s fair to cheat in this instance).

But, as also the verbal riddle-fight between Bilbo and Gollum shows, The Hobbit has playing with language as a part of its DNA.

So to does this love of language found in Smaug’s portrayal go on to influence other dragons in media.


The most recent example is the video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It very much takes a cue from Tolkienic dragons, but having the actual language of the dragons work as ancient magic. It’s a logical, though extreme, extension of a dragon’s natural love of language and wordplay.

In the game proper, your character is a special individual known as the Dragonborn who has the same power as the dragons in the game: The Voice or Thu’um. It’s a type of magic and at the same time it isn’t. That seems confusing.

The best way I’ve heard Dovahzul (the dragon language) described is as a programming language for reality. Dragons shout a command with their Thu’um and reality adjusts.

So when dragons are breathing fire, there is no chemical or biological process going on; they and your character, in turn, are re-programming reality to have the impossible happen.

This is a fascinating and logical extension of the constant idea (throughout all literature) that words have tangible power and meaning. In Skyrim, words (or Shouts) are the most mechanically powerful attacks available, and it is just shouting things into reality.

It’s very common in game to hear a dragon fight described as a vigorous debate. This is intentional of course, given the connection between dragons and language.

But why is this important? Well, it tells us a lot about the people who write fantasy and also the hierarchy that dragons inhabit in high fantasy. It also helps explain the academic literarians of this world in their absolute fascination of dragons as an extension of their personalities.

Dragons are the very much akin to somewhat extreme academics in our real world. Think of a guy in English Theory who gets really excited when talking about the class outside of class.

So when you talk about something they [dragons] like (language or history) or appeal to their ego (like when Smaug is praised by Bilbo when he’s scared out of his mind, and Smaug makes a point to pull out more verbose praise words), the dragons are intent and driven to continue and even sometimes elevate the conversation.

A dragon, to me, sounds like an academic or a professor that’s a bit too self-involved. Likewise, this is more clear when you consider the question of privilege in academia. Dragons, without fail, get really upset when you try to appeal to a day-to-day or small scale thinking. This is because they operate on a plane of extreme distinction. Dragons really like talking about big abstract concepts.

It’s fun for Smaug to talk about ways of eating Bilbo, but only for Smaug.

Bilbo very much does not enjoy these conversations because rhetorically or not, Smaug is still talking about eating him and that’s emotionally upsetting.

It’s much like when institutional discrimination is talked about in general academia — it’s something that is upsetting to acknowledge and even deal with, and many academics don’t talk about it in real concrete terms, relying on the abstract. This is upsetting for people who have experienced prejudice in their lifetime.

Alongside this, what is a “joke” for a dragon (because nothing can hurt them) is definitely not a “joke” for a Hobbit (who would have a good amount of enemies who could kill or even eat them whole).

This lack of appreciation for the problems of the real world is compounded by the fact that dragons are functionally immortal: there are various different reasons for this but essentially dragons won’t die unless something kills them.

For the record, I like Skyrim’s reasoning that dragons are aspects of time incarnate, and as such have no understanding of mortality. This is actually important to the plot for a specific non-dragon created shout.

In Skyrim, the Shout Dragonrend is essentially humanity’s only tool to fight dragons on their own terms in Skyrim. It’s directed knowledge of mortality, a command for dragons to fully comprehend mortality and life ending.

As beings with no inherent understanding of these subjects, it’s essentially a stumbling block for dragons in game: it forces them to comprehend something they have no idea how to understand. In game, it forces them to crash to the ground from the trouble this mentally causes them. And as I said before, since Dovahzhul is a reality-programming language, dragons have no choice but be forced to comprehend.

This is also important because it speaks to the hard questions that academics (and therefore dragons) have to ask themselves. It’s presented as an ideological conflict in game, where the main Big Bad dragon god Alduin relies on the fundamental nature of dragons as overlords and dominators to win out. The Big Good dragon Paarthurnax believes there is a path to peace and coexistence, a path which is considerably more difficult and requires more mental legwork on dragonkind’s part.

It’s never presented as an easy choice for Paarthurnax in game, surmizing it in a quote:

“What is better — to be born good, or to overcome your evil nature through great effort?”

It’s absurdly hard to make a dragon realize that it’s harming other people through their indifference. Which is why in stories with dragons, it can be equally as frustrating as it is terrifying to deal with a dragon: they just are not aware that they are hurting people with meaningful lives because mortality means nothing to them.

It’s hard to get through to the dragons, and even harder to upend the systems that they reside within. But dragons, like academics, seem like unchangeable things and immutable. But that does not mean that there is no capacity for change at all.