The dragon will always get through — I

Death of Smaug by JRR Tolkien

Last year Alun Salt pointed out to me a proposal for a collection of essays on the theme of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and history, and asked if I'd thought about sending in something on ideas about airpower and the dragon Smaug. I hadn't, but immediately saw what he was on about! I did a little research, wrote up the proposal below (with a couple of small differences), and sent it in. Of course, it was rejected (or not accepted, same thing).

'It is the aeroplane of war that is the real villain': Tolkien, the Third Age and the Air Age

Tolkien's legendarium is usually regarded as having been inspired by Northern European mythology, and indeed there can be no doubt that this is largely true. But scholars such as John Garth have recently begun examining the possible influence of the great events of the 20th century which Tolkien himself experienced, particularly the First World War. In this chapter I will develop this line of inquiry from a slightly different direction: from above. Tolkien and the aeroplane entered maturity almost at the same time, around 1910; by 1939 he was working on The Lord of the Rings and the aeroplane was now a terrible weapon of war. I will argue that Tolkien's major writings reflect the contemporary understandings of airpower as well as his own wartime experiences.

Tolkien himself experienced aerial warfare: at the Somme in 1916, at Hull in 1917. He appears to have written little about the subject in the years between, but no-one with the least intellectual curiosity could have failed to be aware of the tremendous amount of speculation about a potential aerial holocaust when the next war came. A wide range of British commentators from aviators to strategists to scientists to politicians agreed that in future warfare would be dominated by the bomber. Indeed, it was believed that at the outset of war enormous fleets of bombers would fly over London and obliterate it, causing tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths in only days or weeks. Such devastation would quickly eject Britain from the war, and so it was sometimes called 'the knock-out blow'. Fear of the knock-out blow spread from the early 1920s and was particularly intense in the 1930s, culminating during the 1938 Munich crisis.

There are several examples of 'air power' in Tolkien's major published works, of course exercised not by aeroplanes but by birds and beasts. The winged Nazgûl and the Great Eagles are most prominent among these: these perform air transport, reconnaissance, air superiority and close air support roles. There are also the crebain which spy on the Fellowship from the air. Such a wide variety of aerial functions makes sense for fantasy written in the early twentieth century, in the time of the first air wars, and indeed perhaps could not have been written any earlier.

It is true that there are clear antecedents for the most impressive aerial power envisaged by Tolkien. Smaug clearly owes much, especially its physical characteristics and abilities, to the unnamed dragon of Beowulf, a poem which Tolkien knew intimately. However, Smaug also rings true as an almost perfect evocation of the shadow of the bomber, which darkened Britain during the years in which The Hobbit was written and rewritten, from 1930 to 1937. Smaug's aerial threat to Lake-town parallelled the bomber's threat to civilisation, threats which ultimately had to be faced down even at terrible cost. Ultimately, I will show that Tolkien's fantasy world was in some respects a surprisingly subtle expression of the real world in which he lived.

The reason I say 'of course' it was rejected is that it's pretty clear that my proposal was a bit speculative, a bit thin -- that I didn't quite have the evidence I wanted. And the existence of Beowulf almost renders the whole idea pointless. But still, I do think there's a good circumstantial case to be made that Tolkien was influenced by contemporary ideas about airpower; good enough for a few blog posts anyway!

Image source: 'Death of Smaug' by J. R. R. Tolkien.

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6 thoughts on “The dragon will always get through — I

  1. And then there's the VTOL, supersonic dragon Errol in Pratchett's 'Guards! Guards!'

    Not sure you could relate Errol to Hawker's P.1154 and stay sane.

  2. Post author


    I'll leave that one for you and the forthcoming Aerospace Technology and the Discworld volume...


    Nothing is ever a coincidence.


    Yes, that would definitely have gone in the essay, I suppose I thought it was too obvious to mention in the proposal and wanted to talking about things which weren't? Maybe I should have crowdshopped the proposal here first :)

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