The Treasure of Smaug: Tolkien’s Mythological Source

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit we learn that the dragon Smaug has taken the massive wealth of the dwarves….so many gems and coins, the wealth of nations in this world and more. It almost seems unreal to conceive of such a collection.

Smaug the Dragon

According to the Prose Edda (Vikings) the dwarves were the maggots of the Earth, those that were cursed to burrow ever after for its vast treasures of metals and gems. It is said they coveted such wealth and so had vast treasure-holds. These guardians then corrupted the Gods by the trading of their wealth which went to pay the giants for the making of Valhalla. It’s likely Tolkien took that idea from Viking myth, as did Richard Wagner from Germanic tradition and the Nibelungenlied.

The idea of a mythical people that could hoard on such a level is a fascinating idea. But whenever we take ancient myths and solidify them to fit our own modern concepts, they lose something magical and precious; they lose the unlimited possibilities that only our imagination can conceive. They then become absurd, like millions of gold coins stacked in a great keep under the earth. I think this ancient myth and its re-conception by Tolkien is a perfect example.

I love The Hobbit. This was Tolkien’s first great book that started his popularity so many years ago. But in writing the fantastic even he might agree that to build upon ancient tales of old and breathe into them new life we must often blow back the mist of mystery and make something whole that cannot have as much beauty as when it is first barely glimpsed in the mists of imagination.

Such is the gravity of reconceiving the image of dwarves and their spirited gold into material treasures we as Humans value. For we may see the defeat of Smaug in The Hobbit and the wealth poured on its heroes as a reflection of our desire to be that wealth’s new guardian and keeper; a wealth actually of investments, mansions, and the unnatural power it imparts. But what was lost in turning this beautiful Nordic myth into such shallower modern tales?

Maybe we should take mythology and guard it’s true magic and value it’s mystery more than the treasure we try and extract from it.

For the true value and power of mythology in our life but lives in our brains and the unplumbed depths of our imagination and it’s power to see so many possibilities in its ancient stories. The minute we take from myth and build up around us our shallow, cultural desires, something profound dies in it. Its magic is lost forever and perishes in the pages of our dreams, when the beauty of what is yet unsung and pure in us should have remained so forever.

For the last mysteries of life and of ourselves is a vast treasure beyond all treasures yet known, one that science can never discover. After Mankind penetrates the galaxy and knows the universe around him and of God or no God, yet may there remain in ourselves a mystery left to sustain us that only the eternal mind and its vast imagination may bear.

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