An earlier post of mine brought the comment from a reader that we can see the literary traditions of Icelandic and Germanic sagas continuing into modern English storytelling through the work of J. R. R. Tolkein, and I certainly agree with that.
To demonstrate, I offer another Scandinavian epic, Beowulf. If you’re in college or older, you may have studied Beowulf. If you’re younger than that, you’ve probably seen a recent movie based on it. The title character’s best known battles are against the monstrous Grendel, and subsequently against Grendel’s mother. (Beware the power of Mom!!)
You might not have known that Beowulf also fought a dragon. According to the legend, Beowulf returned to his home in what is now Sweden and ruled over his Geat kingdom. 50 years later, a thrall stole a cup from a dragon’s hoard near Earnaness. The furious dragon ravaged the countryside, and Beowulf went to confront it. Initially he told his soldiers to stay back and let him fight alone, but one of his men, Wiglaf, couldn’t stand it and rushed out to help. Together they slew the dragon, but Beowulf was also killed.
The courage of Beowulf contrasts with the cowardice of Hrothgar, so many years before. Both were old men, but Hrothgar sent out for help, while Beowulf fought his own battles even when he knew the cost.
In a way, it’s miraculous the Beowulf saga even survived to be known in modern times. Only one copy of the poem survived, written in Old English (which is a lot like German) and dated sometime between the 8th and 11th Centuries. No one knows if this unknown poet wrote down a traditional folk tale or invented it himself, or even considered it a historical tale. The single manuscript of Beowulf narrowly escaped being destroyed in a fire, but ultimately was translated and published in English in 1815.
But what does this have to do with Smaug? Well, it happens that Tolkein was a Beowulf scholar. When he began writing his self-created fantasy world, he called on his scholarly knowledge, including Scandinavian folklore. In The Hobbit, the title character steals a single cup from Smaug’s lair, but the dragon is so intent on his hoard that he notices that tiny loss, flies into a rage, and ravages the countryside. That plot device does sound exactly like Beowulf.
My point, however, isn’t to disparage Tolkein, who was a seminal writer of the 20th Century. My point is that the (at least) thousand-year-old saga still calls to us from that long ago. Lately I’ve been playing Oblivion, the wonderful fantasy video game, and I understand that in the current game, Skyrim, you fight a dragon. What a coincidence!
But that video game would never have existed without a chain of prior creations: the video game Diablo, which was based on the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons, which was based on Tolkein’s landmark Lord of the Rings, which was based on Beowulf. The ancient tale is with us still, taking new forms, delighting and amazing after millennia.
What a legacy.