Archive for February, 2012

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.



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Episode 7 of Masters of Air & Fire is now available on Podbean or my web site. Enjoy!

In Episode 7, raiders attack the human village. Romik and Yazka insist on helping, over Orlik’s objections, and Romik is badly injured. Includes episodes 13 and 14.

Thanks to all who have listened. I love to get comments. (Hint hint.)

Time notes: Chapter 13, 1:02; Chapter Break, 8:16; Chapter 14, 8:45; End Credits, 15:48; Total Run Time, 17:18.

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Q: How can you tell when a dragon is sick?

A: His tail is draggin’.

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Fafnir is a dragon who comes to us from Icelandic and Germanic folk tales, a character who really defines what dragons are in European lore: greedy, murdering, poisonous.

The older tale is Iceland’s Volsunga Saga, from the 13th Century. In this tale, Fafnir was a dwarf . His father was Hreidmar, and he had two brothers, Otr and Regin. Odin and Loki killed an otter, not knowing it was Otr in disguise. Hreidmar then held Odin hostage until Loki brought the otter’s skin filled with gold, as a fine for the killing. To get his revenge, Loki made sure to include several pieces that had been cursed to ensure the death of the owner.

Sure enough, Fafnir killed Hreidmar to get the gold for himself. He took it into the wilderness and assumed the form of a dragon to guard it better. He also breathed poison into the surrounding countryside, to keep outsiders away.

Regin, who apparently was just as greedy but not as brave, bided his time. He had a foster-son named Sigurd who he tempted with tales of the dragon’s gold. Regin showed Sigurd how to hide in a pit or trench under a trail where Fafnir would pass, and stab him from below. Regin said he only wanted Fafnir’s heart, cooked, and Sigurd could have the gold. But as Fafnir lay dying, he told Sigurd that Regin would betray him.

Sigurd didn’t believe it, but as he cooked Fafnir’s heart, he ate a few bites. This allowed him to understand the language of birds, and can you guess what the birds were gossiping about? Right! Sigurd and Regin fought, and Sigurd killed Regin with the same sword that had ended Fafnir’s life. Thus Fafnir was avenged on his brother.

Cooking and eating a dragon heart? And people say soap operas are over-the top!

Incidentally, another version of this story is in Rickard Wagner’s opera, The Ring of the Nibelungen. Some names have changed there (Fafnir is spelled Fafner) and he was a giant rather than a dwarf. As part of the ransom, Loki brought a magic helmet called Tarnhelm, and this is what Fafner used to transform himself into a dragon.

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Episode 6 of 16 is now available on Podbean or my web site. Includes chapters 11 and 12. The approximate run time is 15 minutes.

Orlik begs for shelter at the human village, but they refuse him.

Time Notes: Chapter 11, 1:05; Chapter Break, 5:59; Chapter 12, 6:28; End Credits, 13:13; Total Run Time, 14:44.

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Patricia Wrede’s “Enchanted Forest Chronicles” is another favorite series of mine. Published beginning in 1990, it was an early challenger of the “helpless princess” trope in children’s fantasy.

In the first book, Dealing With Dragons, Cimorene of Linderwall is definitely not a proper princess. She has a sharp mind, a strong will, and a keen interest in matters outside the castle. Cimorene studies cooking, magic, and swordplay — until her equally strong-willed mother stops her unfeminine lessons. Unwillingly engaged to the pompous Prince Therandil, Cimorene runs away… right into the clutches of a dragon!

Actually, it’s quite a civil arrangement. Kazul, a lady dragon with great common sense, agrees to shelter Cimorene in return for cooking, cleaning, and help organizing the dragon’s hoard. Thus we’re introduced to a really interesting dragon society, where princesses are status symbols yet have their own society among the giants. Cimorene and Kazul band together with a good witch to face down a group of shady wizards who are poking about in the dragons’s enchanted caverns.

The other books in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles are Searching For Dragons, Calling On Dragons, and Talking To Dragons. The whole series is great fun, although Kazul plays less of a role in the later books. The evil wizards provide villainy throughout.

The whole series is highly recommended.


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Tiamat is a name you hear bandied about in games and books these days, always as a powerful dragon foe. But before pop culture got ahold of her—long, LONG before—Tiamat was a goddess worshipped by the Babylonians as a creator god.

Tiamat is mentioned in sagas dating back to 2,000 BCE. Her original role was as goddess of salt water. Together with her husband, Apsu, god of fresh water, she created the world and the first other deities. Later myths described her as a huge, bloated creature and associated her with the chaos of the open sea. It’s said that Tiamat and Apsu warred against their descendants. Marduk, the sun god, eventually defeated Tiamat by cutting her in half. From one part he created the sky, and from the other, he created the land.

Interestingly, this is quite like Greek/Roman myth, where the elder god Chronos also tried to destroy his offspring.

By the way, Babylon was not actually the name of the empire. Babylon was an important city in Mesopotamia, a region where a number of empires rose and fell through Biblical times. These included the Akkadians, Sumerians, and Assyrians.

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