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Anne Petty at DragonCon: “Tolkien’s Dragons”

September 4, 2004 at 9:25 pm by weetanya  - 

By WeeTanya

“Welcome to Sakuracon!” Tolkien scholar Anne Petty joked at the beginning of today’s panel on Tolkien’s Dragons. “I say that because I feel like I’ve been abducted by the anime track. Anime dragons and Tolkien’s dragons are a lot alike, of course. And I am a fan of both anime and Tolkien…”

In his latest Green Books column, Turgon introduced Anne Petty thus:

Anne C. Petty received her Ph.D. in English Literature from Florida State University. Her dissertation was published as One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien’s Mythology (1979; reprinted with a new introduction and expanded bibliography 2002, $18.95 trade paperback, ISBN 0817312056). Another book, Tolkien in the Land of Heroes: Discovering the Human Spirit ($16.95 trade paperback, ISBN 1892975998), came out in August 2003. And just published is a book that includes a chapter on Tolkien, Dragons of Fantasy ($14.94 trade paperback, ISBN 1593600100). Check out her website at www.annepetty.com [Here]

This meant that Anne was eminently well suited to deliver her 1 PM panel.

In the packed room, Anne comfortably shuffling papers like a born professor. “I looked over my notes while flying here,” she said, “and I realized that this would be a two-hour lecture instead of one!”

Anne began the panel by relating the story about how she got up the nerve to study Tolkien, who was at the time considered a pulp fantasy writer. But then Anne met Joseph Campbell.

“I spoke to Joseph Campbell about my interest in Tolkien, and he inspired me to develop the theme of ‘Tolkien as mythmaker’,” she said. “Today many scholars of Tolkien are interested in studying his sources, but not me. I am interested in studying the themes that make his work universal.”

About dragons, Anne had many things to say.

“Dragons are powerful images,” she said. “They symbolize evil, a barrier. Their colors represent greed and passion… they have been part of rites of passage, and in medieval literature they were part of the test to attain kingship.” Tolkien’s dragons, Anne said, were inspired by such diverse sources as Beowulf, the Eddas, Greek mythos, medieval legends of Chretien de Troyes, E. Nesbit, The Red Fairy Book, and even Kenneth Graham’s The Reluctant Dragon.

Anne told us that her book involved a careful examination of Tolkien’s five dragons (the five being Smaug, Scatha the Worm, Glaurung, Ancalagon the Black and Chrysophylax) according to certain questions:

When do you first encounter the dragon in the book? How does it happen?
What do other people say about the dragon? Rumors, sightings, etc.
What is the dragon’s physical description?
What are their attributes?
How do they speak? Formally or informally? In English or some other language?
What is the dragon’s point of view like?
Does the dragon behave as a friend or foe?
Is the dragon written somewhat humorously?

Tolkien decided that because dragons were magical, everyone could understand their speech. “They even speak in normal dialog instead of italics,” Anne said. “Tolkien had a sharp ear for dialect. Glaurong spoke in a ‘high saga’ dialect… while Smaug was informal… and Chrysophylax was both sly and groveling.”

“Tolkien was wonderful at delaying the entrance of these foes,” Anne said. “Before we see Glaurung, we hear a vast amount of folklore related to him.” Smaug is also long-anticipated. “We hear the dwarves’ songs of Smaug, Gandalf’s story of the map, Thorin’s history…”

Anne said that she considered Smaug one of Tolkien’s most memorable characters. Patterned after the Norse dragon Fafnir, Smaug is both dangerous and humorous. “He’s a snarky worm,” Anne said. “Bilbo and Smaug’s interaction is almost like a game. It’s as though each of them scores points in the conversation. Bilbo gets carried away by his own riddles and reveals that he isn’t alone, so Smaug sort of scores a point. But then Bilbo’s clever flattery reveals Smaug’s weakness.”

Tolkien’s language related to Smaug is especially vivid. “Tolkien described Smaug with phrases like ‘pot galloping on a fire’ and ‘old volcano’ – which immediately brings up images of heat and flame…”

And as for the death of Smaug, “it’s one of the greatest action sequences Tolkien ever wrote!” said Anne.

The panel ended in record time (it seemed), but for those that missed the panel (or for those interested in exploring Anne’s points further), Dragons of Fantasy is available via Amazon.com.

Posted in Old Special Reports on September 4, 2004 by
The One Ring

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