World Crafting: Dragons – Smaug vs. Alduin vs. Deathwing

So… the Hobbit.  First of all, squeeeeeee!  Haven’t seen it yet… probably next week some time.  However, Smaug gets me to thinking about dragons.  There are three dragons that have been the stars of my entertainment life in the last two years, and, no, this isn’t about my book.  I’m talking about Deathwing, Alduin, and soon… Smaug.  May the best dragon win.

Dragons are, of course, a cornerstone of the sword-and-sorcery genre.  The first fantasy book I ever read was the Hobbit, and my next encounter with dragons after that was in the Dragonlance Chronicles.  The D&D Dragons (the game on which Dragonlance is based) seemed to have a very different feel from Tolkein’s Smaug.  We see very little of Smaug. He’s vein, crafty, conceited, greedy, and powerful.  The dragons in Dragonlance start out grand, but the more we see of them the more they become simply other characters in the books.  Cool characters, but they lose some mystique with exposure.  (On a somewhat related note, this is why I appreciate Tolkien never actually using Sauron in a scene in the Lord of the Rings… the threat of the unknown is better than the devil you know.  Always leave the Dark Lord as the devil you don’t know.)

There’s a lot of freedom when implementing the dragon concept in world construction.  Western dragons and Eastern dragons are very different.  Eastern dragons can be treated as celestial incorporeal spirits as much as they are physical beings.  They are closer to gods or gods’ servants than Western dragons, which are treated more like classical monsters.  Easter dragons are hybrid animals: “The horns of a deer. The head of a camel. A demon’s eyes. The neck of a snake. A tortoise’s viscera. A hawk’s claws. The palms of a tiger. A cow’s ears. And it hears through its horns, its ears being deprived of all power of hearing.” (Wikipedia reference on Chinese Dragons)  Western dragons are more purely serpentine or dinosaur-like.

Let’s consider a spectrum of western-style dragon types.  How mythical do you want your dragons to be?  Building dragons into your story requires that you determine how you want your reader to feel about them.  This, in turn, drives how you should have your characters react to them.  Are dragons little more than fantastic creatures, or are they epic?   Are they plentiful and dangerous, but no more dangerous than say, a rhinoceros on steroids?  Or are they capable of devouring kingdoms and breaking lands with the sheer physical might of their powers?

Some options:

1.  Dragons are symbolic.

The term ‘dragon’ also has biblical connotations.  It’s been used as a symbol for satan, or satan’s beast.  Basically, an evil create of badness and monstrosity.  The classic dragon stealing away the maiden (virgin) carries the symbolic weight of Christian emphasis on sexual purity.

In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, the Dragon is a title for a particularly powerful, messianic man with super-human powers.  (Let me add one more Dragon to this year’s list of dragon’s: Rand al’Thor.  It should be noted that the Wheel of Time’s epic conclusion comes out in January of 2013.  Best fantasy series ever. Ev. Ver.  If you disagree with me, I’m just going to call you a silly figwimple.)

2.  Dragons are fearsome beasts.

Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series featured a land where dragons were highly important beasts, but in the end were little more than intelligent animals.  There weren’t magical as such (although later we discover they have sunrunning abilities), nor did they have the ability to speak.  They didn’t really interact with humans, nor did they meddle in the affairs of princes.  But, they would eat you if you got too close.  (Really good series of books, BTW).

3.  Dragons are magical creatures.

Now we get into D&D worlds, and all types of standard fantasy, a la Dragonlance.  Dragons are long-lived races with magical abilities, in addition to their fearsome breath weapons, and often interact with mortals by shapeshifting into human, elven, gnomish, or other bodies.  They are not gods or spirits, but can impact the rise and fall of kings.

4.  Dragons are immortal or god-like beings.

Here’s where dragons cease to be mere creatures of the world and take on the power-scale of angels, or even gods.  This has its roots in mythology with the Tiamat of Babylonian mythology (the Marduk/Tiamat myth is an arguable proto-myth for Michael/Satan) and the Jormungander the Midgard Serpent just to name two.  These dragons outlast civilizations  sometimes worshipped and sometimes feared.   Their lives are incomprehensibly long, and they are tied to magic at a level beyond mere wizards.  Alduin, Deathwing, and Smaug all fit into this category.  One might argue that Smaug is debatable between this category and the previous, and that’s a fair point.  In the Hobbit, it’s not apparent he’s a god-like being (at least not in the book).  However, the way Tolkien describes dragons, (particularly Ancalagon the Black), they seem to be a sort of maia (lesser spirit).

So… let’s look at the 3 great dragons in question.

Deathwing.  This dragon is the nemesis in World of Warcrafts’s last expansion, cataclysm.  He’s the aspect of Earth, and as such is something of a god-like being.  When he awakens, he breaks out of the ground and reshapes the continents of Azeroth.  Cool, right?  Actually, I thought Deathwing was kinda lame.  He’s supposed to be this all-powerful evil insane dragon, but I guess the MMO platform doesn’t get me excited about villains.  He never inspired dread in me as a player–and in WoW, even Arthas the Lich King evoked some “that’s pretty awesome” feelings.  For me, I think Deathwing had too much of a Japanese RPG villain feel… he’s got a bazillion hit points and you’re going to whack at him forever until he finally dies.  Lame sauce.

Alduin.  Now, this might be my favorite dragon depiction in fiction (… cause the dragons in real life are awesome, right? :-p).  He proves that I can get excited about a dragon character in the video game medium.  First off, Bethesda did an outstanding design of dragon physiology, where they only have two legs, and their arms and wings are the same (rather than having 4 limbs, plus 2 more wings).  Their in-game animations of dragons are superb.  But what really is neat about Alduin, who is something of a dragon god, is the concept of their breath weapons being their actual language.  It is said that a battle between dragons is also an argument.  I like the concept of language holding power, and words themselves unleashing magical effects into the world.  It gives Alduin a very god-like feel, since the power of his words shapes reality around him.  Dragons become akin to creator gods, albeit in a focused way.

Smaug.  Here’s the thing.  We haven’t seen P.J.’s rendition of Smaug and I suspect we won’t in this first movie.  So, we don’t know how Smaug is going to be executed.  But, with all things Tolkien, Smaug carries a mythical quality of mystery that most fantasy dragons today seem to lack.  Tolkien carries that old-world feel, and I suspect in concept, Smaug is grander than Alduin.  (Deathwing can just go home for being lame sauce).   That’s a key ingredient to mythical feel:  “grand”.  In that sense, even Alduin is somewhat lacking, if only in relative comparison.  Again, we haven’t seen Smaug yet, but if the rumored concept art is any indication,

Smaug for the Hobbit movie? Time will tell.

Smaug could eat Alduin for breakfast.  (Although, this depiction is much larger than Tolkien’s own concept painting.  Is it me or is the above image way too large to have a lucky arrow killing him to be at all believable?  Sorry if I spoiled that for you, but the Hobbit isn’t new material.)

Verdict:  Alduin wins.

Ok, I know you’re going WHAT?  After all that talk of breakfast?  Smaug is the awesomest dragon ever!  Well, maybe.  But Smaug is outfoxed by a hobbit.  So, his vanity kinda makes him stupid.  Alduin seems a clever fox by comparison, and it takes a hell of a lot more than a lucky arrow to bring him down (you know, elder scrolls, time travel, and someone who can speak the same dragon language) so I’m going to go with Alduin on this one, but might revisit this when all three Hobbit movies are out.


[For follow-on, reviews of An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug].

16 thoughts on “World Crafting: Dragons – Smaug vs. Alduin vs. Deathwing

  1. Honestly, I’d say that in a battle to the “death” Smaug would win. I’m not saying actually killing Alduin, but if they met head on in the mortal realm, I think Smaug would manage to push Alduin back to sovngarde. Because, let’s face it, destroying Helgen wasn’t too impressive. Laying waste to Erebor and crushing millions of highly trained dwarves was.
    In terms of magic, Alduin triumphs. But since he’s up against a dragon that’s much bigger and tougher than him, that won’t be too much help.
    Smaug on the other hand has extreme physical capability. His fire breath could melt through stone, and with one arm he could wreck an entire town. Helgen would not be in ruins if Smaug attacked- it would be a still bubbling hot puddle of napalm like lava and ash.
    That means that if they were to chance upon eachother and fight, Smaug would most likely shred Alduins body to pieces- but not ultimately kill him, as his soul would just head right back to sovngarde and he could come right back.

    • I certainly agree that Smaug is the more impressive. Especially when it comes to presentation of content. And considering the story sources from which they come, Smaug is more enduring (as the Hobbit will outlast an Elder Scrolls game). So from that standpoint, Smaug wins.

      • We’re all forgetting one thing here. Alduin’s not only a God, his physical body is invincible unless the shout Dragonrend is cast upon him (yes, I played the game and I can confirm that no damage can be inflicted to Alduin by any source unless Dragonrend is in effect. It’s not an optional thing so you can fight him more easily on the ground – it’s the only way and the key to his – arguable – defeat). So unless Smaug somehow learned to use Dragonrend from a parallell universe, he would literally have 0% chance against the World-Eater. Let’s say it, Alduin is pretty much OP. Even if he was to eaten, his body would still take no damage and he could probably wreck Smaug from the inside. Even 100 Smaugs, each 100 times their original size and with a breath being able to initiate a thermonuclear atom core fusion could not inflict a tiny scratch on those wretched black scales without Dragonrend.

  2. Pingback: Smaug the Magnificent Bumbler | Inner Worlds Fiction

  3. I can’t possibly understand why this page is one of the top search options for Google on the subject of Smaug.

    Yes, dragons are symbolic, and majestic, with a rich history of mythological implications. But to be honest, the fact that you mentioned a dragon from World of Warcraft is completely disappointing. WoW is great in some respects, it really brought the fantasy genre to the world in a way that everyone could enjoy. The problem of course is that WoW achieved it’s appeal through washing out and cheapening everything through stereotypes and gimmicks. I won’t even go into the gameplay.

    You talk about Alduin like he’s a major character. But honestly, much like Sauron, he just runs around, doing his thing, carrying out his own initiative. Just like a hero that can’t be killed, a villain that can’t be killed is just as boring. Skyrim’s strength is in it’s open world, not in it’s villain. I’m more intrigued with Draugr tombs or a thief or assassin trying to gank me in the kidney in that game than I am with Alduin. Thus far (I haven’t had time to play the Dragonborn expansion yet) Dawnguard has the most compelling story of Skyrim’s main quest content.

    Smaug on the other hand out of all three is not only a strong character, but the failures in his character are ultimately what lead to his undoing. Smaug is vain. His vanity and covetous hoarding of treasures mirror the imbalance within the dwarves, who fall prey to similar inclinations. Like so many stories the “sickness of the land” is usually represented not only in its king, but also in the horrible monster that plagues the kingdom. So aside from the old wrym himself, I would rather point people for the sake of world building, in the direction of better dragons.

    Dragonslayer (1981): Vermithrax Pejorative-
    Guillermo Del Toro’s personal favorite of all cinematic dragons. While on the surface he seems like nothing but a grouchy old lizard, there is a cruelty and intelligence in this dragon, without it ever needing to speak a word. A classic old monster, taking it out on puny humans, while the kingdom struggles to bribe him with a fair damsel morsel once a season.

    The Tawny Man Trilogy by Robin Hobb: Icefyre-
    A true dragon is only featured at the end of the third book, but if you read the previous two trilogies (Farseer Trilogy, and the Liveship Traders Trilogy) you will absolutely see an inventive and wonderful look at the place of dragons in the ecology of a medieval fantasy setting. On top of that, Hobb shows three very different ways to represent dragons in a story as you’ll see in the previous two trilogies.

    DragonAge: Flemeth, and the Archdemon-
    Flemeth is a great example of the shape-shifter dragon, who masquerades as a person. Probably one of the only convincing fictional examples I’ve seen in the style of Dungeons and Dragons, with dragons assuming a mortal form to use it for their own agenda. But the archdemon is a really great to me. It looks like a dragon, it behaves as a dragon, but really it’s a hive mind of the Blight. It just took a nasty shape.

    Earthsea: Kalessin-
    A possible creator of the world, a creature like Kalessin is a wonderful mixture of the aforementioned archetypes for both eastern and western dragons. Being an ephemeral force of nature, as mysterious and predatory as a mythic beast, but as intelligent and elusive as a spiritual being.

    • Thanks for adding dragons to the mix! And you hint at Dungeons and Dragons, and I would argue that in a more comprehensive discussion of dragons, Dragonlance bears mention, which features dragons shifted into people.

      In regards to Dragon Age… two of my favorite games (and I think I’m one of the few who liked the story of the 2nd more than the 1st… but both were great). I’ve played both games through, and you talking about Flemeth intrigues me. I’ve never read any of the DA books or other stories, so my knowledge is limited to the main games. It’s possible I missed something, but I didn’t take her for a dragon; I interpreted her as a long-lived witch who steals bodies of her apprentices, who can shapeshift into many things, including the form of a dragon. But, I’m ready to concede I missed a detail in the dialogue. As for the Archdemon, it was neat to see him as a dragon, but I also didn’t consider him one since, as you say, he’s a demon who chose that form. But, it’s largely academic and semantic, and he bears mention.

      Great point on Earthsea. It’s been a long time since I’ve read those books, but really loved them growing up.

      I’m not familiar with Robin Hobb. I’ll have to check him out; thanks for the tip.

      As for the three dragons I chose to speak about: that’s simply an artifact at the time this blog post was written and the content I was enjoying at the time. The Hobbit was about to be released, so Smaug was in the public mind; Skyrim was *just* released, to the geek culture was ablaze with Alduin (and I was the proud owner of the Alduin figurine from the collector’s edition, staring at me from the hearth as I wrote this), and we were winding up Cataclysm in World of Warcraft, which was the demise of Deathwing. Three inconic dragons *for that moment in time*, at least if you consider the large WoW demographic (yes, I know not every afficionado plays WoW). I’m sorry you’re disappointed by the WoW reference, and this post was not intended to say these are the only or best dragons out there, for everyone. I appreciate you adding to the discussion.

      cheers!
      Kyle

  4. Sorry, but I think the smartass who wrote this doesn’t know a damn about Alduin, or didn’t play Skyrim and just took the information from some noob’s walkthrough.
    1. Smaug could eat Alduin for breakfast? Tell me another one please. Remember Alduin is the World-Eater? He literally swallowed planet Nirn 2 times already, before the Merethic Era! You think another dragon would be a match for him, being big as he is? After eating a planet?
    2. Alduin is immortal. He IS a God. The Dragonborn is just a mortal body with a dragon soul (so essentially he is a dragon too, but just a normal one), and Alduin was the First-Born of Akatosh, the very first Dragon ever. The Dragonborn does not have that much power to absorb his soul, and Alduin’s soul goes up to the skies of Sovngarde, after his mortal body got destroyed, possibly claimed by his father Akatosh. While the Dragonborn can and will die (yes he could be raised again, I know since only a dragon can permamently destroy him, but it’s highly unlikely that Alduin will do that, after all what happened), Alduin will still live forever and one day he will come back, as Paarthurnax & the Greybeards said. He can be deniable but not destroyable. Well maybe by the Daedric Princes, or Sithis, can do that but do not mix them to this.

    • Apology accepted (to quote a famous dwarf from a famous movie). 😉

      Ha ha! :-). You must really know your Skyrim. Great game. The “for breakfast” was referring to the size comparison between the art (and the art for Smaug was only rumor-art for the Hobbit movie). If you’ll read a few sentences farther, you’ll see that I did, indeed, side with Alduin by the end of the article. Glad you enjoyed Skyrim… probably my favorite electronic fantasy, and a great capstone to a series I first fell in love with when Daggerfall came out. Thanks for bringing these salient points into this discussion.

      • I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and I know you sided with Alduin, but I had to said it as still many people think Alduin’s soul is absorbed by the Dragonbon and they forget that he is indeed a God. I’m glad you like the Elder Scroll universe, I think this is the most complex artificial universe ever created (I’m NOT sarcastic, please correct me because I want to know if there’s a bigger one). And congratulations, not many people can claim (me neither), to have ever played with Daggerfall.

        • The most complex artificial universe… hmm. Now, that *is* an interesting question. That’s a bit tough to answer because there are so many out there, and many that I’m not familiar with (there’s just so much content these days). So the question I have for you: are you talking specifically game worlds in a computer game (crpg) or are you talking about the entire spec-fic genre, no matter the medium (books, comics, movies, etc.)

          Now, also consider that “most complex” doesn’t necessarily mean “best.” Tamriel is an outstanding world by any count, and “favorite” is largely a matter of personal preference.

          To answer your question considering all artificial universes ever invented, no I don’t believe Tamriel is the most complex out there. It could get there, but it simply hasn’t been around long enough to compete with some of the others. What you do experience, however, is “complexity in every bite” because of the level of detail they put into their games.

          Let’s take a world famous for its complexity (and admittedly once that I’m not an expert on–I seem to be one of the few who had a hard time getting into it): Forgotten Realms. Very complex world, which started (I believe) in the 80s with the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It’s had countless books, modules, games, and video games expanding and fleshing out the world. But, you could pick up a game which has only half the detail of Skyrim, because its focused on one part.

          Getting into worlds I do know: Tolkien. It’s hard to beat his world complexity, because it was his life’s work. When you get into the books, and the backstory books (Silmarillion, Book of Lost Tales, etc.) its an amazingly detailed world. However, I will be the first to admit that a lot of it is dry reading… and very little of it has made its way into video games or the movies.

          Dragonlance is another well developed franchise in the fantasy arena. It’s probably on the scale of Elder Scrolls, if not more so, again simply because there have been so many writers expanding the world.

          If you’re talking any fictional world, Star Wars and Star Trek both are HUGE… when you consider all the books beyond the movies.

          Now, if you want to focus on video game experiences, you would be hard-pressed to beat the Elder Scrolls. The Ultima series was pretty detailed for its day, but they don’t come close, in my opinion. Today, Azeroth (World of Warcraft) is also pretty detailed, if you consider all the expansion sets, side quests, and read the story of the quests as they go. (However, it’s play style isn’t as immersive as Skyrim, in my opinion).

          I *love* word building, and detailed worlds. It’s one of the reason I like Skyrim. I also write books (the first two books of the When Dragons Die trilogy, called Lightfall and Covenant, are out on Amazon.com), and have put a lot of work into the world building and backstory. It doesn’t all become clear in the first book, but the world increases in complexity as the story progresses and peals back the layers of what’s really going on. And, I plan to keep writing books in that world and add to its development with each one.

          Thanks for your post and response!

  5. knowing each really well, even when all the hobbit movies are out, just going by What i know about each, Aludin wins every time. Aludin was only beated because of words created by jul (mortals, man) that no dragon knows “What twisted words have you created”. Words made by man to make a shout made to kill dragons. Even with this the first humans couldn’t defeat him, as he would come back stronger after feeding on the souls of fallen warriors. It was the Dovahkiin who is the only one who could permanently defeat him by devouring or “du” his soul. Aludin ruled over the other Dragons being the 1st born he was the strongest. Smaug can be killed by mortal weapons, Same can not be said about Aludin.

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