“Of old was an age when Odin walked…” begins The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, a Norse tale retold and rewritten by J.R.R. Tolkien (Tolkien 66.1). Written in alliterative verse, a style similar to Beowulf, this book is unlike any other book Tolkien has ever written. It is full of adventure, war, and an epic struggle for the possession of wealth. With this in mind, it should be noted that this book has some very significant issues worth writing about. Within The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, Tolkien uses dragons to represent the greed that is welled up inside every man. C.S. Lewis uses this same idea in his book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and by comparing these two books one may be able to see their worldview on greed.
It is key to recognize the prescence of wealth in this book so that one might be able to see why greed might be major problem. One cannot help but think of Tolkien’s magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, when you read this book. The imagery of rings is one of the more common images in this book and it is only a part of the copious descriptions of wealth in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. In such ancient cultures, the acquisition of wealth displayed the greatness and majesty of a king and with a superior hoard he might impose his power on lesser kings. Gold and silver are two main elements which these Germanic tribes desired and it often coated their houses as well as their armor or weapons. This can be seen in the description of Gunnar’s halls, “halls of Rhineland/ high and golden” or Sigurd’s halls, “their highroofed halls/ hung with splendor;/ boards and beakers,/ benches, gilded” (Tolkien 265.37, 137. 31) . Even their art gleamed with metals from the earth obtained through war, “the falls of Andvari/ framed of silver,/ the gold of Andvari/ she gleaming wove ( Tolkien 256.11). Not only was the wealth used to decorate houses or tapestries, but it was used to bargain with: “With gold and silver/ shall his greed be stayed,/ with gold and silver/ or gleaming swords?” (Tolkien 255.7) Such wealth displayed a vital part of the Norse culture and it is no surprise that these warriors soon left their Northern homes to plunder abroad in longships to satisfy their greed.
Within the book, Sigurd acquires a good deal of his wealth by killing a dragon named Fafnir. Fafnir was once a man, the brother of Regin, Sigurd’s tutor. Within the quest for Fafnir’s gold, one can see the idea of greed. It is Regin’s greed and desire for vengeance that blinds him to instigate Sigurd, a much worthier man, to kill Fafnir (Tolkien 104-5). The dragon Fafnir even speaks of this when he tries to persuade Sigurd to not go after the gold:
Nay! Regin wrought this,
rogue and master!
O son of Sigmund!
sooth I tell thee:
my guarded gold
gleams with evil,
bale it bringeth
to both my foes. (Tolkien 110.32)
Furthermore, the lines hint of greed as an evil force that brings “bale” or suffering. Earlier in the tale, Andvari, the first owner of the treasure hoard, curses the hoard with these words, “My ring I will curse/ with ruth and woe!” ( Tolkien 69. 10). But what is the effect of such cursed gold? The curses of this gold affected Sigurd by creating strife in his own house so as to instigate men against him (Tolkien 169.49). In the beginning of the tale, the gold was cursed enough to turn Fafnir into a dragon (Tolkien 205). Fafnir, once a man, put on the Helm of Horror and became a dragon (Tolkien 104.13). This is quite similar to C.S Lewis’s children’s story The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Eustace Scrubb is turned into dragon by dreaming about gold and putting a bracelet on his arm. Fafnir is also plagued with dreams of gold which equate him with many other literary dragons, Eustace being one as well as Smaug, the dragon from another Tolkien tale, The Hobbit. In all three cases, the dragons lie down on piles of gold to sleep. Fafnir lies down upon a legendary hoard accumulated by a dwarf as does Smaug. Eustace also slept on a pile of treasure and as Lewis puts it, “Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself” (91). What could be the connection between dragons and greed? Let us consider the peculiar cases of Eustace and Fafnir since they were both human at one time (although Eustace did overcome his dragonish likeness and ways).
Fafnir was the son of Hreidmar, a man who caught Andvari the dwarf and killed and plundered him. Fafnir was quite different from his brother, Regin. The tale never tells us if Fafnir really did anything but sleep and kill his father: “there Fafnir lay/ by the fire sleeping,/ fell-hearted son,/ fiercely dreaming” (Tolkien 102.9). Fafnir, overcome by his greed for the gold, killed his father and drove his brother from him. There is something interesting to note in this situation; the golden hoard is never shared and it always entails strife of some kind. Notice that there were harsh dealings between Hreidmar and Andvari when Hreidmar stole Andvari’s treasure from him, “All must Andvari,/ all surrender,/ light rings and heavy,/ or life itself” (Tolkien 103.11). And then there was strife when Hreidmar claimed his lordship over the hoard,
Shall not brethren share
In brother’s ransom
their grief to gladden?—
gold is healing.
The wreathed rings
I will rule alone,
As long as life is
They leave me never! (Tolkien 103.12)
It is at this point that Fafnir’s heart deceives him and he kills his father. Again the hoard ensues strife when Regin and Sigurd come to kill Fafnir and take the treasure. Once they kill Fafnir, Regin desires to take the treasure for his own and, being persuaded by birds, Sigurd kills him, taking the treasure for his own. Greed is that vice which can permeate the soul and turn it against others in pursuit of whatever the greedy one fancies. That is the chief issue at hand with the hoard of Fafnir.
Eustace’s situation is a little different since he doesn’t stay a dragon but he does epitomize the essence of a greedy person. Dr. Don W. King points out in his article “Narnia and the Seven Deadly Sins”: “In Eustace Lewis illustrates the negative, egocentric effect greed has upon an individual. Such a person is useless (Eustace) to himself and to society. The greedy person is only interested in elevation of self and is more than willing to use others for his own advantage” (1). Although Eustace is overcome by greedy dragonish thoughts, the horror of being rejected by his friends and being hated drives him to hate his changed appearance. Even though he is a dragon, he seeks to make up for his “egocentric” ways and be a help to society. He sought to be nice and help the company out by obtaining food for them and a mast for the ship (Lewis 101). Yet this experience, after he had been healed by Aslan, did have a life changing effect on him. As Lewis puts it, “To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses” (Lewis 112).
So what is the connection between greed and dragons in these two stories? Throughout history and literary history, there have been stories of greedy men and their downfalls. Such men are not helpful to others since they wish to take profit for themselves just as Dr. King previously said. In most all literature and history, dragons are generally portrayed as the oppressors of society; they wish to destroy it not to help it. It is in this way that one may be able to see the connection between greed and dragons. In much the same way, dragons, at least in nearly every book of Western literature that I have read, save Eragon, display dragons as evil. In fact Tolkien would say in his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” that the greatest deed of a hero was slaying a dragon (6). That is why many nations, including England, have a hero who killed a dragon as their patron saint. Dragons are not laughable creatures that one could side with. Tolkien has said, “Never laugh at live dragons” (Tolkien, Hobbit, 227). Through looking at Tolkien and Lewis’s work, the overarching basis for why the image of greed is associated with dragons is because the desire or love for great wealth or the idolatry of any possession can become so obsessive and corrupting it turns men into beasts when they try to satisfy their greed. This is certainly a reality in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It is strange how our Western culture has taken this idea for granted. Whether dragons are real or not is another argument but I think one can see how greed makes men “dragonish”.
The Holy Bible. Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2007. English Standard Vers. Print.
Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Harper Collins Publishers. 1952. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”. Scribd. 6. 3 February 2010. Web.
—. The Hobbit. New York: Ballantine Books. 1997. 227. Print.
—. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: Harper Collins Publishers. 2009. Print.