dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins… the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow of gold.”
—J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics”
If there is one thing that makes a hero, it is slaying a dragon. One of the greatest dragon-slayers, and one of Tolkien’s greatest influences, was Beowulf, whose story is chronicled in the Old English poem of the same name.
In his life, Beowulf faced three foes. He fought the first and second, the monster Grendel and Grendel’s mother, as a young man in defence the Danes, a group of people who were strangers to him. He defeated both enemies and left the Danes a hero.
His third battle was against the dragon, which he faced as an old man. At this point in his life, Beowulf was king of his own people, the Geats, and the dragon was terrorizing his realm. He followed the dragon to its lair and killed it, but not before becoming mortally wounded. He died and was buried by the sea.
Tolkien said of Beowulf, “Already there it had these two primary features: the dragon, and the slaying of him as the chief deed of the greatest of heroes.”
Tolkien wrote about two dragon-slayers who demonstrated this: Bard the Bowman in The Hobbit, and Farmer Giles in the medieval fable Farmer Giles of Ham. Both men were made king as a reward for their actions.
But there was a third dragon-slayer who was not rewarded, whose life and death were nothing short of tragic: Túrin Turambar, whose story can be found in The Silmarillion.
Túrin’s family was cursed by Morgoth. He lived as a wanderer, bringing misery wherever he went in spite of his great might in battle and the vast number of orcs he killed. He accidentally killed his best friend, Beleg Strongbow, and was responsible for the fall of Nargothrond. He also (unknowingly) married his sister, Nienor. After he killed his dragon, he committed suicide.
Tolkien said that a hero’s greatest deed was to kill a dragon. But, if dragon-slaying is the mark of a hero, why didn’t Túrin get the glory? To Tolkien’s statement I would add this: a hero needs to be worthy of the dragon. Both Bard and Giles were humble and self-sacrificing men, and even though Beowulf was killed by his dragon, Tolkien called it a “right end” for him; it was a death fitting of a king. Túrin’s heroic deeds were tempered by his pride and stubbornness.
I think the best example of this is what happened with the underground kingdom of Nargothrond. Túrin convinced the ruler of Nargothrond to build a bridge at the entrance, but when a warning came from Ulmo to tear it down, Túrin refused. Morgoth, who had been looking for Nargothrond, discovered its whereabouts because of the bridge, and sent the dragon, Glaurung, to destroy it. If if weren’t for Túrin’s pride, Nargothrond may have survived longer.
Glaurung was also the implementer of Túrin’s curse and caused many things in his life to go wrong. When Túrin finally killed him, it was out of vengeance.
This is why I don’t think Tolkien gave Túrin a hero’s end: he constantly scorned the people who loved him, and let his own pride harm others.
True heroes are honourable and humble. They don’t slay their dragons for any other reason than to protect their people. That is what makes them worthy of their dragons, and worthy of their reward. ♦