Dragonomics: Smaug and Climate Change

Today, we talk about dragons. I refer specifically to the greedy, northern (often fire-breathing) variety as described in Beowulf and featured in Tolkien’s Hobbit, and I will consider how these monsters present environmental catastrophe as a direct result of hoarding and greed.

My discussion of dragons and climate change continues my recent series of blogs interested in placing medieval literature (and in this case also modern medievalism) in conversation with current crises. This blog develops an earlier argument made in a paper at a “Tolkien in Vermont” conference (2014), titled “Dragonomics: Smaug and Pollution on Middle-Earth,” in which I argue that pollution in Tolkien’s Hobbit is linked to both the literal destruction by the dragon, and the rampant greed that motivates Smaug and ultimately initiates the plunder and violence at the Battle of Five Armies.

‘Dragon Hoard,’ Stephen Hickman (1985).

In the past, I have defined dragonomics as “the relationship between greed and catastrophe characteristic of certain representations of medieval dragons (especially the Beowulf-dragon),” which I separately argued also may apply to the study of Smaug in Tolkien’s Hobbit. In Beowulf, both the draca “dragon” slain by Sigemund (892), and the draca slain by Beowulf (2211), are depicted as excessively greedy, possessing heaps of beagas “rings” (894 and 3105) and frætwe “treasures” (896 and 3133). To emphasize the extent of their respective plunder, the dragon in the Sigemund episode is named hordes hyrde “guardian of the hoard” (887), and likewise the Beowulf-dragon is characterized repeatedly as hordweard “hoard-guardian” (2293, 2302, 2554, 2593), an epithet otherwise used throughout poem to describe kings, such as Hroðgar (1047) and Beowulf (1852).

Smaug’s hoard is equally impressive, and Tolkien describes the dragon atop his treasure: “Beneath him, under all his limbs and his coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light” (215). Likewise when Smaug attacks, Bard of Lake-town acknowledges that the dragon is “the only king under the Mountain we have ever known” (248). Smaug similarly styles himself a king in his riddling conversation with Bilbo. Before he journeys to destroy Esgaroth, Smaug proudly remarks that “They shall see me and remember who is the real King under the Mountain!” (233).

Smaug and Bilbo, from Jackson’s ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ (2013).

Indeed, it is the hoarded wealth of a dying people that lures the Beowulf-dragon to the barrow (2270-72), and similarly, in Tolkien’s Hobbit, we learn that the dwarves’ obscene wealth is what lured Smaug to Erebor in the first place. Thorin explicitly notes how their hoard attracted Smaug:

“So my grandfather’s halls became full of armour and jewels and carvings and cups, and the toy market of Dale was the wonder of the North. Undoubtedly, that was what brought the dragon” (23).

Although the greedy wyrm “serpent” (891) that Sigemund kills is not described as particularly destructive, the avaricious Beowulf-dragon becomes belligerent once its wealth is disturbed by an anonymous thief, who steals its dryncfæt deore “precious sippy-cup” (2254). The narrator explains that after the wyrm (2287) is robbed of his prized chalice, he ravages the countryside causing widespread destruction.

Manuscript image of Beowulf, British Library, Cotton Vitellius a.xv, f.184r.
Beowulf, 2312-27
Ða se gæst ongan   gledum spiwan,
beorht hofu bærnan;   bryneleoma stod
eldum on andan.   No ðær aht cwices
lað lyftfloga   læfan wolde.
Wæs þæs wyrmes wig   wide gesyne,
nearofages nið   nean ond feorran,
hu se guðsceaða   Geata leode
hatode ond hynde;   hord eft gesceat,
dryhtsele dyrnne,   ær dæges hwile.
Hæfde landwara   lige befangen,
bæle ond bronde.   Beorges getruwode,
wiges ond wealles.   Him seo wen geleah.
Þa wæs Biowulfe   broga gecyðed
snude to soðe,   þæt his sylfes ham,
bolda selest,   brynewylmum mealt,
gifstol Geata.
“Then the spirit began to spew flames, burning the bright buildings. The burning-light [i.e. dragon] remained in anger toward all humans. The loathsome air-flier wanted to leave nothing alive there. The war of the serpent, the enmity of the narrow-hostile one, was widely seen, near and far—how the war-harmer hated and humiliated the Geatish people. It shot back to its hoard, its secret lordly-hall, a while before daybreak. The land-citizens had been surrounded by fire, by flame and brand. It trusted in its barrow, war and wall. The expectation for him was deceived. Then was the terror known to Beowulf, quickly to truth, that his own home, the best of houses, melted in burning-waves, the gift-throne of the Geats.”

In Tolkien’s Hobbit, widespread devastation occurs when Smaug first plunders the wealth from the dwarves, unlike in Beowulf, where the hoarders are long-dead (2236-70). Pollution seems to accompany Smaug, and in Thorin’s retelling of the dwarves’ exile from Erebor, he describes how “A fog fell on Dale, and in the fog the dragon came on them” (23). Smaug again causes calamity when his hoard is disturbed, and Bilbo—like the Beowulf-thief—steals a treasured cup from the dragon. Bilbo accidentally directs Smaug’s attention toward Lake-town, and when the dragon attacks, he arrives with “shadows of dense black” (249) that engulfs the city.

Smaug attacking Lake-town, Rankin and Bass’ ‘The Hobbit’ (1977).

Although both dragons lay waste to the surrounding region, Smaug’s pollution of Middle-Earth expands well beyond the scope of his medieval predecessor. Indeed, as a result of Smaug, the environment has been poisoned, and a once lush and thriving place had withered as a result of excessive smoke and heat.

I would argue that for Tolkien—whose environmentalism is no secret—Smaug represents a more contemporary form of dragonomics with special attention toward the ways in which greed drives war and industry, which pollutes the land and skies. The smog episodes in London throughout the 19th and 20th centuries–which culminated in the “Great Smog” of 1952 that killed 4,000 peoplemay not be part of the philological jest of the dragon’s name (since Tolkien describes the etymology of Smaug as derived from the past tense smaug of the proto-Germanic smugan “to squeeze through a hole” in his 1938 Observer letter); nevertheless, Smaug becomes a representation of the dragonomics more closely associated with industrialization, which promised wealth but delivered also ecological catastrophe. Tolkien emphasizes that “his hot breath shriveled the grass” (219) and “The dragon had withered all the pleasant green” (229).

London during the Great Smog of 1952, Associated Newspapers /REX.

Smaug is characteristically avaricious, and Thorin describes him as “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm called Smaug” (23).” Tolkien refers to Smaug’s environmental impact as “The Desolation of the Dragon” (203, 255), and the author imagines an earlier, greener and more plentiful time before the dragon made his mark:

“There was little grass, and before long there was neither bush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished” (203).

I would argue that Smaug’s pollution changes the climate of Middle-Earth, affecting the land and the skies, but also the rivers and woods (such as the poisoned river and forests encountered in Mirkwood), and even the Elf-king’s woodland realm and the human merchant city of Lake-town. A conversation between Bilbo and Balin emphasizes Smaug’s lingering effect. Bilbo wagers that ‘The dragon is still alive—or I imagine so from the smoke’ (204), but Balin is worried about the lasting pollution of Smaug, and so the dwarf objects. Balin explains how Smaug “might be gone away some time … and still I expect smokes and steams would come out of the gates: all the halls within must be filled with his foul reek” (204). Bilbo discovers the truth of the dwarf’s words, for even when Smaug is not at home, “the worm-stench was heavy in the place, and the taste of vapour was on his tongue” (235).

Smog in Lianyungang, China (2013), Chinafotopress/Getty Images.

I offer this interpretation of Tolkien’s dragon, because I would suggest that Smaug may be productively read as a representation of climate change, in the sense that the dragon is a force of smoke and heat which destroys ecosystems and disrupts the environment in much deeper and more long-lasting ways. Indeed, Tolkien reiterates the ecological cost of Smaug’s presence, and he describes how “his hot breath shriveled the grass” (219) and “The dragon had withered all the pleasant green” (229).

Since the president’s declaration of a national emergency with regard to the alleged immigration crisis on the southern border of the United States, many have already begun to discuss the potential for a future president to declare a national emergency in order to act on climate change more comprehensively, if necessary. We are already imagining our environmental crisis as the monster it threatens to be.

Cal Fire firefighter in Igo, CA (2018), Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee via AP.

At the center of our modern struggles with dragonomics, I would argue, the problem of avarice endures. It is greed, especially from the fossil fuel lobby and the major energy companies (many linked to nations themselves), which have stalled and prevented developments in renewable energies in order to reduce our carbon footprint. And greed continues to obstruct human efforts to act upon the issue, both globally and as individual nations, as the looming dragon grows ever bigger and more ominous.

Dragonomics is not simply about making money, it is about plundering it and more importantly hoarding it. I have already referenced how greed motivates Smaug’s plunder, and I will turn now to Tolkien’s description of dragon-hoarding:

“Dragons steal gold and jewels…and they guard their plunder as long as they live….and never enjoy a brass ring of it. Indeed they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the market value” (23).

‘Smaug,’ Sam Kieser (2012).

The socially detrimental result of hoarding obscene wealth marks the very pinnacle of greed in the Hobbit, which Tolkien describes specifically as “dragon-sickness” (305).  I would argue that hoarding is also a major motivating force when it comes to our environmental crisis, especially with regard to our delayed and incoherent responses to the issues climate change presents. This is especially true with regard to the oil companies and related special interests linked to fossil fuels, which in their attempts to consolidate and retain their wealth and virtual monopoly on energy, have awoken a terrible dragon, one that will dwarf Smaug and will require heroism—not only from those in leadership positions, but also from the people. Indeed, when it comes to the crisis of global pollution and climate change, Bilbo’s sentiments ring truer to me than ever: “‘This whole place still stinks of dragon….and it makes me sick’” (267).

Thorin’s final words to Bilbo, Rankin and Bass’ ‘The Hobbit’ (1977).

Still, it is Thorin’s famous deathbed realization that speaks most directly to today’s crisis, if the goal is to work together globally in order to combat our collective environmental crisis. The moment calls for a collective change of attitude, particularly from those who maintain that profits and economics necessarily trump ecological concerns. As even the miserly dwarf-king, formerly seduced by “the bewitchment of the hoard” (240), must admit at the end of his life: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world” (290).

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

 

Editions and Translations:

Tolkien, J. R. R. 1937. The Hobbit, or, There and back again. George Allen & Unwin.
Pages correspond to:
Tolkien, J. R. R. 1937. The Hobbit, or, There and back again (Mass Market Edition). HarperCollins Publishers. 2012.

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2000.

Klaeber’s Beowulf (Fourth Edition), ed. R.D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, John D. Niles. University of Toronto Press. 2008.

Further Reading:

Abram, Christopher. Evergreen Ash: Ecology and Catastrophe in Old Norse Myth and Literature. University of Virginia Press. 2019.

Bates, Robin. “Dragon Billionaires Assaulting America.” Better Living Through Beowulf. September 19, 2012.

Cooke, William. “Who Cursed Whom, and When? The Cursing of the Hoard and Beowulf’s Fate.” Medium Aevum 76.2 (2007): 207-224.

Evans, Jonathan D. “A Semiotics and Traditional Lore: The Medieval Dragon Tradition.” Journal of Folklore Research 22 (1985): 85-112.

—. “‘As Rare as They Are Dire’: Old Norse Dragons, Beowulf and the Deutsche Mythologie”: 207-269. In The Shadow-Walkers: Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous, ed. Tom Shippey. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 2005.

Lawrence, William Witherle. “The Dragon and His Lair in Beowulf.” PMLA 33.4 (1918): 547-583.

Lee, Alvin A. Gold-hall and Earth-dragon: Beowulf as Metaphor. University of Toronto Press. 1998.

Lionarons, Joyce Tally. The Medieval Dragon: The Nature of the Beast in Germanic Literature. Hisarlik Press. 1998.

Park, Jisung and James Hacker. “The Derivation of Smaug: Dragons, Methane, and Climate Change.” Sense and Sustainability. January, 20, 2014.

Rauer, Christine. Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues. Boydell and Brewer. 2000.

Shabala, Alex. “From Smaug to Smog: Historical carbon emissions due to dragons in Middle Earth.” Climate System Analysis Group. January 27, 2014.

Shippey, T.A. The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. Mariner Books. 2003.

Silber, Patricia. “Gold and Its Significance in Beowulf.” Annuale Mediaevale 18 (1977): 5-19.

 

Undergrad Wednesdays – The Edge of the Woods and Shifting Identities in Sir Orfeo and The Lord of the Rings

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester in response to Maj-Britt Frenze’s prompt for her course on “Tolkien’s Myths and Monsters.”]

The Prologue of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods ends with a dramatic, “Into the woods and out of the woods and home before dark!” as the characters make a determined effort to convince themselves that “the woods are just trees, the trees are just wood,” and that there is nothing to be afraid of in the woods. Though the wordplay is comical, their concern is real, and not altogether unmerited. The idea that woods are a place of fantastic adventures is a common theme in both medieval and modern works.

Perhaps more interesting than the adventures that occur within the woods, however, is the way entering and exiting the woods tend to mark significant turning points in the characters’ identities. This is particularly evident in Sir Orfeo, an anonymous Middle English text, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.

Sir Orfeo: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Jean-Baptiste-Camille_Corot_-_Orph%C3%A9e.jpg

In Sir Orfeo, after his wife is taken, grief-stricken Orfeo forsakes his kingdom and enters the wooded wilderness with nothing but a beggar’s cloak and his harp. He effectually leaves behind his kingly identity, retaining only his identity as a musician. The author emphasizes this shift in Orfeo’s identity with four striking comparisons between his kingly identity and his new beggarly identity (241-56):

He once had ermine worn and vair,
On bed had purple linen fair,
Now on the heather hard doth like,
In leaves is wrapped and grasses dry.
He once had castles owned and towers,
Water and wild, and woods, and flowers,
Now though it turn to frost or snow,
this king with moss his bed must strow.
He once had many a noble knight
Before him kneeling, ladies bright,
Now nought to please him doth he keep;
Only wild serpents by him creep.
He that once had in plenty sweet
All dainties for his drink and meat,
Now he must grub and dig all day,
With roots his hunger to allay.

At the end of ten years, Orfeo finally sees his wife again, and, in following her party, leaves the wooded wilderness and enters “a country fair / as bright as sun in summer air” (Sir Orfeo 351-2). As he leaves the woods, Orfeo alters his beggarly identity, assuming the identity of travelling minstrel offering service to the king in order to gain entrance to the mysterious castle.

Finally, after Orfeo rescues his wife and exits the metaphorical woods of testing his steward’s loyalty, he reassumes his kingly identity, bringing his kingdom back to the joy of former days.

Old Forest: https://bohemianweasel.com/2017/11/21/the-old-forest/

Another character whose identity shifts in his woodland journeys is Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring. In chapter 4, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin begin the journey that ultimately takes Frodo to Mount Doom. When they begin their travels, leaving the Shire and entering the Old Forest, all four hobbits are relatively carefree. Merry even says triumphantly, “There! You have left the Shire, and are now outside, and on the edge of the Old Forest,” as if leaving the Shire was to be the worst part of their journey (Tolkien 124).

Shortly after entering the Old Forest, Frodo experiences the first symptoms of his identity shift. As the hobbits lose their way, we learn that “a heavy weight was settling heavily on Frodo’s heart” (Tolkien 127). It is in the Old Forest that Frodo completely adopts the identity of grim determination that follows him throughout his journey to Mount Doom.

Later in the Fellowship’s journey, Frodo has a brief chance to reassume a relatively carefree identity as the party enters the woods of Lothlórien. Though the chain of events that follow Frodo’s entrance to the Old Forest have completely altered his identity and made mirth impossible, entering Lothlórien does give Frodo a sense of hope as he takes in the purity of its woods and realizes that “on the land of Lórien there was no stain” (Tolkien 393).

Finally, the phial of the light of Eärendil’s star that Galadriel gives to Frodo as the Fellowship prepares to exit Lothlórien proves to be a beacon of light and hope for Frodo, helping to carry him through the rest of his journey.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/clairity/199505029

Both the tale of Orfeo in Sir Orfeo and Frodo’s experiences in The Fellowship of the Ring can be summed up in another section of the Prologue of Into the Woods:

Into the woods
without regret,
The choice is made,
the task is set.
Into the woods,
but not forget-
ting why I’m on the journey.

Orfeo knows that his life is nothing without his queen, so he chooses to go bravely into the woods to find her, accepting the inevitable changes that he will undergo on his journey.

Frodo recognizes the severity of the task Gandalf presents to him and knows that once he chooses to set out, there can be no turning back.

As we learn from Orfeo and Frodo, a journey into the woods is often not as simple as “into the woods and out of the woods and home before dark.” A journey into the woods is not easy, and a journey into the woods will often change the journeyer. However, as the end of Into the Woods so neatly sums up:

Into the woods—you have to grope
But that’s the way you learn to cope
Into the woods to find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey.

Carolyn Bergdolt
University of Notre Dame

————-

Texts & Other Sources:

“Sir Orfeo.” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo. Translated by J. R. R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin, 1975, pp. 123-137.

Sondheim, Stephen. Lyrics to “Children Will Listen/Finale.” Genius, 2018, genius.com/Original-broadway-cast-of-into-the-woods-children-will-listen-finale-lyrics.

—. Lyrics to “Prologue: Into the Woods.” Genius, 2018, genius.com/Original-broadway-cast-of-into-the-woods-prologue-into-the-woods-lyrics.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Skin-changers: Werewolves in the Medieval and Modern Imagination

This Halloween, I’d like to talk about werewolves, one of the classic monsters whose image helps to characterize this—my favorite—holiday.

Werewolves, while sometimes overshadowed by the more frequent and high-profile appearance of other monsters such as vampires and zombies in popular literature, have a mythology that has endured for millennia and still finds a way to haunt our cultural imagination. When they have appeared in popular literature, werewolves often do so in the context of a prescribed, age-old struggle between their kind and vampires. Werewolf-vampire racial animosity is dramatized in the film series Underworld (2003), which injects an unlikely love story into the ancient war between these monstrous groups. This conflict has since become a regular feature of modern vampire films, such as in Van Helsing (2004) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014), and in TV series such as Twilight (2008) and True Blood (2008). Penny Dreadful (2014), a show which delights in Victorian monstrosities, also nods to this tradition when two werewolf characters (Ethan and Kaetenay) are forced to battle a gang of vampires, while Hemlock Grove (2013) alternatively features both a werewolf named Peter and a vampyric upir named Roman who share mutual respect and admiration.

Vampire leader Viktor (Bill Nighy) battles werewolf in Len Wiseman’s ‘Underworld’ (2004).

Generally whenever we see werewolves in modern popular literature, it is in this shared context, which is also true of the the TV series Being Human (2011); however, werewolves have (in a few cases) been given center stage. The classic and most obvious examples are the films An American Werewolf in London (1981) and An American Werewolf in Paris (1997).

More recently, in Harry Potter and the of Azkaban (2004), Remus Lupin, who is one of the wizard professors at Hogwartz and also a werewolf, is a main protagonists in the film, despite that vampires feature nowhere in the series and are rarely mentioned even in J. K. Rowling’s novels. For Teen Wolf (2011), a TV series focused on a teenage boy’s struggle with lycanthropy, the absence  of vampires is a point of pride. Often werewolves have been gendered male, but the TV series Bitten (2014) challenges this stereotype by centering the plot on a female werewolf protagonist and her struggles within a werewolf patriarchy. Unfortunately, and counterproductively, the series is plagued by a consistent hyper-sexualization of her character in a manner all too familiar from the modern vampire craze. I’d like to believe this inconsistent and contradictory messaging might have contributed to the show’s discontinuation in 2016, but somehow I doubt it.

Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) transforming into a werewolf in Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ (2004).

Today, we will discuss skin-changing and werewolfism in the medieval literary traditions of Northern Europe, primarily as contained in the context of the Old Norse fornaldarsǫgur. We will also consider how lycanthropy in the Old Norse Hrólfs saga kraka and Vǫlsunga saga inform certain instances of skin-changers in modern literature, especially in the fantasy worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin.

Numerous academic blogs have explored the topic of lycanthropy, usually—and unsurprisingly—around this same time of year. In fact, the website Sententiae Antiquae has, in years passed, written a blog series on werewolves in the classical tradition, including blogs on Petronius’ werewolf story from Satyricon (62), Pliny the Elder’s emphasis on clothing and description of werewolf superstitions in his Natural History (8.80-4), and an overview of classical lycanthropy producing a list of sources including, Herodotus’ Histories, Plato’s Republic, Pausanias’ Geography of Greece, anonymous Greek Medical Treatises on the Treatment of Lycanthropy, St. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, and the 11th century medieval Latin poem, Poemata 9.841, by a monk named Michael Psellus (which is notably influenced by Greek medical treatises). These blogs have tended to focus especially on classical superstitions, such as nakedness being a prerequisite for transformation and the belief that a wolf’s gaze could paralyze humans.

Miniature of wolves and (below) the man paralyzed by their gaze from the ‘Rochester Bestiary’ in BL, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 29r.

The British Library has also composed a blog on lycanthropy in the context of the influence of classical werewolf mythology on later medieval literature. This blog references classical werewolf stereotypes primarily derived from Pliny’s description of versipelles ‘skin-changers’ (his term for werewolves) in Natural History, and then moves to consider especially Bisclavret, the famous Breton lay by Marie de France, and Gerald of Wales’ description of an Irish folktale concerning lycanthropy in his Topographica Hibernica, both of which present a very positive image of a werewolf, complete with the capacity for human understanding and compassion.

Two werewolves and the priest from Gerald of Wales’ ‘Topographica Hibernica’ in BL Royal MS 13 B. viii, f. 18r.

However, as mentioned earlier, werewolves appear also in the vernacular traditions of medieval Scandinavia, and this blog aims to expand the web-conversation surrounding versipelles ‘skin-changers’ in medieval literature to include examples from Old Norse saga prose literature, which contain numerous references to humans transforming into various beasts, usually wolves or bears.

This Old Norse tradition of skin-changers contributes directly to Tolkien’s character of Beorn, the werebear from The Hobbit (1937). Gandalf describes Beorn in chapter VII “Queer Lodgings” when Thorin and his company are traveling through the Misty Mountains:

“He [Beorn] is a skin-changer. He changes his skin: sometimes he is a huge black bear, sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard. I cannot tell you much more, though that ought to be enough. Some say that he is a bear descended from the great and ancient bears of the mountains that lived there before the giants came. Other say that he is a man descended from the first men who lived before Smaug or the other dragons came into this part of the world, and before the goblins came into the hills out of the North. I cannot say, though I fancy the last is the true tale. He is not the sort of person to ask questions of. At any rate he is under no enchantment but his own.”

Gandalf (Ian Mckellen) speaks with Beorn in bear-form in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ (2013).

Beorn, like his namesake Bjǫrn (a hero from Hrólfs saga kraka), transforms physically from man to bear—though Bjǫrn’s transformations are the product of a curse by his evil stepmother, Queen Hvít, as opposed to Beorn who seems in full control of his metamorphoses in The Hobbit. Jesse Byock’s The Saga of the King Hrolf Kraki reads:

“She [Hvít] then struck him [Bjǫrn] with her wolfskin gloves, telling him to become a cave bear, grim and savage: ‘You will eat no food other than your own father’s livestock and, in feeding yourself, you will kill more than has ever been observed before. You will never be released from the spell, and your awareness of this disgrace will be more dreadful to you than no remembrance at all.’ Then Bjorn disappeared, and no one knew what had become of him…. Next to be told is that the king’s cattle were being killed in large numbers by a grey bear, large and fierce. One evening it happened that Bera, the freeman’s daughter, saw the savage bear. It approached her unthreateningly. She thought she recognized in the bear the eyes of Bjorn, the king’s son, and so she did not run away. The beast then moved away from her, but she followed it all the way until it came to a cave. When she entered the cave, a man was standing there” (37).

This passage describes the power of the queen’s curse to physically transform Bjǫrn, which leads ultimately to his death at the hands of his own father and his warriors. However, it also emphasizes that, while Bjǫrn is dangerous to the livestock, he retains his humanity and at night transforms back into a man.

Beorn in bear-form in ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ by Justin Gerard (2009).

The character of Bǫðvar Bjarki, son of Bjǫrn (who too shares characteristics and some parallel achievements with Beorn from The Hobbit), also from Hrólfs saga kraka, trances and in doing so is able to inhabit the mind of a bear and control its actions. This is particularly crucial during the saga’s climactic battle between the monstrous army of Hjǫvard and Skuld and the forces of King Hrólf.

The ability to enter into and take over an animal’s consciousness, as a form of shape-shifting through meditation, appears also in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (1991)—and corresponding HBO series Game of Thrones (2011)in the contexts of characters called ‘wargs’ who possess this distinct ability. This group includes a number of those in the Stark family (whose family sigil is appropriately a direwolf). In Martin’s series, characters described as wargs are always from the wintry North, and regularly use their possessed animals to battle their enemies, as in Hrólfs saga kraka.

Robb Stark and his direwolf Grey Wind confront a captured Jaime Lannister in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ (2011).

The Old Norse Vǫlsunga saga, more famous for its dragon and dwarf (namely, Fáfnir and Regin) than its werewolves, does nevertheless have a section in which Sigmundr and Sinfjǫtli specifically wear wolf-pelts in order to transform themselves into wolves and roam the wilderness together in wolf-form. Jesse Byock’s The Saga of the Volsungs reads:

‘One time, they went again to the forest to get themselves some riches, and they found a house. Inside it were two sleeping men, with thick gold rings. A spell had been cast upon them: wolfskins hung over them in the house and only every tenth day could they shed the skins. They were the sons of kings. Sigmund and Sinfjotli put the skins on and could not get them off. And the weird power was there as before; they howled like wolves, both understanding the sounds’ (44).

This passage describes the ability to ‘skin-change’ into a wolf by literally wearing a wolf’s skin. This version of ‘skin-changing’ is picked up and adapted in two of Martin’s fictional works: his short story “In the Lost Lands” (1982) and his novella The Skin-Trade (1988).

Illustration of Grey Alys from George R. R. Martin’s ‘In the Lost Lands’ (1982).

In Martin’s short story, a character named Boyce travels into the formidable ‘Lost Lands’ to the north, which constitute an endless frozen wilderness, with a witch named Grey Alys (who borrows heavily from mythology of Freya, especially with regard to her cloak of feathers).

I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t yet and might be interested in reading this text, except to say that lycanthropy appears initially as a physical transformation, but by the end we learn that wearing the skin of a werewolf can produce the same metamorphosis for those whom the transformation isn’t biological.

Cover of George R. R. Martin’s ‘The Skin Trade’ (1988).

Similarly, in his later novella, The Skin-Trade, Martin establishes a world in which both biology and werewolf skin-wearing can result in lycanthropy. Werewolf fans may be happy to learn that The Skin-Trade is currently ‘in development’ by Cinemax under the direction of scriptwriter Kalinda Vazquez, who has written for other TV series such as Prison Break (2005) and Once Upon a Time (2011). However, particularly because there is currently no clear sense as to when Cinemax and Vazquez will have their version of The Skin-Trade ready for the silver screen, it may still be a while before there is a werewolf series to rival HBO’s True Blood or AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame


Online Resources:

Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (8.80-4)
Petronius’ Satyricon (62)
Marie de France’s Bisclavret 
Gerald of Wales’ Topographica Hibernica
Hrólfs saga kraka

Vǫlsunga saga

Old Norse Saga Translations:

  • Byock, Jesse. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. London, England: Penguin Books, 1998.
  • Byock, Jesse. The Saga of the Volsungs. London, England: Penguin Books, 1999.