Game of Thrones: The Overthrow of the Patriarchy in Westeros? (An Opinion Piece)

George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is currently one of the most popular fantasy series, both on television and in print, and some have begun to describe the work alongside J. R. R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings and J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter. As with Tolkien and Rowling, Martin borrows readily from medieval history and literature, but somewhat differently; Martin seems at times to invert certain fantasy genre expectations and stereotypes. His fantasy series centers on themes generally associated with modern medievalism, especially issues of rightful rulership, noble lineage, courtly politics, codes of chivalry, medieval warfare, ancient prophecy, arcane magic, mysterious monsters and spiritual mysticism. However, Martin’s somewhat more innovative characterizations and reimagining of traditions are what I have personally found most enjoyable about reading Song of Ice and Fire and viewing Game of Thrones.

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) with her sword, Needle

In particular, I appreciate how Martin highlights the failure of the patriarchy. At the beginning of Game of Thrones (both the book and the film), most of the powerful houses and many of the kingdoms are ruled by strong men—the seven kingdoms and the stormlands under Robert Baratheon, the north under Eddard Stark, the westerlands under Tywin Lannister, the iron islands under Balon Greyjoy, and the Dothraki khalasar under Khal Drogo. Even the exiled Viserys Targaryen held his family’s claim to the iron throne, though he could hardly be considered strong in any sense.

Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide), Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), and Viserys Targaryen (Harry Llyod)

The one possible exception is the queen of thorns, Olenna Tyrell, who is ultimately poisoned by Jamie Lannister after allying with Daenerys Targaryen in season seven, episode three [“The Queen’s Justice”]. Like her grandmother, the thrice-made queen, Margaery Tyrell, also demonstrates her social prowess by navigating courtly politics and leveraging marriage to her advantage, working the system from within. However, Margaery underestimates her enemies and becomes a victim of the wildfire arson of the Sept of Balor, which all but destroys her family, sparing only Olenna who was then safe at Highgarden and beyond Cersei’s reach.

Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer)

By the end of the series, things look quite different. The final contest for the iron throne is staged between two rival queens, Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister. The once exiled Daenerys, having been fostered by the Dothraki, holds perhaps the strongest claim to the iron throne, though Jon Snow’s recently discovered identity certainly complicates the matter of succession as determined by the patriarchal legal traditions of Westeros. Nevertheless, Daenerys has emerged as a conqueror in Essos and returns to Westeros with both armies  and dragons.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark) with her dragon, Drogon.

The Baratheon family is mostly wiped out in the war of five kings (although Daenerys names Gendry Baratheon the new lord of Storm’s End), and the north and riverlands seem to be led by Sansa Stark, despite Jon Snow’s recent title as king in the north. Cersei Lannister retains the iron throne as queen, and she commands her family’s forces as well as the Iron Fleet of Euron Greyjoy and the mercenary guild known as the Golden Company. Asha Greyjoy (or Yara in the films) is also named queen of the iron islands, and she has acted as a leader throughout the series, as has the Dornish matriarch, Ellaria Sand (a character loosely associated with princess Arianne Martell, absent from the films entirely). And, after Ned Stark’s death, Catelyn Stark took command of the north and riverlands alongside her son Robb Stark until the terrible red wedding claims both their lives.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) and Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley)

Other prominent female characters have likewise developed into formidable figures, especially the fearless assassin Arya Stark, who crucially slays the Night King, the mighty knight Brienne of Tarth, and the mystical red priestess Melisandre. The young and fierce Lyanna Mormont also shows her unfailing fortitude, even as she dies heroically during the battle for Winterfell in a David and Goliath allusive scene, in which she destroys an undead giant.

Ary Stark (Maisie Williams), Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), Melisandre (Carice van Houten), and Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey)

I am by no means attempting to exonerate Game of Thrones or Song of Ice and Fire from warranted allegations of sexism, and there is surely still much to reflect on and criticize in this regard. More blatantly, it seems that Game of Thrones is distinctly less concerned with issues of race. The films in particular consistently portray the Dothraki as exceptionally savage in a manner that upholds extremely harmful and problematic stereotypes. This characterization is especially troubling considering how in season eight, episode three [“The Long Night”], the Dothraki are essentially sacrificed. The much discussed Dothraki charge into the approaching forces of the Night King was the first and only assault by the living against the army of the dead, and the Dothraki were all but annihilated as a result. Rather miraculously, the one Westerosi knight who rides out with the Dothraki manages to make it back alive.

Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and the Dothraki screamers about to charge

Martin consistently focuses on the gritty human experience, and most of his cultures seem barbaric in one form or another. However, especially in the film, the Dothraki are presented at times in ways that reinforce a stubborn racial bias within the modern fantasy genre. It seemed to me as a reader that in the book series, Song of Ice and Fire, Martin is able to better demonstrate that savagery and the horrors which humans inflict on each other are ubiquitous and extend to every culture—perpetrated by the free folk wildlings north of the Wall, the feudal Westerosi and the pillaging iron islanders, as often as by the Dothraki horde or the ruling class in Slaver’s Bay. Of course, I fully concede that my interpretations of the books and films are necessarily limited and affected by my white male privilege, as it is for the books’ author [George R. R. Martin] and films’ creators [David Benioff and D. B. Weiss]. It nevertheless seems apparent that the various patriarchal systems are the universal root of atrocities in both Westeros and Essos.

Lord of Bones (Edward Dogliani) with wildlings and slaves in Slaver’s Bay

It must be emphasized, as many critics have pointed out, that the film series repeatedly underrepresents persons of color. The only two major non-white characters that make it to season eight are Grey Worm, who leads the Unsullied, and Missandei, who dies at Cersei’s hand this past weekend, after being captured by Euron Greyjoy during season eight, episode four [“The Last of the Starks”]. Both are former slaves from Essos who have become loyal friends and advisors to Daenerys. Missandei’s devotion to the “mother of dragons” costs her life, and I would be rather disappointed, if not surprised, should the same prove true for Grey Worm before the war for Westeros is done.

Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson)

Perhaps as unfortunate as Game of Thrones’ mistreatment of Missandei and Grey Worm is the book series’ numerous characters of color who simply do not feature in the show, including central figures from the Dornish royal family and Moqorro, a powerful red priest from Volantis, who is searching for Daenerys in Martin’s book five, A Dance with Dragons. The film also misses a number of opportunities to cast major protagonists from Essos as persons of color, including Varys, Thoros of Myr and Melisandre, all of whom are played by white actors.

Varys (Conleth Hill), Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye) and Melisandre (Carice van Houten)

While Game of Thrones falls woefully short when it comes to fantasy representations of diverse and non-white cultures, and above all underrepresents women of color, it does seems to me that the toppling of the patriarchy by powerful (generally white) women is part of its narrative design. In virtually every case, with the notable exception of Cersei, female rulership is a marked improvement upon the patriarchy that existed prior to women’s rise to power in Westeros. In my opinion, even Cersei seems objectively preferable to her son Joffrey Baratheon, the adolescent-king poisoned by Littlefinger [Petyr Baelish] and Olenna Tyrell at his own wedding.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey)

I hope that the fact that an anti-patriarchal message, however clumsily handled, features so prominently in a mainstream fantasy series may at the very least represent an evolution in contemporary audiences’ expectations and sensibilities. In addition to the series’ function as a literary bridge between the modern and medieval for many readers and students, the bifurcating successes and failures with regard to expressions of feminist and racial attitudes in Game of Thrones make the film a potentially useful teaching tool for illustrating conscious and unconscious misogyny and racism in medievalism and fantasy literature.

Hopefully, they do not blow it and put Jon Snow on the iron throne.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


Related Online Reading:

Adair, Jamie. “Is Chivalry Death?History Behind Game of Thrones (November 10, 2013).

Ahmed, Tufayel. “Why Women Will Rule Westeros When the Show Ends.” Newsweek (June 22, 2016).

Ashurst, Sam. “Game of Thrones: Who’s Got Magical Powers, and What Can They Actually Do?Digital Spy (July 20, 2017).

Baer, Drake. “Game of Thrones‘ Creator George R. R. Martin Shares His Creative Process.” Business Insider (April 29, 2014).

Blaise, Guilia. Games of Thrones Has a Woman Problem (And It’s Not What You Think).” The Huffington Post (May 6, 2017).

Blumsom, Amy. “Arya Stark’s Kill List: Who’s Still Left for Needle in Game of Thrones Season 8?The Telegraph (May 5, 2019).

Bogart, Laura. “Margaery Tyrell is Westeros’ Biggest Badass—and the Show Can’t Handle Her.” AV Club (May 23, 2016).

Bundel, Ani. “What Happened to Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones‘ Season 7? Here’s Your Official Refresher.” Elite Daily (April 5, 2019).

Chaney, Jen. “Has Game of Thrones Solved Its Woman Problem?Vulture (June 6, 2016).

Chang, David. “Game of Thrones Continues Feminist Tone.” The Observer (April 26, 2019)

Chen, Heather, and Grace Tsiao. “Game of Thrones: Who is the True Heir?BBC News (August 29, 2017).

Corless, Bridget. “The Romans, the Walls and the Wildlings.” History Behind Game of Thrones (August 9, 2019).

E., Marjorie. Game of Thrones and the Struggle with Liking Sexist Television.” Femestella (February 18, 2019).

Engelstein, Stefani. “Is Game of Thrones Racist?” Medium. Duke University (April 10, 2019).

Dessem, Mathew. “Here’s Why the Dothraki Attack in Game of Thrones Was So Devastating.” Slate (April 30, 2019).

Dikov, Ivan. “Game of Thrones is Terrific But Why Are Humans So Enchanted With Feudalism?Archaeology in Bulgaria (October 19, 2017.)

Fahey, Richard. “Zombie of the Frozen North: White Walkers and Old Norse Revenants.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (March 5, 2018).

Flood, Rebecca. “George R. R. Martin Revolutionised How People Think About Fantasy.” The Guardian (April 10, 2015).

Gay, Verne. “Game of Thrones: 14 Great Supernatural Moments and Creatures.” Newsday (April 7, 2016).

Guillaume, Jenna. “People Are Calling Game of Thrones‘ Season Eight, Episode 4 the Worst Episode Ever.” Buzzfeed News (May 6, 2019).

Harp, Justin. “Nathalie Emmanuel Says Early Game of Thrones Was ‘So Brutal to the Women.'” Digital Spy (December 4, 2019).

Hawkes, Rebecca. “Melisandre: Everything You Need to Know About the Red Woman’s Shock Return to Save Winterfell in Game of Thrones.” The Telegraph (April 30, 2019).

—. “Game of Thrones and Race: Who Are the Non-White Characters and Where Are They from in the Books and Show?The Telegraph (April 29, 2019).

Heifetz, Danny. “The Dothraki Deserved Better From Daenerys.” The Ringer (April 30, 2019).

Izadi, Elahe. “Sansa Stark Should Sit on the Iron Throne in Game of Thrones— and it Looks Like She Might.” The Washington Post (May 1, 2019).

Khan, Razib. “Is Game of Thrones Racist? Not Even Wrong…Discover (April 21, 2011).

Kim, Dorothy. “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy.” In the Middle (August 28, 2017).

Lash, Jolie. “Game of Thrones: Is Daenerys Targaryen a Good Ruler?Collider (April 16, 2019).

Liao, Shannon. “Game of Thrones Has Spent Three Years Foreshadowing the Long Night’s Ending.” The Verge (May 1, 2019).

—. “Daenerys vs. Cersei: Who Has the Resources to Win the Final Game of Thrones?The Verge ( April 29, 2019).

—. “Game of Thrones’ Greatest Hero is Still Olenna Tyrell.” The Verge (July 24, 2017).

Lomuto, Sierra. “Public Medievalism and the Rigor of Anti-Racist Critique.” In the Middle (April 4, 2019).

London, Lela. “What Are the Seven Houses in Game of Thrones and Who Rules Westeros?The Telegraph (May 6, 2019).

Majka, Katie. “Fight Like a Lady: The Promotion of Feminism in Game of Thrones.” Fansided: Winter is Coming (May 7, 2018).

Michallon, Clémence. “Game of Thrones: George R. R. Martin Explains How Arya Stark’s Character Was Inspired by Feminism and the Sexual Revolution.” Independent (April 22, 2019).

Miller, Julie. “Which Historical Event Inspired Game of Thrones‘ Shocking Death Last Night?Vanity Fair (April 14, 2014).

Nelson, Isis. “White Saviorism in HBO’s Game of Thrones.” Medium (August 1, 2016).

Nkadi, Ashley. “Why Is Society Intent on Erasing Black People in Fantasy and Sci-Fi’s Imaginary Worlds?The Root (November 9, 2017).

Pavlac, Brian A. Game of Thrones Versus History: Written in Blood. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2017.

Philippe, Ben. “Missandei, Grey Worm, and Game of Thrones‘ Racial Blind Spot.” Vanity Fair (April 22, 2019).

Pitts, Kathryn. “Women of Color in Game of Thrones: A Show of Underrepresentation.” Sayfty (April 7, 2017).

Plante, Corey. “Why Grey Worm Will Probably Die in Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 4.” Inverse (May 4, 2019).

Reisner, Mathew. “Game of Thrones Meets International Relations: A Match Made in Heaven?The National Interest (April 3, 2019).

Renfro, Kim. “Fans are Furious Over This Game of Thrones Plotline, and It’s Not Hard to See Why.” Business Insider (April 25, 2016).

—, and Skye Gould. “Why John Snow Has Always Been the ‘Rightful Heir’ to the Iron Throne.” Insider (August 29, 2017).

Robinson, Garrett. “Fantasy Genre Hates Women.” Medium (February 4, 2016).

Robinson, Joana. “Game of Thrones: Why the Latest Death Stings So Much.” Vanity Fair (May 5, 2019).

Romano, Aja. “Game of Thrones‘ Missandei Controversy, Explained.” Vox (May 6, 2019.)

Romero, Ariana. “Your Guide to Game of Thrones‘ Most Pressing Prophecies.” Refinery29 (April 3, 2019).

Rossenberg, Alyssa. “The Arguments about Women and Power in Game of Thrones Have Never Been More Unsettling.” The Washington Post (August 9, 2017).

Ruddy, Matthew. “10 Reasons Why Cersei Lannister is the Strongest Character on Game of Thrones.” Screenrant (April 29, 2019).

Rumsby, John H. “Otherworldly Others : Racial Representation in Fantasy Literature.” Masters Thesis: Université de Montréal (2017).

Ryan, Lisa. “Brienne of Tarth Finally Gets What She Deserves.” The Cut (April 22, 2019).

Schuessler, Jennifer. “Medieval Scholars Joust with White Nationalists. And On Another.” New York Times (May 5, 2019).

Sturtevant, Paul B. “You Know Nothing About Medieval Warfare John Snow.” The Public Medievalist (May 2, 2019).

Thomas, Ben. “The Real History Behind Game of Thrones, Part 3: Slaver’s Bay.” The Strange Continent (May 4, 2019).

Thomas, Rhiannon. “In Defense of Catelyn Stark.” Feminist Fiction (August 9, 2012).

Thompson, Eliza. “A Guide to the Many Religions on Game of Thrones.” Cosmopolitan (July 13, 2013).

Tucker, Christina. “Last Night’s Episode of Game of Thrones Was a Failure to Women.” Elle (May 6, 2019).

Vineyard, Jennifer. “Lyanna Mormot, Giant Slayer, Never Expected to Last This Long.” The New York Times (April 30, 2019).

—. “Game of Thrones: Grey Worm’s Fate Surprised Everyone But the Man Who Plays Him.” The New York Times (April 29, 2019).

—. “Game of Thrones: Why Do the Wildlings and the Night’s Watch Hate Each Other So Much?” Explainers (June 8, 2014).

Waxman, Olivia B. “Game of Thrones is Even Changing How Scholars Study the Real Middle Ages.” Time (July 14, 2017).

—. “An Exclusive Look Inside Harvard’s New Game of Thrones-Themed Class.” Time (May 30, 2017).

Weeks, Princess.”Game of Thrones Delivers Its Worst Episode of the Season While Screwing Over Its Female Characters.” The Mary Sue. (March 6, 2019).

—. “We Need to Talk About How Game of Thrones Treats the Dothraki.” The Mary Sue. (April 29, 2019).

Yadav, Vikash. “A Dothraki Complaint.” Duck of Minerva (April 27, 2012).

Yglesias, Matthew. “Game of Thrones‘ Dany/Dothraki Storyline Doesn’t Make Any Sense.” Vox (June 3, 2016).

Young, Helen. “Game of Thrones‘ Racism Problem.” The Public Medievalist (July 21, 2017).

The Dothraki and the Scythians: A Game of Clones?The British Museum Blog (July 12, 2017).

Game of Thrones‘ Red Wedding Based on Real Historical Events: The Black Dinner and Glencoe Massacre.” Huffington Post. (June 5, 2013).

Huns, Mongols and Dothraki.” Tower of the Hawk (April 7, 2015).

The Iron Islands and the Viking Age: Gods, Wives, and Reavers.” Tower of the Hawk (April 7, 2015).

Love, Fear and Humanity and the Ballad of Grey Worm and Missandei.” Watchers on the Wall (February 15, 2018).

The Lay of Sigemund

Having recently posted a blog on dragonomics in Beowulf and Tolkien’s Hobbit, I decided to follow up by offering a complementary poetic translation of the Sigemund-episode in Beowulf.

I have chosen to isolate the Sigemund-episode (874-902) and translate this passage as a discrete poem, in part because the episode operates as a poem within a poem, delivered as one of three songs by the Danish court poet and recited in celebration of Beowulf’s victory over Grendel. Numerous scholars have tried to identify its literary function in Beowulf, and the episode has traditionally been regarded as a heroic exemplum, honoring Beowulf and foreshadowing his fight with the dragon. I wish to challenge this reading of the passage.

“The Sigurðr Portal” from Hylestad Stave Church, Setesdal, Norway; now housed at the Oldsaksamlingen of the University of Oslo.

The Sigemund-episode in Beowulf is the earliest known account of the Vǫlsung legend, and this tale is alluded to in both the anonymous Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson as well as in Njáls saga, Þiðreks saga and the Vǫlsunga saga. Christine Rauer notes in her study of the Beowulf-dragon and analogous medieval dragon-fights, “The more extensive accounts of the Vǫlsung dragon-fight, such as those found in Fáfnismál (Poetic Edda) and Vǫlsunga saga, date from the thirteenth century, although the subject matter can be presumed to be of an earlier date” (42). However, in these later Old Norse-Icelandic versions of the legend, it is Sigurðr, Sigmundr’s son, who is credited with slaying the hoard-guarding dragon, Fáfnir—not his father.

I would note that, in the section in Beowulf describing Sigemund’s slaying of the dragon, there appears to be an alliterative formula that features also in the Old English Maxims II. This poem characterizes the behavior, function and stereotypical nature of various things—including references to cyning “a king” (1, 28), wulf “wolf” (18) and þyrs “giant” (42), in addition to geological features such as ea “a river” (30), wudu “woods” (33) and brim “sea” (45), as well as material objects and structures such as daroð “a spear” (21), beorh “barrow” (34) and duru “doors” (36). Maxims II describes sweord “a sword” (25) before shifting focus onto the stereotypical image of a gold-proud and barrow-dwelling dragon. The line reads drihtlic isern. Draca sceal on hlæwe “lordly iron. The dragon shall be in a barrow” (26). This closely parallels a similar line in Beowulf, which reads dryhtlic iren. Draca morðre swealt “lordly iron. The dragon died by murder” (892). Although the ending of the line is altered, the commonalities are nevertheless striking, especially since in both cases the alliteration stretches across two discrete semantic units.

I have also tried in my translation and recitation to emphasize the poetics of this episode, especially the two rhyming b-verse half-lines, which emphasize the dragon’s demise. The first, draca morðre swealt “the dragon died by murder” (892), characterizes Sigemund’s killing of the monster as a crime, in its description of the slaying as morðor “murder” (892). The second, wyrm hat gemealt “the hot worm melted” (897), reiterates the dragon’s death at the hand of the hero, and emphasizes also the element of heat—otherwise absent from the characterization of the dragon in the Sigmeund-episode—though explicitly linked to the Beowulf-dragon, described as fyrdraca “fire-dragon” (2689) and ligdraca “flame dragon” (2334, 3040).

Vǫlsung Legend runestone discovered at Drävle (U 1163), relocated in 1878 to the courtyard of the manor house Göksbo, containing image of Sigurðr who thrusts his sword through the serpent.

The Sigemund-episode is also enveloped by references to his ellendædum “valorous deeds” (876, 900), a compound that appears at both the beginning and end of the passage. However, Mark Griffith has provided a detailed commentary of the episode, and he concludes that “The episode of Sigemund is more highly enigmatic, and its central figure much more problematic than received opinion has it” (40). Griffith observes the numerous pejorative terms used to describe the hero, perhaps most famously his characterization as aglæca “fearsome marauder” (893), a term used to characterize each monster in the poem, Grendel (159, 425, 433, 591, 646, 732, 739, 816, 989, 1000, 1269), Grendel’s mother (1259), and the dragon (2520, 2534, 2592, 2907, 3061), though notably also Beowulf at two key moments (1512, 2592). As Griffith points out, “if the term does have pejorative meaning, then this applies to both Sigemund and Beowulf” (35).

This calls into question the merits of his heroism, and makes the reader wonder about the nature of his ellendædum, uncuþes fela “valorous deeds, much known” (876). The mystery introduced in this line is resolved when the Danish poet reports that þara þe gumena bearn gearwe ne wiston,/ fæhðe ond fyrena, buton Fitela mid hine “feuds and crimes, of which the the sons of men did not readily know, except Fitela with him” (878-79). Indeed we learn that his valorous deeds are characterized specifically as fæhðe “feuds” (879), a term associated with the Grendelkin’s feud with God (109), and especially Grendel’s mother’s vengeance (1333, 1340, 1380, 1537) as well as the dragons wrath (2403, 2513, 2525, 2689). We learn also that these deeds are explicitly fyrena “crimes” (879)—a term repeatedly associated with Grendel (101, 164, 750, 811)—who likewise performs fæhðe ond fyrene (137, 153).

Moreover, the reference to Fitela, Griffith argues, may call to mind information for the Vǫlsunga saga, which “records how Signy changes shape with a sorceress, visits her brother and sleeps with him, whilst in this disguise, in order to beget a son to further the Vǫlsung feud with her husband” (25). In other words, Sigmundr (Sigemund) is both father and uncle to Sinflǫtli (Fitela), as a result of his incestuous relations with his twin sister. This seems further emphasized by the reference to the secrets shared eam his nefan “uncle to nephew” (881), which focuses the reader’s attentions on Sigemund’s incest and role as eam, an Old English term which indicates specifically “maternal uncle.”

Indeed, troubling descriptions of the hero persist, as Sigemund becomes characterized as wreccena wide mærost “the most famous of exiles”(898), which calls to mind the exiled Grendel, described as mære mearcstapa “famous border-crosser” (103), depicting the hero once again in pejorative terms. I would argue that this bears especially on the final reference to Sigemund’s ellendædum “valorous deeds” (900), and specifically the parenthetical half-line at the end of the episode, which indicates that he þæs ær onðah “he prospered before by these” (900).

Vǫlsung legend runestone located at Gök (Sö 327), containing a runic text on two serpents that surround much of the Vǫlsung imagery, including a depiction of Sigurðr stabbing the serpent from below (photo from 1922).

If Sigemund prospers through fæhðe ond fyrena “feuds and crimes” (879), what does this say about the warrior ethics displayed in the poem? Indeed, I would suggest that the parenthetical half-line he þæs ær onðah “he prospered before by these” (900) highlights how in the heroic world of Beowulf, the only way to thrive is by imitating monsters and engaging readily in fæhðe ond fyrena. In Beowulf, feuds and crimes result in the protagonist’s death and the subsequent genocide of the Geatish people—which mirrors Sigemund’s (and Fitela’s) annihilation of ealfela eotena cynnes “an entire race of giants” (883)—perhaps in part because Beowulf seems to adopt Sigemund as a role model and seeks to emulate the ellendæda of this aglæca.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

 

Further Reading:

Abram, Christopher. “Bee-wolf and the Hand of Victory: Identifying the Heroes of Beowulf and Vǫlsunga saga.The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 116.4 (2017): 387-414.

Bonjour, Adrien. The Digressions in Beowulf. Basil Blackwell. 1950.

Kaske, Robert.  “The Sigemund-Heremod and Hama-Hygelac Passages in Beowulf.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 74 (1959): 489-94.

Griffith, Mark. “Some difficulties in Beowulf, lines 874-902: Sigemund reconsidered.” Anglo-Saxon England 24 (1995): 11-41.

Rauer, Christine. Beowulf and the Dragon. D. S. Brewer. 2000.

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.